The union jack billowed in the breeze, heavy with humidity refusing to give way to rain. No matter how charming and quintessentially "English" the English Tea Room appeared, nothing could hide the glaringly obvious fact that they were situated in Covington, Louisiana. The 70-degree winter was enough to disabuse one of any delusions that they might be on a quiet little island country on the colder side of the Atlantic. Anastasia bemoaned the heat, wondering how she was meant to drink hot tea in such weather, wondering if this was all a huge mistake. A glance at her phone indicated that it was 10:15. The person she was meeting was meant to arrive fifteen minutes earlier. She bided her time watching the flags ripple in the wind: The American flag, the Union Jack, the Welsh flag, English, then Scottish. As she wondered why the Northern Irish flag was excluded from the group hanging off of the tea house, a female voice called her name.
“I can’t believe it’s really you!”
“In the flesh,” Anastasia smiled uncomfortably. She stood to greet the woman who came forward to embrace her. “Oh, we’re hugging.”
“Sorry, are you not a hugger?”
“I am, usually. I just…well, I don’t know you, that’s all.”
“But you do. You’ve known me all your life.”
“Right. Let’s just take things slow, yeah?” Anastasia folded the skirt of her dress beneath her as she sat. The woman followed suit, a glint of disappointment in her eyes. Anastasia searched her for any sign of the person she used to know. Surely the eyes wouldn’t change, nor the nose or ears. Surely, there should be some resemblance of that prior identity.
“Right, okay. Sorry, I’m just so excited. I’ve waited so long for this.”
“Yes. So have I,” Anastasia said, sounding more curt than she wished as she scanned the tea menu. Twenty years had passed since she last saw the woman sitting in front of her–the woman had been a man then. A boy, really. Anastasia’s brother, Alexei, who disappeared when he was seventeen. The morning of Anastasia’s thirteenth birthday, the family awoke to find his bedroom empty, and no one had seen or heard anything of him again.
“What tea do you recommend? There’s so much; it’s a little overwhelming,” the woman said.
“You can’t go wrong with chai,” Anastasia said. “It’s a hug in a mug, as I like to say. But they have special blends here, too, you should probably try. It just depends on what you like, really. Green, black, decaf, whatever.”
“I like a strong, black tea myself,” the woman said. Anastasia nodded, wishing she could recall whether Alexei liked strong, black teas when he was around. Then again, a person’s tastes could change in two decades. Anastasia wouldn’t touch coffee or hot tea back then, and now she drank both of those beverages more than any other.
“I’d go for the Irish Breakfast, then. Or the Royal Scot.”
“The Royal Scot sounds good,” the woman read the description on the menu, nodding in approval. “Oh, perfect timing!” she smiled as a waitress approached. The two women ordered their tea–chai for Anastasia, royal Scot for her companion–then resumed chatting as the waitress departed.
“I’m glad you picked this place.”
“Yeah, it’s nice, isn’t it? I wish they let us sit inside, but oh well,” Anastasia shrugged. “They must’ve smelled the Irish in me.”
The woman laughed heartily, making Anastasia smile. She soon stopped smiling, however, when the woman asked which side of the family carried Irish blood.
“Don’t you know the answer to that?” Anastasia bristled.
“Oh, I’ve never been one for genealogy. I find it interesting to hear about, but I’ve never researched it. I don’t see that it matters, to be frank.”
“It’s important to know where you come from.”
“Well, I didn’t come from Ireland, I know that much,” the woman chuckled, but she stopped when she saw the serious look on Anastasia’s face. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy talking about it. It’s just not something I think too much about, not beyond the surface anyway. I mean Allbrooke sounds pretty English to me,” she referred to Anastasia’s surname.
“Yeah. It is.”
“And mom’s side is Greek, of course.”
“But don’t you remember what mom used to talk about ad nauseum?”
“Well, a few things,” the woman laughed.
“Pertaining to genealogy. Having to do with surnames and heritage and all that,” Anastasia said, willing the woman to come up with the right answer, but becoming increasingly concerned that this was a stranger across from her hoping to take advantage. The waitress came out bearing two individual tea pots and set them down in front of the ladies. She asked if they were ready to order, to which Anastasia replied in the affirmative. She ordered a coronation chicken salad and the woman ordered bangers and mash. When the waitress left, Anastasia fixed expectant eyes upon her companion, who paled as she sipped her tea.
“Mom’s mother had an Irish surname, yes?” the woman asked.
“Yeah,” Anastasia said, a wave of relief washing over her as she stirred milk into her tea.
“And mom used to say she hated how you would never know that, because it all flows down the maternal line, and all anyone sees is paternal lineage when they look at last names. I remember that used to bother her,” the woman said. “That’s why she gave us all Greek names, to sort of knock against the English surname.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Anastasia leaned back in her seat and clasped her hands together in her lap. “I’m sorry if it seems like I’m testing you, it’s just–”
“I understand,” the woman said, reassuring warmth in her voice. “I’d be the same way if I were in your shoes. You can’t be too careful.”
“You know, I always hoped that this is what happened to you. Mom and dad sort of gave up after you left home, and our siblings did too, I think. We never really talk about it, to be honest, but I think the general consensus among them is that Alexei died not long after he vanished.”
“You were always the most optimistic of all of them.”
“Or the most naive.”
“Of course, they aren’t entirely wrong. Alexei did die soon after he disappeared, in a way. It wasn’t too long after leaving home that I started the process of transitioning.”
“How did you afford it?”
“Odd jobs here and there. I say not long after, but it felt long at the time. It was maybe four or five years before I finally became Jacqueline.”
“And what made you choose the name Jacqueline?”
“Oh, easy. Jacqueline Kennedy, my idol.”
Anastasia was quiet as she refilled her teacup, the comforting smell of chai filling her soul. She closed her eyes as she took a sip, and an old memory floated through her mind.
Alexei Allbrooke was sixteen when he announced that he wished to be a girl. The family’s response ranged from disgust (their father) to pained confusion (their mother). After much shouting, pleading, and crying, their mother managed to calm both their father and Alexei with a compromise: Alexei would have to wait until he reached his eighteenth birthday, at which point he would be free to choose to have surgery. He had been disheartened–at sixteen, two years might as well be two centuries–but he accepted it, thankful at least that his mother had not rejected him outright as their father did. Anastasia, an innocent child of eleven at the time, had been curious about the whole situation. She was thankful that he was never harsh with her, that he always answered her endless questions with genuine care, never making her feel like she was bothering him or wasting his time.
One evening in particular, Anastasia asked Alexei what name he would choose when he became a girl. He had shrugged, said he hadn’t thought much about it. He had mentioned a desire to keep in line with their mother’s love for Greek names. It was only another in a long line of conversations that had been lost in time. Jacqueline was as good a name as any. It was certainly no reason to believe that she was lying about her identity, anyway.
“So, how come you reached out to me and none of our other siblings?” Anastasia asked, looking down at her salad as she spoke.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of our other siblings have fan mail addresses.”
“True. Still, people are frightfully easy to track down these days.”
“Maybe I didn’t want to track down the others. You were always my favorite.”
“What about Phil?” Anastasia asked, referring to their only brother and the second oldest of all five siblings. Jacqueline did not have a satisfactory answer for this, simply shrugging as she shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes into her mouth.
“If you don’t mind, I don’t really want to talk about our family,” Jacqueline said once she finished chewing her food.
“I’m sure you understand. It’s a bit traumatic for me, you know. I don’t exactly have great memories of dad. I know mom was different, but he sort of casts a pallor over my entire childhood, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean, yeah.”
“Mmm,” Jacqueline sipped her tea. “This is delicious. Spot-on recommendation.”
“I’m glad,” Anastasia smiled. “Listen, could we talk a bit about your surgery?” Jacqueline choked on her tea. Anastasia apologized. “I don’t want to be rude, but–”
“Then don’t be. I don’t want to talk about that.”
“I’m sorry. I just–you don’t look at all like you used to.”
“That’s sort of the point, dear.”
“Is it? I thought the point was–”
“What, to look like you?”
“Well, no, not me, necessarily, but just a female version of yourself. I really don’t mean to sound ignorant–”
“Well, you do.”
“It’s just that I’d expect you to look like Helena, really. You know, the dark hair and eyes. I mean maybe you’ve dyed your hair, but the blue eyes? How’d that happen, exactly?”
“Colored eye-contacts, if you must know.”
“I wanted blue eyes. So now I have them. I never was comfortable in my own skin, so I changed it,” Jacqueline shrugged. She was breesy and unaffected, calm and confident, no hint of nerves or irritation, no suggestion that she was being caught in a lie.
“Would you like to get in touch with any of our siblings? They’d love to hear from you. I know they would–”
“I don’t think any of them want anything to do with me. Not the way they treated me when I was a teenager.”
“We’ve all changed a lot since then. I think you should give them a chance.”
“You didn’t tell any of them you were meeting with me, did you?”
“No,” Anastasia said.
“Good. I don’t want anyone to know. Not any of them, anyway.”
“No good would come of it.”
“How could you be so certain that I’d be willing to meet with you, then?”
“Like I said before, you’ve always struck me as different from the rest. An open heart and an open mind. A gentle soul, all that.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.”
“You have to admit it’s a bit odd.”
“What’s odd about wanting to see my favorite sister?”
“It came out of nowhere.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were an actor until recently! I happened to see your show, and your name in the credits, and that’s what got the ball rolling. You’re good, by the way. Very natural.”
“Thanks,” Anastasia mumbled into her teacup.
“Have I come on too strong?” Jacqueline asked, leaning forward and speaking under breath, face etched with concern.
“No, you’re fine, I’m sorry. I’m just a bit skeptical. It’s not your fault, really, it’s just a lot to take in at once.”
“Of course. I understand. We’ll take it one day at a time, yeah? Tea today, maybe coffee in a few weeks. Or, if you’re not comfortable with it, you don’t have to talk to me again.”
Anastasia smiled, reassured by Jacqueline’s kindness. She refreshed her teacup and took a long gulp.
“Could I ask a favor, though?” Jacqueline asked, an apology in her voice.
“You can ask, yes,” Anastasia said, the guard going up in her mind again. Here it comes, she thought. She’s going to ask for a laughable amount of money.
“Could I take a picture with you?” Jacqueline held up her cell phone, the same slightly-nervous, slightly-excited expression on her face as the fans who stopped Anastasia on any day in New Orleans for autographs or photos or simply a chat. They were always her favorites, the ones who just wanted to say hello. Although being recognized in public made her uneasy, she knew it was part of her job, and typically she enjoyed meeting fans. It struck her as strange, though, that Jacqueline asked for a picture, and that she had that same pleading, adoring look in her eyes. Maybe it was only a sister’s love for another, and an amazement at the fact that they were together again after so long. Anastasia obliged, leaning in and smiling for the selfie with Jacqueline.
“Do you have social media?” Jacqueline asked, smiling down at the photo they had just taken.
“No. I used to. I got a bit addicted, it sort of controlled my life for a bit, so I deleted it. That and alcohol, so I got rid of them both.”
“That’s good. I should probably get rid of mine; I’m a bit addicted myself,” Jacqueline laughed self-consciously. “Do you mind if I put this picture up? I don’t have to. I’m just so bad about printing pictures and putting them in actual, physical photo albums, but I always say I’ll do that–”
“It’s not a problem,” Anastasia said. “I don’t care if my picture goes up. I’d rather not take part in the petty comments and whatnot, that’s all. I’m just too old for all of it.”
“Fair,” Jacqueline said, smiling at the waitress as she brought two separate bills. The waitress returned inside, and both Jacqueline and Anastasia pulled out their credit cards and stuck them in their individual bill holders.
“Well, that was a lovely treat,” Jacqueline said.
“Yes,” Anastasia smiled. “I love this place. I hardly get to come to this side of the lake anymore.”
“So, you do live over in New Orleans, then?”
“Oh, yeah. I do not commute across the causeway every day!” Anastasia laughed. “God, that would be a nightmare.
“Would you ever consider going out to California or New York?”
“I don’t think so, no. I used to think I’d end up there, but I really like it in New Orleans. Well, everything but the weather,” Anastasia laughed. “I don’t like celebrity, that’s the thing. So it’s nice here, it’s a local show. Most of our fanbase is in the Gulf Coast area, so I can go to California for vacation, say, and no one knows who I am.”
“That’s nice, yeah. I don’t think I’d enjoy being a global star,” Jacqueline said.
“No. Me neither,” Anastasia said. “In fact I’ve thought about quitting altogether. But I do really like our show.”
“That’s good. Always important to enjoy your job. Well, I guess if you have to drive all the way back to New Orleans, you’ll need to use the bathroom before you go,” Jacqueline said.
“I’m one step ahead of you,” Anastasia said, standing up. “Listen, I’m glad we did this. And I am sorry if I seemed standoffish or anything like that.”
“Stop apologizing! You have every right to be cautious. There are all kinds of weirdos out there,” Jacqueline laughed good-naturedly. “You go on to the bathroom; I’ll wait for you to get back so we can say a soppy goodbye.”
“Good,” Anastasia smiled. For the first time, she convinced herself that Jacqueline really had been Alexei once upon a time. True, the eyes were different, and the features, but there was something in her friendly, open expression and her easy familiarity that brought back long-since buried memories of Anastasia’s long-lost sibling. Her heart swelled as she walked through the tea house to the restroom. She imagined a time when they would finally return home to visit their mother and their siblings, when all the wounds of the past would be forgotten and they could sit together around the dinner table, laughing and joking as if they had not all been torn apart in one way or another by their parents, by each other, by life in general.
Ensconced in her idealistic daydream, it took Anastasia a moment to realize something was amiss when she returned to the table. Jacqueline was gone, as were both bills and both credit cards. Anastasia peered under the table and, sure enough, her purse was gone. Trying not to jump to the relatively obvious conclusion, Anastasia walked down the alley to the public parking lot, half-expecting to find Jacqueline there waiting for her, leaning against the car holding both Anastasia’s and her own purse. Of course, in reality, Jacqueline was nowhere to be found, and neither was Anastasia’s car. Not knowing what else to do, Anastasia walked back to the tea house, ticking off the items in her head that she knew had been in her purse: cell phone, wallet, driver’s license, car keys, house keys…Anastasia shook her head at her own stupidity, resolving to use the tea house’s phone to call the police and, later, someone to give her a ride back to New Orleans.
Well, Alexei, if you’re out there somewhere watching all this, I’ll bet you’re laughing your ass off right now.