"Shit. All I have left is Earl Grey. Is that okay?"
"Sure," Angela replied curtly. She stretched and then succumbed to a long yawn, deciding to curl up on the apartment's only couch.
Marcus had moved into the bottom floor of this 100-year-old shotgun house just outside of Cincinnati three months ago. The grip of December made the original hardwood uncomfortably cold. To compound the problem, the fireplace did not function. He had placed a menagerie of candles on the hearth and mantle. Last night, the wax had slowly trickled down the pale sides of the candles while Marcus and Angela spent hours sipping wine and catching up on their college days from over twenty years ago. The wax now lay hardened and cold on the bricks. Lumps that had witnessed laughter, tears, and salty words meant both in jest and hurtfulness. She wondered if she had been the first girl to be wooed with those candles and a damn fine Nobilo Sauvignon blanc. She guessed not. She wore one of his flannel shirts. Feeling a draft, she pulled one of his grandmother's quilts over her bare legs. She watched him from the living room. He was on the other end of the house, in the kitchen, staring into the cabinet. She pulled a Kleenex from the shirt pocket and wiped tears from her reddened eyes once again. Last night had been almost perfect until he woke her up. Why did he have to dredge all that shit up? The one thing they had managed to avoid. The one subject she thought she would manage to dodge.
He was embarrassed. His first thought was Earl Grey was not that bad. It just seemed extremely--ordinary, given the immediate circumstances. He was trying to distract himself from their argument. Marcus stood there, gawking into the cabinet feeling more like he was just regular Tetley served with your average beans and toast. Tetley. Not even Earl Grey. He desired to be more in this moment, but he would not be. He knew he could not be after last night. He had screwed things up again. It had been perfect: everything he had wanted more than two decades before.
This was the first time since he and Angela had dated in college that he had even wanted tea. The Earl Grey was in the cabinet only because of a three-week fling he had when he first moved into the apartment. Barb loved tea too. The Earl Grey was the only item Barb left behind. Before today, every time he had thought about having a cup, it had brought up too many memories of Angela. Now, she was here, and all those memories flooded his mind.
Red Zinger had always been Angela's favorite, and he remembered when he could not sleep that she had made him chamomile. People from Clay County, Kentucky, would have laughed at him for asking for a cup of tea. Strong, black coffee had been the staple of his household. He hated it.
He had lost track of her after graduation. None of his college friend circle had even heard anything about her since then either; she had just disappeared. Until she inadvertently showed up in town early yesterday evening. He was overjoyed when she walked into the snowy beams of his pickup's headlights when he met her at a nearby gas station.
"Now is the Winter of our discontent made glorious by this daughter of Ohio," he thought. The Shakespeare paraphrase briefly took him back to Dr. Hogarth's lectures. Maybe he could use the clever line to break the ice-cold tension between them this morning. The tension he had birthed earlier.
Last night, after making love on the living room floor, they stared into each other's eyes for a long time. He gently brushed his nose against hers.
"Like old times," Marcus finally broke the silence. "You wouldn't even let me kiss you for the first month we dated. Just rubbed noses."
"You said you were saving yourself for marriage, Baptist Boy. Besides, we had both just finished horrible high school relationships. I wanted to take it slowly, and you respected that."
It took every ounce of his reserve not to ruin the moment. He almost brought up those relationships again but thought better of it. Instead, he focused on the coolness of her green eyes that he had not seen this close in more than two decades. Candlelight flickered in her pupils. He had forgotten how much he had missed seeing her up close. A few wrinkles had developed at the corners of her eyes. A few grey hairs blended well into her natural red hair, but he could see them now, subtly, here and there.
"What?" She flashed him the familiar sly glance that drove him over the edge with desire.
"What?" She moved tentatively beneath him.
"Those damned 'eskimo-kisses' sessions! They drove me bat-shit crazy!"
"Language! Your mama would have mashed that mouth," she imitated his Appalachian drawl. "And here we are making love under your granny's quilts. Your mama would definitely kill both of us if she knew."
"Okay, Miss Ohio, that's enough. She didn't like you because you Catholics bow down to idols. She wouldn't want to kill you, just save your sinful soul and baptize you the right way."
He laughed and kissed her softly on the forehead.
She was slightly offended, but was used to these jibes from years ago. She recovered quickly and tried a different tactic.
"Well, tomorrow is Sunday. I intend to go to Mass in the morning. Lord knows I'm going to need a confessional after all of this. The cathedral here is so gorgeous. You should go with me."
"You knew Father Bob tried to convert me in college. You ought to know how I feel about it. God and I are still friends."
"Still reading Kerouac and your Buddhist monk stuff, huh? Well, I'm going to Mass anyway. With or without you. I'm not fighting over it."
She slid from beneath him and turned away from him. He rolled onto his back. She eventually curled up to him, keeping her back to him and pulled one of the quilts tightly around her. She liked feeling his warmth. They were bound together in the two quilts Marcus had kept from his grandmother's funeral earlier that year.
"Do you have tea? I would really love a cuppa." She mimicked a British accent.
"In the morning, love," staying with the British theme.
"I honestly don't know. I can check."
"Don't. It can wait--too damn cold to get up."
He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. The snow from earlier had ended and cold stars winked from behind breaking clouds. The moon rose, vaguely converting everything outside into a blue-white world and bathing the living room in pale light. Branches, moved by frigid winds and intermittent street traffic, caused shadows to dance on the stage above him, reminding him of Greek shadow puppet theatre. A mutual friend from college made a living doing that now in San Francisco.
She thought about what brought her to this moment: a fluke. The snow had stranded her. Needing to get off the interstate, she left her car at a service station not too far away. She knew he lived in the area from the new social media platform, Facebook, and had managed to find him. Technology was sometimes useful for something. He picked her up in his truck and brought her back here. She closed her eyes hoping she would not regret this.
Her breathing became heavier. Soon, there was a soft snoring. He smiled to himself. Why not years ago? They hadn't even slept together in college. In fact, because she was a good little Catholic Girl and he was a self-righteous little Baptist Boy, they didn't even kiss for several weeks. They just rubbed noses like two elementary kids.
He remembered the first time they actually spoke. Marcus had watched her walk into the campus library. Her red hair and the light purple frames of her glasses were unmistakable. He had asked a mutual friend about her. She was a sophomore. From Ohio. Catholic. Feisty. A psych major. She even worked in the psych lab with the rats. Cool.
She had been working on a research paper at a table toward the back of the library. She wore a blue-jean jacket with buttons pinned all over it. One of them read: “Come along quietly.” He quickly grabbed an index card and pen from the table when her back was turned. She moved to a counter where she had books stacked, looking through them. He leaned across the counter and slid the index card across. She looked back and forth between him and the card. She lowered her glasses onto her nose and looked over the frames. There was that glorious smirk. The card read: “Where do you want to go?”
She laughed. “So?”
“Where are we going?” Her grin broadened, her green eyes lit up.
“How about the snack bar? I usually play there on Friday nights. It’s Friday.” He was nervous and his palms were sweaty.
“Sure. I’ll see you there in about an hour. Let me finish up.”
Marcus wanted everything to be perfect. After that first night, she seemed to have fallen for him even more once she knew he could serenade her with his guitar. She went every week for the next month. She always sat in the front row. The eskimo kisses started after two weeks, but their tea rituals began the day after they had met.
“I’ve never had tea. Where I come from, that's a European thing or a big city thing.”
“What? Are you kidding? You know, Xenia is not exactly a metropolis, nor all that cosmopolitan.”
This reminds me of that Neil Diamond song, “Suzanne.” He started singing acapella, emphasizing the line: “And she brings you tea and oranges that come all the way from China . . . .”
“Well, I don’t have oranges, and most tea does come from China or India.” She laughed, which in itself was an unforgettable melody. “I know the song. I prefer the Leonard Cohen version.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Shows what you know.”
Cohen was just the first of many new musical experiences. She opened whole new repertoires of music to him. He had never known that his worldview had been so small.
The relationship had blossomed for about seven weeks until one day, during a tea session, she crashed his world.
“We need to talk.”
“Oh no, nothing positive ever happens when people say that.”
“I got a letter from Dan today. He graduated and will be deployed soon. I’m sorry, Marcus, I’m still in love with him. This isn’t fair to you.”
“How long have you known this?”
That particular moment had not played in his head for years. He believed he had moved on from it at least ten years ago. His world went dark.
Then it hit him--the massive weight of all the pain, guilt, and fear of rejection all over again. It welled up from the deep, suddenly hitting him in a massive wave, washing over him, tumbling him over and over. Down and down and down. An old, familiar feeling. He realized they had danced around the most bitter moment that ended everything between them.
Dan. (Or as he thought: Damned Dan.) Her high school sweetheart. Mr. All-American football guy who turned down a football scholarship for ROTC. Graduated top of his class. Marcus lost track of him after that. However, he unfortunately remembered their last conversation about him.
"Whatever happened with Dan?" He spoke into the gathering darkness, only one candle flickered on the mantle.
She did not reply. She hadn't heard him. Her breathing declared a decent sleep. Good. He would leave it alone, except, he couldn't. A burning knot developed deep down, stuck in the pit of his stomach, occasionally rising into his throat and eventually to the back of his mouth. He kept pushing it back down. He couldn't keep it down.
He rocked her, finally able to tell that she was slowly waking.
"Whatever happened with Dan?"
"What?" She was groggy; she attempted to remember the nice dream. She couldn't quite focus, and Marcus' voice gradually pulled her to the surface.
He repeated it a third time. She heard him clearly. She stopped breathing and held it as long as she could. The room seemed even colder now. A clock ticked somewhere in the gloaming. She burst from beneath the quilts and punched him in the chest.
"What the hell---?" Tears started warming her face. "You just had to go there didn't you, asshole!"
"Dammit, Angie! I loved you, and you left me. You knew what kind of guy he was: high school sweetheart one day, abusive manipulator the next."
"I am not having this conversation with you right now," her voice just above a whisper. She stifled a scream.
"Yes, you are. I want answers. You never talked to me again. Campus was not that big. And I'm pretty sure you sabotaged my relationship with Sandy. She was how I got over you! She never talked to me again either."
"That's because you are the worst kind of human being! Dan? An abusive manipulator? You're always projecting! You should know all about manipulation and destroying people. Lord knows you've destroyed enough. Sandy was never safe with you either."
"Why are you even here then? I was perfectly happy once I managed to erase you, mostly, from conscious thought. Yet, hells bells, here you are walking out of the night and back into my life."
"Mikey said you changed. He said the meds worked well for you."
"So, what finally happened? Was it because I confessed about dropping out of the Navy after basic? Because they had to give me a Section 8? I was lucky to get into college after that. Is it because I could never live up to your beloved captain? What is he now? Some type of hero in this shitty war in Afghanistan?"
Distraught, she released a primal scream and sprinted to the bathroom.
He sat up, sweating despite the room's temperature. Pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, he stomped to the bathroom door. He could hear sobs from the other side. He slumped with his back against the opposite wall and sank slowly to sit on the floor.
About an hour later she emerged, her face wracked with grief but with an eerie calm.
"He's dead---asshole. Roadside bomb two years ago." She stared at the floor, her breathing under control. He glared into space for a minute or so, then stood up to make his way unsteadily to the kitchen. She cautiously made her way to the living room.
Marcus prepared the Earl Grey. He slammed the tea kettle in the sink and flipped on the water; then, he slammed the kettle onto the stove. He grabbed two mugs from another cabinet then had second thoughts about breaking them. He didn’t want broken ceramics everywhere, so he placed them on the counter, then decided to slam the door of the cabinet with enough force to rattle everything in it.
Angela flinched at every loud noise. She wept, quietly.
“Only two damned teabags. Well, hell, that’s convenient!”
She answered with silence, tears streaming down her face.
By the time the kettle boiled, Marcus began to calm down. He placed the tea bags in the cups and poured the hot water, then carefully carried them to the living room. He placed hers, a bright yellow smiley-face mug, on the end table, turning the smiley-face toward her. Stepping to the window, he drank from a large, brown mug that had been his dad’s favorite when his dad had been alive. His Dad had been a Navy man and a proud WWII vet. He opened the curtains and stared out the large picture window. Traffic on the street was almost nonexistent due to the snow. The sunrise peeking between buildings was beautiful. He didn’t say a word but rolled around the description in his head. Maybe he could use the sunrise as a segue into an apology.
Marcus held it. He didn't want to cry in front of her. Time passed excruciatingly slowly. He was down to the cold dregs of the tea. He glanced over at Angela. She had her head buried in her hands. The tea untouched.
“Tea’s cold,” he remarked flatly, turning back to look outside.
“Yeah, I'm going to shower and get dressed. I would really like to make it to Mass today if I can. I'll walk to the cathedral from here.”
“I'll drive you. We can see about your car later if you want.”
“That's okay. I've got this. I will walk. It’s not that far, just a few blocks. The service station isn't far from the cathedral. I’ll walk to my car from there after services.”
She collected her clothes then padded off to the bathroom.
The tea was cold. He drank the bitter dregs anyway and took the cup to the kitchen, placing it in the sink. He left hers on the table. He went back to the couch, exhausted, thinking about having to make conversation when she returned. He fell asleep listening to the rhythm of the water from the shower. He didn't hear her crying.
She was more than grateful that Marcus was asleep when she opened the bathroom door. She had prayed that he would be gone or asleep when she was finished in the bathroom. She tiptoed to the front door, retrieved her coat from a nearby hook, opened the door gingerly, and stepped out. The sharp wind swept through the opening. She stepped out as swiftly as possible so he would not wake. She quietly closed the door behind her, leaving her cold tea on the table, still untouched.