Before grad school, my father said, “You need one good teapot and a set of good teacups, because sometimes you just need a good cup of tea, in just the right cup.” So, San Jose Japantown, store after store, until we found the perfect teapot, right shape, right size, royal blue with a splash of white calligraphy, a bamboo handle, and eight matching blue and white cups that fit perfectly in your hand.
I was set.
Until, a Caucasian neighbor accidentally broke my teapot and insisted (over my not-just-being-polite protestations) on replacing it. She went to the fancy kitchenware store at the mall and bought me an expensive garish new teapot. To her eye, it was blue and white, just like mine, but really it was Blue Willow.
Do you know Blue Willow? The world’s most popular china pattern ever, designed in 1790 by Thomas Minton in England and sent to China and India to be manufactured (a process that Europeans could not replicate for hundreds of years, by the way) for the black fermented tea dust that Chinese and Indians would not drink. The Blue Willow pattern so perfectly captured the Western imagination that they even invented a romantic legend of star-crossed lovers to go with it.
The rich daughter of a powerful Mandarin falls in love with a poor scholar, a love so doomed that on the eve of her arranged marriage to a fabulously wealthy Duke, the young lovers steal away, pursued by her furious father and his soldiers from the Oriental house with the upturned roof, past the weeping willow tree, over the rickety moon bridge, onto little boats in the bay, and, finally, with nowhere else to turn, they transform into a pair mandarin ducks and fly away.
So tragic. So poignant. So much Orientalism in my kitchen.
(And you know how the dishes you don’t like never break.)
We first meet in Maneesha’s sun-drenched kitchen. I watch her warm brown hands as she measures and makes tea for us on the stove. One cup water, one cup milk, one teabag, a handful of spices tossed in as it boils. A perfect two cups of chai. Practiced. Precise. Certain.
After I go home, drunk with curiosity about you, I keep trying to make chai.
But I am not precise. I am not practiced. My chai never turns out right.
So I keep drinking cup after cup of bad chai, the empty teacups stacked to the sky, just so I can read the little fortune cookie messages on each tea bag tab, imagining they are secret messages you are sending to me from wherever you are in the world.
My heart is precariously perched.
My parents wake me in the middle of the night. Chi lai, chi lai, hurry! Only enough time to grab my favorite doll and I have been bundled bleary-eyed into the car and we are driving. Through the three tunnels that mark the way, then burst into the light and cacophony that is old LA Chinatown at midnight. We always come in the back door, through the kitchen, past the uncles with their giant woks and oil. Tsah! Our eyes adjust to the darkness of the restaurant, then – Aunties! Uncles! Little Friends! Xiao Yeh Time! That means o-ah, xiao long bao, zhu er, hong you chao shou, zhou.
But first we order xiang pian cha, which I always thought was champagne tea. Which makes sense.
These days, teenage girls gather around my kitchen table and I ply them with mango mochi and xiang pian cha, pretending not to eavesdrop as they celebrate college admissions (“I got into MIT!”), gasp over who is sending whom naked SnapChats (Ewww), and cry over “My mom says I’m not allowed to date those steezy third-generation, SnapBack-wearing, California Asian boys with the expensive shoes.”
I walk up to the foodbank gripping four-year-old Little Brother’s hand a little too tightly.
I hesitate when I see the food rescue truck unloading there. I hope Jason isn’t driving today. (I used to be the development director.)
I do not belong here.
The woman at the foodbank looks at my wool coat and faded leather gloves and asks, “Are you here to volunteer?”
I do not belong here.
With four children, I am entitled to four bags of groceries. I try, but I cannot even manage to fill one. There must be others who need this more.
Dented cans of off-brand soup, canned vegetables I did not know people actually ate, expensive crusty organic day-old bread from the trendy bakery in town that I could not afford even when I used to have money, giant mutant carrots, meat we do not eat, and cheese we cannot eat. I am allowed one juice box and two chocolate bars. The ladies keep trying to give me tiny little bags of instant rice. And teabags.
I do not belong here.
What gets me through is the thought that maybe afterwards, I will be able to write about this and sell it to Newsweek for $150, a week of groceries.
Or maybe I can sell it to Huffington Post – for exposure!
a year ago election day you were on the train, sending yourself across the miles to me. just for one moment you were real in my arms. today i loiter at the train station, soaking in the sun and hoping to catch a glimpse of your shadow emerging from a train, any train. as if sheer will could conjure you into form. a new suitor was caught in a freak bank robbery yesterday, and i am unconcerned. instead, i think of you. he writes to me of distance. i write to you of time. i wish you would make time to come see me. i want to touch your cheek and run my fingers along the edges of your ear. i want to feel the weight of you pressed up against me. i want to sit in a café and listen to your stories past midnight, your hand on my knee. explain to me again why you are not here? i do not understand how time keeps moving forward without you.
Hey! I am finally, officially, an adjunct lecturer at the university! I even have an office! AND a library card! And free tea and reception leftovers in the faculty lounge!
My dad doesn’t know how precarious adjuncting is and thinks that I have finally made it. Professor.
The other adjunct in the department laughs, “Welcome to the exploited labor classes!”
I stare at the New York Times society page my girlfriend has emailed to me, “Isn’t this your friend?” I knew this day would come. And I knew that I would be sad. But we were just talking last week. You sent me a four smile smiley face. And you didn’t mention that you happened to get married the day before. Just six weeks ago we were discussing San Francisco, and you said you wouldn’t be able to make my reading because you would be out of the country again, not because you would be married by then. You even told me that love is a statistical outlier, irrational behavior and self-delusion, and you always keep yourself under tight control because a hot mess is not hot at all. And I am the one who feels embarrassed. Naïve. Ridiculous. Foolish. Not that I want to get married. Not that you owe me anything. Not that there was ever any future there. But. I thought, I thought we were friends. That we had a connection. That we were the sort of lovers who would always circle back to one another. There was a kismet to our timing. Our paths diverged and converged right at those moments when we needed each other most. And you always reappeared right when I was on the verge of letting you go.
Or, did I imagine all that?
Philosophically, I don’t believe in marriage and promises of forever. Philosophically, I believe in the moment.
I tell my girlfriends that you are the ultimate exercise in staying in the moment. It is what it is. You are who you are. And it is ok because I am my best self when you are in my heart.
It has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with you.
But in real life, I feel as precarious as a tottering stack of empty teacups marking all the time and longing that stand there between us.
My friend the desi poet sees me sulking in the café and sits down with me. I pour my heart out to him over a real pot of tea, until the water runs white, lukewarm, the rim of the cup stained brown with your memory.
My friend the desi poet explains truth in rebellion to me, “White boys go get hookers. Brown boys eat beef.”
Today at the Chinese grocery store, Little Brother, now 10, takes my hand and shows me that truth often lies beyond the moment. “We should buy some Sriracha,” he says. “Why?” I ask, since Santa just brought us four cases at Christmas, and he whispers, “You know, for the Sriracha Apocalypse!”