artspeak radio

I was recently honored to join a very talented group of fellow Kansas City writers on ARTSPEAK RADIO's  Valentine's Day show:  Mi Amor-Love Stories (Or Not). Over the course of 90 minutes, we each shared stories (real or, in my case, imagined) about love ... or not. What follows is my short story contribution titled, "A Cup of Chai."

 

I’m standing in line at The Leaf & Bean coffee house when I get the news.

Like everyone else, I’m multitasking as I wait for the anxious guy at the counter – an intern I’m guessing – to finish detailing his list of complicated drinks and pastries. In the corner to my left, the cluster of retirees I have come to call, “The Gang of Eight” is crowded around the long scarred, wooden table that everyone else seems to understand is off limits. As usual, the three in the middle are talking over each other in that loud way old men have when they no longer command a board room or warehouse floor.

We’ve never exchanged names, these men and I, but we know each other. We are aware of each others' routines, which is why when the ruddy-faced farmer, a quiet man I call “John” because of his misshapen green cap, meets my eyes and jerks his chin in recognition, I smile. It’s the same greeting we’ve shared every morning for the past three years. Presence acknowledged, he returns his attention to his friends and I look back down at my phone.

I almost delete Allen’s e-mail because his name, for whatever reason, doesn’t immediately register. And then it does. I tap the screen to open the message. And there, surrounded by the rows of Anchor Hocking jars of coffee beans and exotic teas, with the hollow, gurgling suck of milk being frothed, I read words that would never have occurred to me.

“Dear Beth. I’m so sorry to be the one to have to tell you this but Hannah has died.”

The force of the words pulls the breath from me. I hunch slightly forward, swallow and fight the sudden urge to urinate. I close my eyes but the words, cold and emotionless in Times New Roman, skate across the insides of my eyelids.

Hannah has died.

The woman behind me makes a noise in her throat and I jerk my head up. The man in front of me has moved forward several inches, which means that I need to do the same. I can’t feel my feet but I close the distance between us and then look back down at my phone.

“It happened two years ago. I only just now have gotten around to closing down her email accounts and found your message. It was an aneurism. She collapsed while making dinner. She died instantly.

            I’m so sorry, Beth. For us, though the pain still lingers, we have had time to adjust. For you, though, this loss is fresh and probably very shocking. I know she thought well of you and mentioned you many times over the years. I know you were very special to her.

            Allen

I stare again at the first line of the message

Hannah is dead. Hannah, with her irrepressible peals of laughter, her pointed chin, her delicate wrists, is dead. And not newly dead, if there were such a thing, but two years dead.

I swallow again, but this time through a thickening throat. All of me feels swollen. My chest. My head. The space behind the back of my eyes. I struggle not to weep in front of these familiar strangers – not to share with them the pain of my long ago, never acknowledged loss. I stare doggedly at the back of the man in front of me. I memorize the texture of his black wool coat. I resist the urge to pluck a glaring piece of lint from his shoulder, the imperfection of it angering me in a way that makes no sense.

I should have known. I should have somehow sensed it. She had been my first female lover, though we had never even kissed. Instead, we would sit cross-legged on the warped wooden floor of her one-room graduate student apartment, the air heavy with incense and Joni Mitchell, and talk. We touched – light brushes of fingertips to the backs of hands and wrists and forearms. She was an inappropriate obsession that I couldn’t understand at the time – that I would only come to understand much later when I accepted my attraction to women.

The man in front of me shuffles forward, as do we all, another six inches closer to the tattooed barista who moves fluidly, with a practiced efficiency that reminds me of Hannah when she cooked. I decide I want chai, in honor of Hannah who loved spices – especially in her food.

I taste, suddenly, the memory of the rich harira she would make on Sunday afternoons – the fragrant aroma of the simmering ginger, cinnamon and onion filling the room as we lounged on the floor sipping thick, milky chai – her researching her dissertation and me struggling to concentrate on Socrates or Machiavelli. Not infrequently, I would look up to find her watching me, her expression a combination of affection and uncertainty.

Hannah didn’t immediately share the fact that she was dating Allen. It wasn’t until I saw them out, at the local co-op, that I realized that her “friend,” Allen, was more than just a fellow graduate student. I had gone there to buy some of what I knew to be her favorite teas. I had wanted to surprise her. I was laboring over my choices when I heard the laughter – her laughter. Tea in hand, I walked to the end of the aisle and peeked around the cheap metal shelving. She was standing with a tall, thin man with dark, unruly hair. He was looking down at her, his expression one of amusement.

I was about to go over – to say hello and perhaps, selfishly, insert myself into their joke. But then I saw him reach for her hand. And I saw her take it, twisting her grip so that their fingers were intertwined, their palms touching. When she lifted her gaze to meet his, her expression was one that I recognized. It was both familiar and foreign – intimate in a way I had only seen in movies.

I never told her I saw her that day. I never gave her the tea I had so carefully chosen and then thrown away outside the co-op in spite. I never told her that she broke my heart. Instead, I took my hurt and disappeared. And she, newly in love, didn’t notice. Not really. It was only months later, after the energy in how we navigated our space changed, that I met Allen. The three of us had met here, at The Leaf & Bean. We’d sat at the end of the “off limits” table. They’d both had chai. In defiance of their love, I had coffee. We talked awkwardly about nothing and then promised to do it again, though we all knew we wouldn’t.

We reconnected years later when, on a whim, I sent Hannah an email about a new Moroccan recipe I tried that made me think of her. Her response was warm and I could hear the intonation of her speech in my head as I read her words. She was married. She was living in Boston. Life had turned out differently than she had expected but it was good. Would it be okay if she put me on their Christmas newsletter list?

I stare now at Allen’s message as I realize I hadn’t received that newsletter in two years. I hadn’t received it and I hadn’t even noticed. I am angry, though with her or him or myself, I don’t know.

“The usual?”

I jerk my head up. It’s my turn. The barista pauses, the question hanging in the air, and I nod automatically. Chai, I think. I had wanted chai.

I clear my throat. “Could I also get a chai?”

It’s all I can do to wait while she steams the milk and makes my drinks. I force my hands not to shake as I hand her the money and then carry the paper cups outside – one coffee, one chai.

Outside, the sun is shining and the air is sharp on my cheeks and in my nose. I gulp it in and only realize when I feel the tears snaking wetly down my cheeks that I’m crying. I sink down against the side of the building, the drinks clumsily placed on either side of me. The red bricks scrape at the back of my leather coat, but I don’t care. I don’t care about anything except the void within me that belongs to the Hannah I knew all those years ago – the Hannah who set my sexuality in motion and the Hannah, whose loss I am only now allowing myself to mourn. I cry until I have nothing left. And then I stand.

I look down at the drinks. One coffee. One chai. I take a final, cleansing breath and then reach down. I choose the chai.