“I wish you’d talk to me, Denise.” Casey looks at his ex expectantly.
She frowns at her cup, a finger lying lightly on the rim.
“Look. I know it’s my fault. I got angry and said things I didn’t mean. Can you forgive me?” He keeps his voice low so no one can overhear. Not that there’s anyone close enough.
She holds the warm liquid in her mouth, letting it sit on her tongue. She imagines she’s Sherlock Holmes; wishes she were as smart, as observant, wishes she could deduce a way out of this.
There’s an almost-smile on Denise’s lips and Casey is jealous. He’s here to talk, explain himself, beg forgiveness but she won’t look at him. No, she sits there looking as if she’d like to orgasm from drinking her damned tea. He should never have asked her to this pretentious Singaporean place, all tinkly and shiny and stiff-upper lip, mocking his faded polo and worn jeans.
“Den, look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have accused you of cheating on me. And I shouldn’t have laid a hand on you,” he tries again.
The remnant of a yellowing bruise is still visible on her cheekbone. Her long-sleeved turtleneck hides whatever other evidence there still is. He’s grateful for that, grateful he can’t see what he’s done.
Her eyes are still fixed on her half-full cup, as if trying to divine secrets from the light brown liquid.
A second mouthful. There’s something floral about it; floral and slightly smooth. Vanilla? She can feel the caffeine kicking in, so it’s not a tisane. Probably a black tea blend; there’s no green tea smell. Black, red, or white–red has its own distinctive taste and a white would be lighter. She should have asked, should have studied her order, but she’d just waved at the waiter and asked to be surprised.
“You’ll never understand, Case.”
A couple passes close by their table, arms linked. He tries to look pleasant, understanding. “Help me. Please.”
“I’ve tried. You don’t listen.”
“I remembered you liked this place.”
Her shoulders spasm. She fiddles with her sleeves, rubbing at them.
He scowls and grabs at her wrist, making her cry out. He pushes her sleeves up to her elbows and stares at the criss-crossed marks. Faded, brown, scarred. Fresh, red, lightly scabbed. He didn’t put them there. Is this what she’s been hiding all this while? “Who did this to you?”
She closes her eyes and breathes in. The scent is settling. Calming. Peaceful. Blue cornflowers. That’s it. She’s had this before. Sweet. Light and refreshing. Coincidence? Or had he tampered with her order? She knows what it is now: French Earl Grey, the very TWG blend she’d bought as ‘his’ last birthday gift for herself. She doubts he remembers that.
“Was it Mark?” he pressed. “Did Mark do this to you?”
“No.” She shakes her head in emphasis but he’s seen similar scars on Mark’s hands, beneath the rolled-up cuffs and the tattoos. Beside the stupid semicolon they both bear. Underneath the ridiculously large Love on his forearm. What’s he compensating for?
“Did he… make you do it with him?”
She finally looks up at him, seeming to study his face though her gaze never fully settles on him. “He’s only ever asked me to stop.”
He stares at her. “You do this to yourself? Why?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” His voice is a growl and she flinches, but he’s angry enough not to care. Not angry enough to make a scene at Gurney Paragon Mall, sparse though the crowd is, so he stays in his seat while his hand curls around her left wrist hard enough to bruise. Hard enough to reopen the scabs.
“Stop. It hurts.”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“I just…” She falls silent. “It’s different.”
Underlying it is bitterness. Too-hot water, too-long steeping, she doesn’t know which, but something is off. It’s too dark. It isn’t her fault. The waiters brewed this. They were careless. Undertrained. She should have noticed. Should have stopped it. Voiced her displeasure. She can’t. She has no control over anything.
“I can’t help you if you won’t let me.”
“You can’t help me.” Her right hand quivers as she lifts the teapot.
“You’re my girlfriend. I’m supposed to.”
“You dumped me. Remember?”
“I was angry! I didn’t mean it!”
“We’re not.” He jabs the table. Her overly full cup spills at the violent shaking.
Her eyes fix on the stain. “You hate me. You hate everything I am. You hate everything I do. Why should we be together?”
He hates that she’s speaking so flatly, so emotionlessly, while he’s the one seething, boiling over with rage. He grinds his teeth, fist clenching.
“Do you want to beat me into submission again? Do you want me to cower at your feet?”
“This is not over, Denise.” The chair scrapes a sharp shriek. He pays and leaves the café before he can give in to the temptation to drag her with him, to drag her home.
The little tea candle flickering under the pot has gone out. The pot is cold. The tea is cold. A cold, acrid brew. Dark. Over-steeped. She’s still drinking anyway. Robotically. Down to the dregs. It still smells of flowers, but the bitterness on her tongue overwhelms everything else.
“Are you all right?” Mark asks as he slips into Casey’s long-vacated seat.
She snorts, grateful he’d come when she called.
He cocks a half-smile. Sad, yet understanding. They will never be all right.
“It gets better,” he says.
Another waiter hovers. Mark mumbles. Another long silence.
The smell of chamomile and vanilla wafts over and Denise looks up to see Mark pouring from a fresh pot. He puts the dainty teacup down in front of her. Her fingers wrap around the warmth, both of his fingers and of the brew.
He quirks an eyebrow then slowly pulls his hands away.
The world shifts, tilts. It doesn’t quite correct itself, but at least she can breathe. She lifts the cup and presses it to her lips.
I initially wrote this for NutMag in 2017, but it didn't fit in with the rest of the chapbook. The them was tea or coffee, if you were wondering.
At any rate, I've slashed it down from 1.5K to about 1K words here, and the clarity might have suffered a little. Still, it was mostly an experiment, so I'm fine with that.
The theme for this past week was relationships.