The girl behind the counter smiled at me as she asked me what type of day I was having.
“Hunh?” I responded very inelegantly.
“Well, the type of tea you want depends on the type of day you’re having. So is it a good day? A relaxed day? A busy day?”
“Uh, a busy day I guess.”
“Alright, then you probably want something with a little bit more caffeine in it. I recommend either Kuki-cha Supreme, which is a slightly sweet tea similar in flavor to Gyokuro but less expensive, or the Sen-cha Supreme, which is a more everyday type of tea that’s not quite as sweet as Kuki-cha.”
“Uhm, was I supposed to understand that?”
She smiled back at me although I thought that if someone else had said that to me, I probably would have been exasperated and contemplated various methods of murder, including drowning by scalding hot water.
“Do you want a sweeter tea or a more bitter tea?”
“Eh, I’m not so much into sweets. Listen, why is tea so complicated? I just want a cup of green tea so I can be on my way and get on with my day.”
“I am going to make you a nice cup of green tea, but really, tea is a complicated thing and shouldn’t be taken so lightly, although most people just assume tea is tea and leave it at that. However, tea can be compared to fine wine, or the variety of different coffees. Not everyone has the same tastes, and not all wines go with every meal and not every coffee fits a particular day.”
“Uh, okay then...”
She smiled again. “That’ll be $3.50 please.” I started to wonder if she was patronizing me, but I decided to leave it at that. She obviously cared very much about her tea, although God knows why. It was just tea after all.
I watched her as she started to make my cup of tea. First, she filled a teapot with a little bit of hot water, swirled it around, and then poured it out. Then she filled the teapot again to the brim with hot water, and poured this water from the teapot into a thick ceramic pot. She waited a few seconds before pouring the water into a second pot. She let the water sit while she measured out the tea leaves: one tablespoon of dark green leaves, which she proceeded to put into the teapot. Finally she poured the hot water over the leaves, put the lid on, swirled the liquid in the teapot for a second and then looked up at me and said, “I forgot to ask, is this for here or to go?”
“To go. I have to get to work soon. Is the tea ready yet?”
“Just give it another 30 seconds and it’ll be ready. I have to let it finish steeping. You wouldn’t want tea-flavored water now, would you?”
“Uh, I guess not.” I didn’t know what to say. I was getting a bit impatient, but at the same time, she made tea seem like such a ritual that I wasn’t eager to spoil the obvious great pride she took in making a perfect cup of tea. This was my first time at this particular teashop, and I wasn’t sure whether my experience here was making me want to come back or not. After all, I was usually in a hurry, and this was the first teashop I’d been to that hadn’t filled a paper cup with water, thrown a teabag into it, handed it to me and declared that it would cost me $1.50. However, a friend of mine had told me that I should come here. He said that he thought it would do me good to pause a bit on my way to work and have a decent cup of tea for once, that I wouldn’t regret it, and that the lady who worked in the shop was absolutely ‘charming’. Well, I didn’t know whether she was charming or just plain irritating, but I guess people varied in taste.
Finally, I saw her swirl the liquid in the teapot, grab a paper cup, pour a little bit into the cup, swirl the teapot again, and then finally pour the rest of the leaf green liquid out into the paper cup. Her eye for measurements was astounding: the tea ended just a quarter of an inch from the top, just enough to prevent me from spilling it while I walked on the way to work. She put the lid on and set the paper cup on the serving counter. “Here you go, sir. A cup of our finest Sen-cha. I hope you enjoy.”
“Thank you.” I grabbed the cup and hurried out of the store. By now, I had been in that store for a full fifteen minutes, and I was anxious to head off to work so as not to arrive late. I blew a bit into the cup, but the steam that came out wasn’t scalding hot, so I tentatively took my first sip. The tea was the perfect temperature for drinking. Not too hot, but not too cold. It tasted smooth going down: a slightly bitter tinge on the tongue, followed by the fresh taste of really expensive, new tea leaves.
I say ‘new’ because I’ve had old tea leaves before. I think that’s what you tend to get in most stores: old, stale tea. You can tell it’s stale by the fact that it takes forever to steep, it turns a deep yellow color, and somehow even though you’ve steeped it for ten minutes already, it never seems strong enough or the taste always seems a bit off, like the difference between normal carbonated Coke and Coke that has gone flat overnight. Technically it should still be just as good, but somehow flat Coke just doesn’t seem to cut it. I usually ask for two teabags to make this type of tea stronger, but that can make a cup of green tea almost undrinkable with bitterness. Most cups of green tea made from just one teabag are already slightly bitter, so adding another teabag just multiplies the bitterness by about twenty times.
However, the tea she had just made for me was smooth without the usual overwhelming bitterness that I had come to associate with typical green tea. I puzzled over how she could have achieved in making a cup of green tea that was not bitter while walking to work along with the other crowds of students. However, I didn’t pay them any attention. Most of these students were bleary-eyed, carrying heavy backpacks and some of them wearing sweatpants and frazzled hair as if they had just crawled out of bed. Even at almost a quarter to 9 in the morning, it was too early for them. I myself wasn’t an early riser, but I had gotten used to the early schedule so that by 8 AM I was awake and ready to leave the house. Since it took me about twenty minutes to walk to work, I was usually very early. However, today I was running later. It was already 8:41 AM and I was just now entering the main walkway to campus. I could tell it was later by the fact that the crowd of students seemed a bit heavier than usual this morning, like ants rushing towards a particularly big morsel of food that someone had dropped on the ground.
As I walked briskly along I ran into William, another student in my department. He saw me first and walked quicker, cutting through lines of students walking by themselves to join me. “How’s it going this morning, Taylor?” he said breathlessly as he walked up.
“Not too bad. How about you?” I took another sip of tea.
“Enh, running late as usual. I have a meeting with a professor at 9 AM, but I’m only just getting to campus. I was supposed to prepare a few things for my lecture afterwards, but well...” His voice trailed off.
“Heh. Well, I suppose you could always just wing it. You always look so comfortable in front of students that I imagine it doesn’t take too much preparation.”
“Yeah, well. Life of a grad student, eh? I don’t think anyone really ever prepares for their lectures except you.” He chuckled. “Always the organized one. It’s no wonder the profs fawn all over you.”
“Hah. Yeah right. You should’ve seen what Professor Krofsky wrote on my paper the other day: good effort, but could’ve used a bit more discussion of the theoretical implications of long distance tone spread on the theory of locality in phonology. Seriously though, the professors expect you to write a term paper for the weekly homeworks. It’s almost impossible to keep up with their expectations.”
“You got that right man...”
We stopped talking as we got closer to the department, and I sipped my tea more regularly. I swear the walls had ears here. You never wanted to say too much or you risked someone hearing you and passing on that information to someone else. Academic departments had more gossip flying around than most business offices. In addition, academics tended to be a bit more ‘specialized’ and more antisocial, so they often had less of an understanding of human interaction than the average person working in a business office. It wasn’t a good combination.
William got to the door first and pulled it open, holding it so it wouldn’t shut in my face. “Anyways, I gotta run to my meeting. See you later, Taylor.”
“Yeah, alright. See you.”
William went hurrying down the hall away from the rest of the offices. His office was technically on the first floor at the north end of the building, but he usually left all his stuff on an unoccupied desk in my office, which was on the second floor. He must have really been running late if he didn’t bother to drop his stuff on his desk before rushing off to see his professor. I glanced at my watch: 8:59 AM. Yeah, he was really running late.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor and walked down the hall towards my office. I was about to get my keys out, but then I noticed the door was open already. That was unusual. I was usually always the first one in in the morning. I peeked through the door. Mary glanced up from her work. “Heya Taylor. How’s it going?”
“Not too bad.” I walked to my desk and set my bright yellow laptop bag down on my chair.
“You’re late today.”
“Mmm,” I replied as I took another sip of tea.
“Late night last night?”
“No, not really. A friend recommended I stop into this teashop, so I did, but it took a bit longer than my usual order at Starbucks.”
“Haha. Well, never get between a man and his caffeine.” She settled back into reading her article. She had a stack about an inch high on her desk.
“You going to read all those today?”
She barely glanced up. “Yeah, I kinda have to do a lot of research on my MA topic this week, and Professor Barkley recommended that I read these articles in preparation for our meeting on Thursday. I was busy working on the syntax homework until 1 AM though, so I didn’t get to start these over the weekend. I’ve been making notes on them, though, so I think I have a bunch of additional reading to do for tomorrow and Wednesday before my meeting. You know, work as usual.”
I nodded, but she didn’t see me. She had already gone back to her article. It looked like it was going to be another one of those days in the office. I took out my laptop, set it on my desk, grabbed the charger cord and plugged it in. Then I set my bag on the empty chair next to my desk and sat down. Some people, like Mary, liked to have hardcopies of everything. As for me, I hated carrying around all that extra paper, so I usually tried to read stuff I found online, or that I scanned into PDF form using the scanner upstairs on the third floor.
I settled back into my chair, sipping my cup of tea, while I began to read one of my articles related to my dissertation topic. I didn’t look up from my computer until the cup of tea had been gone for an hour, and I had made eight typed pages of notes on what I had just read.
Awesome, I thought. Even though I was late today, that’s still quite a bit of work for one morning, and it’s not yet lunchtime. I stretched my arms up as high as I could reach them and yawned while half-heartedly attempting to cover my mouth. My chair squeaked a bit, but when I glanced at Mary, she was still reading. She must have been really focused if she didn’t even respond to the noise of squeaky chairs. They drove me insane. I can never study while William is around since he is always bouncing up and down in that goddamn chair of his. Squeaka, squeaka, squeaka. I would describe it as the feeling you get when someone runs their nails down a chalkboard, but far worse.
“Taylor!” Speak of the devil.
I stopped stretching. “Hey William. How’d your meeting go?”
“Enh, you know. Same old, same old. I still have no idea what I want to write my thesis on exactly. No matter how much I read, it always seems like I’m just that far away from finishing it.”
William was the type of person who had a lot of natural talent, but usually did not capitalize on it. A lot of ideas, and no ambition. It made for a poor academic. I am not really sure if he enjoyed it or not. I don’t think William did either.
“So what are you doing right now?”
“You’re staring off into space.”
“Oh. I hadn’t noticed.” It seems that I had spent too much time with my work today. That always happened. Whenever I spent too much time with my work, it always seemed like the thoughts in my head were more prominent than everything around me. It seemed like I was the exception, more than the rule. Most people I know spent too much outside their heads and not enough time inside. I suppose I was the opposite of that.
“So what do you think?”
“God, you never listen. I was trying to ask you whether we should go out drinking or something right now because I’m done with work for the day and you look like you are too. So? What were you thinking about anyways?”
“Oh. Uhm...it really wouldn’t make sense.”
“You never do, man. You never do.”
“Wait, isn’t it only 11:30? Why do you want to go drinking at this hour? They’re not even serving $2 drinks yet...”
“Because, man. I can’t stand the thought of being at school any longer today. I feel like my head’s going to explode.”
“Maybe if your head exploded, then other people could get some work done around here.” We both looked up. Mary had been speaking, and she did not look particularly happy. Her lips were kind of pursed together in a disapproving stare that was wandering from one to the other of us in turn. It seemed that she did not really know who to fault in this instance: me or William.
Mary and William had never really gotten along. She was too serious, and he wasn’t serious enough for her. In some ways I thought that they would make the perfect couple because they obviously hated each other so intensely that there had to be some other emotion tied up with it that I did not see. Maybe they had had a past relationship that hadn’t gone well...or maybe Mary had gotten drunk during one of the department parties on the rare occasion that she let loose and William had taken advantage of it. Whatever the reason, I had never asked. Mary would have just scoffed at me, and William probably would have made up some story that turned out to be a relationship that he had with another girl just to make it seem like he had gotten her panties off and in a jumble. She certainly needed it, but I don’t think even drink would have convinced her to do it with William.
William stared back at her in disbelief. “Well, aren’t we Miss High-and-Mighty today. What’s the matter? You got an A- on your last assignment?”
“Shut up, William. I’m working and this isn’t even your office. Taylor, just go drink with him or something because I need to get back to work and I don’t want to head to the library every time I want some peace and quiet just because your idiot friends don’t know how to show respect for other people.”
I stared at her now too. She had never gotten this angry with me before. I wonder how much she thought her life and future career hung in the balance on a few articles that the professors told her to read, not because they knew she needed more to read, but because they knew that she would read them. She was the only one that seemed to live up to their expectations. I wondered if she ever knew how small she made the rest of us feel.
“I...why are you ordering me out of my office?”
“Why do expect that I should have to leave mine in order to get some peace?”
We glared at each other for a second, but my resolve was waning fast. I did not really care to get on her bad side because I knew she would make life a living hell if that happened. Besides, at this point I might as well go for lunch. I hadn’t eaten much today, and I noticed that my stomach had started grumbling while I finished the last page of my notes.
“Fine then.” I gathered up my belongings while she supervised, not daring to take her eyes off me unless I changed my mind. Charger cord, laptop...at least I packed light. It made it all the easier to pack up my stuff without feeling like I was taking too long. Under her gaze, though, you would have thought that I was taking twenty minutes to pack up two things.
I zipped up my bag and pushed my chair into my desk. I grabbed my empty paper cup that had held this morning’s tea and threw it into the trash can. There. Nice and neat. There were still stacks of books at the back of my desk, but most of them were textbooks that I hadn’t bothered to scan in since I mostly didn’t carry them home. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stand clutter. My room at home was as austere and unused looking as my desk. Some people found it unnerving, but I found it enticing. A clean desk always made me want to sit down and use it, while a cluttered desk made me just want to run away and find somewhere else to work. William and I, obviously, did not see eye to eye.
I looked up and noticed that William was staring at me. I carefully avoided Mary’s gaze and I told him, “Come on, let’s go,” in very subdued tones. I crossed the room to the door as Mary scoffed and turned back to her article. William was still staring at me as we descended the stairs of our building, and turned to walk either towards town or food, whichever happened to catch our attention first.
“Would you stop looking at me like that? I can’t figure out if people are going to think that we’re a couple that just got into a fight, or if you’re acting like you’ve never seen a real human being before.”
“I just can’t believe you let her kick you out like that. I mean, what the fuck, man. Where’s your balls?”
“In my pants, like always.”
“I’m going to avoid the obvious virgin jokes here. But seriously, man, that’s your office too. You really should fight for your space. Establish dominance.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly see you standing up for me either.”
“Oh, come on. You know there’s nothing I can say that Mary will honestly listen to.”
“Yeah, well, I’d like to pretend that she’ll still listen to me on occasion instead of just shrugging me off as if I were the mud on her shoes like she does with you all the time.”
“Ugh. You just don’t have the balls to stand up to a girl.”
“No, it’s just I don’t see the point in starting a pointless conflict. The department is difficult enough without getting an officemate on my bad side.”
“Yeah, exactly. No balls.”
“Shut up, William. I think I’m going to go home.”
“Aw, come on. You said you would come drinking.”
“I said no such thing. I just got kicked out of my office, so I might as well go home for lunch and then maybe go find a café to study at later.”
“Bah, you people are no fun.”
“Grad school’s meant to be fun?”
“Any part of life is meant not to be?”
I could think of no response. William obviously thought I was more fun to hang around than Miss Goody-Two-Shoes in my office, but sometimes I wondered why. In some ways I wasn’t that much less serious than Miss Goody-Two-Shoes herself. There must be some subtle difference that he saw, but I did not. Anyways, I suppose it didn’t matter. There are some things that you should never question, and I think friendship must be one of them, otherwise who do you trust? There wasn’t much more to life than that. Sure, work is important and all, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it can make you happy. I don’t know that it made anyone happy. Maybe Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. I could see that. I wonder what she does for fun.
“There you go again.”
“Oh, uh, sorry.”
“You shouldn’t study so hard, man. It’s bad for your social skills.”
“Whatever you say, William.”
“Anyways, man, I’m going to head up this street. I want to go see if Miriam will join me. She’s usually bored, and hey, if I can get her to take the rest of the day off...woo! Awesomeness for me!” He pumped his fist in the air. I wondered whether he was still just an undergrad that had somehow been accepted to a university by mistake, a fault in the application. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but this application clearly says WILLIAM BRADY on it. If your last name is Bradshaw, then that’s not you.’ Maybe it had just been a mixup of two similar applicants with almost identical last names and the professors on the selection committee had forgotten which was which. Then again, maybe they just didn’t know and were now regretting their mistake.
“Alright, William. Have fun. I’ll see you later.”
“See ya!” He already had his back to me and was running up the street. Obviously his penis was on a mission today. I wondered if it ever gave him a break.