of tangy tulip tea
Suphala Nibhanupudi | Art by Sunny Lu
She frequented the old man upstairs, the one that fed her dreams of her husband in cups of green tea. He crushed herbs better acquainted in witches’ stews and nursed the kettle as it sputtered on the stove. The steam billowed into his crumpled face. He’d place the cold stone glass in her hands, and watch her sip slowly for a couple of moments, before returning to the stove to fill a glass of his own.
She knew not how she found him. Perhaps the scent snaked through her air vents and snatched her up. Maybe she had mistaken his door for someone else’s. Those memories had faded into the recesses of her mind. People on the floors below spun legends about him. Every tenant visited his apartment at one point or another. Those who did remembered little. Only his sour tea, and his clouded eyes that saw more than they should.
“I’m trying an old favorite of mine. Special occasion tea.” He teetered towards her and presented her cold stone cup. She sank into the battered couch. “I make it for all my guests eventually. Clears your sinuses among other things.”
“It tastes… nice.” She stuck her tongue into the tea and swirled it around. It tasted too strong for her taste; some new flavor was biting her tongue. “Did you add… what is this, cypress?”
“I usually have cypress. Today I added white tulips. I enjoy their…” He mumbled, his eyes glazing over as they were prone to do. “Tanginess.”
With a robotic, tired hand, she lifted the stone cup to her mouth, and let the liquid slide into her mouth, waiting for the visions that would usually follow. Of her husband, sobbing and quaking on the slick driveway, seconds before he left. She would sip on the tea until the stone cup was sucked dry, her mind swirling with stale, blurry memories, drowning in the concoction. Then, head woozy, she would stagger out of the apartment as the old man sank into his recliner, where he would be when she came eagerly the next day.
Today, the tea didn’t sit right in her stomach. This tanginess was not agreeing with her. She couldn’t see her husband on the driveway, only…
A little boy, fidgeting with the buttons of his polo shirt, dropped down on her right. A quiet, confused little boy, with his father’s cheekbones and his mother’s nose, but his own eyes.
“What’s wrong?” The old man asked innocently.
“…Nothing. I’m alright.”
The little boy was spinning a scuffed wooden pencil. He tipped his head towards the sunset as it flushed the sky in pink. On his lap wobbled a clipboard with a stack of forms on it. The first one read “ADMISSION TO HOPETOWN HOSTEL AND SCHOOL.”
“Use a pen, Cole. You don’t fill out applications with a pencil.”
She shuddered at the sound of her own voice, clipped and cold. The little boy looked past her, at someone else perched far away from him. “Yes, Ma.”
“And hurry it up. I don’t want to wait here for an hour for you to fill your name.”
The little boy produced a pen from his shirt pocket, and hunched over the forms, slowly signing his name in botched cursive. His face was on the verge of crumbling. The sky deepened into a dusky orange.
The woman on the couch sipped her tea again, her fingers stiff from the cold stone cup. She watched the little boy pause, and look past her again, his eyes dense and wet. She felt the strange, foreign urge to wipe his face and pat his head, vision or not.
“Do I have to go? Can’t I just stay with you for a couple more years?”
She dared to look to her left. The vision was clothed in all black, save the little tulip in her lapel pocket. Her finger was swiping rapidly on her phone. Her cold eyes glazing over the bright screen. Her son quiet and still. The woman sipping the tea could feel the chill of a sudden breeze, the emptiness of the bench, as she sat between a mother and a son. The sun slipping away. The sunset dissolving into the hills behind them, the pink eaten up by the orange and black.
“You haven’t finished your tea.”
The vision evaporated. She glanced up at the old man. He leaned forward in interest.
“I understand if you don’t care for the tea. It’s a hard brew to swallow. Very tangy, not as bitter as you like it. But I made sure not to make it too sweet.”
She nodded in apology. “I’m not that thirsty today.” The cup swiveled in her hands.
“Would you prefer your regular?” The clouds in the old man’s eyes parted briefly, and he observed her keenly.
Her fingernail scraped the cup. A moment later, it clicked against the coffee table.
“Have a nice day.”
The old man smiled. “I believe the school is closed at the moment. You could try again tomorrow. Goodbye.”
So she made her way out of the complex and out to the road, as the sky flushed pink above her. She tipped her head back to watch it, before crossing the street.