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by Tesia Tsai

Boil the water. Add two grams of tea leaves to the pot. Turn off the stove. Pour the hot water over the leaves. Steep the tea for three-and-a-half minutes. Remove the strainer. Pour the tea into the blue mug. Add milk—

She cursed softly, catching her mistake. The milk was supposed to be poured into the mug before the tea. That was how he always did it. It affects the taste, he told her.

She emptied the contents into the sink, watching the ghostly heat twist upwards and fade away. Starting over, she rinsed out the mug and wiped the insides dry. Then she poured the milk in, not quite filling one-fourth of the space, before slowly topping it with the hot tea.

Finally, the sugar. Her fingers hesitated as they brushed against the bowl. How many teaspoons did he use again? Two? Three?

Two. It was definitely two.

She stirred in the sugar, staring at the tiny whirlpool racing at the heels of her spoon. She stopped. Took out the spoon. Slid it between her lips. Hot.

She placed the spoon on the table, the clink of metal against wood sounding unusually loud in the tiny kitchen. Wrapping her hands around the mug, she stared down at the pale brown liquid. The calm surface was absolutely blank. Not a stray speck of white to be seen.

Her tongue still buzzed from the burn. But it had tasted good, if only for a flicker of a second. Was the lingering pain worth the delicious beginning?

She became aware of the clock ticking on the wall behind her. It had been his parents’ clock, before they moved to Florida and left a dozen boxes of old, unwanted stuff in storage. They were heading for a new life, they’d said. Why keep a bunch of junk when they could buy new ones?

She’d taken advantage of the freebies and grabbed a boxful of things she’d thought could be useful—hangers and plates and unused picture frames with the sample photos still tucked inside the glass coverings. He’d wanted the clock. The painted ceramic clock shaped in the form of a birdhouse, with flowers framing the circle of numbers. It wasn’t even a real cuckoo clock, but he’d wanted it anyway. It was the clock he’d grown up with, the one that always greeted him in the kitchen when he woke up for and came home from school.

Now it hung in their apartment, on a different wall, but perfectly in place with the hodgepodge of kitchen equipment scattered around the room. Funny how she felt more out of place than the clock, even though she’d been there first.

Her gaze refocused on the tea. It was no longer hot. She raised the mug to her mouth, took a careful sip. Memories washed through her mind as the warm tea swished through her system.

She remembered the first time she’d tasted this tea. It had not been in this kitchen but in a café on the other side of town. She’d ordered black tea with milk on the side. The barista had brought her an empty mug.

She glanced at the cup, then up at the barista, who was smiling knowingly. She asked if it was a joke. He told her it wasn’t. I just didn’t want you to pour the milk in after, he said. It affects the taste.

She crossed her arms then, feeling her temper hit a low simmer. She’d just flunked an exam, and she wasn’t amused by whatever it was he was trying to prove.

Just give me my tea, she’d said. Without another word, he lowered a pitcher of milk to the mug and poured, not quite filling one-fourth of it. Finally, thankfully, he added the tea next. She thanked him stiffly. He grinned and recommended two teaspoons of sugar.

Her expression remained stony as he walked away to tend to another customer. She stirred the tea, omitting the sugar to spite him. Taking a sip, she cringed at the taste. After making sure the barista wasn’t watching, she added the two teaspoons of sugar as he’d advised.

The taste was perfect.

She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth spreading around the walls of her stomach. The kitchen clock continued ticking in the background, never faltering, forever constant. Or so it seemed. When was the last time they’d changed its batteries?

The tea still tasted the same. How could it possibly taste the same? It had been made by different hands, in a different context. Shouldn’t that affect the taste?

She once read that nature was indifferent to the tragedies in human lives. Now she fully understood what that meant. She felt cheated, betrayed, robbed. And yet the world didn’t care. It skirted around her the way water skirted around a rock stuck in a river.

She’d gotten the phone call from the hospital this morning. Still no sign of brain activity. The heart was working, pumping as diligently as ever—but it was pointless, all pointless, if the brain didn’t cooperate.

She used to think that his heart was the part she loved most about him. She was beginning to realize her mistake. The heart is only significant so long as the mind is alive. Without the thoughts, the words, the looks, and the touches, the heart was just a pointless organ banging uselessly against the bars of its cage.

They’d asked her if she’d made a decision, if she’d at least thought about it. What a ridiculous question. Of course she’d thought about it. She couldn’t look at a single thing in the apartment, in the city, without thinking about it. But she still needed time, which was what she’d told them.

Strangely, after the call, her mind had finally turned silent. He was still everywhere, of course, materializing at the sink, by the stove, at the table. But her thoughts were hushed, muted.

Until she made the tea.

She continued staring at the smooth surface, feeling as if the mug were empty even though it was still practically full. The sense of displacement bothered her.

Unworried about whether the bottom was still hot, she gulped down the tea, pausing every so often to take short, warm breaths. When the mug was truly empty, she studied the bottom, wondering if any amount of sipping would suck out the last drops circling the base.

She didn’t really want to know.