A Cup of Perfect Tea

by Ginger wRong Chen

I am pacing around the house and constantly telling myself “Settle down!” “Easy!” Yet instead, I only feel my throat grows drier; a knot is growing bigger in my stomach, and I check my look over and over again in the mirror for, God knows, how many times already.
Have I got anything right? I’ve tidied up the sofa, the table, the vases on the shelves. I’ve sprayed the mixed aroma of rose and ylang-ylang in every corner of the house, all the places where I suppose me and him will stand, sit, or lie down. And I’ve put on my favorite outfit, the silky one-shoulder draped dress in light blue, if I remember it correctly, he once said light blue is his favorite color.
And the tea I am going to serve is this year’s King of Anxi Tieguanyin. It should be the real deal since it came directly from a wholesome tea farmer in some village in Anxi, Fujian. I remember yesterday how proudly my father told me and my mother that he was finally able to obtain a piece of “the King” and he told the story in such a manner that it is doomed to be awarded “Adventure of the Year” in this family. However, today both my parents are out of town for some colleague’s, can’t remember his or hers, wedding and they are going to be away for the whole weekend. I sure can imagine, when they come home after the wedding, my father is going to be real mad about the missing King, but I don’t care. Every father makes sacrifices on the road of his daughter’s pursuit of romance.
This is the first time I invite this man for tea, I want him to see how much I can glow when I present a full tea ceremony.
I want everything to be perfect.
And I want him to think I am the perfect girl for him, the kind of girl he will think in the way like “Wouldn’t it be great if I could hold her hand and smell her neck.”

For some reason, right at this panicking pacing moment, Yanzi Jiejie surges up to my consciousness after so many years. I haven’t thought about her for a long time. To me, she is always 17. That’s 12 years ago. And now I have already grown into her age.

At the age of 5, I was her little copycat. I learned to talk like her, walk like her, smile like her.
People always asked her about me, “Is that your littler sister?”
She replied, “Yes. She is the cute one, isn’t she?”
The fact is we are never related. She worked at the tea shop next door to my grandpa’s house, where I spent the first seven years of my life. I went to the tea shop almost everyday, not because I was a freak child who liked to drink tea. No, I am all normal. Like every other kid, tea was just too grown-up for my taste then. I was so young and my taste buds were so under developed that all I craved for was sweet stuff, which I have grown to learn that’s the lowest estate in the taste hierarchy; a sophisticated taste has much more appreciation of sour, bitter and any other kind of unpleasant flavors to kids. But I was still young, too young to even know there is high and low levels of tastes. At that tea shop, I only drank sweet chrysanthemum tea. But I hung around there anyway, because I liked to see how Yanzi Jiejie made tea.
I liked to see her pour the hot water into a teapot from a high angle, she called it “Flowing water from high mountain.” I liked to see her slide the lid around the rim of the pot, she called it “Spring breeze touching the face.” I liked to see her make a steady circle of tea pouring above all cups to make them even, she called it “Guangong cruising the town.”
I liked to see the way she closed her eyes when she inhaled the tea aroma from the sniffing cup. I liked to see her extend her hand softly and said to clients “Please enjoy!” And I liked to see her holding the cup with one hand and covering her mouth with another when she drank tea.
She taught me everything she knew about making tea. She taught me there are three phases of boiling water: the first phase of boiling, the bubbles are like crab eyes; the second like fish eyes, the third like ox eyes. To make a good pot of tea, the first phase is too young; the third too old; only the second is perfect. She taught me that before I pour the boiling hot water into the tea leaves, I should count to seven to make the temperature just perfect; a little patience goes a long way. She taught me it is better for one tea pot committing to one kind of tea so the pot can be nurtured to the perfect conditions.

All those small details seemed trivial and tedious to a five-year-old girl. Yet how strange that everything returns to my mind and senses without any sign of warning after so many years. When I put my fingers on the tea pot, the tea cups, the peeing-boy tea toy, when I take the first sniff of the fresh aroma after I open my father’s prize of his biggest adventure of the year. It all just comes back, like it has been slumbering inside me all these years, and for the perfect tea ceremony I am going to serve to the man whom I want to be perfect for, it just wakes itself up understandingly.
Now I understand what she meant by saying, “It matters whom you are making the tea for. It always tastes the best when you are drinking it with someone you like to share your time with.”

As I remember, among all the clients, that was always a big deal when Qiang Gege came. He came to the tea shop every Friday afternoon. So every Friday, Yanzi Jiejie would put on her favorite dress — a long-sleeved one-piece skirt with soft cream laces overlaying beige chiffon. She would also adorn her hair with a lily flower.
Qiang Gege was a tall, thin and amiable young man, of course that was when he smiled. When he was not smiling, his eyes looked steeped in sorrow.
“Why are you sad?” I would ask.
“Just because I am not smiling, it doesn’t necessarily mean I am sad,” said he.
“But you look sad.”
“Don’t be fooled by what you see,” he would reply.
Yanzi Jiejie once said to me, “He looks like a Ru Sheng from ancient times, don’t you think?”
I had no idea what Ru Sheng is, but I nodded anyway. From the way she spoke, it sounded like a good word to me. If that was something bad, she would have said it with clenched jaw and wrinkled nose, like the way when she said, “That man is a bad egg.”
Every time Qiang Gege came, he told us stories that painted a whole new world outside the tea shop: how one of his prestigious professors was challenged by an outspoken freshman girl that the professor had been using the same teaching materials for twenty years; how he and his buddy set up a school newspaper and was shut down two months later when the school declared their newspaper was promoting superstitions only because a cartoon of Fengshui Master was printed; and how he found out most of the girls, even the university ones, couldn’t even tell the difference of two very simple words — “yes” and “no” — and he thought that’s very confusing.
When he talked, Yanzi Jiejie often cast down her soft eyes accompanied by a tender smile hanging around her lips. She listened attentively but rarely said anything.
She would said to me after he left, “How smart he is! He knows almost everything. And he talks in great intelligence and with such charm.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to him?” asked I.
“What could I say to him? He studies in university. I am a girl with little education, all I know is making tea. If I open my mouth, he will know I am just a dull and ignorant person. There must be many interesting and pretty girls in his school.”

There was one Friday, he came with a package wrapped in beige paper and pink ribbon. Accepting the gift from him, she blushed with pleasure; her eyes sparkled with glee.
I cried out, “Open it! Open it!” I was a kid who tend to get a little overexcited.
“Please do open it, see if you like it,” he encouraged her.
She tentatively opened it, pulled a beige dress out of the box. That’s her favorite color and fabric, and it was sleeveless. She never had a sleeveless dress before.
For a moment, I thought I saw her smile vaporizing from her face, but I could be wrong.
“Do you like it?” asked he.
“Yes,” She managed half of a smile. “It’s very beautiful!”
“Try it on! See whether it fits or not,” he urged.
She shook her head.
“Try it on! Try it on!” I was doing the typical overexciting routine.
“I said no!” For the first time and the only time, she raised her voice to me.
Then, “Maybe next time,” she soon went back to her normal soft voice and turned to him half way, “It really is a beautiful dress. Thank you so much! Let me wear it for you next time you come. Is it alright?”
But there was never next time.
The Saturday after that Friday, when I went to the tea shop after my morning cup of soy milk and two deep-fried dough sticks, just like every other day, Yanzi Jiejie was no where to be found. Just like that, she was gone.
The owner of the tea shop said to me, “She asked me to return something to someone called A Qiang. I don’t know who A Qiang is. Do you have any idea?”
I nodded.
Then the owner passed me a package wrapped in beige paper and pink ribbon.
I opened it. Inside it was the sleeveless dress he gave her the day before.
That was that.
She didn’t even say good-bye to me.

Dong…Dong…Dong…Someone is knocking on the door…
He is knocking on my door.
I am pulled back from that Saturday morning 12 years ago.
Before I run to open the door, I check my reflection in the mirror for one last time.
I want everything to be perfect. This is the first time I invite him for tea, the first time I want him to see how much I can glow when I present him a full tea ceremony. I want everything to be perfect. And I want him to think I am the perfect girl for him.
Just at this moment, I become terrified for I spot a snag on my stockings. I narrow my eyes, staring into the mirror, the snag only grows bigger and wider, then becomes the 17-year-old Yanzi in that pretty sleeveless dress Qiang gave her. With tears down her cheeks, she stared at herself in the mirror. And suddenly I go back to be the five-year-old girl sneaking around on that Friday night, looking through the crack of the doors to her room.
Her tears just kept running down, till her shoulders quivered, till she grabbed her burned left arm and rubbed the damaged skin fiercely as if it were the mark of shame to her body… tIll her image finally shatters in my mirror, till the snag on my stockings reappears in my horrified eyes.
I want everything to be perfect. I want to be his perfect girl.
She wanted everything to be perfect. She wanted to be his perfect girl.
Dong…Dong…Dong…Someone is knocking on the door…