Joey picked up the coffee mug with both hands and took a cautious sip of the hot liquid. It was early spring 1999. He sat in the lobby of his father’s office building, looking out a wall of gleaming glass windows, staring at white blossoms from almond trees drifting down to the concrete like snow petals. It filled him with such disappointment, like a broken promise, the wind turning cold again like that, snatching away spring before it’d even had a chance.
Years later Joe only ordered hot tea when he had a sore throat. Today, the waitress brought it in a coffee mug. Holding the mug close to his face, allowing the steam to rise around his chin and nose, it brought him back. Spontaneous sense memory: the hot tea his mother had gotten for him off the lobby kiosk, sweetened with too much honey, a little thick in his 11-year-old throat. The taste came back to him every time he touched a hot cup. Maybe that was why he’d never developed a liking for coffee. Didn’t much care for hot chocolate either. He’d rather drink a Pepsi or a beer. But why this insistent flavor of tea lingering in his mouth? It was unimportant, wasn’t it?
He was in 5th grade that year. He liked his teacher, he liked his friends, his position on the little league team. He liked a girl too, maybe for the first time. “I dare you,” she’d said to him, and so he’d gone ahead, he gave it a shot, and he qualified for the school’s spelling bee team. His girl—the girl he liked—she’d made the team too—the two fifth grade reps. She claimed she only did because she wanted the turquoise polo shirt they got to wear, the shirt with the yellow embroidered tiger on the left breast pocket. She said she had “shirt envy,” but no more! Said she couldn’t wait. Neither could he.
He sips the tea now and remembers. The girl from 5th grade had green eyes and long dark brown hair, but he couldn’t remember her name. She lived in a house near the school. He had to pass it on his way home. “Our peach trees are blooming,” she said the day before. “Come over this summer and we’ll pick peaches. My mother will make pie.”
He didn’t remember her name. He never met her mother. He never ate pie with her. He never got a turquoise shirt with a yellow embroidered tiger.
“Did you get everything out of your closet?” his mother had asked him.
“What?” He looked away from the window, the white snow blossoms, the cold wind. His mother was there suddenly, grabbing his arm. “Did you?” she repeated it, but louder. “Did you get everything out of your closet?”
“We’re leaving,” she said with a firm finality. “Let’s go!”
He stood and trailed behind her. “What do you mean? Where are we going?”
“Away,” she said. “We’re going away.”
She stopped just outside the door and the wind stung Joey’s face. “I’ve done some bad things,” she said in a near whisper, “but I don’t deserve—and you don’t deserve—” She stopped speaking and took a deep breath. “We’re going somewhere safe,” she said. “Let’s go.”
And that was the memory that rose up with the hot cup, the sweet tea, the over-prompted fruit trees in bloom. Where are we going, when will we get there.
He spits the tea back into the cup now and signals the waitress for the check.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash