Tea and Coffee
photo by Mandy Aw
One day, I got off the subway somewhere in between the edges of Manhattan and Queens. Crowds of people spilled neatly onto the platform like the lu cha my mother brewed in the early mornings. On those mornings when I was awake before she was, she would spot the telltale bags underneath my eyes that exposed my sleepless nights, and she would offer me some. I always declined, not as fond of the bitter drink as she was.
My mother loved her cups filled to the absolute brim. Sometimes I spotted tiny dregs of tea leaves floating on the surface of the steaming, liquid beige, and I itched to tell her to pour less. If she wasn’t careful she could end up burning her fingers, yet somehow—in the years I spent watching her sip away carefully while shifting through mildewed newspaper pages at our dining room table—it never happened. Her rouge-lined mouth would sometimes pucker like she was sucking on limes instead of cheap, watery green tea, but she downed it all the same.
Unlike my mother, coffee was my usual beverage of choice; I drank it almost religiously every morning just to keep my eyes open for another few hours. Coffee was a strange drink, even more so compared to tea; tea was milder, carries a floral, earthy scent, and it almost always was served near-scalding, because drinking cold tea really just wasn’t done. Coffee, on the other hand, was just like the duct tape I had once contemplated plastering over our roof’s leaky patches out of sheer desperation. It solved nothing, but it fooled my brain temporarily into believing that it eventually would, which was enough for me.
On that day, in particular, I held a vanilla iced coffee in one hand and a used single-ride MetroCard in the other, peering around at dirtied stone and glowing yellow lines. I was looking for something, although I wasn’t quite certain of what it was myself. Maybe I was hoping to glimpse a pair of shoes darting behind a tall pillar, or a stray hand palming at an umbrella’s printed flowers despite the skies being bluer than water outside. Something tangible, something to chase after endlessly without ever really intending to find because the journey could end up being more worth it than the final destination.
All I saw were people. They came in all shapes and sizes and colors, but not the ones that I unconsciously gravitated towards. Some chose to perch on benches while others balanced dangerously close to the edges of the platform. They toed the bumpy yellow plastic with placid expressions written across their faces, and some vague part of me wondered why. Maybe feeling the wind and gleaming metal roar by so close to your face was worth the risk of being one misstep away from a fatal mistake, but I would never know myself.
People-watching eventually grew old, and I glanced around the platform one last time, my half-baked curiosity growing dull. Damp cup in hand, I began to make my way up a flight of stairs, searching for the station’s mezzanine and hopefully a map of the city, too.
With each step I took, it felt like I was growing farther and farther away from what I set out to do in the first place; instead of exiting onto the platform with a firm plan in mind for what I wanted to accomplish today, my mind felt uncomfortably, emptily blank. I brushed it aside firmly, though. The rush of caffeine was the only thing keeping me afloat, and my mind was crammed chock-full with incorrect math formulas and blurry from insomnia. If there was one thing school had taught me, it was that certainty was fleeting and never guaranteed. With every mediocre test grade and homework assignment that I failed to turn in over the past few months, it only drifted farther away from my grasp.
Suddenly, I wondered what my mother was doing at that very moment. Maybe she was listening to the late-afternoon radio play in the kitchen while dicing up vegetables, or was she brewing a new pot of tea for herself instead? Whatever kind she chose, I hoped that she would add some sugar in for when I got home later that night to tone down the bitter edge slightly.
For some reason, I felt like sitting down at our dining room table with my mother just for the night. I wanted to feel warm and full like I once used to while reciting the times tables with my father in the first grade, more content than I ever did at the fancy specialized high schools I attended in Manhattan and never enjoyed. The dining room table, along with so many other places within my house, contained so many fond memories from the past that I had almost forgotten in my attempt to drown myself in coffee and mindless activity.
My mother would probably smile, mystified, wondering what on earth has gotten into me now, but still pour me a cup when I asked. I would pick out a few cubes of sugar and watch them melt in my cup, and we would drink our tea side-by-side, basking in each other’s presence for the first time in a long time. The thought of that cup waiting for me, the faint aroma of it mixing with my mother’s roasting vegetables and freshly-cooked rice when I stepped foot in the kitchen, filled me with expectant warmth.
I paused briefly just to toss my leftover iced coffee into a nearby garbage can. The leftover moisture coated my palms in a cold, sticky mess, but I ignored it, squeezing past the turnstile, and then I finally felt it: the cool breeze of the outside was waiting for me just outside of the subway station.
Pushing aside lingering thoughts of failed finals and brilliantly bright umbrellas for another day, I looked forward to the moment when I stepped into the sunlight, finally leaving the darkness of the tunnel behind me.