The mountains, viewed from the back of a motorbike, had a dreamy look, mysteriously enveloped in low-hanging clouds. As the two girls wound their way up the mountain, the one riding pillion watched the areca palms become smaller and smaller, until they looked like furry matchsticks in the valley below. They were nearly in the clouds when they reached the hotel, a large but lonely exposed-brick building in an antique style. The massive wooden doors were left open and the shutters drawn up, allowing the mountain breeze to whistle through the hundreds of Japanese ceramic tea bowls arranged on shelves along the walls. Heavy wooden tables and well-varnished stools waited for banqueters to fill them.
Rose, the motorbike’s driver, led Vivian to the second story so that they could have some tea. The owner of this hotel, she had told Vivian, was a good friend of her father’s, and he was the one who had molded all the tea bowls. The cafe was airy and light, with views of the mountains on both sides. The hotel must have reached the peak of its popularity in the 1970’s because the style of that era remained, ferns and orchids trailing out of ceramic pots in earth tones. Each table was like a curio cabinet: a glass top revealed a shallow drawer filled with preserved acorns, nuts, tree seeds that looked more like underwater creatures, little flutes, and small ceramic pieces, all precisely arrayed. Concealing the entrance to the cafe was a shelf full of records dating back to the sixties. The melancholy voice of one of those singers spun out from the record player.
Strangely, the cafe was deserted except for two workers: a waitress and her son. It was as if they had stumbled into some enchanted palace, a place that, once they departed, they wouldn’t be able to reach again.
Rose went behind the bar to look for the tea, picking out some pots and cups as well, but the waitress followed after her and made different choices. The waitress was the solid, capable type, just coming out of her prime, dressed in sandals, shorts, and a T-shirt. The long, ropy muscles of her arms were revealed as she reached overhead to pull down two tea cups, tiny and white with scalloped edges, and a small unglazed teapot. She shooed Rose out from behind the bar as she began to season the pot with hot water.
The girls went to sit at the table to await her service, gazing silently at the mountains in the meantime.
Vivian felt Rose had something on her mind, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to tease it out of her, so their conversation instead lingered on trivial details—the loveliness of the scenery, the alien appearance of the plants in the garden—as Rose compulsively played with the buttons on her skirt.
“Do you ever feel like—well, it’s quite strange, what’s in my head,” Rose began, but then was cut off by the appearance of the waitress carrying the teapot and the two tiny cups on a tray. Rose placed them at the head of the table and arranged them carefully on its surface.
She poured the tea from a high angle, using the tips of her fingers to balance the lid. Her gestures were so elegant, as if she were sweeping back invisible trailing sleeves, as if she were clothed in a garment so fine it was imperceptible.
The fragrance was stronger than anything Vivian had experienced before, the taste like drinking perfume.
When Vivian looked up from her cup at Rose,
expecting to find her delight mirrored, she found herself being scrutinized instead. As she looked into those liquid eyes, they quickly melted, and two tears dropped into the tea.
“It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to a friend, to anyone besides my parents or co-workers. Is that horrible?” Rose asked in an unwavering voice.
“No, it’s not. You just need to talk more,” Vivian said before looking away; the beseeching look Rose had on her face was too intense. They lapsed back into silence.
“Let’s go have a look outside.” She drained her cup and pulled a face when she discovered the flavor was more astringent than at first taste.
Sitting on the balcony and gazing out at the town in the valley below, Rose seemed itching to speak, while Vivian was unready to hear what she would say. In the pictures hanging on the walls of the hotel, pictures dating back four decades, snow had fallen on the mountain, and there was little in the valley other than areca palm farms.
“All I can see down there is that bowl slowly filling with more people, more buildings. Do you think it will be like that soon? The whole valley covered? All that mess, all those people. I don’t want to be buried in it.
I’d rather just be dead,” Rose said. Vivian imagined a change in the waitress’ tea ceremony: in place of the tea was bleach, and they both inhaled its chemical fragrance before entwining their arms and forcing the cups to each other’s lips. Vivian let Rose wear herself out talking about suicide and other fantasies until the valley darkened.
“Come on, let’s go. I want to get back before the sun sets,” Rose said at last.
While they were riding down the mountain, Vivian turned back to watch the hotel become a distant speck and then disappear. She tried to seize onto some landmark that would help her remember her way back but came out with nothing. When she left, she knew she wouldn’t be able to return. Rose was like that, too.
One day, she wouldn’t be there anymore. And she’d have to remember her as best she could.