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"Surprise Party" by Kait Leonard

Glorianne stared into Gavin’s vacant eyes. “Don’t go, my love,” she whispered, willing her words to bring him back to her.

She felt the air stir around her, as he left on the wings of an angel.

JoJo popped her earbuds out. If she transcribed one more word of this nonsense, she might jump out her front window. And given her luck, she’d only crush some bones. A stay in the hospital in traction had its appeal, but she knew her boss, Cameron, would expect her to keep typing from her hospital bed. JoJo needed to ask for a raise. She’d been putting it off for at least two years. She should work on her resume. Instead, she’d brew a cup of tea.

Her cushy slippers swish-swashed her down the hallway. But at the kitchen counter, with her beloved teaware in front of her, she moved with the precision of a surgeon. She set the kettle to exactly 99 degrees and measured precisely four grams of rolled oolong leaves into her little gaiwan, a traditional Chinese pot made of fine red clay. When the kettle beeped, she poured hot water over her cup to warm it. Then she rinsed the leaves. Finally, she filled the gaiwan, covered the pot and sang the Happy Birthday song, as she did every day because it took exactly the right amount of time for the first steeping. Today she was careful to sing at her normal pace. She didn’t want the fact that it was actually her birthday to throw her off and ruin her tea.

“Happy birthday to me,” she finished, and then she poured her tea.

JoJo smiled, lifted the cup to her nose, and inhaled. Closing her eyes, she sipped and allowed herself to dissolve into this space of ancient trees. She floated through air perfumed with ripe fruit, honey fresh from the hive, mulch and tree bark wet from the rain.

JoJo wanted to sit on her favorite floor cushion, the magenta faux silk with the elephant appliqué on the front, and practice her tea meditation. But she needed to pay rent. Anyway, it would probably be difficult to meditate with the not-surprise party looming. Plunging into the adventures of Glorianne would at least keep her occupied. She poured another cup and shuffled back to her desk.

Glorianne refused to let the loss of her true love get her down. She wasn’t the kind of lady who’d let a tragedy break her. So she took a deep breath, threw her lavender shawl around her shoulders, and went out into the summer evening. The promise of adventure tugged at her.

JoJo sipped her tea. The only thing worse than this novel was the last one. And the only thing more stressful than birthday parties were surprise parties, especially those that weren’t surprises. Now on top of the usual anxiety she felt at the very thought of an evening of conversation, she had to worry about delivering a perfect performance so her friends could feel good about pulling off such a coup. Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to me. She drank the last of her tea without tasting it.

* * *

When Samantha had phoned a couple of weeks before her birthday, JoJo’d suspected that something was up. If it hadn’t been for shared friends, JoJo guessed they would have drifted apart after graduating from college. Still, when Samantha suggested meeting at an upscale British-style tea house on the west side, JoJo thought it might be an early birthday outing. She couldn’t think of any other reason since Samantha referred to tea traditions as “snooty and pretentious.”

They’d sat at a little table covered with a cloth the color of mint ice cream. The Bramble and Rose served a touristy version of high tea and had trunks filled with feather boas, gloves, and all kinds of outlandish hats for customers to wear. Samantha told JoJo to order, since it all tasted like Lipton anyway, and she rushed over to try on the feathered finery.

When the tea arrived, JoJo poured it for them both and watched Samantha stir three spoonfuls of sugar into hers, taste it, and wrinkle her nose. She pushed the cup aside and took a drink from her water glass.

“Nika’s planning a surprise birthday party,” Samantha said, plopping a pillbox hat on her head and swishing the ends of her pink boa. “I mean, it only seems right to tell you. I know how much you hate parties. I can’t imagine what Nika’s thinking.”

JoJo sipped, trying to collect her thoughts. She couldn’t argue exactly. She did hate parties. But it wasn’t Samantha’s place to blow it for Nika. Still, she couldn’t be sure she’d find the exact right way to express what she needed to say, and as always, the time for speaking passed by.

Samantha peeled white lace gloves off her hands and placed two cucumber sandwiches and a pink square of cake on her flowered china plate.

JoJo spooned clotted cream and a lemon curd dab onto a scone and took a bite, following the tangy sweetness with a drink of the black tea. The gentle bitterness of the beverage blended with the lingering sweetness in her mouth but didn’t lessen her annoyance.

* * *

“Happy Birthday,” JoJo said to her reflection in the mirror.

In black yoga pants, sea-blue tunic, and a whiskey-colored scarf circling her throat, she decided she looked okay. Not amazing. Not Wow! But maybe not forty either. She fluffed her shoulder-length hair that was neither curly nor straight and considered that she might need a style update. How mid-life, she thought, grabbing her keys and sunglasses. She needed to pick up her dry cleaning so she’d be properly dressed for the party she knew nothing about. And after that, she’d drive downtown and take herself to The Owl and Tortoise, her favorite tearoom. That at least would make her birthday afternoon perfect.

After cruising the packed lot of the strip mall where her one and only semi-nice dress was being held hostage, she parked at a curb marked for passenger loading. She got out and glanced up and down the street. No cop car to be seen.

Over an hour later, finally sitting at her favorite table with a cup and teapot, and a small hourglass to time the steeping in front of her, JoJo glared at the ticket sticking out of her open purse. One hundred and fifty dollars for a loading zone! It would take an entire day of transcribing to pay the ticket, and she felt irrationally angry at her handbag and at the sand flowing much too slowly through the hourglass. Finally, she jostled the timer and poured her tea. She brought the cup close to her lips and paused to breathe. Closing her eyes, she pictured the ancient trees these leaves had come from.

Her fantasy of walking through old-growth forests was interrupted when Tati, the owner, arrived at the table with a bowl of boiled peanuts and a small plate of rice cakes and dried fruit.

“For you, Miss Jo” she said, making a slight bow, as her mentor had taught her to do.

Tati’s strawberry curls and throat adorned with gardenia tattoos never seemed more out of place than when she bowed. She looked like she should be in an art studio, splashing colors onto a huge canvas, or perhaps sitting in a downtown bar writing poetry. But JoJo had attended Tati’s formal tea ceremonies and didn’t question her rightness in this place.

“Thank you, Tati.”

Tati remained still.

JoJo looked at her, not knowing what to say. Tati never intruded on customers’ time with their tea. She had been trained better than that.

“May I ask how you like the puerh?”

JoJo glanced at her cup. She almost said something like “It’s fine, really lovely,” but those were not the right words. She brought the cup under her nose letting the fragrance drift into her mind. She sipped, breathing out through her nose to get the full experience.

She opened her eyes to find Tati examining her face.

“It’s different,” JoJo said, then added, “more floral but not exactly.” She sipped again. “Like roses but not. More like a breeze blew rose petals across the leaves.”

JoJo quickly looked into her cup, feeling her cheeks warm.

“You give words to the heart of the leaves,” Tati said. “This tea is from a tiny family farm in Yunnan province. It’s rumored that the old grandfather places batches of tea leaves near flowers or other aromatics. They say he does this to expose his son-in-law’s inability to produce the highest quality tea, but each time the result is so special that the old grandfather is forced to swallow his criticisms.” Tati smiled her nun’s smile. “Most people don’t appreciate what they’re drinking. They want this tea because it’s famous, but they don’t taste its spirit.”

“I don’t see how they could miss it.”

“It’s simple, really.” Tati nodded for emphasis. “Most people are not in love with the tea. They don’t share its soul.”

Before JoJo could reply, Tati repeated her small bow and walked toward the kitchen. * * *

At home, JoJo stood at her front window, watching the gulls glide on invisible currents. The guy in the apartment directly across from hers worked on a laptop at his kitchen table, as he did every day. Now and then, one of them would catch the other looking and raise their cup in greeting. Today, he appeared to be absorbed in whatever filled his screen. He’d moved in just over a year ago, yet they had crossed paths on the street only a handful of times, each time awkward, as if they hadn’t agreed to breech their territory lines.

The conversation at the tea room had left JoJo unsettled. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt she’d been told a secret or like Tati’s words had been code for something deeper. But JoJo couldn’t get a hold of it. Like trying to remember a dream that’s already faded.

She glanced at her watch, not even four o’clock. She wished it were time to get ready. Then she remembered the parking ticket that wasn’t going to pay itself and figured she could kill some time and make some money.

Walking quickly past the mouth of a dark ally, Glorianne heard soft movements coming from the shadows. She paused. What if someone needed her help? “Hello,” she called out, brave and unafraid. A small tabby kitten wobbled toward her. Glorianne looked into the sky and felt Gavin looking down at her. “Thank you,” she said, scooping up her bundle of love.

JoJo stopped typing and threw her earbuds on her desk. If her 33-year-old self could have pictured sitting here on her fortieth birthday still listening to the adventures of the glamorous, gregarious and sometimes gritty Glorianne, she would have jumped into the ocean and swum for the horizon. She’d accepted this gig thinking it would keep her afloat until she figured out what to do with an English degree. The answer to that question continued to evade her.

She could work in a bookstore somewhere. But Cameron paid double what she’d get in retail. Anyway, the idea of talking to people all day didn’t appeal. In theory, JoJo loved language and fantasized about writing. But she had a hard enough time finding her voice in day-to-day conversations. When she tried to write anything, she’d work on a simple sentence for hours.

Now and then during a tea meditation, she believed she remembered a time, back before her mother died, when words flowed between them, sometimes like the stream behind their house, other times more like the waves of the ocean. But perhaps those images came from the tea more than from her past. She couldn’t know.

JoJo pushed herself away from her desk. Between her growing birthday not-surprise-party anxiety and a kind of funk she blamed on turning forty, she couldn’t face more Glorianne. She needed a long soak in a hot tub.

* * *

JoJo sank back and closed her eyes. The thought of faking sick crossed her mind. But even though they didn’t see each other as much since Nika had opened her marketing agency, JoJo still considered Nika her closest friend. They had bonded in college, both new to the big city, both trying to figure out where they fit. Eventually, Nika recognized how difficult it was for JoJo to speak up in class, especially when put on the spot. Nika started jumping in with some random comment, distracting the professor and giving JoJo time to come up with something to say or ditch the whole thing with a trip to the bathroom. The two just fit together like that. Nika spoke up when JoJo couldn’t, and JoJo accepted Nika for who she was. Back then our women still faced a lot of ugliness, and Nika seemed to get it that JoJo accepted her fully.

JoJo breathed in the scent of sandalwood bath oil, willing the tension out of her neck and shoulders. As she relaxed, her mind drifted to the tea-room and Tati. She wondered how old Tati was. In her harem pants and wrinkled linen tops, she looked like an original hippie chick, but her perfect skin and strawberry curls that danced down her back put her closer to thirty. Her manner spoke of someone beyond age. The tea master who trained Tati had been like that too, not ageless but outside time somehow. What was Tati like when she’d started working at the tea room? She must have been special for the old man to take her in the way he had, especially since she was an outsider, an American.

“Most people are not in love with the tea,” JoJo whispered Tati’s words and then tasted her own lips as if she would find a breath of rose petals.

She’d loved tea since she went to live with her grandma after her mother died, just a few months before her sixth birthday. JoJo would sit right next to her grandma on the porch swing on Saturday afternoons, listening to the wind chimes making fairy sounds in the breeze. They drank sweet tea with mint leaves from the garden.

“The sugar protects from sour feelings,” her grandma would say. “Letting those feelings out helps too.” Using the tips of her toes, her grandma kept the swing swaying lightly, like a cradle.

JoJo drank the syrupy tea and watched the bees flit around the marigolds that lined the path to the street. She knew her grandma wanted her to talk about how sad she felt, but her mouth didn’t make the words.

“Remember when your papaw shook that can of root beer and then pulled the tab? That’s what happens when stuff gets bottled inside us,” her grandma explained.

But JoJo didn’t speak. She didn’t want to disappoint her grandma, but she wouldn’t betray her mother, like the people at the funeral did. JoJo hated their words — beautiful, kind, loving. Words for any mother, but not JoJo’s. Her mother was bigger than the dead mother everyone talked about.

Her mother wrinkled her eyebrows when she read JoJo’s homework, even when she liked it.

“That’s my concentrating face, honey,” she would say. “You did great!” she’d add, even when she meant that JoJo had more work to do.

And JoJo’s mother made really yucky spaghetti every single Friday. And she on purpose steered her bike down the middle of the road and once yelled at the neighbor who shot a raccoon. But at the funeral all the words talked about her sick mother or the mother living in heaven. JoJo hated those funeral words, and she hated that mother who wasn’t hers.

JoJo wanted to scream at them to stop talking, but without her mother by her side, she couldn’t find her words.

As time passed, JoJo grew to treasure the afternoons with her grandmother on the swing drinking sweet tea. Her grandma told stories about when her mother was little, real stories about a girl who was sometimes naughty and sometimes funny and sometimes sad. And she quit pressing her to talk about her feelings.

Many years after her grandma’s sweet tea, JoJo stumbled into the little teahouse on the northern edge of downtown. Back then Tati apprenticed to the old man who owned the shop. On that first day, JoJo entered the dimly lit main room and sat on a cushion at a low, wooden table. Being there felt like being in a museum or a church. The other customers spoke softly, their hushed voices combining with the tinkling of water flowing over the metal fountain in the corner.

The tea master arrived with a tray holding a cup and a gaiwan. He knelt across from her and set everything in place. His gray hair, knotted at the nape of his neck, and his lined face seemed out of keeping with his perfect posture. The combination made him look outside of age, like that mortal concept did not apply to him.

Without words, the tea master served JoJo. Through gesture, he taught her to hold the gaiwan in one hand, positioning the lid so it blocked the leaves from escaping as the tea flowed into the tiny cup. Tati stood respectfully behind him, watching, learning. He waited as JoJo took her first sip of oolong. She swallowed too quickly, but even so, the bouquet of flavors enthralled her. With a smile in his eyes, the old man rose, made a small bow with his head, and he left her to her tea.

JoJo went to the tearoom as often as she could afford. She tasted every kind of tea, rock oolong, aged white, old-growth purple. She loved them all, and she treasured the quiet of the space. Over time, Tati or the old tea master helped her learn to drink the tea in a way that brought out even more complexity. Eventually, when the old man passed away, Tati inherited the space and subtly made it her own, bringing in some Western herbal teas and even providing sugar if customers insisted. Sometimes it seemed Tati had accepted responsibility for the teahouse so the spirit of the old master would have a home.

You give words to the heart of the leaves.

JoJo jerked up, as if she’d been on the verge of sleep and dreamt of falling off a cliff. Now tepid water sloshed over the edge of the tub.

Had she been asleep? She wasn’t sure. But she didn’t have time to ponder. She had to go be surprised.

* * *

Standing outside Nika’s apartment, JoJo fluffed her hair and smoothed the skirt of her dress to be sure it wasn’t clinging to her tights. She heard movement from inside. She didn’t want to knock too early in case they were still hiding. She pulled her phone out to check the time and saw she had a message from Samantha.

They know you know. Shrug-shoulders emoji.

JoJo stared at the screen, rereading the text. She couldn’t move, not to knock, not to turn and leave, not to text back a middle finger emoji. Samantha had single-handedly ruined her surprise party and destroyed the fun for Nika and the others. JoJo looked back to her phone and noticed her hand shaking.

She’d call from the car and tell Nika she had a migraine. Nika would understand and forgive. JoJo didn’t want to see Samantha, but she realized it was more than that. She didn’t trust what she might say, or worse, what she might not be able to say. Better to skip the party, she thought as the door to the apartment swung open.

“JoJo!” Nika said. “Birthday girl! I thought I heard something out here. Come in. Everyone’s waiting for you.”

JoJo looked from Nika’s smiling eyes to the room beyond. Their handful of shared friends and a smattering of partners and a couple of unknown plus-ones stood clustered around the dining table which seemed to be piled with food. She didn’t see Samantha.

Nika glanced back into the room, following JoJo’s stare.

“What’s the matter, J? You don’t have to pretend to be surprised. Samantha came clean,” Nika said, reaching for her arm.

JoJo allowed herself to be led into the room where “Happy Birthday” calls went up accompanied by raised glasses.

“Sorry, I don’t have tea,” Nika said. “But I’ve got a very nice pinot grigio with your name on it.” Nika held out the bottle, her raised eyebrows waiting for the go-ahead to pour.

Glass in hand, JoJo made her way to the table. Her smile felt stiff, and she worked to smooth the furrow between her brows.

“So Birthday Girl, how’s mid-life?” Nika’s partner, Luz, said before chomping into a celery stalk filled with something pasty.

“So far, so good,” JoJo lied.

A couple of people chuckled.

“JoJo’s been middle-aged her whole life,” Samantha chimed in as she entered from the hallway. “Romance novels and tea, all she needs is a cat.”

JoJo felt her jaw tighten. She wanted to scream and throw food in Samantha’s face. But she couldn’t move.

“Oh stop, Sam,” Luz said. “We can’t all haunt the clubs every night like you do. The rest of us aren’t kids anymore.”

A few laughs circled the table, and conversations started back up. Samantha didn’t respond.

To escape small talk and Samantha, JoJo migrated to the front window. Nika’s apartment overlooked a tiny community park that had been abandoned by everyone except occasional construction workers and a few people drifting between a nearby homeless encampment and a little diner that set out leftover food. Tonight, under the halo from the streetlamp, a man sat cross-legged on top of the picnic table. Waves of gray hair fell to his shoulders, making him appear elderly, but his straight back suggested vitality. JoJo strained to see what he was doing. From this distance, he appeared to be looking right at her.

“So I guess I’m not good at secrets,” Samantha said, hip-bumping a greeting.

JoJo held her glass out in an effort to protect her dress from the sloshing wine.

“No, I guess not,” JoJo said, returning to the man across the street. She knew it was an illusion created by the lamplight and distance, but she would have sworn he hovered just above the picnic table. The hairs on her arms prickled. He did seem to look back at her, as if trying to find and hold her gaze.

“I had to tell them. They were so excited. Strategizing about where to hide. It was getting very complicated.”

Was he holding something? JoJo leaned toward the glass, as if those inches brought her closer to understanding.

“Are you listening,” Samantha said.

He continued to look in her direction, and with both hands, he raised something to his mouth. A small bowl or a cup? He sipped and then held out the drink like a salutation.

“JoJo,” Samantha demanded.

When JoJo finally turned, Samantha stood with hand on hip, glaring. JoJo glanced back toward the man. He seemed so familiar.

Samantha clicked her fingers in front of JoJo’s face.

JoJo turned slowly, a pressure drumming in her ears, her face hot. She registered the hand poised in air, ready to click again, the haughty expression melting as Samantha seemed to read her mood.

“Hey, J, just having some birthday fun,” Samantha said.

“Are you having fun?” JoJo asked.

Samantha smiled and opened her mouth, then quickly clamped it shut.

JoJo glanced out the window. The old man slowly bowed his head and then raised his sparkling eyes to hers. JoJo felt as if she knew him, as if she had always known him. She turned back to Samantha, who wouldn’t meet her eyes, glancing out the window then looking toward the hall like she might bolt for the bathroom.

“Why’d you work so hard to ruin this party?” JoJo felt the tightness in her jaw and eyes.

Samantha shot a look toward the others still standing around the table.

“I did it for you,” she finally said, flashing her Hollywood smile. “You hate parties.”

“I didn’t ask for your help,” JoJo said, the floodgate now open. “And does Nika hate them too? Because you seemed Hell bent on ruining it for her as well.”

“I can’t believe you,” Samantha said, shoving her fists on her hips. “I’ve been trying to be a good friend. That’s all.” She paused and added “You’re welcome.”

“I didn’t thank you,” JoJo said. “You’ve been petty and mean for as long as I’ve known you, Samantha. Your whole rebel routine might have been edgy and interesting back in college. But we only tolerate you now out of habit. Grow up.”

JoJo took a slow breath and looked to the old man.

He hovered over the table, raised his cup in her direction, an offering, a toast.

JoJo smiled and responded with a small bow.

Ignoring Samantha, she joined the others at the table.

Nika came from the kitchen, holding a cake with matcha dusted on the white frosting. Golden candles blazed on top. Everyone sang. JoJo took a moment to get her wish just right, and with as much gusto as she had, she blew out every single flame.

* * *

The next morning, JoJo woke before the sun had fully risen and started the kettle. From the very top shelf of her little pantry, she selected a pressed cake of aged white tea. A gift from the old tea master before he passed away. She’d been saving it for the perfect occasion. Now she held the disc up to her nose and breathed in the scent of apricot brandy and marshmallow fluff and wet river rocks. With her tea knife, she broke leaves from the cake and added them to her gaiwan.

“Happy birthday to me,” she sang out loud, giving the leaves time to release their subtle flavors.

She poured the tea into a porcelain lotus cup and went to sit on her meditation cushion. She sipped slowly, the complexity of tastes to interacting with all parts of her mouth. She closed her eyes, letting herself wander through the experience. In her stillness, she saw her true mother, not the one preparing to die. She tasted the sugar sweetness of afternoons on her grandmother’s porch. She remembered her awe the first time she watched the tea master prepare tea. And she saw the old man levitating above the table in a halo of light offering her his cup.

When she opened her eyes, she remained still, as the present moment formed around her. She cleared her tea set and stood at the window. Fluffy white clouds hung in the bluing sky. It would be a lovely day.

A movement from across the street caught her eye. Her neighbor held his coffee cup up in a morning toast. JoJo smiled and finger waved. He laughed. Even from this distance, JoJo could see that his whole face lit up with his laughter. She’d never noticed that before. He pointed to his computer and shrugged. JoJo responded in kind.

At her desk, she composed an email to Cameron. She needed that long overdue raise. JoJo had anticipated that it might be hard to send the email, but it wasn’t. She checked the clock. Barely seven. The tearoom wouldn’t be open yet. Perfect.

She dialed Tati’s number.

“I have an idea to update your webpage and add a blog,” JoJo said. “I don’t have a portfolio but if you let me write the first post, I’ll show what I can do.” She held her breath.

Tati’s laugh transported JoJo back to a time when crystal wind chimes played the background music to afternoons drinking sweet tea.

Kait Leonard's fiction has been published in Inlandia, Six Sentences, Every Day Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She is a staff writer for The Canyon Chronicle newspaper and also contributes articles on aging, psychology, and homelessness to online publications. Kait is currently in the MFA program at Antioch University and shares her Los Angeles home with five parrots and her gigantic American bulldog.

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