A Matter of Tea
1. A Formal Affair
In Cambridge, English bone china.
A floral pot of black tea.
Delicate cups with saucers.
A bit of milk.
Cucumber sandwiches on bread. No crust.
Savory and sweet scones, perfectly shaped
and cooked until slightly browned,
soft and moist inside.
Clotted cream, better than butter, spread thick.
Topped with strawberry jam.
Our best behavior.
Windows overlooking the gray river.
Punting boats tied to a dock.
A scholarly place.
Steeped in tradition.
We ate and drank tea, my son and I,
wondering how he got here,
knowing it was where he belonged.
When he came home from China
he always brought tea.
“There is a process,” he said.
Holding a delicate box with red Chinese characters,
no instructions noted,
the dry leaves pungent.
A measured pinch dropped into the porcelain cup.
Hot water not quite boiling,
slowly poured to cover but not disturb.
“An infusion,” he explained, watching the water turn golden yellow.
A calming ritual.
Raising the cup and carefully sipping to not swallow the loose tea leaves.
“Repeat the steps, Mom.”
Passing the cup to me.
The liquid pale in comparison,
the tea bitter;
the shared practice sweet.
“There are many cups held in one,” he said.
Wet leaves on the bottom
waiting to be read.
3. The Gift
Grace was Chinese; petite, lovely,
small next to him.
Sparkling eyes observant and curious
exploring the unfamiliar.
He brought her home for Christmas, her first,
snow and deer prancing in the yard—
she believed they came for her.
She gave him a teapot he coveted
from the Beijing teashop, with a tin of Pu-erh.
An extravagant gift, full of love.
Together they poured water into the pot
curing it with precious leaves.
The clay turned dark.
A musky scent.
One pot dedicated to one tea.
One woman dedicated to one man.
A holiday cup shared.
He treasured the gift and the girl.
He made a choice.
He loved her
but sent her away.
The teapot remained, full of regret,
the tin of tea
a reminder of the sweet and bitter.
4. A Different Kind of Bitter
One bag for one cup.
A generic blend from
There is no ritual.
Just the tedium.
He walks in single file,
a sea of orange,
shoulders against the wall
three times a day for food.
A cement cell.
Plastic cup. Lukewarm water.
Punish and control.
His mind is garbled
but his heart is not.
He loves me, his mother.
I love him, no matter who he is.
I am bound by his condition.
A different kind of bitter
that can’t be washed away
no matter how hot the water
sitting solo at home
while my tea has gone cold.
At the hotel’s outside seating area,
on the fourth floor at dusk, my son and I
sit among buildings that tower above us.
Grackles by the hundreds—
devil birds the Texans call them,
lined up on the roof tops and ledges.
Migrating, homeless, following instincts now unfamiliar.
He does that. He's like them.
They gather like gangs, ranked higher and lower,
wing-to-wing in stationary formation; dissonant squawking.
Flocks in tight squadrons circle and return to the ledge.
Black and white spatters hit the streets below
like an endless Pollock painting.
No looking up, no looking down.
Defiant, like he is; living on the brink.
He plucks the strings of his guitar.
What song do you want?
I sing too.
In the dead of night.
Why are they here?
To learn to fly.
He thinks there is freedom on the edge.