At the Novel-Tea teashop, the types of cups were as different and varied as the types of tea. It was all about the range of expression, you see. One could choose, should the mood arise, to drink Darjeeling out of a bright red teacup whose plate stared back with a pair of black eyes and whose handle looked like a pointy tail. One could also have iced ginger peach with a dab of honey in an exceedingly tall glass with a Russian metal glass-holder. Or a licorice flavored blend called “Southern Belle” in a green ceramic cup that had one white streak down the middle.
The variety was endless.
There were many shelves of teacups and no real order to where they were placed. They were used with varying degrees of frequency. And there was no telling when they would be removed from their shelves. So the teacups of Novel-Tea were moved quite often and wound up meeting different shelf-mates all the time.
It was a great way to meet new cups.
For four years—quite a long time in the life of a teacup—Charles sat on various shelves on the western side of the shop. He was a study little glass cup with a sturdy little glass saucer. Charles enjoyed the variety he was afforded as transparent glass. There were a few other glass cups in the shop but they were mostly translucent—some color or design making them cloudy. But as a result Charles was never moved far from the window on the western side of the shop.
From much experience he decided he was meant to be enjoyed in the sunlight with fragrant blends of white tea. His favorite was organic peony.
Every Tuesday afternoon, a tall young man with glasses reliably took Charles from the shelf to enjoy something calming—usually chamomile— while he graded papers. But one Tuesday afternoon, rather than sitting near the window, the young man took Charles all the way to the other side of shop, far in the back, only lit by the shop’s electricity, which Charles detested.
But Charles was excited regardless, because across from the young man there was a blonde woman with big earrings and a dark blue shirt. That meant Charles was going to have table conversation.
It was very rare that Charles ever got to talk to any cup other than whom he was shelved with. Now being on the other side of the shop, he had the opportunity to meet someone he’d never met before. The cup across from him was certainly one he’d never been shelved near.
The cup was in a strange way larger than him, but with a very tiny bottom that flared up dramatically. It had a small round that was pretty but looked in danger of tipping the deep, sharp red liquid inside. This cup was sitting on not one, but two floral, scallop-edged saucers. Additionally, all of his white ceramic was covered in ornate gilded patterns that looked vaguely European to Charles.
Good afternoon, Charles said, and further introducing himself. What’s your name?
For a cup so steamy, his response was a little cold. Erik, he said.
I’ve never been to this part of the shop. Do you like it over here?
Erik waited to respond until after he had been returned to his plate from the young woman’s lips. Charles could tell he was displeased with mark of lipstick marring the gold around his rim.
There’s nothing particularly special about it, I suppose.
Well, what about your shelf-mates over here? Are they nice?
There was an odd silence from Erik. If you don’t mind, I would rather not have small talk.
Charles was a little offended. He enjoyed talking to other cups, about anything really, but the handsome stranger wouldn’t give him the time of day. Well, Charles decided to keep to himself if that was how Erik wanted it.
But when the young man poured hot water over the little coiled ball of jasmine flower in Charles, and it unfurled and started to glow with color, Erik made a strange sound.
What? Charles said quite sharply.
There was a small clink of saucers. Nothing.
They sat in silence, uncomfortably aware of each but not talking, while the young man and the young woman finished their tea while Charles and Erik grew cold. It was a pretty disappointing evening in Charles’ estimation. Later, they were washed and put back on a shelf. For the first time ever Charles was shelved on the eastern side of the store, next to a short, wide weathered cup that was nearly yellow from where tea had stained all his cracks. But he was thick and durable and told harrowing stories of all the times he’d survived being dropped.
Before he drifted to sleep, Charles noticed that Erik had been placed on the highest shelf, quite away from most of the other cups.
Like clockwork, the following Tuesday afternoon, the young man with glasses returned and took Charles off the shelf for tea. Just as Charles was steeping some pale yellow flowers, the young blonde woman and Erik sat down on the other side of the table.
Hello again Charles said. It’s Charles. Remember me?
Erik clinked in surprise as the woman poured the pitcher of water over another bag of dark leaves that immediately started bleeding red and purple.
I’m—it’s good to see you again. I mean, of course, I remember you, Charles.
Charles didn’t doubt it.
In the week since their last meeting, Charles had been taken out for use several times. He’d been shelved next to new cups, sometimes more than once a day. But Erik had remained far away, untouched, on the top shelf the entire time.
You don’t get to come down from the shelf often, do you, Erik?
It could’ve been the blueberry tea staining his sides, but Charles was pretty sure Erik blushed. Not often, no.
It was understandable. Erik was quite attractive, almost intimidatingly so. But he was also deceptively delicate. They put him on the highest shelf to keep him from being broken, as he would very likely not survive a fall, but that also kept him from meeting any new cups.
I should apologize for last week. I’m not used to…
It was obvious the whole thing was embarrassing for Erik. If Charles were that intricately made, he would probably not want to admit to disuse either.
That’s quite alright. I’ll just have to tell you my stories when we meet down here.
And that’s how it worked for quite a long time.
Every week, Charles and Erik would have a chance to talk. Charles would tell him stories about who used him and what teas they had. He’d tell Erik stories from the other cups in the shop. They would talk about what teas they preferred. Sometimes the controversial stuff—iced tea, coffee mugs, that sort of thing.
Their routine became welcome familiarity that exceeded anything Charles had known for any other cups. Sometimes Erik called Charles my transparent darling. To which Charles responded by teasing him about his delicate patterns or calling him a gilded lily. Erik hated that, but never put an end to it.
Frankly, all Charles needed was to be warm and near to Erik.
When he confessed as much, Erik responded with I would rather break than have tea with anyone else.
After some time, however, the young man and the young woman stopped coming to the teashop every single Tuesday. They started to become unpredictable, stopping in Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings. Then Erik and Charles’ weekly meetings became biweekly, monthly, spread out over time that made Charles ache. Each time they were sat at the same table was wracked with the thought that it might be their last time together.
Charles waited and waited but the young man with glasses was nowhere to be found. His fear that they would never come back seemed to come true.
For a very long time—Charles stopped keeping track, stopped caring about who came in to use him and where the sunlight was—Charles would only see Erik as someone took him out for use, leaving Erik behind on the high shelf. Only a few people, it seemed, wanted to use Erik, but that hardly mattered when absolutely no one wanted to use Charles and Erik together.
Finally, one day, Charles was put in a box.
He couldn’t fathom why, but he didn’t very much care either. He was wrapped in paper so that everything was stifled and hushed. Then he was trapped in a box. It was dark. He wasn’t cold or warm, but with nothing to do or see it was almost easier to remember when he used to have tea with Erik.
It took some time, but he was being moved and jostled again. He was unwrapped and exposed to light again.
Charles thought he was imagining things because he saw the young man with glasses again. He was doing that thing that humans did where they had their mouths open, making sounds, but not drinking or eating anything. But they weren’t in the teashop anymore. Then Charles was sure he was delusional because he was placed on a table and saw familiar gold lines he thought he’d never see again.
Where are we?
Charles looked around the whole of the room. The familiar faces of the young man and Erik’s young woman were surrounded by strangers sitting on couches. They all had brightly colored boxes and were handing them over to the young man and the young woman.
I’m not sure, but we’re not at the teashop.
Does that mean we… we won’t be put on separate shelves anymore?
Oh Erik, I hope so.
Neither of them could believe their luck when Erik turned out to be right.
They were put away in a kitchen. There were fewer shelves and many fewer cups. There were glasses and mugs, but aside from them there was only a matched family of four blue teacups, that rested easily inside one another. Next to them was a cozy little space set aside for Charles and Erik in the cupboard.
Over the years, they were not taken out with excessive frequency, but only the young man and the young woman used Charles and Erik. And they were only ever used at the same time. Other cups came and went, but Erik and Charles remained. They got older, as did the young man and young woman. Erik’s white insides became stained and one of his saucers fell once and shattered to pieces. Charles never broke, but he did become a bit cloudy.
He was quite insecure about it, but Erik told him it only made him more mysterious.
But none of that mattered when everything they did—steeping, talking, sleeping in the cupboard—was next to each other.