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Wanderer's Teahouse

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A secret is this: Taehyung presses the porcelain rim of a scalding cup of coffee to his pursed lips each morning to help relieve himself of sleep’s lingering embrace. He prefers it this way. He has a cup first thing before he can fully open his eyes, hair still a mussed mess, artfully molded by his pillowcase. He takes it black most days, an exception being on Sundays when he wakes up quite a bit later and indulges in a dash of almond milk and a hint of raw honey.

He removes the earthy taste from his teeth and tongue with peppermint toothpaste after allowing himself one cup. Just one - and its into the shower, out the door and into the world of tea.

 

Wanderer’s Teahouse

 

The truth is this: Taehyung did not always like tea. In fact, there was a time when he refused to drink it at all. His grandmother, a traditional tea ceremony teacher in her younger years, kept a collection in her kitchen quite a ways from the loud and illuminated city that Taehyung called home. Her house was old and small, just like she was, and full of clutter in the form of books, paintings, family belongings and tokens of love. Just like she was. Little Taehyung loved to run across the squeaky wooden floors and into her arms as soon as he was dropped off. She smelled like cinnamon and dust and rose perfume as he took to hiding underneath her skirts whenever his parents came to pick him up again.

The two had teatime together, her pouring a lukewarm and weak infusion of jasmine (her favorite) into a small teacup just the right size for his pudgy little hands, and him bringing it up to his little lips to take a little sip.

“But Grandma,” Taehyung (her favorite) would say, “it tastes like grass!”

So she took to filling up the teapot with water and juice and they both pretended it was tea. They were happy this way.

 “Taehyung,” she said to him one afternoon, Taehyung’s favorite time of day, because it was just the two of them, “You have such a wandering mind.”

It was true. The child’s eyes had been bright and alert fresh from the womb, startling the doctors and intriguing passersby as he watched from his stroller. But even as Taehyung grew, his attention span did not. He’d run around her home, opening books and asking her to read them to him. Hardly a chapter in, he’d become engrossed in the other side of the world as he spun a wooden globe situated between his little legs. His grandmother watched him happily and smiled to hide the fact that she was growing tired.

“Is that bad?” He asked her with wide eyes.

“No,” she said, smoothing the nape of his neck where hair met skin. “Just make sure you remember to let your heart find a home.”

Taehyung wasn’t sure what she meant, but it sounded important so he promised to remember as he stuck out his empty cup for more tea-juice.

 

*

 

One bright spring day, Taehyung’s grandmother heard a yelp coming from her vegetable garden. She quickly removed her hands from the pot full of rice and water and wiped them on her apron. Moving to the back door of her home, she opened it and shouted into the direction of the commotion. “Taehyungie are you okay?”

“Grandma, come here!” she heard him but did not see. As she made her way toward the sound, squinting her eyes against the bright sun, the stripes of Taehyung’s blue and white shirt began to form against the thick green leaves of her garden.

“What are you doing hunched over in there?” she asked him as she approached.

He pulled himself up from the plants and dirt and showed her; in his arms he held a tiny orange and white ball of fluff.

“Oh, my!” She approached the boy and the kitten.

“Can we keep it?” pleaded Taehyung. “Pleaseeeeee?”

“He, or she, could belong to someone, Taehyungie. We have to try to find the owner.” But upon closer inspection, she saw that the kitten could only open one amber eye. It was probably a stray, the thought, injured and afraid, the poor thing.

Taehyung frowned for a moment in thought. “But if not, if we can’t find them, then can we keep it, please? I already have so many ideas for what to name him… or her!”

It was a him, and after many FOUND – ORANGE KITTEN neighborhood postings, calls to shelters and visits to the vet, Tobi the one-eyed kitten became a part of their little family.

Taehyung’s grandmother took the new addition as a chance to teach Taehyung about responsibility. Cleaning the cat litter was his job on the days when he came over and with his allowance he bought toys and treats for the kitten. Taehyung, in return, attempted to teach little Tobi tricks. “He’s not a dog, Taehyung,” his grandmother would say. “You can’t teach a cat tricks!” But Taehyung insisted Tobi knew what to do, he simply just didn’t want to do it.

But one day, Tobi taught Taehyung a lesson.

Spots of blood trailed from the front door across the freshly swept wooden floor and into the living room.

“Tobi, what did you do?” Taehyung yelled when he saw the mess. In Tobi’s mouth lay a small baby bunny, grey fur matted with blood. To Taehyung’s horror, the cat spat the tiny corpse to the ground and began to paw at it.

“No!” Taehyung screamed and his grandmother rushed into the room. She clicked her tongue at the sight of the mess and Taehyung began to cry.

“Shh,” she quieted him. “No need to cry, Taehyung. He’s a cat. He was just bringing us back a gift, it’s what they do.”

She swept the dead animal into a dustpan and shuffled off to dispose of it until a cry of “no!” stopped her in her tracks. Her teary eyed grandson looked up at her. “We have to bury it,” he said, and she nodded.

 Taehyung was calmed by the short ceremony for the fallen rabbit at the claws of his own beloved pet, but he did not forgive Tobi so easily. No, for the rest of the day, the boy ignored the cat as well as anyone can ignore a cat. That is to say, not very well at all.

“How long is this going to go on?” asked his grandmother as she sipped a cup of ginseng tea.

Taehyung just shrugged into his own cup and looked back at the small, fuzzy television set. The 12-year-old had since abandoned his juice mixture for real, honest-to-goodness tea. He still wasn’t sure that he cared for it all that much, but it made his grandmother happy so he drank it deliciously.

“If you really love this cat,” she continued, “you will learn to accept his true nature.”

Taehyung furrowed his eyebrows in resistance. In his mind, however, he turned her words over and over until his parents came to pick him up. One foot out the door and he whipped around to run back into the house.

His mother frowned “Taehyung, what are you –“

“I have to say goodbye to Tobi!” He found the cat lounging on a windowsill between freshly potted herbs and bent down to kiss it between the ears. Tobi blinked contentedly.

 

*

 

Taehyung’s first experience with death would be his last for fourteen years. His grandmother died as she had lived, in peace and with minimal suffering, leaving a lasting impression on all who had known her. The year Taehyung said goodbye to his grandmother was the same year he opened the doors of Wanderer’s Teahouse to the public. The old woman played favorites until the very end, leaving most of her belongings and what little she had saved up to her Taehyung. In her memory, he decorated the small but quaint shop with her things. Her paintings hung on the wall, a wooden globe sat on a low coffee table between couches, stacks of her books rested on shelves and end tables behind signs propped up by little figurines that read Take What You Need and potted plants, still thriving, sat on windowsills through out the room. Her various eclectic and beautiful tea sets decorated high shelves behind the counter, as Taehyung opted to order new teapots and cups for his customers – ones that could be broken.

And many were. In fact, his very first (and only) customer on the shop’s opening day returned their sky blue pot with a chipped spout, and Taehyung accepted it graciously from the old man’s hands before dumping the soggy tealeaves into an empty trash.

But these chipped teapots are the price Taehyung has paid for becoming a community staple. During the day, Wanderer’s Teahouse’s comforting walls attract customers of all types – businessmen on midmorning breaks with their cellphones pressed endlessly to their ears, old ladies huddled together in sewing circles, young mothers pushing strollers in tandem, old men who arrive early in the morning and do not leave until late at night (this group makes Taehyung particularly sad, and he always offers them extra scones) and the night crowd: high school and university students studying over a strong pot of black, nervous men and women on first dates awkwardly coming to agreements over a tea for two, and families stopping in for a quick cup to go after dinner and before heading home - all are welcomed by the smiling young man behind the counter.

Taehyung grew into his big brown eyes (quite handsomely as the sewing circle ladies often point out) but never did quite grow into his ears, which are now pierced for that very reason, and he can never decide on a suitable color for his hair, so this month it is orange.

Orange like the fluffy ball of a cat that can be found sitting between potted plants on windowsills, or asleep under chairs and tables, or stretched out along the back of a comfy couch. A sign in the window reads A CAT LIVES HERE, YOU’RE JUST VISITING and in his old age, Tobi has become a sort of mascot for the teahouse. He allows the lonely old men to stroke his fur and plays with the loose string hanging from sewing baskets. He ignores young children when they come screaming at him, arms outstretched, and prances around the feet of the young couples, showing himself off as they smile at the cat and at each other.

“Where’s Tobi?” the regulars sometime ask, and Taehyung points to the upstairs apartment, where he and Tobi have made their home.

It’s a simple life for him, living above the bustling teashop, but the capable young man needs help sometimes, so he found it in the form of a young man named Jungkook. As a student, he comes after classes and on weekends to serve tea and bake scones for a little extra cash and is adored by the customers just as much, if not more, than Taehyung.

“How’s school going, dear, still dealing with that pill of a teacher?” the adoring old ladies ask him. Jungkook always nods and tells them he’s doing well. “You should meet my granddaughter,” one of them says, “She’s so smart and pretty!”

As she walks away, her friend comes up behind her. “Don’t listen to her,” she whispers loudly across the counter, “She doesn’t wear her glasses like the doctor tells her, her granddaughter could stop an elephant in its tracks with a look!”

Taehyung smiles as he watches the interactions and pours jasmine green into one of his grandmother’s old cups. It’s a ritual for him, a way of saying thank you.  It’s a simple and respectable life, and Taehyung is content.

 

*

 

It began like this: Ever since he was a child, Hoseok was afraid of forgetting, and thus, he was obsessed with remembering. This was both lucky and a shame, because history slipped through the young boy’s mind like loose change through a pocket hole.

Before little Hoseok could write he used his hands in other ways, like to trace his mother’s features as he sat in her lap. Late at night, awoken by nightmares as children often are, he would urge himself to piece together her image in his mind. With touch-memory he recreated the feeling of the spot where nose met cheek and eyebrow became eyelid and mouth became smile or frown. These moments kept him safe and warm.

Once pen and paper found their way into his small and delicate hands, he wrote it all down. Notebooks upon notebooks were filled with the most memorable and menial details of the little boy’s life. He hid them all over his room, stuffed between mattresses and shelves and walls – not for the sake of privacy, but for the simple fact that he thought one day they might be important, and important things should be kept safe.

They included detailed summaries of his days.

June 9,

Had rice, soup and meat for breakfast even though I asked for a muffin mom said no.

And important facts that Hoseok swore he must remember.

January 10,

You are made up of 75% water.

***Drink more water.

And unimportant details that would one day become important facts.

Febuary Feburary Feb 23,

Dad was home this morning when I got up for school because he said he had the day off from the bank and so he drove me and it was fun!!!!

March 1,

Dad has been home for a whole week this is awesome! But why was mom crying about it? Kissed this girl Mi Hae behind the bushes in the park.

April 13,

Red berries were growing on the bush so I squished one with my fingers, and then another and another. They got on Mi hae’s dress and she cried. Got in trouble. For the stains, not the first or second kiss. The kissing is ok I guess nothing special.

And sometimes months or even years spanned before the threads of plot of his life could be tied together.

August 29,

Got told we are moving today and when I told Yoongi he cried so I kissed him and it felt special but then he pushed me away. I guess it doesn’t matter because we are moving anyway.

As a student, his remarkable note taking skills gained him friends, and with a little ingenuity beyond his young years, a small business in which he peddled his perfect notes to less than reputable students.

He grows up this way, filling page after page and hardly ever looking back, until the advent of mobile technology makes things easier. His PDA, followed by a smartphone and then his trusty tablet, stay booked with notes, addresses, phone numbers, directions, plans, and dates. A busy man at a very up-and-coming SEO agency, he has become reliant on these things – famous for never missing a meeting and never being late for a date.

That is why, on a particularly chilly morning, it is extremely odd for Hoseok to see that he has neglected to write down the name and address of the teashop at which he is expected to meet a friend of a friend. He scrolls through his calendar, thumb moving quickly up and down over the protected screen, expecting a detailed account of the day’s obligations to pop up. There is nothing. He swallows and wills himself to remember. Teashop… teashop. Not a huge fan of the beverage except on necessary occasions, he only knows that there are exactly two well-known teashops in the area – both on opposite ends of the city, so he types it into the search engine. The first name that pops up doesn’t sound right, so he scrolls to the second result: Wanderer’s Teahouse, followed by an address and phone number. That sounds about right, he thinks, I think it did start with a W…

“I’m taking lunch,” he says to his boss as he stuffs his laptop into his bag on the off chance he finds time to work.  On his way out, he wraps a bright red scarf around his neck, ready to brace the cloudy skies and crisp wind.  He checks his watch. It’s a 15-minute ride by bus to the shop, so he’ll be early. He smiles.