He makes tea.
Chai. Maté. Kombucha. Rare herbal brews. These make up so many of his waking hours. He loves the sound of the names: Yunnan Hong Cha, Mulberry Rooibos, Orange Zephyr. He loves the smells that rise up from each order, green cardamom and fennel, cinnamon and tellicherry. The ever-present vanilla. He loves how the customers respond to his smile, to his charm. But the smells and smiles, chais and lattes have begun constricting him over these last few months – a well-worn shirt that’s suddenly begun to shrink.
It began shortly after his friend had returned, alight with all the places he’d seen, all the profound his journeys had birthed. The friend fills the tea house closing hours with talks of meditation and nirvana. Of yoga and chakras. Of the deep within and the far beyond and how everything is connected. After a while it gets under the server’s skin; self-realization is all very well, but he has a job to do. So he just turns and smiles, wiping down tables and gathering the last of the mugs and plates from the bus tray.
It’s not as if he too hasn’t dreamt of going abroad, of finding himself in the depths of ashrams or spiraling off the heights of ayahuasca. But the dreams seem only mist and mirrors to his mind, like watching a show on TV with the bright LEDs of the screen always reminding him that it’s not really part of this reality. No matter how many times he googles Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, or Bodhgaya, they always remain elusive—always just over the next horizon. Sure, he knows what they smell like—the teas reveal that much—but that’s as close as he can come. It makes the tea house seem even more confining than ever. He’s taken to tugging at his collar when he thinks no one is looking.
Not long after the server begins to put $1.87 away for every hour he works at the tea house. An odd number, but somehow filled with a sense of horizons to be traveled, a sense of possibility. It came to him the day a petite college student ordered the exact same blend of two chais that was his secret favorite. He’d never known anyone else to put those two together. While ordering, her eyes had twinkled and her golden hair seemed to softly glow, her scent mingling with the spices of the yet unmade chai.
When he’d rung her up, she’d reached for his hand and closed his fingers around a tip. At her touch, his world seemed to slip, casually at first and then accelerating as if heading towards his own private singularity. Something in him expanded for a moment, and then, finding a barrier thinner than gauze but seemingly impenetrable, collapsed back inward. He stood there transfixed, struck mute with the sort of surprise that goes deeper than bone. For her part, she merely cocked her head as if she knew she’d marked him, her green eyes twinkling with knowledge. Then her hand gave a final squeeze and she returned to her friends on the couch. When he opened his hand it contained a dollar bill, three quarters, a dime, and two pennies. But somehow it seemed like so much more than that, as if, just for a moment, the LEDs had dimmed and the worlds on the other side of the screen had become reachable for a moment.
Throughout the next hour he occasionally heard her talking, her laugh like a clear stream, and each time he would feel an echo of that same momentary expansion. He never saw her again, but her scent had lingered seemingly for weeks, reaching into the crevices beneath the table legs and into the nooks between tea canisters.
That night, he sat a large, chipped vase on his kitchen table with a label: $1.87. The first $1.87 seemed to still have her scent on it. He imagined it curling around the innards of the vase like smoke, never resting.
It wasn’t until the bottom of the jar had begun to fill that his dreams began to change. At first they were just dreams about his customers. In waking life he knows some by name, but mostly he knows what they drink, how much milk or honey they take, and whether they prefer to eat their pastries with their fingers or a fork. His dreams, though, magnify each into a caricature of their strongest traits, distorting their features as they savor their Lapsang Souchong, Strawberry Sencha, and Irish Breakfast.
One night he dreams that all of these customers are really just himself. Each has his dark braids of thick, black hair; the tattoo underneath his right ear; the gold, spiral earring in his left. They have his straight, white teeth. Each order his favorite Bond Street chai mixed with the Highland, medium-sweet with coconut milk. Some smile and some remain grave, but they all look like him, dress like him, and move like him. They even have his charm. More and more of him come to the counter, get their order numbers, fill the couches and chairs. Soon, there’s a line of himself out the door. But he’s the only one working: he has to take all of the orders, brew all the chai, and deliver each cup to the right numbers while the others are waiting. But wait…if it’s all the same drink then why do the numbers matter? When he looks at the placards again they’ve all transformed into $1.87.
By the end of the dream the tea house is now filled with himself. It’s crowded. The Bond Street Chai runs out. The line gets grumpy. He puts on his best smile and assures them that more is on its way. All their faces turn towards him, waiting expectantly.
For weeks he has the same dream and wakes up sweating and confused. Eventually he begins to feel their presence in the waking world, feel their eyes watching him expectantly as if somehow he’ll be able to magically produce the missing chai they’re waiting for.
On one particularly bad night, the dream returns to him continuously, not allowing him to fully wake in between. Sleeping in is not enough to shake the disorientation and by the time he’s back at work in the afternoon, he finds that he can’t keep the orders straight. He delivers a chai with cow milk to a vegan. He over-steeps another’s maté, accentuating the bitterness. He places to-go orders in house mugs. Throughout it all, he keeps his eyes downcast, avoiding contact. When he doesn’t, the faces of his customers seem overlaid with the magnified features of his doppelgängers, some grotesque, some flattering, all of them making his skin crawl. Each time he sees them, his smile slips. The regulars look at him with concern; the new customers, with irritation.
He begins dreading sleep, resenting the customers who seem to think there’s more that he should do. It’s not until the quarters, dimes, pennies, and dollar bills have just about reached the lip of the vase that the dream changes.
Once again the tea house is crowded with fifty or so versions of himself all chatting happily away, but this time the furniture has shrunk. It’s as if they’re unaware that they’re living in a child’s world. Even their clothes are too small for them. He wants to laugh but then he feels how tight his own clothing has become. The cash register’s buttons seem made for tiny hands; the money, Monopoly money. It’s like visiting a kindergarten as an adult and wondering how any of it could have seemed to fit.
But none of this deters the customers from wanting chai. Soon the place is so full there’s standing room only. The vanilla and cardamom become so stifling they seem like gauze streaming down his throat.
Bumping past himself over and over again he finally makes it to the door. Head down and gulping for fresh air, he crosses the street and sits down at the patio tables of the pizzeria next door. The streets seem unusually full of life, but he’s too busy pulling the vanilla and cardamom-colored gauze out of his mouth to think much about it. Then a couple sits down at the table next to him, greasy pizza slices in hand. They too have thick, black hair in tight braids. They each have a butterfly tattooed beneath their right ear, a glittering earring in their left.
He bolts upright and races for home, but everywhere he turns he’s surrounded by himself. He fills the entire town. The kiosks at the bus station. The people coming out of the health food store. The street kids playing hackey sack on the street corner. They’re all him.
Panicking, he wakes up.
The next morning he gives notice. He empties the huge vase full of countless hours of $1.87. The coins and bills fill a small suitcase, jingling slightly. He packs his rucksack but has no idea where to go. He knows he has to leave, but where? How? He doesn’t know where to begin.
Once the sun goes down the darkness begins sucking at him like a summons to court, or to a funeral, or maybe to a date with the golden blond who likes his blend of chais. He sits staring at his front door, backpack and suitcase of $1.87s at his feet. He’s half afraid that when he opens the door, he’ll only see himself. It takes hours to muster up the courage, but when he finally manages to open the front door, the streets are empty. No endless stream of doppelgängers. Just a faint scent reminding him of a hand curling his fingers around some change and a laugh like sunlight on a clear stream.
Sighing in relief and then with joy, he stepped out into the rain.
When have you outgrown a comfortable situation and needed a change? How did you know when to go? What was your inspiration? Tell us your story!