Green Hills Literary Lantern

Red Rose Tea

 

Ma drank this brand of tea called Red Rose, cheap and strong. Small red roses were imprinted on little papers at the end of the tea bags. I’d go back home to visit, a woman married with children, and we’d sit in the kitchen dipping the roses up and down, drinking tea from pink Melmac. Every time, my mother looked into the bottom of her cup and said, “It would be nice, just once, to find a rose at the bottom.” I smiled at her, thought about putting one there for her sometime, considered how I might do that. Me, I wasn’t looking for a rose. I needed something bigger, tougher, steel-coated. I was trying to avoid terminal bleeding, but I knew I wasn’t going to find that promise at the bottom of a cup. I was going to have to tough it out.

It was getting worse. It used to be that when my kids were small, I’d worry over their fevers and coughs and, one time, a broken bone. The three of them came to us from the sky: kids who looked nothing like us. Survivors, gorgeous, better than anything we could have wished for. So I worried. Worried that those miracles would disappear. That their fevers would prove to be fatal; the broken bone would result in a limp. Maybe they’d be claimed by someone, a birth parent appearing in my doorway?

Well, they lived, their health of no concern at all. And they were not claimed by anyone. But… Their willingness to stay put. That was a problem. At least for my daughter, the one who saw herself as our mistake—somebody we picked up on a whim, the way you’d pull in to order takeout if you were driving by a hamburger place.

There she was at fourteen. My gorgeous East Indian–born Anita, the kid who swooped into Detroit Metro: two years old, all eyes and jutting bones. She clutched and held onto us like we were all there was between her and oblivion, wound her legs around our middles, wrapped her arms around our necks, buried her face. It was exhausting but at the same time, heady—being needed so completely. Like we really could keep her safe. Like we owned a detonator, could explode her troubles away, or we had archangels on our side. We could keep Anita alive and safe!

I grew edgy, though. I needed to be alone some of the time, even if it was just to brush my teeth. So, after a while, we held the door open, encouraged her to run out into the yard. Still later, we encouraged her to find her way around the block on her bike. Normal stuff. And if you had asked me how I expected things to turn out, I would have said that I thought she’d ride her bike for a while, then, later on, maybe a prom? Driving lessons? I expected gradual and, yes, hopeful. I admit that. I expected hopeful. My daughter was alive and laughing. We had reached a place where we could stand back and watch her spin around in circles for the fun of it. She spun herself dizzy and fell over in a heap. Such a girl! So, yes. I had hope. I expected good. She smooched us back when we smooched her. She was our girl!

But that detonator went off when we weren’t expecting it, and there we were in a mess of confusion, grief, disbelief. Because she was spinning around in circles one day, laughing herself silly—we were crazy in love with each other—and next, she wasn’t even there. She was where? She was fourteen and she was gone from the house and the yard. She took off down highways, her blue racing bike abandoned in the middle of the driveway. I had to get out of the car and move it, so I could pull in.

She was gone. She took off down the highway anyway she could. That’s what she said. I pictured her small and slouching in the leather jacket her father got her, jumping into strangers’ cars, no care at all, so long as they were going somewhere. The places she traveled to were places we didn’t know as anyplace at all. She left Ann Arbor, where we called home, and went into places that were like countries at war: streets with houses that had boarded windows. Buildings with doors that didn’t open unless you had the cred. Vacant lots.

She went into those places like they were her mother country. Dangerous, edgy—that’s where she wanted to be. Like those places affirmed her: no need to explain who she was or how she got there. She took what was there, like she was hungry all over again, and went back for more. She wasn’t hoarding food anymore. She was hoarding an idea of herself, I think. Can you hoard an idea? Take it in? I think she did, trying to make sense of her life. “I don’t belong! I don’t belong!” she’d yell at us. “You do! You do!” we’d yell back.

When she was gone, I imagined her leaning up against a chain-link fence, a rottweiler-German shepherd mix sniffing around at her feet. Or I saw her lying on the floor in a ratty house somewhere. Somebody has put a lumpy mattress on the floor. She’d be doing weed, of course, maybe drinking from a forty-ounce, and she’d be taking in the looks the guys gave her. They knew what they wanted to hoard. They wanted to hoard her. Gorgeous, gorgeous Anita. She was still all eyes, and there wasn’t much flesh on her bones: maybe a size six? When we went looking for her, the times we were able to even guess where she might be—in a parking lot or on a street—she was angry the minute she saw us. She scorned the doubt and fear in our eyes, our ineptness. We didn’t have cred. No easy greeting on our part. Only anger and fear. “Get in the car, Anita.” Relief. She was alive. She was still alive! We had her—taking her home all over again.

Sometimes I thought she was mad we didn’t greet her like she’d just come off the plane again, that she wanted us to reach out and sweep her up into our arms. Laugh with her. Anita, Anita! You’re our sweetie pie. Glad and joyful. Our sweetie pie who’s drinking in a parking lot and God knows what else. We are so glad to see you. Come on Sweets, let’s go for ice cream.

What if we had done that? I mean, just suppose we could have done that? Would it have been different for her, for us? Well, we couldn’t. We could make her get into the car with us if we found her. We had that much strength. She did go with us. But it wasn’t long term. Any one of the guys stoking in a room or a car somewhere, coming up the driveway in the middle of the night, could have dibs, could take off with her.

The idea is unconditional love. I know that. And there was never a time I didn’t love Anita. No matter that I pictured leaving her and all her pain behind. I loved her. Even when I imagined her dead, thinking that just beyond the grief I pictured was a measure of relief. No more not knowing anymore.

I drove myself crazy with that love. Still. I flinched when she came into view, and I did not give her kisses anymore. Sometimes I’d be hugging her brothers or her father, and I’d give her a pat on her back, not a full frontal hug at all. It was like all I could do anymore was give her the last slice of takeout pizza—the gesture I had left.

Oh, how does a person know, lost in a strange place, no guidebooks, no language? I knew almost nothing, so I gave her what I could and waited for the next time she’d be gone again.

And the next time came.

One Friday we were headed out of town for a funeral. Right after the kids came home from school. Grandma K had died; somebody who, although not the children’s actual grandmother, gave Anita and her brothers dollar bills and bags of strawberry Twizzlers. She loved the kids from the get-go.

“I want to be your grandma,” she said. Well, they were happy to take on an extra grandma who’d give them treats and hugs. She had no sight her last years, so Anita or her brothers would stand close while she touched their faces, rested her hands on their heads, told them they were growing too fast and pretty soon they wouldn’t want her dollar bills and strawberry Twizzlers. They always said, “No, no.” They were glad for her treats, and let her hold onto them as long as she wanted. They knew she was trying to reach beyond her dark. They leaned in a bit so the reach wasn’t so far.

When we got the call she had died, the boys cried out. Anita put her hands over her ears, slammed the door to her room, and stayed there all night. Next morning she left for school with her older brother, Sõn, her pack slung over her shoulder, quiet but sort of okay. I called out to the two of them, “No hanging out, you guys. We need to take off early.” She came back to give me a hug, and I held to her a minute, my arms stretched around the bulk of her pack: a hug, full frontal. I kissed her and my heart felt as if it had slid into a lost place. Sõn waited behind the driver’s seat of the clunker car he drove, honked for Anita to hurry it up, and called back to me not to worry.

He came home without his sister. No sister in the car with him, no idea where she was, girl and backpack gone missing.

I went out to the garden with its Michaelmas daises, sniffed air as though I might find her scent. Nothing. Nothing in the air, nothing in the sky, nothing on the ground. Inside the house, the kitchen clock kept time with a faint tsk, tsk, tsk. There wasn’t going to be a way to change this. Grandma K was dead and my daughter was gone: two for the price of one.

We were hours late leaving. We needed to go. That’s what Ken said. His jaw locked, like it was cemented in place. No grief for him this time. He was not going to listen to me plead for a little more time, one more phone call, a drive round to check on possible places.

How could I leave town without my daughter? Without knowing where she was? “I can’t. I can’t,” I cried. “Let’s call the police.”

Ken shoved suitcases into the car, shouted at me: “We have to go! Anita won’t be back anytime soon; you know that. We can’t go looking this time. There are other people besides Anita who matter. The police won’t help.”

We’d called the police about our daughter often enough by then, and every time they had stood in our living room with their thick black shoes and holstered guns: sturdy people with I-have-seen-it-all eyes. Sturdy people who said there was nothing much they could do. Did we suspect foul play? I shook my head no. I didn’t suspect it. I tried not to think about it.

I kept stalling. Ken grew implacable.

“This is Grandma K dead.” I needed to realize who the funeral was for: Grandma K, not Anita. At least, probably not Anita. “We have to go to this funeral. Come on, Jackie.” His voice softened; he put his arm around me.

We did have to go. So I went. I willed myself to get into the car. I increased the distance between me and my daughter. Even if a person tries to learn nonattachment, lies in the yoga pose called shavasana—corpse pose—meditating every single day, relinquishment can feel like terminal bleeding, like you’re the person who made the cut.

“Go,” I said to Ken. “Go.”

Her brothers turned to look back as we pulled out of the driveway, like they thought she might be standing in the window or doorway, calling for us to wait, she was coming.

We drove off, the four of us.

I left phone numbers, times, and places pressed to the counter on orange sticky notes. I drew a large red exclamation point on white construction paper and taped the exclamation point to the back door. Underneath the exclamation point, I wrote: See notes on counter. She would come in the back door if she came back.

I lied at the funeral. I said Anita was in a school play, had the lead. People were depending on her. I said she was so sorry to not be there. If people suspected that I lied, they didn’t say so. But I don’t think so. School plays were the norm. What we lived was not the norm. They were good people, all those nice, normal aunts and cousins. They would have tried to understand if I had told them, but I kept to my lie and held my grief close, something nobody else could take care of.

Ken went along with me. He wasn’t a guy who lied, not even to be tactful. But he never said our daughter was missing, and we had come to the funeral two hundred miles from Ann Arbor.

Do good mothers and fathers do that? I lay awake in somebody’s guest room and remembered how Anita looked when she went out the kitchen door: she gave me that hug and hitched her pack over her left shoulder. Then she got into the car with her brother. She had her hair frizzed in front, the bangs a big pouf. She had painted her nails maroon.

Jung, her younger brother, came into the room. He felt his way to me in the dark, crying. We had left Anita behind. Would we leave him too? “No, no,” I said. “We will find her; we haven’t left her. We’ve just come to the funeral. We will not leave you.” He slept curled up at the bottom of the bed, wrapped in my coat, whimpering like a sick dog. I searched for Ken’s hand and whispered that we didn’t know that we would find her. “We’ll find her,” he said, sounding like he’d abandon the search if he could.

God. She passed out pain like it was sticks of gum. She had so much; she could give freely and there would always be more.

Soon enough the funeral service was over, and Grandma K was wheeled out of the church.

I wished, as we headed home, that I had lain down beside Grandma K in her beige coffin with the pale peach lining. I’d have fit, so skinny with worry. Calm. It would be calm; my troubles would fall away; my skin would fall away; and, after a while, only my bones would be left, my bones next to Grandma K’s, gray-white and clean, still as could be on pale peach silk.

But the coffin was in the ground at Holy Cross Cemetery, and Grandma K was alone in it. I was in the car headed home, and it was just past dark on Sunday night when we pulled into the driveway: dinnertime—about six-thirty. The boys yelled that they saw lights on in the kitchen; somebody was there. We got out of the car and went into the house.

Our daughter held up a pan-roasted chicken for us to see, fresh out of the oven. She was smiling. She had set the table in the dining room. There were mums from the garden at each person’s plate, a bouquet of the Michaelmas daises in the center of the table. There was salad with the last of the garden’s tiny grape tomatoes rimming the last garden lettuce. Glasses of water with slices of lemon.

She wore my green oven mitts, one on each hand, and balanced the pan carefully so as not to spill the juices. The chicken was perfectly browned. Did she go to Kroger and buy a roasting chicken? Did she walk home with it in her pack? Did whomever she took off with on Friday drive her to the store and wait while she shopped? What did she do for cash?

I never found out.

Anita talked like a hotel receptionist greeting travelers, “I found your notes. I made supper.” Was she saying she was sorry? Did she have any idea? What were we supposed to say: How was your trip, Anita? We went to a funeral, Anita; remember Grandma K? The dinner looks delicious.

The smell of roasted chicken filled the room. It would be years before I could bear that smell again.

When I think about that scene, and it’s long years past, I realize I have never talked about that dinner with her. We talk about things now. We have survived all over again. But that scene’s like a bad picture in the family album: something went wrong before the shutter clicked. I shiver when I remember that scene. So much unsaid, unknown! I keep that picture in an album on a high shelf in the back-room closest, someplace I never dust.

I can put myself back there, though. There was the girl-woman holding that roasting pan in my kitchen, offering me food and words: “Eat, eat; take it and eat it. I’ve made this just for you.” Who was that girl?

I wanted to grab hold of her, shake her—shake her hard. But I stood still and silent.

Anita grew angry with my silence. She banged the pan onto the counter; juice splattered the counter and wall, dotted her red silk shirt. I ignored all of it: the food, the girl, the whole thing. I went upstairs, got in bed, and pulled the covers over me.

Ken stayed downstairs and tried what could be done.

I don’t know what happened to that meal. When I came down next morning, there was nothing left of it: no leftovers—chicken or salad—in the refrigerator. The mums were gone. The stove and walls were wiped clean. Somebody had opened the windows, and a little bit of wind moved through the room. Maybe it moved things, because I found one of my sticky notes lying on the floor in front of the stove. WE ARE NOT LEAVING YOU! That’s what I had written in boldface with an orange marker. In caps. Printed. Just to be clear.

I heard her bedroom door open, her feet move over the wood floor. She came into the kitchen wearing gray sweats with a Pistons logo. I didn’t recognize them, but then, she had this tendency to gather souvenirs of her travels, so they could have been from anyone, anywhere.

I’d put on the kettle, asked her if she wanted some tea. We might be able to manage tea, even if we couldn’t eat together. We sat at the table and sipped. No pink Melmac, no Red Rose. We poured tea from a brown pot into two lime green mugs. Darjeeling. For something to say—I could not talk about the weekend; talking about that felt like trying to move a boulder inside me—I told her about my mom, about the Red Rose tea. She looked at me, her eyes the same dark brown as my mother’s. “I wish,” she said. “I wish.”

And right then, I knew she did wish. Like my mother, like most of us, my daughter wished. I poured more of what I had to give her and let my hand rest with hers on the handle of her cup. The two of us looking, both of us wishing.

 

 

 

 

Mary Koral is a teacher at Eastern Michigan University. With three adopted children of her own, she organizes adoption conferences in Ann Arbor and works with WRITE LINK, an outreach program for children in under-served schools. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Antigonish Review, Asspants, Cream City Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Mud House, Interim, Pisgah Review, Sanskrit, Santa Monica Review and Tusculum Review, and has been to Glimmer Train’s Top 25.