the picture in the earl grey

Eric Grangier thought of a new word every day. It would come to him at the calmest moments of his day. There were a lot of those, him being who he was. British in everything but legal identity, he preferred his humor dry and his weather stormy and his nights in. He did not enjoy media in common form, and his favorite mode of entertainment came through sitting on a starchy green settee, staring at the wall across from him, studying the intricacies of the stitched wallpaper, thinking on whatever word had appeared that day.

Tonight it came a little later, the word. During his evening shower, right before his nighttime tea. The water was a little cold, so while he left it running, he stepped quickly to the closet across the hallway and gave the water heater a kick. When he came back, hints of steam were already fogging his glasses, and he undressed to step in. Perhaps the water had been heating up all along, his patience just hadn’t yielded the normal amount of time he usually gave to waiting. That was a strange thought.

Blinking twice from the idea that he was growing impertinent without realizing it, he reached for the soap above him and grabbed empty air. The soap shelf was two inches to the left. He looked up and then down. There were already soap suds circling the drain. Had he already bathed?

“Ephemeral.”

The word seemed to spell itself out with the small bubbles that were dotting the tiles of the bathtub. Bubbles from a shower he did not remember taking. His hair was wet, but he could not tell if it was wet from the time he had been standing under the stream of water or wet after a rinse. Was he clean? Could he step out and dry off?

Eric washed himself once more, for reassurance. He liked to be sure.

He would usually put the water on the stove to boil as he showered, for he was a simple man, and his showers never would cap a full five minutes. But shrugging on his robe on this peculiar night, he could hear the kettle whistling with the whine of being forgotten.

He left the kettle whistling as he sifted leaves into chipped porcelain.

He had once heard that earl grey tea was in actuality a different color once you tasted it. This blend was nicely accented. It had grown as a blue flower, with petals lively enough to swoon bees. Then it was harvested and pressed and dried, added into boring curls of camellia sinensis, and packaged in an airtight bundle until untied and lovingly placed into his wooden caddy for his favorite leaves.

The true life of the tea began when he tipped the kettle over and a steady stream of hot water unfurled the earl grey. The way that the sugar would hide itself in between the pockets of each droplet. The milk and the way it drew swirls of contrasting colors before reaching an equilibrium. Did the tea get lighter or did the milk get darker? He liked to think about it.

Today, as he stirred he thought about his word for the day.

“Ephemeral.” Short-lived. Not lasting. Transient and surface.

Much like the way you could see the crystals of sugar for just a moment before they completely dissolved in the hot tea.

Eric made an intentional effort to stir slowly today. He tried to be calmer. But that was one of those things that could not be forced, he quickly realized. Instead, he lost himself in the swirls of the milk and tea. He made his thoughts just like those gentle laps mixing.

Whenever his family visited, they were never calm. His mother would stir the air enough to lift the corners of his favorite parts of the wallpaper. She was intent on being busy. By the time she left, every box in his pantry had switched places with another. His sister would always sit in the place of the stillness that he had reserved for the chairs neighboring his settee. She would bounce from seat to seat just like her mouth switched from topic to topic, her mind trailing a bit after.

They would always yell at him about how he was not doing anything. How he would wake up much later in life just to realize how much his regrets had accumulated, how he would soon come to see how lazy and wasteful his life had been. How he would wake up very unhappy one day.

But he would look at the pout of their lips, and the spit that flew out of their mouths with each overly enunciated lecture. He knew that everything was directed towards him, but there was a sheer mirror mesh covering him when they talked. He refused to believe that they could not understand the differences between himself and the two of them. Whenever they started to go on about the way that he lived his life, the loudest thing he heard was his own happiness. Eric Grangier was perfectly content to sit at home with a pitter pattering against the windows, a cup of hot tea in his hands, finding new oddities in the wallpaper.

But he knew that his mother had always wanted to remarry. Preferably in a country farther away from home than he was. She kept carefully maintained photo albums. There were piles. Hidden in the attic back at home, of course. Once, he had accidentally stumbled upon them. She pretended that they had belonged to the previous owners of the house and started locking the attic. The pictures had been repetitive, hundreds were spun out of one small trip across a border. There would be five for every pose she sat in next to the road signs that signaled new territory. But she never spoke of traveling as he grew up. He had barely heard her utter a single wish of her own, come to think of it.

And his sister was tired of playing without audiences. She was not quiet about her desires, and she was less insistent on Eric following his dreams. But oh did she go on about hers. She talked a mile for every inkling of possibility in her life. There was a new job, there was a new opportunity, she was going to make this one happen, she was going to throw her all into this one. Someday, something was just going to happen.

“Ephemeral.”

Eric’s sister wanted to be remembered, this he knew. His mother wanted to live a little more.

Him? He felt a little sad for them, but he didn’t care enough to yell at him the way they yelled at him. Instead, he sat like he always did. And he knew that there was a little bit of them in him. Sometimes it surfaced, it made him second guess, it made him retrace and recover steps. But time after time, he would go back to making a cup of tea. The hot water, the leaves, the sugar, the milk. The slow beauty of simple creation. The settling comfort of contentedness.

Despite mankind’s efforts, they are mortal and forgettable. Eric Grangier was okay with that.

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