Cup of Tea - A Short Story
Samson Hall, forty-something and a salaryman, had a daily schedule. He woke up at seven and spent an hour making himself presentable, and he always greeted his neighbours before leaving. He stopped at a vegan-encouraging eatery just before quarter to nine. At nine on the dot, he arrived at work and greeted his coworkers before setting himself up for a day of productivity. Once the clock struck five, he did his afternoon routine: the reverse of his morning.
Instead of going to the eatery, Samson Hall went to a tea shop that provided second-hand reading material. There, he ordered a tea and found himself some short but enlightening book to take with him to his favourite sun-lit, quiet table. This was the only part of his day that could be tweaked, for tea and reading could not be rushed. Once he finished his tea and read to his heart’s content, he returned the book to its shelf, never to be touched by him again. Then, he went home, had his dinner, completed various chores, and performed a thorough nighttime routine that ended with the perfect sleep.
That was the day, schedule, and routine Samson Hall followed.
Except for one outlier.
This outlier first went wrong when he slept through his alarm, because that cut into his time to get ready. He ended up leaving the house with his tie undone and his neighbours nowhere to be seen, and he was late enough that he had to eat while driving. Fortunately, he arrived on time and greeted his coworkers, but that only lured him into a false sense of security, as that day was not done being terrible.
In the evening, at the tea shop, there was a person sitting at his table. Worse, they were sitting in his seat, and they were sobbing their eyes out.
Samson Hall, with his tea and his next book in hand, froze awkwardly the moment he spotted the unexpected seat-stealer. He then waited an eternity (two minutes) for them to move, or at least to stop crying. They did neither.
For the first time, Samson Hall considered sitting elsewhere. After all, though he was a man of routine, he knew better than to bother someone who was clearly upset. Consoling them was not an option because that was far from his comfort zone but leaving them alone could be done.
Eventually, Samson Hall gathered enough courage to break routine. However, just as he was about to step away and wallow somewhere else in the store, he noticed that the person sobbing quietly at his table had a book in their possession, and its cover was dotted by tears.
If that weren’t bad enough, Samson Hall saw a line of snot drip from their nose only to pool on the once-flawless hardcover.
The part of him that relied on these visits to make his day feel normal nearly fainted at the sight of boogers on an innocent piece of literature, and he no longer cared if the stranger was crying. He was going to rescue the book and his spot, because otherwise he would implode.
First, he stomped up and set his things on the side of the table that was out of the danger zone. Then he wrenched the book from the person’s lap, prayed the wet spot his fingers touched was a tearstain, and rushed the item to the front counter. A mortified staff member panicked over it while he returned to the sob-fest.
Startled by what just happened, the person in Samson Hall’s spot was now looking up in a daze. The teenage boy, his face puffy and red, didn’t think to wipe his face upon realizing he had angry company.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’ve no reason to ruin books because of it,” the man was saying, “and being sad doesn’t give you the right to take over a public space.”
Maybe it was the stern tone or sharpness, but something made the boy snap to reality. He dropped his chin, hiding his tear-streaked cheeks, and nodded. “Sorry.”
Samson Hall expected the boy to move after that, but he didn’t. In fact, after a moment too long of silence, the kid looked up with confusion written over his miserable face.
“Is there something else...?”
With an indignant huff, Samson Hall sat in the seat he never sat in; he sat across from the boy, technically at the right table, but in the wrong spot. He told himself he was doing it to make sure the teenager didn’t get snot on any other books.
“Excuse me, but... What are you doing?”
Samson Hall pulled his tea and book toward himself, not glancing at the table mate he imagined was invisible. “What I do every day at this time, which is come here to read and drink tea. Normally, I would be doing it in your spot, but I think I’m fine for today.”
To his surprise, the boy fell forward until his forehead hit the table, causing it to shake. The fact that he was back to crying was clear the moment he spoke.
“God, normal. I miss normal. Nothing feels normal anymore.”
Sensing an elephant coming his way, Samson Hall did the only thing he could think of: he pretended the boy never spoke and continued flipping through the first chapter of his book.
They stayed like that for a few minutes, the man feigning ignorance and the teenager wondering how someone could ignore another like that. He resented the man for not showing concern, but he recognized that he wasn’t the stranger’s responsibility. His anger was misplaced, and that made him feel worse.
Then, suddenly, the dam broke.
“My mom died,” the boy croaked out, “so I’m sorry for ruining your whatever, but I’m not worried about books right now.”
Dakota Rivers, seventeen and skipping soccer practice, expected immediate concern from the person in front of him. What he got instead was the sound of pages turning, and when he looked up, the stranger was sipping tea nonchalantly. At a loss, Dakota put his head back down and restarted his crying.
“If you want normal, you need to build it for yourself.”
The teenager lifted his head up again, thinking his ears were playing tricks on him. “What?”
“It’s hard to build up, a ‘normal.’ You’ll cry more than you want, and you’ll spend an eternity lying around instead of moving on. But you’ll continue trying, because continuing keeps you afloat.”
Dakota scowled, sure that the stranger was crazy or mocking him. He wanted to be heard and lent an ear, not given a spiel. He got to his feet while the man continued to talk.
“...Then, one day, living with the absence will feel natural.”
Despite the frustrated tears in his eyes, Dakota found himself going still.
“You’ll learn to function despite it. Anyone can do it. Why, everyone does already.”
The teenager didn’t believe him. His world was broken, a large piece of it gone forever. No sane person could move past that, just like how no sane person could ignore someone the way this stranger had ignored Dakota.
Despite being unconvinced of the man’s sanity, a question surfaced.
“How do you know?”
Samson Hall, forty-something and lonely, left his comfort zone to answer truthfully.
“It’s what I did after losing my wife.”
Dakota never realized it, but in that moment, he’d unconsciously sat back down to hear more. “Why a tea shop?”
“It was her favourite.”
“Doesn’t it bring up bad memories?”
The man hummed, acknowledging the point. “The first ‘normal’ I built fell apart on me because I focused on things that she was never a part of. Routine is for stability, not distraction. I ended up coming back here not because I thought it would help, but because it wouldn’t. I needed a reminder of her in my day to get through it.”
Samson Hall finally relaxed into the chair that wasn’t his, reopening his book. “Routine won’t always work, but eventually, you’ll stop needing it, because it’ll be less about following a plan and more about living your life.”
The man went back to ignoring the teenager after that. His mission was accomplished; he was close to having his spot back and the books were safe. Now he could go back to pretending the kid didn’t exist at all.
Meanwhile, Dakota Rivers, seventeen and skipping soccer because it reminded him too much of his mom, realized he could make it to the end of practice if he left immediately. So he went, and he played terribly, and he cried well into the night, and he cursed the weird man from the tea shop for his bad advice.
But the next day, he tried it all again, and Dakota Rivers never skipped another practice.