Thursday, February 04, 2010

Tea for Two

The train slowly rocked as it ascended from the tunnel. Across the river, industrial stacks belched white clouds against the backdrop of lower Manhattan. The gap in the city’s skyline reminded me of my constant nightmares of smoke, of burning, of the imagined death of the man who raised me. The train gained momentum, hurtling me south toward my uncertain future.

My knees jittered from nervous exhaustion. From worry over how my bosses would react over the mice fiasco. Of course, Stan would freak out – the damn drug was going into human trials next month. I counted on Tien to keep him calm. I just hoped he’d save his lambasting until later. Because today was pivotal, for all of us, but especially for me. Although our decamping Harvard for Hopkins was pretty much a done-deal, my rank, post-doc or assistant professor, remained the outstanding point of contention; the Hopkins professors were pissed some unknown post-doc was leap-frogging over their post-docs into a tenure-track position. I had to nail my seminar; no way could I afford living another year on a post-doc salary.

I powered up the laptop, punched in my passwords, and ran through the slide deck blessed by Stan and Tien two weeks ago. I stared at slide six; none of JM-25’s side effects alluded to biting, fighting, or any forms of mutilation. Nothing. If mice could murder, couldn’t people? People like me?

The laptop quivered on my thighs. I reached for my quetiapine; the antipsychotic would calm me. My hand hesitated over my backpack. I couldn’t afford to be a zombie, not today.

I cupped palms over kneecaps and breathed. Lead me from ignorance to truth, lead me from ignorance, lead me to truth... The laptop whirred warm in my lap, the wheels’ gentle click-clack lulled me… lead me from ignorance…


I spiraled awake. The conductor’s sweaty face peered down at me.

“Baltimore, sir.”

I had arrived.


Down by the Inner Harbor, the vestiges of a surprise snowfall camouflaged the grit and grime I remembered of the city. The hotel gleamed in sunlight reflected off surrounding water, hurting my eyes. Inside, people milled about reception, luggage trailing like obedient dogs. My room wasn’t ready, so I checked my bags except for the laptop and asked the clerk for Tien Zhao’s room number.

“She’s my wife,” I said. “I wanted to surprise her.”

His gaze wandered to my bare left hand. “Sorry, sir. Security, you understand. I’m happy to ring the room for you.”

He turned to the monitor. I leaned against the counter and made out the number as he lifted the phone.

“Hey,” I said and pointed towards the cafe. “Thanks, but no matter – I see her.”

I strode past the Starbuck’s, then cut left to the bank of elevators. I found her room on the tenth floor, half-way down the hall. Low voices seeped from behind the door. Television? Maybe I had the wrong room - Tien never watched the idiot box. Neither did I. Ear against the door, I smiled at discovering her singular vice. Tien’s distinct chortle floated over the television’s drone. When I knocked, the murmuring ceased.

“Yes?” Her voice sounded tentative.

“Hey, baby, it’s me. Missed you.”

The chain rattled. Tien’s perfectly painted red lips peeked through the four-inch crack. Her mouth parted into a tight semi-smile.

“You’re early,” she said.

“I snagged the Acela. Let me in?” I peered past her into the light-filled room. Disheveled bed linens tumbled on the floor. A breakfast tray rested on the small round table, laden with a carafe and two white teacups.

“I was just getting into the shower,” she said.

“I’ll join you.” I reached for her terry-wrapped body.

She pulled the towel tighter and edged away. I laughed, but my gut hardened into a knot.

“Ten minutes,” she said. “Downstairs in the lobby. I’ll call Stan.”

The lock slid back. The peephole’s glassy eye rebuked me. Then the television cut through the muffled thrum of water hitting tile. I raised my fist to pound on the door, then let it drop; Tien was resolute. What did it matter? I’d see her in a few minutes. Unlike most women, when Tien said ten minutes, she meant nine.

I hustled back to the elevator, wondering why she was always so unpredictable with her affection. So inscrutable. Wondering why I put up with her aloof bullshit. Looking back, I couldn’t recall specifics of how I ended up sharing her bed. Sure, we’d worked together for years, but like everything she did, her seduction of me was a well-controlled protocol - unwavering, systematic, always within pre-ordained parameters. Back then, she needed my mind and I needed someone beside me at night; I wasn’t good alone. But after two years, I wanted to crack her, peel off her shell until I found the soft part I knew was there – I’d seen glimmerings.

These thoughts bounced around in my head as I returned to the thronging lobby. Mostly, though, I wondered about the two cups.


Ben, in Baltimore, after the mice committed hari-kari and after his Mother's funeral. Excerpted from PURE, a novel slowly stitched together. I appreciate any and all feedback...

Peace, Linda


  1. Oh, nice detail. It really feels like things are spiraling out of control here, but still he holds it together.

    When it all goes, it's going to make a big bang.

  2. So rich in detail, in atmosphere.

    Really liked the supplicating cadence of "lead me from ignorance, lead me to truth.

    Excellent piece.

  3. Aw Linda. You did it again. This book is going to ROCK!

  4. I just want to stay in this world. You make everything sound absolutely AMAZING. Self publish- I don't care. I'll buy it. Pretty sure your captive audience will do anything for more.


  5. Poor guy - this is definitely going to end in tears! I wondered about the first par. I thought for the first two lines I was reading a 3rd person narrative and the first instance of 'me' jolted me a little. But that's probably just me. Once I knew I went back to the top and started again. I'm definitely looking forward to reading PURE :)

  6. the CAPTCHA word for my comment was "betcha" - fitting, since you betcha I want to read PURE when it's out!

    His anxiety was palpable.
    I would like to see more of Tien, seems a most interesting character

  7. Another brilliant exerpt. I, too, am wondering about that second teacup.

  8. Do you live in Bawlmer? I just moved (escaped) from there six months ago. I always love hearing about it though, such a strange city and you did a good job of capturing it's grime. Beyond that, your story grabbed me from the beginning. It's fast moving, but clear enough to follow. The mention of the mice fiasco made me both laugh and wonder what happened. I want to keep reading to learn more about it. Finally, the scene at Tien's door made me hold my breath. Ouch! Thanks for another great read. ~ Olivia

  9. Thanks all for reading and commenting. And thanks Lily for noting that the beginning threw you.

    Olivia, you escaped Bawlmor? How? Wish I'd known ya.. where'd ya escape to? It's an interesting city for sure... and if you want to read about the mice fiasco, click on the first link below. It's the setup for the story...

    It's snowing! Peace, Linda

  10. Screwing things tighter here - the tension! The dialogue grabbed my attention in this piece Linda - it felt like it was fun to write and you've smeared it in the grime and grit of your setting. Psychotic mice and jealous academics too? A heady combination! Fantastic writing.

  11. Oh no, I want to scream at him to take the anti-psychotic! I wondered if he was going to let himself think about the two cups. I have a feeling things are not going to end well for him. Yikes. Wonderful.

  12. Wonderful. This book is going to be amazing. So much detail, but tight writing. "Unlike most women, when Tien said ten minutes, she meant nine." What a great summary of a personality. Like Carrie said, I want to stay in this world.

  13. Terrific writing, Linda, as always. I look forward to reading this in its entirety.

  14. No trouble getting into the comments section tonight. All's well. Good to see Ben, Tien and company. Small suggestion: a door chain for the awkward encounter scene.


  15. I love the little details that you sprinkle in your writing. And these are special characters- i can't wait to read more! I'll be picturing those two teacups now ...! ;-)

  16. I really liked how he saw these details through the crack of the door. These few words said a whole lot :

    “I snagged the Acela. Let me in?” I peered past her into the light-filled room. Disheveled bed linens tumbled on the floor. A breakfast tray rested on the small round table, laden with a carafe and two white teacups.

    I found my brain getting stuck on the post-doc/post-docs/post-doc paragraph. Probably because I don't know what that is and it wasn't explained. But at the bottom, is that this is excerpted. There was probably something earlier in the story that made it clear.

    Nice piece of work. Thanks for visiting my blog today, Linda

  17. This is coming together nicely. Enjoyed, as usual.

  18. Pontificate? What an offer...I've only just started following this and sporadically at that but am enjoying it nonetheless - what is it they say? The devil is in the details? I love the rebuking eyehole, and Tien's ten minutes actually meaning much told in so few words. Very cool writing Linda.

  19. Some lovely turns of phrase in there, and not a cliche in sight. I hope the story's large-scale structure works as well.

  20. This is such a beautiful read, full of little details slipped in along the flow.

  21. Thanks all for sropping by to read and comment -- very much appreciated!

    John, like the detail of the door chain - tx!

    Oh Ronda... I've struggled with that paragraph as well, trying to get across the hierarchy of academia: pre-doc (PhD grad student), post-doc (PhDs who do more directed research after grad school; the norm, and very cheap labor; needs reform mho); and then faculty positions, starting at Assistant Professor, with tenure-track ('job for life) positions rare and most desirable. A lot of new scientists get stuck in Post-docs for years because their research is so tied up in their mentor's AND because of the paucity of tenure-track positions. Thus, the possibility of getting an Asst prof position is a huge seduction for letting bad stuff lie...

    Barry, my biggest concern about this novel is stitching it all together. (sigh)

    Hey Sharon! Thanks for popping by -- glad you likey!

    peace, Linda

  22. Part of me wants to stop reading so I can read the novel all at once. But alas, I cannot stop. You're doing your job absurdly well.

  23. That first paragraph is dense - so much in just a few sentences.

    Some lines border on poetry:

    "I cupped palms over kneecaps and breathed."

    The simile about "obedient dogs"...

    "The peephole’s glassy eye rebuked me."

    I think all the whirling thoughts in the last long paragraph are perfect setup for the line about the two teacups. I think it would be even stronger if the two cups line stood alone - I'd lose the sentence right before it.

  24. I'd be wondering about the two cups too. I want to see the whole novel.

  25. Thanks Lou and Mark -- I want to see the whole shebang, too -- finished!

    Steve (waving!) - Glad you like my poetic allusions. Good eye on that penultimate sentence; I think you're right. Wanna be my editor ;^)

    Off to drink wine and ponder the universe and my back, sore from shoveling all that white stuff. Peace, Linda

  26. Two cups is never a good sign. The poor guy. Like everyone here, I throughly enjoyed your story. Nice, tight writing!

  27. This is nicely paced. Love the touch about the two cups at the end. Nice sense of dramatic irony...

  28. [Unsurprisingly] great work Linda. I too am anxious for the novel. Carrie mentioned self-publishing - have you tried submitting queries? I really think you should. I can't imagine a publisher not wanting to grab hold of this with both hands!
    Love the "rebuking eyehole" bit, it ties in so well with the whole feel of the story itself.
    Can't wait for more!