by Beth Sherman

The first porcelain cup and saucer cost nine dollars. It had a pale yellow background and was decorated inside and out with pink cabbage roses, lilies and leaves that were a shade of green not found in nature. On the bottom of the cup it said Royal Stuart England stamped in gold, above a fairytale crown. I found the teacup the summer of 1987 in an antique shop in Arundel, NJ. Each morning, I dropped in a strainer filled with loose jasmine tea, let the hot water steep and drank it before going to work. This seemed classier than a mug. Like I was a character in a Jane Austen novel who had never ridden on a subway or gone on a blind date. Soon, I was collecting teacups. Decorated with flowers, fruit, birds, butterflies, once a pack of playing cards. My only requirement was that the cups look the same, deep and wide with a sloping handle, a trait I’d later learn was called “peony shaped.” I found them everywhere – street fairs, flea markets, garage sales, thrift stores. I acquired dozens, so many that I had to stack them three deep on a shelf in my small one bedroom Manhattan apartment.

Every other month, I invited my closest women friends over for tea and tarot. I’d learned how to read tarot cards from a witch in the East Village, which I thought was darkly cool, and totally out of character. Life was more unpredictable then. Tarot gave me the feeling that if I couldn’t control my destiny, at least I’d be aware of what was about to happen. At the tea parties I wore a Laura Ashley dress, white lace stockings and lace up boots. I cut crusts off the sandwiches I served and imported scones from the local bakery. Bach sonatas played in the background. Everyone chose a different cup, though I always reserved the pale yellow one for me.

Before I began, we closed our eyes and did a brief meditation, following the rise and fall of our breath. We passed around a bowl filled with Angel Cards containing one word: Faith, Creativity, Openness, Flexibility, Adventure, Purpose . . . With our eyes still shut, we each chose a card and discussed how it fit with what was going on in our lives. Then I took out a black and white marble composition book and asked everyone to think of a question. Most of them began with “will I,” as in “will I break up with Jack?” or “will I ever be in a relationship with just one other person?” or “will I get pregnant this year?” Looking back, I’m amazed we took it as seriously as we did. As the one predicting everyone’s fate, I felt especially pressured. What if the cards indicated a bad outcome? What if I somehow got it wrong? I was instilled with a weird sense of power, since I didn’t claim to be psychic. I was merely a mediator – the one person in the room who could discern what the cards were trying to tell us. When I lay the Two of Swords next to the Tower, we would hold our collective breaths, certain that meant Rochelle’s boyfriend was cheating on her or Beverly was about to get fired or Nancy should quit her job and follow her dream of becoming a yoga instructor.

I’m no longer friends with any of them now. Some moved across the country, others drifted out of my life. It’s fine, really. I moved away too. I made new friends. But I often reminisce about that time. Those women were important to me once. I knew the most intimate details about their lives and they, in turn, knew me better than my immediate family did. On those Bach-suffused, pastry-laden afternoons, my fears and secrets spilled out as easily as loose tea leaves. Our group came together at a specific place and time. We intersected briefly, like tangents on a cube. And then we broke apart. But that’s what happens in life. We value certain people, they become meaningful, even essential. Objects, too. Sometimes I wonder about all those cups. Who owned them before me? Why were they sold or given away, once treasured, now discarded? Where will they go after I’m gone?

At some point, I stopped collecting them. Coffee, not tea, has long been my drink of choice, which looks muddy and wrong in dainty fragile porcelain. Still, the cups remain. There are seventy-seven in all, displayed behind glass, in a breakfront cabinet in the dining room of my house. The yellow one has pride of place, in the middle of the center row.

Once, when my son was nine and we were embarking on a family vacation, he went around the house, saying goodbye to everything we were leaving behind—his stuffed animals, the TV, the dishwasher. He ended with the teacups. I thought it was odd. Over the years, no one ever commented on how pretty they were or how many of them I had. Not the numerous guests I’d invited for dinner and not my family.

“Why are you saying goodbye to them?” I asked.

He looked up at me and said, “They’re the teacups I never really appreciated.”

I suppose I don’t either, although I have more of a reason to. They represent a time in my life that’s so remote it might as well have happened to someone else. Bach and apricot preserves. Random crushes. Workplace intrigue. The Ace of Wands. The Hanged Man. The Fool. Our futures spread out on a coffee table, bright and easy to reach, like coins tossed carelessly into a fountain.

Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her poetry has been published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Hartskill Review, Lime Hawk, and Synecdoche and is forthcoming in The Evansville Review. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review and is forthcoming in Joyce Quarterly. She has also written five mystery novels, published by Avon Books, a division of HarperCollins.