Clara came late, balancing a teapot on her head. I should have known then that something was wrong.
“I can’t stay,” she said, the party in full swing behind me. “But I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.” She pulled a porcelain teacup from her jacket and poured off an inch of steaming liquid, sipping it gingerly.
“Clara,” I said. “You’ve got a teapot on your head.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t be an ass, Rachel.” And with that, she turned and left.
It only got worse from there. I’d text or call before every social engagement, but Clara could never make it. She was always busy cleaning her pot or blending her leaves or sorting through her teaspoons. She became a ghost.
We ran into each other months later at the mall. I was returning copper mixing bowls I’d gotten as a wedding present the week before. Clara hadn’t been able to make it, her RSVP card speckled with something wet, like tea or tears.
“It’s been a while,” I told her then. “How’ve you been?”
She offered a tired smile, her face heavy with sweat. Most of her hair had fallen out, destroyed by the constant heat of the teapot gleaming atop her head.
“Sorry I missed your thing,” she answered, hands fidgeting over a stack of tea cozies. She’d been holding them up to the pot like baby clothes. “Life’s just been so busy lately. Did you get my present?”
She’d sent us a Melitta teapot, eggshell white and flawless. I stashed it in a cardboard box in my closet and tried to forget it was there.
“I did,” I told her now. “I haven’t used it yet, but it looks like a nice one.”
Clara smiled another tired smile, and we said our goodbyes, promising we’d get together but knowing that we never would.
Two weeks later, my phone buzzed just after midnight. It was Clara’s brother, Carlos, and he sounded scared.
“I can’t find Clara. Her car’s gone, and it looks like she hasn’t been home in days. Have you heard from her?”
“Not in weeks,” I told him and began to dress. “Are you sure she’s not just out somewhere? Is the—” I lowered my voice. “Is the teapot there?”
“No, but her phone and toothbrush are. What should we do?”
“Call her social worker and see if she’s checked in. I’m coming over.”
We found Clara in a clinic tucked beneath the interstate downtown. She looked awful, the crown of her head flattening, her hair nothing but a tonsured ring of brittle wisps. She stood nervous in the lobby, the flicker in her eyes shuddering like a faulty pilot light, and I found myself holding my breath near her, lest I accidentally blow it out.
“We can talk in the visitor room,” she said quietly, resignation slumping her shoulders and pulling at the lines of her face. She led us to a private chamber where two ratty sofas faced off across threadbare carpeting. Carlos and I took one, Clara the other.
“I’m not sure how obvious it is,” Clara started, fingers knotted in her lap. “But I’ve been going through some things.”
Carlos nodded, his cheeks wet. “We had an inkling something was up, but we’re so glad we found you and that you’re safe.”
She leaned forward and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry to have worried you. But things have been so hard lately. I’ve felt so lost. So out of control. And I can’t figure out why.”
I frowned. “Clara, you have a teapot on your head.”
Carlos shot me a surprised, angry look. “Rachel, come on. That’s not helpful.” He rose to join his sister on the other sofa, taking her hands in his. “We’re here for you, okay?”
A brittle smile split Clara’s face, her eyes small and bright. “She’s right, though, isn’t she? It’s just a matter of willpower.” She shuddered, flicking away tears. “I shouldn’t really be here. I shouldn’t have made you worry. Honestly, I’m fine.” Her voice was flat, nonchalant, wrapping around her like an ill-fitting suit.
“It’s obvious you’re going through something,” I said gently as I crossed to lean on the arm of their sofa. “But if it’s only a matter of taking this stupid thing off, then—”
I reached out with both hands, and Carlos yelped in surprise, but I snatched the teapot from Clara’s head before he could stop me, and—
My fingers sizzled wherever they touched the porcelain, my palms searing like tuna steaks, the stink of burning skin making me gag. I ripped my hands free, and the teapot tumbled to the floor and shattered, splashing its contents everywhere, burning my thighs through my jeans and scalding Carlos’s hands where he’d raised them to save his face. Clara whimpered into the scratchy sofa, her chest crackling with endless heaving sobs. Carlos rose to comfort her, his face a devil’s mask of rage directed at me.
Tea was in my hair and in my mouth, its bitter taste creeping down my throat. I swallowed hard and sat there shivering as it blistered my esophagus, hollowing out the pit of my stomach until nothing remained but a void like outer space. And into that endless night I fell, my soul a spinning neutron star that swept its radiation over everything, and I understood it then, understood it all.
I’d fall forever.
My scalp itched for the flawless Melitta teapot I’d squirreled away, and a wordless hunger gnawed at me. I ached to wallow in it, to gulp it down until it filled that empty aching space. Clara had been right to seek the promise this place offered, to get help, to be free.
But I couldn’t wait to taste again that bitter tea.