By Marie Seegmiller

“Darjeeling White”

The salesgirl wrapped it up for her in pale pink tissue paper. It looked to Lara like she would stop with one layer and her breath caught in her throat. The salesgirl lifted another layer from the shelf set low into the other side of the counter.

It was nearly nine o’clock and Lara supposed this woman thought her strange.  Champagne flutes were bought in pairs or sets of six, as far as Lara knew. She had to be wondering what anyone would want with only one. And someone had taken such pains to make it look like that.

“Is it…” Lara’s voice broke. “Is it sturdy, do you think?” The thing looked like some man had lost his temper as he drank from it, had made a fist forgetting he still held it, but stopped just short of letting it break there, in the palm of his hand.

She added a third and a fourth sheet and cut a length of green ribbon from the spool beside the register. “Well,” she finally said, “it is glass, when all is said and done.” Her voice was older than she was, but not unkindly. She let the paper fall away and ran her finger over the fine-spun web of hairline cracks running down to the stem. “All this is for decoration, if that’s what you’re asking. It doesn’t harm the glass and it catches the light just beautifully.”

“Yes.” said Lara. “Yes, of course.”

The salesgirl turned to face her. “This,” she said, “is tempered glass, if I’m not mistaken. Stronger than annealed. Breaks into smaller pieces. Fewer people get hurt that way.” She set down her scissors. “It does break, of course. All you have to do sometimes is knock the rim against something, anything at all, and it shatters like it fell out of the sky.”

Lara nodded weakly.

“Sometimes,” said the salesgirl, “it will do that for no reason at all.” She took up the scissors again and induced the ribbon to curl. Then, at last, she set to work rewrapping the glass. “It’s a dying art,” she murmured after a time. “Ice glass, they used to call it.”

Lara’s mother would have called it bad luck. Arthur would probably call it perverse, which was Arthur’s way of saying much the same thing.

“It’s certainly pessimistic,” Lara would say back to him. And she supposed that Arthur—she was beginning to think of him that way, as an Arthur—would chuckle and take her into the crook of his arm and tell her she was a jewel among women, as he always did.

With a flourish, the salesgirl knotted the ribbon at the stem of the glass and handed the bundle over the counter. Lara tucked it gingerly into her purse, on top of the books she was carrying with her.

“I’ll be careful,” she heard herself say.

As she turned to leave, she wondered why she had said that. It probably made no difference to the salesgirl.

It had started to rain while she wandered the aisles, and now she lingered in the vestibule a moment, tracing rivulets with her eyes as they ran down the panels of the revolving door in front of her. That salesgirl was talking to her like she’d never heard of glass before. She must have thought her particularly stupid. If the cracking was on purpose though—and it was, there were shelves and shelves of cracked glasses, all cracked in the same fashion—Lara couldn’t fathom why the cracking began so far below the rim. The thing looked like some man had one day up and—

She pushed her way out into the night with her coat half-buttoned.

In her haste, she had struck the edge of the wing with her purse. She zipped it open, even with the rain pouring down, to look in at the wrapped glass still nestled on top. Shielding the purse with her other arm, she tried to feel through the paper, to be sure the bowl was still attached to the stem. It was a half-mile to the hotel and she didn’t want to disturb it, to jostle it in any way.  She zipped her purse shut again and looked at her watch. The hotel sat atop a steep hill and the funicular would run twice more that night. If she ran, she could catch the last car to the top. It was out of the question to run. If she lost her footing, even once…

Worse still, she envisioned herself boarding the car, inattentive and quite out of breath. How easy it would be, to stand too close to the doors as they closed and catch her purse between them. She imagined the champagne flute, split neatly in half.

She would walk up the hill.  She couldn’t have it break, not before she could show it to Herr Kirschmann—to Arthur, rather. To Arthur.

It was an important day for her, he’d said. Not so important that he wasn’t spending most of it with his son and Mrs. Kirschmann.  He seemed to enjoy reminding her of their existence. He had booked their usual room for her though, and told her to wait for him there. In case he could find some excuse that night, to slip away.

It was important in any case, he’d told her, to do something just for herself.  It was an important day. She ought to call her father, if nothing else. His voice trailed off a moment.

The hotel lobby overlooked the bay and its back wall was solid glass. One could see the whole city from the tearoom. They sat drinking a genuine Silver Needle—nothing else came close, according to Arthur. But he’d let slip once that a white Darjeeling was almost as exquisite.

At last she had asked him what right she had, to be doing things just for herself.

By way of an answer, he had gestured to the window and said, “I’ll tell you a bit about my mother.” He took a deep draught from his cup before continuing.

“She and I came over when I was twelve years old,” he finally said. “The first month, we lived here, in this very hotel. There used to be a restaurant here, a full-blown restaurant right where we’re sitting. And for the first week, we ate there at every meal. Impossible to get lost that way. And they were good to us there. But on Sundays, they’d close the place. And so our first Sunday, we had lunch somewhere on the waterfront. The Clair d’Lune, I think it was called. No different from any other restaurant in town, certainly not that different from the one they had here. But my mother…well, she forgot all her English at the sight of it. And I looked over at her as the waiter came to take our order, and I saw her hands were shaking.”

He paused to fill his cup once more. “One doesn’t have to be a poet laureate to order from a menu. You know that as well as I do. Now, I wasn’t empathetic, exactly. Certainly not at that age.  But I could see what a weight off her mind it was. That we could go to some restaurant, any restaurant really, and eat there without causing a scene. And after that, I remember, it all seemed quite …surmountable. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, yes,” Lara had said. “Surmountable. That’s just it, I suppose. Surmountable.”

She had forgotten to eat, but the tearoom would be open for half an hour more. She peeled off her coat at once—it had proven too thin for the driving rain—and draped it over a chair. She was wearing a white lace dress that she found too short for her liking. It hung off her rather shapelessly, she thought, as she caught sight of herself in the glass. There had been a pink sash sewn to it, but she’d cut it off that morning. It had looked too babyish. It was lying now, unfurled, on the floor of the bungalow she rented.

The waitress—tonight it was Simin—moved to bring over the Silver Needle, but Lara stopped her and asked instead for the white Darjeeling. She brought two cups with the pot and stood off behind the bar for some time before returning to ask Lara if she wanted anything else. Lara shook her head, but Simin returned some minutes later with a plate of fingerling potatoes. She refused to furnish a bill and would take no money from Lara, though Darjeeling white tea was hard to come by. The tearoom, she insisted, had closed an hour before.

Before going up to the room, she called her father from the front desk and found it more trouble than it was worth. Though he tried to pretend otherwise, she had woken the poor old man from a deep sleep. Even when Lara was young, he had fallen asleep wherever he happened to be by eight in the evening.

He bellowed into her ear in broken English until she said, “Papa it’s me,” and he asked her softly if she had managed to have a nice day. She could hear the old borzoi, Strelka, barking somewhere in the house. She thought for a moment that she’d heard rain coming down there too, but she had to have imagined that. She could not have heard rain from that distance.

When he asked if she was there still, she assured him that yes, she had had a fine day. He asked if the weather was clear and after she replied that it was, he told her, meekly, that he could think of nothing else to say.

She whispered, “Good night then, Papa,” and handed the receiver back to the waiting concierge.

She thought of calling her father back. She ought to have asked him what the weather was doing there. She ought to have asked him that, at the very least. She thought of buying a newspaper, to see what the weather had been.

I see that it’s been raining, she might say to him, but tomorrow it will be brisk and clear.

But he would have drifted off again, by now. By the immense white clock above the front desk, it was nearly midnight. The next time they spoke, though, she would be sure to remark on the weather. She would look in the paper every day until one of them called the other. Clutching her purse to her chest now, she made her way to the elevator.

Alone in the room, before she’d even taken off her shoes, she laid the wrapped champagne flute on its side on the writing desk. It felt whole to her still through the tissue paper, but she couldn’t have gone all this time without nicking the rim some way or another. Even now, she was certain, a crack—an ugly, unintended one—was spreading all the way through it.

She’d have to wait and unwrap it front of Arthur, so she could explain. Explain to him what a peculiar thing it had been. So peculiar that she’d bought it just to show him, though she had no other use for it.

They would stand together before it. A thousand tiny shards of glass, still holding the shape of a champagne flute, for just an instant longer. It would fly to pieces right there in front of their eyes. The paper and ribbon would be all that had held it together.

There was a knock at the door, but she did not go straight away to answer it. If the glass had shattered already, as she knew it had, she could tell him it served her right, for buying it with the job half-done already. And if, for some reason, it hadn’t? Then Arthur, surely, would go to the cabinet beside the bed. There were two champagne flutes kept there, always. Ordinary ones forged from ordinary glass, perfectly solid and whole. Arthur, no doubt, would go and get one, and lay it beside her own. He would ask her the difference. Would she have been so afraid, he would ask, if this were the glass she was carrying with her?

 


1522677_10152009677005264_724238255099280136_oMarie Seegmiller is a junior at Hampshire College. In addition to creative writing, she studies history and comparative literature, with particular emphasis on Eastern Europe. In the fall, she will formally begin her senior thesis, a fictional treatment of the 1941-44 blockade of Leningrad. She served as co-editor of the print edition of The Blackstick Review.

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