All That It Held
The white porcelain mug with a green stripe on its rim thuds onto the red checkered tablecloth like an announcement. The airy foam of cappuccino, spooned into the vessel by the waiter’s hand, is shaped into a pine tree, the couple’s high school emblem. She slurps the froth, then her date (the hottest guy in the school, her mad crush all spring) leans over and spikes the mug with vodka from a hidden silver flask.
Soon the mug is swiped from the restaurant, pulled out of her purse in an unlit alley near his car. It’s filled to the brim with vodka and passed back and forth. He rests against the car door in his tux and bowtie, tawny waves of his hair curling over his collar. She sees his hazel eyes, smooth skin, puts her finger into the dimple in his chin, and kisses him. Arms enfold, mouths and hands explore. She feels his fingers moving down her back, then they are brushing against her hips, where he lifts her up and then bunches up her chiffon skirt. The mug teeters on the car hood. Later, she places the mug, which now hides the sticky condom, back into her purse.
In September, she dumps her prom date the moment he leaves for a gap year in the Rockies. The mug is stuffed into a shipping box, and then pulled out in her freshman dorm. She fills it with instant coffee and boiling water from an electric kettle for Poli-Sci all-nighters. She nurtures dreams of defending the underserved.
Then there’s someone new, Don, and they sip cheap rosé from the mug while studying, but mostly they joke and have sex on her narrow bed. She’s never been with a man so smart; she feels drawn to his wiry body and his mind. He can recite whole passages of the Constitution, rattle off odd history facts: “Did you know that Americans avoided using the German sounding name ‘hamburger’ during World War II, and instead called it, ‘Liberty Steak?’”
Most mornings, the mug stands empty on her desk beside unopened volumes of Modern Philosophy and The Oxford Companion to American Politics. One day, on its handle, a Post-It note appears with the words, “You’re really nice but it’s not working.” Not long after, she bombs her Modern History midterm.
Milky coffee from a battered pan on a tiny stove fills the mug in a fourth-story walkup on New York City’s East Sixth Street. She lands a job in marketing, not politics. It’s the only work she can find. She leaves the mug in the sink from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while analyzing consumer preferences for toothpastes and mouthwashes. (Mint is the most popular, but clove and fennel have a loyal following.) The company likes her work and thinks she’s talented, something that surprises her.
Now, café au lait flows into the mug from a sleek silver machine. “Your coffee, sweetie!” says Joe, the man she met in R&D at the Englewood production facility.
Each morning, Joe takes her mug from the shelf where it sits beside the unused set of floral chinaware, a wedding gift from Joe’s mother, her mother-in-law. She was immediately drawn to Joe’s attention to detail, how he understands her preference to drink from her mug.
Soon, she pours chardonnay into the mug on weekends at four p.m. and nurses it to the sounds of Sponge Bob and Sesame Street. It causes tugs of war with three-year-old Jeremy, whom she misses while at work. Joe is working at home, as usual, hunched over his laptop in their bedroom, leaving Jeremy to her.
Later, while the TV shows drone on, her mind wanders to her low grades in college and all the important work she had imagined herself doing rather than presenting focus-group research about which toothpaste people prefer. Then Jeremy climbs into her lap, his long lashes thick and soft, and his small body nestles into hers. How can something that feels so right make her feel so lousy?
Wrapped in newspaper and nestled in a box beside old flower vases and Disney souvenirs, the mug is shipped to the sixth floor of a climate-controlled self-storage unit. As their plane lifts off and she leaves her home on New York City’s Upper West Side behind, she clasps her husband’s hand and pulls Jeremy close, unsure of what Joe’s three-year assignment in Beijing will bring.
In a modern high-rise in Jing’an, the family switches to green tea, bought at the local market, steeped each morning, and poured into small porcelain cups. Outside, the constant flow of traffic hums, shops are packed with strangers, and the air is filled with the din of a language that she doesn’t understand. She studies Chinese, enrolls Jeremy in an International School, and takes up teaching English as a second language through EF English First, a global school with teachers and programs based around the world.
When the smog is bad, she tries to avoid going outdoors. On her way to class one afternoon, the smog is so thick she can taste it. Might the smog affect the taste of toothpaste? She feels wistful for her old job, the one she’d always thought of as a compromise, where her ideas and observations might spark a new product line or ad campaign.
When she shares ideas with Joe, he listens and responds, but his answers feel empty. When she mentions this to him, he snaps, “I’m just really stressed.” So far away from home, in their furnished rental, she feels as aimless as the sparrows flying around the rafters in the Jing’an IKEA. Joe constantly talks about increasing factory production. “The new foreman is finally working out,” he says, his face full of a sense of accomplishment she envies.
She rises, cares for Jeremy, practices Chinese, teaches, explores Jing’an. She gazes up at the gray smog and longs for a Saturday morning at the Farmers Market on the Upper West Side. What she wouldn’t give to sit in her tiny kitchen in the States, sipping brewed coffee from her mug, looking out at the water towers on the countless roofs, observing the tomato plants growing on the fire escape next door.
One of her students, a Beijing native, Yuze, is a small lean man with an angular face, high nose, and intelligent eyes. He likes John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He brews her Huangshan Maofeng tea, the most famous variety in China, a pale liquid, floral and grassy, which she thinks tastes bland. It is a tea most Americans in a focus group would skip over, unable to appreciate its delicacy. His gaze is careful and curious. He is interested in her. He remembers things that she says, such as how the Beijing sunset can be so intensely red and purple, a color she’s never seen in New York. She’s drawn to Yuze, his arms, his bedroom with its slanted ceiling, slate blue upholstered headboard, built-in speakers. They lie together listening to Coltrane’s Live in Stockholm and white sheers filter out the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Joe solves production problems in Qingdau and Ningbo. “Nothing that would interest you,” he says during hurried calls. “Poor standardization issues and sub-par digital infrastructure.”
After three months of meetups with Yuze, a taxi carries her among high-rises on the elevated highway and she thinks of Jeremy, who will be back from school soon, how his legs are stretching longer. He’s become suddenly aware that he is a stranger in this country and, each day, he asks, “Will Dad be back today?” She replies, “No, J. J., but soon.”
The taxi speeds off the exit and she holds her hand to her nose to inhale the aroma of Yuze’s cigarettes and the woodiness of his aftershave. She imagines Yuze inside her, feels the shudder of pleasure all over again. But then her mind skips to Joe, how when she slips into his arms it feels comforting, how they sleep together like two nesting C’s. Holding these two images in her mind, something terrible seizes her, an engulfing sense of dread.
She cannot get home soon enough. She exits the cab, races down the pavement, breezes past the concierge, and rides up in the elevator to the ninth-floor apartment, where she showers, then watches for her son’s school bus. She imagines hugging Jeremy, feeling him there in front of her, hearing him talk about lunchtime with Sam and Roberto, how he almost scored the winning soccer goal during recess. Joe will return in a few days. She knows she will never see Yuze again.
Back in the States, after the luggage has arrived and the boxes from storage delivered, she searches for her box. With anticipation she unwraps the mug, fills it with strong cleaner to bring its color back to sparkling white. Its cracks and chips bring her peace. She’s happy to be home in New York with its sirens, noisy garbage trucks lumbering past at three in the morning.
“Why are you using that old thing?” asks Jeremy, almost ten, looking unamused.
“Because I like it,” she says. “It’s mine.”
She brushes Jeremy’s bangs away from his face and thinks of Yuze, how she’d ended it so abruptly: “I can’t see you anymore. Don’t contact me.”
Joe walks into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, puts his arm around her. “Mommy had this mug when I met her. Some things you keep forever.” He squeezes her shoulder. She grabs his hand and holds it.
“I should have brought it to China,” she says.
When Jeremy leaves for college, she holds her mug in two hands, feeling the weight of the life it has lived. Its bottom is grey, the scratches are numerous, but the mug’s feel in her hand is as comfortable as a hug. A few years later, she gives up coffee but still drinks an occasional Mexican hot chocolate from the mug and shares it with Joe, the two of them going gray and slowing down.
One afternoon in early December, snow is falling gently and she and Joe huddle under a blanket. She takes a sip of hot chocolate and hands the mug to Joe. Joe kisses her and draws her close to him. While listening to the familiar sound of his breathing, she thinks of the porcelain cup in Yuze’s apartment, and of the person she became for just a short while. She is glad to have known this, too.
Eventually, the mug is dropped into a box among stacks of medical forms, unfinished needlepoint, sympathy notes. In the quiet apartment, Jeremy picks it up and holds it in his hand, traces a finger around the rim like his mom used to. A film of dust coats its bottom, empty of all that it once held.