Two Men at Tea
Chapter One - Introduction Is Such Sweet Sorrow
"As much as you made this place out to be," Leni complained, "I thought it would have been somewhere more appropriate,and not a little hollow nestled amongst the opium dens and guild houses. The streets are so dirty,I shall never be able to wear these shoes again."
"You could have hired a driver," Solomon suggested,beckoning his friend to sit down.
"No man would drive out here,or at least none I'd trust." Leni finished his tirade and sat down,lighting a cigarette.
"Well,I assure you the journey is well worthwhile," Solomon assured assuringly, "The tea here is to taste what Mozart is to hearing."
"There you go again,talking of Mozart as if his music was a divine revolutionary revelation. The man's music entangles itself on its own notes. The human ear cannot bear so many discordant screeches fighting for attention. It scrambles the thoughts."
"Leni,you are incorrigible," Solomon observed, "but even you will not be able to hate the tea served in this place."
"Even if you are right,it will be so only that I have an utter lack of hatred for it. The absence of hate is still hate. Yes,even love is an act of hate."
Chapter Two - An Even Trade
The waiter brought Leni's first cup of tea. It was a light darjeeling flavored with apple spice and roses. The cup was dark grey and shiny like hematite,with a silver band encircling the rim.
"It tastes like a flower garden," was Leni's only comment.
"This cafe serves the rarest and finest blends to be found in this province,so I understand if you take awhile to adapt." Solomon's own cup was red like a Chinese dragon with gilt and inlaid jade. The jade glittered in a bright green sunburst that exploded across the center of the cup.
"You're right in one thing," Leni said, "It is like Mozart: A myriad of unrelated flavors assaulting me. It is repulsive."
"The seemingly unrelated myriad of details all combine to form one larger,more complex harmony,and it is a masterpiece."
"You seem rather pleased by whatever it is you have there," Leni said snidely. Solomon sipped and smiled.
"But,Leni,at this stage it would be poison to you," Solomon warned.
"If I do not take that poison,I will surely be slain by the mediocrity held at bay within my own cup."
"Better that than to be put to eternity by a poison one has not yet learned to appreciate."
Chapter Three - The Man On the Zeppelin
"In any case,Leni,I am glad to see you back in fair Cialla.* How went your trip to America?"
"The passage was terrible. These zeppelin may be quite nice for overland trips,but they're dreadful things crossing the seas. Over the ocean in a zeppelin one is always fearing for one's life while hating his life at the same time." Leni finished his first cup of tea and lit another cigarette. The apple spice that had flavored it would soon begin to act as a mild stimulant on his brain. It was one of the many specialties of the Third Place Cafe Unknown,referred to by those who knew it as Sol Sul Noir.
"Zeppelins are delightful because they afford one the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people," Solomon said,beaming beamingly.
"People are walking contradictions of themselves,and are entirely unpleasant. The only man I met on board the zeppelin spent the length of the voyage trying to beg me for an investment in his cable-laying company. Quite pathetic. I hated him completely."
"In that case," Solomon said, "you gave him much more than if you had just invested in his business venture." The waiter came with the second cup of tea.
*Autonomous region situated between Spain and France (Very nice)
Chapter Four - The Americans
The second cup of tea was much darker than the first had been,and was flavored with cinnamon and plum. It was served to Leni in the same hematite-colored cup,just as Solomon's renewed serving of tea was presented in the same jade green on dragon red.
"You went to America for an exhibition," Solomon said, "Was your work well-received,at least?"
"The Americans know nothing about art,and they adored my painting. What's worse,they coerced me into reading a few of my poems and were moved to tears by what I read."
"How is it so terrible to have your heart moved by prose? No harm in appreciating what's beautiful."
"Art is useful only if it isolates one from his emotions. Poetry that causes tears to flow is a complete failure,no good at all."
"The point of art is to stimulate the senses. The best of art stimulates all the senses in turn. That is why autumn is so beautiful."
"Autumn is beautiful because the death of anything is always beautiful. The complete cessation of awareness is the perfect expression of art."
"You resist too much when people love you," Solomon observed observantly.
"The only thing worse for an artist than an audience crying over his work is being paid for it. The Americans did both."
Chapter Five - A Martyr or a Heretic
"The socialists attempted another coup while you were off having your poetry wept over," Solomon reported.
"Socialism," Leni repeated, "Now there's art. It is beautiful and it insulates one totally from reality."
"I fought alongside them for about two weeks," Solomon revealed revealingly, "until the hopelessness of the situation again became undeniable."
"You,with a gun?" Leni was aghast.
"I hate the things,and I hate the necessity of them even more. But yes,me,with a gun."
"A gun is simple and perfect,and revolution is the carnival of the people. One is always hung over the morning after the carnival,yet still goes every time it is in town."
"Even when it is well-known what fate befalls any career revolutionary," Solomon concluded conclusively.
Leni nodded solemnly and lit another cigarette. This one was darker than the others,and smelled lightly of opium. The smoke Leni exhaled hung in dense clouds. The waiter came around with a tray of pastries Solomon had asked for. They were baked with honey and filled with blueberries.
Chapter Six - What Happened In Odal
"That explains one thing,at least," Leni began after staring heavily at his cigarette for a time, "I wondered,as I was coming home on the zeppelin,why Odal was in flames. Your work?"
"Odal,actually,went almost completely untouched by our uprising." Solomon took a sip of tea and looked sedately at Leni.
"But the entire city was in ashes,still glowing red and orange."
"And you'd like to know what happened?"
"I have the slightest itch of curiosity," Leni said,thick lines of smoke dropping from the lit end of his cigarette.
"Well,I don't know. But the papers have dreamed up an adequate explanation. They're quite good with your kind of art,sheltering people from reality. The story goes that a young Odalian man proposed to his three favorite ladies in one night,then ran out on all of them the next morning. Such a fuss was made that they burnt the town looking for him."
"I'd scarcely believe it,but the magnitude of human stupidity you just described lends the story credibility."
"And that is what I get in exchange for the coin I give the newsboy every day at noon."
Chapter Seven - The Practicality of the Japanese
"So what is your purpose,Solomon,in dragging a wretch like me out to have tea in the dingiest section of town?"
"There is no purpose," Solomon conceded concedingly, "and you are no wretch. The only truly wretched man I've ever known was years ago,when I was on long-term business in Japan. His mother curled up behind the house and died when he was a child. The family was poor,and his mother wanted to reduce the number of mouths to feed. He grew up blaming himself for her death."
"He grew up hating her for her practicality," Leni contested. The waiter came in with the third round of tea.
"He drank beer every day," Solomon said sadly as he reached for the vibrant red cup, "And he,too,resisted the love of others."
Chapter Eight - Love
The third cup of tea was a strong,vigorous rooibos heavy with milk and sugar. It was flavored,like the pastries,with blueberries.
"What is the love of others,then,for you to speak so reverently of it?" Leni demanded, "Just a demanding,urging need for someone,constantly realigning itself to prefer another."
"You've had lots of practice at it,I see," Solomon jeered jeeringly. He barely contained a laugh.
Chapter Nine - The Crystal Palace
Leni lit another cigarette. The vicinity surrounding his table was already choked with a miasma of his spent smoke. A hard,cold rain beat on the windows and pummeled the world outside.
"The magnitude of your idealism astounds me," Leni chided, "It separates you from reality as well as any masterpiece."
"I'm not so bad as that. Don't expect me to start living in the Crystal Palace just yet. But you,too,even with your cynical platitudes,are quite an extraordinary idealist. You are just too much of a perfectionist. You expect too much. You want your people to be as divine beings,yet you want your gods flawed and mortal like yourself."
"What's the use in dreaming up the Crystal Palace if no such place can ever be?"
Solomon set down his teacup and quit the table in frustrated frustration. He put his coat on as he hurried for the exit.
Chapter Ten - Checkmate
In his haste,the old man had left his teacup half full. Leni sipped it out of curiosity. The jasmine-flavored tea was bold but delicate,subtle but distinct,and carried also the taste of honey. It was the most beautiful sorrow he had ever tasted,and his eyes were rimmed with tears.
"There in no hope of anything in this world ever getting any better," he promised himself.