Home > Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop

Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop
Author: Roselle Lim


I predicted the future on my third birthday. My aunts had been drinking their tea, and Ma had left her cup on the small table beside the sofa. As any curious child would, I imitated the habits of the older women: my two small hands cradled the ceramic of the handleless cup, fingertips not quite encompassing its circumference. I took a sip. As I gazed at the tea leaves floating at the bottom, my vision blurred and my mouth filled with the bitter taste of chewing on a grapefruit rind.

“The Hofstras are moving. Jeff doesn’t love Rachel anymore.”

I fell to the floor in tears, feeling the force of a sadness I could not comprehend. My aunts rushed over to me as Ma held me in her arms. There were whispers in Mandarin and Hokkien, but I heard only the name of my aunt—Evelyn—repeated.

Any possibility of a life of my choosing was extinguished like the candles on my birthday cake.

Every prediction had a taste. The family’s new business venture was savory: a bite of roasted pork belly. A family squabble was bitterness: the dregs of a stale, cold cup of tea. A joyous fortune like Auntie Ning’s pregnancy and baby girl was sweet: the sticky center of deep-fried sesame balls.

My last happy prediction was four months ago, for my cousin Cynthia’s nuptials, which now brought my aunt, uncle, and me to Williams Sonoma to browse through her wedding registry. Three weeks ago, I bought an abstract, mixed-media painting for my cousin at one of my favorite galleries. We had decided it would be perfect in her dining room above the low, minimalistic, bleached birch buffet table she loved. Today, I was tagging along to help my aunt and uncle with their purchases.

Walls of pristine metal cookware gleamed alongside shiny new appliances aligned on golden wooden shelving. None were of any interest to me. I only stepped into this store to buy gifts for others. My preferred merchants peddled paintings, not pots and pans.

Auntie Faye tapped my arm. “I don’t understand why she needs so much cookware. The girl doesn’t cook.”

“Maybe it’s aspirational,” I suggested. “I mean, you can’t fault her for wanting to learn eventually.”

Cynthia and I were both inept in the kitchen; we overcompensated with a library of takeout menus to the best restaurants: digital copies for convenience, paper preserved as trophies.

Although I had predicted this wedding, and I loved my cousin, I felt uneasy. With Cynthia married, I would become the oldest unwed cousin. Being single meant the focus of the attention was on you at every gathering and function. There was nowhere to hide from the probing questions. My cousin Chester described it as “being naked and vulnerable, and none of your relatives will give you a fig leaf.” The joke was tailored to my tastes, and I appreciated it.

Uncle Michael examined a set of pastel Le Creuset ramekins. They shifted in their box with a slight ceramic clink as he lifted them to eye level. “I think these are mostly for Edwin. He can bake a decent Sacher torte. Cynthia invited me over last week to show off her soon-to-be husband’s skills.”

In his midfifties, dashing, and sharp, Uncle Michael was always my favorite. Like all my aunts and uncles, he appeared at least a decade younger. I always likened him to a Chinese Gregory Peck circa Roman Holiday. A lead user experience designer at a large financial corporation in Fresno, he lived three hours away and I never got to see him enough.

“Vanessa,” my aunt began, “now that Cynthia is getting married, you should think about—”

My uncle jabbed my aunt in the ribs.

“Michael!” Auntie Faye held her stomach, feigning injury.

“This is about Cynthia, not about Vanessa.”

A diminutive woman with dark hair swept into an elegant updo, my auntie Fay embodied the ideal salon owner: flawless skin, perfect hair, stylish wardrobe, and the subtle scent of Chanel No. 5. She knew she looked good, and wasn’t the type to hide her assets behind false modesty. I adored her for it.

I moved away from the polite argument between my aunt and uncle.

A South Asian saleswoman in her midtwenties, close to my age, approached me with a smile. “If your parents can’t decide on a registry item, we can definitely explore the gift card option instead.”

I laughed.

The effortless rapport I had with my uncles and aunties often led strangers to misidentify them as my parents. We tended to play along instead of explaining the mistake.

“They’ll work it out. I’ll suggest the gift card idea, though, in case they don’t.” I thanked the salesperson and returned to my bickering “parents.”

“Don’t push Vanessa.” Uncle Michael tucked the set of ramekins under his arm.

“Not pushing is why she’s still single in the first place. Linda isn’t aggressive enough in her setups.”

Ma’s machinations to get me married began the moment I was born, and I had rebelled against them ever since. Dad identified the strain of stubbornness as a classic Yu trait, and this failing of mine was excused, but only to a certain extent.

I cleared my throat.

Auntie Faye paused and smiled. “We’re only trying to look out for your best interests.”

“I know I am,” Michael interjected, “but I’m not sure about Faye.” He tipped his head toward the registers. “I’m buying these. You two should figure out where you want to go for lunch.”

Auntie Faye grabbed my arm and steered me toward the fine china. Of all the goods in the store, these were the most appealing, with their beautiful patterns of florals mixed with modern designs and colors. A few months ago, I treated myself to a set of milk-white La Porcellana Bianca plates as an impulse purchase. The gorgeous hollowed spiral design had a sculptural quality I could not resist. My dad praised my adult decision and excellent taste while we ate takeout tandoori chicken.

Auntie Faye lowered her voice. “Any new predictions?”

In addition to mahjong, it was a Yu family pastime to hedge bets on my predictions. To them, I was their beloved fortune-teller. My gift was as accepted as the science of Chinese numerology or the zodiac charts my uncles consulted before making business decisions.

“No, Auntie. Thank goodness.”

She frowned. “Maybe we can get one during lunch.”

My aunt was the family’s gossip queen. I often thought she chose a career as a beauty salon owner to facilitate her need to know everyone’s business. If gossip were a commodity, she would control the market.

“Auntie, I am not a fortune vending machine.”

“I just want to be here if anything comes up.”

Uncle Michael, armed with a paper shopping bag, approached us. “Faye, why don’t you go check out. I need to talk to Vanessa for a minute.”

“Tell me if she says something.” Auntie Faye waved and headed for the till. “I’ll just buy a gift card and be done with it.”

I let out a relaxed sigh. “Thank you for the save.”

“You know her. She needs to be the first for any kind of news.” He wrinkled his nose, jarring his glasses a little askew. “How are you holding up?”

“I feel the pressure. I already know Ma’s planning something, but I don’t know what. She is determined that I have a plus-one for the wedding. At least you’re good in that department. How are things with Jack?”

“Good! I think I have prepared him for the family. He’ll be ready for Cynthia’s wedding.”

Jack McCrae stepped into Uncle Michael’s life six months ago after I invited Michael to Jack’s photography exhibit and introduced them. Two months later, I had the formal pleasure of “meeting him” over hotpot. Jack was an energetic and passionate photographer. His photographs left me with an enigma. I wanted to know more about his subjects and the story behind them all. The portraits of my uncle were unabashed love letters: pictures that caught my uncle in his joyful moments. I didn’t need to be present to know the photographer contributed to said happiness: I had witnessed it firsthand on numerous occasions.

This man loved Uncle Michael.

“Maybe you can bring a friend instead?” he asked. “That might placate your mother for now.”

“I have no friends unless you count the cousins. And one of them betrayed me by getting married.”

“The horde” comprised the twenty-seven fourth-generation cousins; not enough for a full football roster, but enough for two teams of softball in the summer. The sports activities were fun, but I preferred the wine and painting nights.

“If you and your aunt haven’t decided where to eat, I know just the place.” He offered his arm and escorted me to the exit, where Auntie Faye was waiting.

* * *

* * *

Uncle Michael chose a quiet Indian fusion restaurant ten minutes away, and while we browsed the menu, I ordered mango lassis for all three of us. My uncle and aunt were engrossed in a conversation about the lavish prizes and ongoing bets on who would win the aunties’ upcoming annual mahjong tournament. The tension eased from my shoulders as I sipped the delicious drink in peace.

Without intention I spied a pattern in the golden droplets clinging to the glass. My stomach churned as the taste of buttermilk pancakes soaked in maple syrup flooded my mouth. A prophecy coalesced like hard, round candy until it pushed against my teeth and expanded.

“Johnny is planning to propose to Andria next Tuesday and she will accept, but only if the proposal involves an inherited diamond citrine ring.”

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