She lost a lot in that break-up, but Anika at least had a place to go.
It wasn’t a coincidence she asked for. A spot in her uncle’s house opened up only because he lost his husband some months prior. Of course, she would never ask for that to happen, but Anika couldn’t help but feel like it was bizarre luck.
Uncle Malik sounded thrilled over the phone when Anika brought it up, if confused. It was just five years ago that Anika fled across the country. She might have grown up in East Hastings, close to her uncle, but the quaint university town had gotten so boring to her. Not even an ever-changing population helped it. And she made that intention clear to her uncles. But the deal was made. Anika looked forward to East Hastings, weird as it sounded to her.
Looking forward to her kind, contented uncle.
The latter trait had slipped away from poor Malik, though. While he seemed to hold his own at the funeral, Anika instantly noticed how different he had become at home. Back when she was a child, he went through life with so much ease. In spite of his stressful job as an English professor in his underfunded department, Malik showed no pain over it. A second job of raising Anika when her parents weren’t around was no burden to him.
But death was.
Anika, at first, didn’t get it. Nor did she she care to get it. Maybe it was the sick thought it her head that her uncle should have expected to lose his husband one day. Peter was a decade older, and wasn’t there that period when he had a mid-life crisis and drank through it? Meanwhile, she still moped about getting laid off. Breaking up. Getting kicked out of her ex’s house.
She still did that to Denise, the other clerk at the antique shop she worked at. Without any networking or telecom jobs open in the area, Anika had to settle with working at her uncles’ shop. It was Peter’s thing when he was still alive, but Malik wanted to keep his husband’s pride and joy going. He always did the finances for the place anyways, but antiques were beyond him. And beyond those two bored clerks too.
“You know what to do with the new arrivals as well as I do,” Denise said, late one afternoon. “You got it?”
“Yeah, new arrivals, got it,” Anika muttered. She went to the back room as told.
Anika didn’t expect anything new. She had been in that dark, quiet place many times before. It was just still weird doing it as a job.
Right at the entrance was a desk, which Malik sometimes worked at. Filling in the books, or filling in his grades. He still kept a framed picture of him and Peter there, from their wedding day. It was only twelve years before, and Anika remembered that day well. They took her as they waited on the steps of the State House. They helped fight hard for marriage equality in the state of Middlesex, and wanted to be the first to reap the rewards.
Being the fifth couple worked fine for them too.
The dining table that arrived…Anika hadn’t even had a week at the job. What did she know about old tables? She ignored that job, for something familiar on a shelf.
Even though she was still a rookie to the world of antiques, she knew exactly what that tea set was. Franciscan Desert Rose, dating back to 1942. Appraised at three-hundred dollars for the entire collection. Anika always liked its pink and ivory motif. It brought her back to a better time. A better time for her.
Bittersweet as it was to think about, that time was a better one for Malik too.
Malik knew little about girls, but he remembered having tea with female classmates when he was young. He had to beg and plead with Peter not to sell the most attractive tea set in the back. He used all of his romantic charm until his partner smiled and said “all right, for the niece.” After that, Malik and a young Anika would spend afternoons in the back room after his classes. She learned how to brew tea to perfection, and acquired a strong taste for chai and chamomile by age eight.
Often, Anika sipped tea and looked over her uncle’s shoulder when he graded papers. She learned a lot about grammar, or the critiques of colonialism and masculinity present in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. And Malik would never hesitate to help with Anika’s homework. He counseled her through stress and that awful pregnancy scare when she was seventeen. Always done over a pot of delicious hot tea.
When no one was there for Anika, there was uncle Malik. And she had no idea who was there for the grieving man now.
Malik came in around seven that night, looking exhausted. Although she was busy with a lone customer, Anika noticed the paper cup he left on the counter. She did say something about needing a hot drink that morning.
He yawned. “Uh…soy macchiato, right?”
“Good job for no sleep,” Anika said. She took one sip of her drink, which was as tasty as ever. As soon as she looked around, it seemed as if her uncle had wandered back upstairs. Back to their flat and to his cozy study, or at least she hoped.
Twenty minutes later, Anika went up to their flat, and found Malik quiet and asleep. Which was the second most-likely scenario. He did seem to sleep a lot after Peter’s death, more than Anika ever remembered him doing.
She shook him awake.
“Crap…the finances! I can’t let the place go now,” Malik muttered, while rubbing his tired eyes.
“I’d rather not worry about that,” Anika said. He then seemed to notice the tea tray she placed on the dresser. A cloud of steam streamed from the spout of the teapot.
“I almost forgot about this,” he said. Though weak, Malik’s voice took on an excitement and joy that Anika hasn’t heard from him in ages. “Is that chamomile?”
“Yeah…I know I’ve been whining about myself ever since I moved back, but I don’t wanna see you like this! You…you lost something a lot bigger.”
“I still have my job! And a place to live. It’s just…it’s just been hard to face living without Peter.” His face sunk. “We were together since I was twenty. I’ve stopped blaming myself for this, but I still don’t know anything but him.”
“See? And I’ll never know that,” said Anika. “I just lost a silly young relationship…and everything else.”
“Bring that tray out to the kitchen,” Malik said. “I think we both need it.”
A cup of tea in the dim, flame-colored kitchen light brought out the best of both their moods. Malik kept his smile, and Anika felt a warmth she never knew she had.
“When you think about it,” said Malik. “When you think about it, I’ll never lose you.”
“You want to talk about dying first?”
“You’re the first person I expect by my deathbed.”
Anika’s face melted into a shy smile. “And I can’t break up with family as easily. Well, I don’t plan for anything to happen between us again.”
“You’ll tolerate East Hastings again for me?” he asked.
“…yes. Before anyone else.”
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