Drink Me

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

The first time Eloise got drunk was at her mother’s tea party.

“Eloise, did you dip the strawberries?”

“Yes, Mother, yesterday.” A few minutes passed in anxious silence.

“Eloise, taste this jam.”

She licked the spoon, seedy and red. “Tastes good to me.”

The timer dinged, and her mother quickly pulled the tray of scones out of the oven.

“Eloise, where are the cucumber sandwiches?!”

“Mother, they’re on the table already.”

 

“Will you go pick some hydrangeas -- the purple ones -- and put them in the vase?”

 

Eloise walked outside onto the wrap-around porch, scissors in hand, and made her way down the steps onto the plush grass. She clipped the biggest bloom she could find, and a few contending ones around it. They drooped in the heat. Her heels sunk in the ground. She looked across the yard to the narrow road, and to the cornfields threatening to take it over. She thought she would rather walk barefoot down the road of bubbling tar, or into the maze of corn higher than her head, than to return to the house.

“Hurry! It’s almost one!” she heard her mother cry from the kitchen.

Eloise suppressed her sigh and walked back into the house, straight to the living room. She placed the purple flowers in the jug full of water, their paper-thin petals freeing themselves and falling all over the cloth. She stepped back. The table was, indeed, magnificently spread, and she marveled at her mother’s handiwork. Each place setting held a different set of china, accumulated over years of “quick peeks” in antique stores, great-grandmothers’ favorites passed down, carefully chosen wedding gifts, and Tuesday Morning finds. Mismatched teacups and saucers -- in blue Delft countryside scenes, soft pink roses, delicate daisies, rims of gold -- scattered the lace tablecloth, perfectly in place, of course.

Her mother was known for her cooking, and there is no better way to prove one’s expertise than to a room full of women, a table full of finger-food spread before them. Strawberries dripping in hardened chocolate, frosted petits fours, cucumber sandwiches, sugar-coated grapes, and her famous hot scones paired with raspberry jam and freshly-whipped cream, decorated the table.

The doorbell rang, and then it began. The women trickled in, usually in pairs or clusters. The doorbell was soon forgotten, and the kitchen easily filled with shrill chatter and summer air. When Grandmother entered the room, cane in hand and smile on her face, her presence was immediately known by all. She was a sight. Grandmother wore her perfect tea party attire: a floppy hat perched on her silver curls, long pearls draping down her blouse, bangles creeping up her arms, earrings making her ears droop, and, of course, pink lipstick, staining that thin mouth of hers. No time lapsed before arms overlapped, cheeks bumped and kissed, and everyone caught a whiff of Grandmother’s perfume.

After her arrival, Mother said, in her not so assertive voice, “Let’s sit.” Not everyone heard, but the crowd slowly migrated to the dining room table.

“How lovely this looks!” cried a great aunt. “What kinds of tea?”

“In the blue teapot is Earl Grey, in this one is Summer Pudding, here we have English Breakfast, and in the far one is peppermint,” Mother told her guests.

Eloise sat in front of a pale pink teacup and saucer set, with green and gold leaves and vines intertwining, strangling each other. This must be the most hideous of them all, she thought. Beside her sat her younger cousin and confidant, fifteen-year-old Kathleen.

“Eloise, stop frowning. Don’t you love teatime? You must!” Grandmother exclaimed.

“Oh, yes, I suppose,” she said as she strained a smile and her voice grew higher.

Kathleen fidgeted in her dress. “I look like a china doll,” she said to Eloise.

“Mom made me wear this. It is awful.” She pulled out her paisley green skirt as if Eloise couldn’t see it already.

“More like Anne of Green Gables,” Eloise said with a grin, eyeing her auburn plaited hair. Kathleen sighed dramatically and started to eat.

Teatime attire was a must, and everyone followed the rules. This included hats, gloves, jewelry, dresses, and heels, or if you asked Eloise, an abundance of anything lacey, frilly, or pink.

When Kathleen ate, it seemed as if she had no motor control. When she drank her tea, she slurped. When she stirred cream or sugar, her spoon clinked and spilled. When she bit into a chocolate strawberry, seeds stuck between her teeth. When she ate a scone, whipped cream coated her upper lip and the tip of her nose. She was always dropping crumbs and reaching over and talking with her mouth full and simply defying every rule of tea party etiquette. And all Eloise did in response was smile and laugh.

As Kathleen ate and slurped, her own mother fussed.

“Kathleen!” she sneered. “Where are your manners? Didn’t I ever teach you?”

She grabbed the lacey cloth napkin beside Kathleen’s plate and thrust it on her lap. Kathleen rolled her eyes. It took a single scream for them to notice the commotion at the end of the table. A woman with a feather boa around her neck stood with her mouth formed in a wide O, her eyebrows raised and her hands on her face.

She shrieked, “Somebody help! She’s choking! She’s choking! She’s choking! Call 9-11!”

Eloise looked down the table, by the woman in the feather boa, to see the plump lady from the end of the road. Her face was turning blue, her hands were clasped around her neck, and she made no sound. The little girl in gingham blue beside her sat and stared, methodically stroking the sleeping ferret in her lap.

Amidst the scurrying, screaming, and staring, finally the great aunt grabbed the plump lady around the waist and thrust her arms in the creases of her body until finally, a single grape popped out, and landed in the little girl in blue’s tea. The plump lady caught her breath. The little girl cried.

The other children sat around a low red table with their own miniature tea set, oblivious to the happenings of the higher table. They were experts at teatime, and more than happy to show off their white gloves and party dresses, and to cheer up the pouting little boy in suspenders.

“Margaret, would you pass the tea?”

“Yes, I shall pour it myself, thank you.”

“Have a cookie, Samuel.”

“There, there, little boys are allowed to tea parties….well, until they are ten.”

A young woman in purple striped stockings sat to Eloise’s left, a distant cousin maybe, she wasn’t quite sure. She nudged her knee, in the most ladylike way possible, and said, “Pass your tea.”

Eloise looked confused but handed her the flowery cup. The woman in purple lifted up the tablecloth, and beneath the edge of her pastel skirt, balanced a bottle of light brown liquid. She looked around, and with the teacup under the table, poured in a generous splash.

Eloise choked the first time she tried the hot liquid, but soon it became easier to drink and warmed her whole body. The two shared glances.

Eloise knew Grandmother was bound to cry at some point. She couldn’t forget the time she had visited her that winter, when Grandmother had directed her to the brown paper bag on her counter. It contained two sacks of flour. She told Eloise the story of Mr. Gaunt leaving money in his Will decades ago for every widow of the village to receive ten pounds of flour during the Christmas season. “To bake with for the holiday,” she choked through tears, when Eloise inquired why. The village woman had showed up at her door that day, Grandmother told her. “Take it,” she told Eloise. Balancing the brown paper bag in her arms, Eloise left her crying at the door.

Grandmother sat, clutching her tea, tears streaming down her face. Three women comforted her, and the rest sat chatting away, pretending, or not, to be oblivious.

The volume of the room grew louder.

A woman across the hydrangeas asked, “So, Eloise, how is your boyfriend?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she replied, draining her cup for the second time, and passing it to her left.

A few teacups down the table, it sounded like:

“No, no, tomatoes don’t grow in Ohio.”

“Well of course they do!”

“Good heavens, what have I been doing wrong?”

Diagonal from them, it went like this:

“I had the women over for Bridge on Wednesday.”

“Well what did you serve them?”

“Walking tacos! I received so many compliments.”

A few women to the right poured themselves more tea and said,

“I heard he wasn’t doing well.”

“I’m surprised he’s still alive.”

Kathleen’s mother, hearing bits of conversations about the president, car accidents, and hospice, turned to Eloise and whispered, rather loudly, “I don’t believe that is tea party talk.”

A husband walked in the room, and all the women turned to stare, their mouths never slowing. Kathleen’s mother frowned. “Tea parties are for women,” she said, forgetting to whisper.

He didn’t hear or didn’t care, a big smile on his rosy face.

“Why, where did you get that azalea bush?!” he asked Mother in a booming voice, his eyes on the back of Eloise.

No one answered.

“Oh, that’s a person!” Eloise turned around as he clapped her on the shoulder. She hardly felt the impact of his hand. She forgot she was wearing a dress in the pattern of life-size azaleas.

“Hello, there.” She burst in a fit of undistinguishable hiccups or giggles as he walked away.

The women started shrieking, this time in order, down the table, one by one.

“Dear, please stop grazing my foot.”

“There is something on my….”

“Oh my!”

“What is ---”

“Good heavens, there’s a creature under the table!”

The frightened ferret made his way to Eloise, who clumsily picked him up, before realizing the little girl in blue was right behind him, under the table. She poked her head out and wordlessly reached for her pet, struggling in Eloise’s grasp. Eloise dropped the ferret and the little girl caught him.

After some time, Eloise finished her fifth cup of tea, and stumbled to the porch to get some air. She leaned over the railing and looked down at the bush below, swirling in and out of view. She heard chairs scraping the hardwood floor, and the guests talking. Women are so loud, she thought. The little girl in blue opened the door behind her and joined her side, the ferret in her arms, still asleep.

“Oh, child, don’t grow up….don’t grow up and be like…them…or me,” she mumbled, her hands tangling in the little girl’s thin blonde hair.

“She’s having a baby,” the little girl responded.

“Your ferret? That’s sweet,” Eloise replied.

“No, he’s a boy!” the little girl giggled.

The little girl cracked open the door. Eloise could make out the words,

“Her water broke!”

“Where’s that husband of hers?!”

“I will drive.”

“You cannot drive.”

“You must BREATHE!”

“I’ve delivered a baby before.”

Eloise sat down on the porch floor, its white paint curling in the day’s humidity. The little girl in blue crossed her legs, and sat down beside her. They sat for a few moments until Eloise broke the silence.

“I do believe ---” She paused.

“---I’ve never been to a more fun tea party ever before. ---

Don’t you agree?”

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