Allie clasped the edge of the café table, white-knuckled and queasy as she watched Paul reach for the tea bag. His profile hadn’t said anything about him being a tea drinker.
“It’s crazy how some people let the little things get in the way,” Paul said. “A friend of mine met this girl who was perfect for him, but he broke up with her when he found out she liked cats. Said he couldn’t bring himself to date a cat person.”
Allie sucked in a deep breath. The evening had been so perfect: the opera, the dinner, the conversation. The cup sitting in front of Paul was perfect: white porcelain with a tasteful interlacing of blue and pink flowers circling just below the brim. Even the water was perfect: still and hot, steam rising in sensuous wisps.
And now Paul was going to destroy every last bit of it. With Earl Grey, of all things.
“You know, I was really nervous about this whole internet dating thing.” Paul fingered the tea bag and smiled with boyish embarrassment. “But I’ve had a really great time.”
“Me too,” Allie said, fighting the urge to add, Until now. Why couldn’t he have ordered coffee like she had? What if he kissed her goodnight and all she could taste was the bitter tea lingering on his tongue? She’d probably vomit all over his tweed jacket.
Paul dipped the tea bag into his cup. The tea leached into the water, polluting its clear perfection with tentacle-like swirls of brown.
Some faults Allie could live with, but a tea drinker? She had tried the accursed drink once; it had tasted like sugar-sweetened evil washing over her tongue. She gagged at the memory.
“Are you all right?” Paul asked. “Should I get you some water?”
So you can pollute it with one of your foul tea bags? she thought. The need to scream became suffocating, but Paul’s face creased with so much concern that Allie’s anxiety dissipated. The tea didn’t have to be a deal breaker. She could change him.
“I read this article online.” Allie tried to keep her voice casual, even-tempered. Paul would never take her seriously if she came across like the paranoid loon-job her ex had accused her of being. “And tea… well, it causes all sorts of terrible things.”
“You mean like cancer?” Paul laughed, then emptied a sugar packet into his tea. “I’m beginning to wonder what doesn’t cause cancer anymore. But tea? Studies have shown that it’s actually quite good for you.”
“Well, maybe not cancer,” Allie said, cringing as Paul stirred a trickle of milk into his cup.
Paul regarded her with a dubious smile. “Then what?”
“Impotence,” Allie blurted, “and some kind of rash.”
“Tea causes impotence?” Paul gave his drink one final stir, then set his spoon aside. “What kind of websites have you been reading?”
Paul’s fingers slipped around the cup’s handle. “It’s probably just an urban legend or something.”
He raised the tea to his lips. Allie leapt from her chair and thrust her hand between his mouth and the cup.
“It’s true!” she cried. Conversations silenced throughout the café. The other customers stared at her, started whispering and snickering, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t let Paul ruin their chance at a relationship. Not with tea.
Paul set the cup down. “Maybe this was a mistake.”
“Really?” Allie stared at the tea, undrunk, then at Paul. Had she really convinced him so easily? She sank into her chair and sighed. Maybe she had found her soul mate after all. “People always tell me I’m too paranoid about these things, but — ”
“I meant this date.” Paul took his wallet from his pocket, dug out a twenty, and slapped it onto the table. “Personally, I think you really need to lay off the coffee.”
Allie clutched her mocha latte. “But–”
Paul stood, grabbed the teacup, and chugged its contents. A trickle of muddy brown liquid dribbled from the side of his mouth. Allie recoiled. She suddenly noticed Paul’s every wrinkle and blemish, some unfortunate wisps of ear hair, the way one eye didn’t seem quite in line with the other. It was as if drinking the loathsome concoction had transformed him, turning the Jekyll she had dined with into this tea-swilling Hyde.
Paul set his cup down a touch too forcefully and left the café, but Allie didn’t care; he was about as attractive to her now as his damp, shriveled tea leaves. She pulled out her laptop, logged on to the matchmaking site, and started editing her profile. Paul had been right — it was crazy to let the little things get in the way. She’d have to weed them out before they even became an issue.
Absolutely no tea drinkers, Allie wrote, and clicked save.
Barbara A. Barnett is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop whose short stories have appeared in publications such as Fantasy Magazine, Black Static, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction and Wilde Stories 2011: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. In addition to writing fiction, she has worked in the performing arts world for several years and is currently pursuing a masters degree in library and information science at Rutgers University. Barbara lives with her husband in southern New Jersey, frequently bursts into song, and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.