Years ago, he heard a story in a Korean tea house about how it
was possible to enchant two people into falling in love by placing
them both into the same tea cup and leaving them there for a
while. If they started freaking out that they had been miniaturized
and confined to a tea cup, then they weren’t going to work as a
couple. But the ones who didn’t even notice what was happening—
those were meant for true love.
He’d forgotten who told him that story. Was it Mr. Jung, the boss
of the institute where he’d taught English, or was it one of the
female Korean teachers who were always flirting with him? Many
years had gone by and he no longer remembered. But the story
stuck with him.
Skip to some years later, when he was working as a barista at a
neighborhood coffee house while he worked through his master’s
in education. What he loved about the job was the people. Lots of
regulars came through the line at the same time every day, to the
point that he’d start making their drink as soon as he saw them
walking past the front window. Extra dry cappuccino. Decaf half-
soy, half-almond milk latte. Iced caramel vanilla mocha with cocoa
powder. He knew his customers and he knew their drinks. And
over time, he watched as friendships and romances bloomed in
the line at the espresso bar.
Stockbroker Guy with the pug nose (cortado with two sugar cubes
on the side) had a thing for Kindergarten Teacher with the long
curtains of blonde hair (iced coffee, simple). He liked them both.
They were both pleasant and tipped well. They clearly didn’t know
each other—moved in very different worlds—but they often came
in around the same time, which had to have some cosmic
meaning. He even started manipulating events to bring them
together in line, like screwing up somebody else's order in front of
them, which gave them something to talk about.
He decided to try the tea cup trick. The coffee house didn’t have a
tea set like those he’d seen in Korea, but they did have small tea
pots and palm-sized ceramic bowls to go with them, mismatched
as they were. On the special day, he ignored their usual orders
and brewed up a pot of Oolong, then did the trick as they stood at
the counter chatting and waiting for their drinks. And just like
that, they were together in one of the small tea cups. He made
sure the tea was only lukewarm before he poured it over them like
a bath and then set them at an out of the way table. No one else
noticed a thing.
Forty-five minutes later, he went back to check on them and give
them a warm-up. She was floating on her back and he was
supporting her gently from below. They were laughing and talking
quietly, and he let them be. Some time later, the effect wore off
and they found themselves sitting together at the table, their
clothes inexplicably soaked, but not caring. They walked arm in
arm out into a warm summer evening without even a glance in his
The master’s in education didn’t work out. The barista job was
fulfilling him in ways he hadn’t anticipated. He tried the tea cup
trick with a couple older divorcés, and they hit it off as well. The
only time it didn’t work was with two young dudes, because one
of them turned out not to be gay.
He had no one in his own life, not even any candidates. That was
okay with him. It gave him a lot of pleasure to be able to serve
others, to help them along the road to where they needed to go,
whether it was with coffee or with love.
But sometimes, during those long, slow stretches when no one
came in, he wondered if he wasn’t meant for something else.
Should he go back to Korea? Should he just stay forever at this
coffee house? Could he turn this tea cup thing into something
really unique? He realized that he probably knew the answers to
these questions, he just wasn’t in touch enough with his own
feelings to figure it out. And then he realized he had the perfect
solution at his fingertips.
He put himself into a tea cup. Just him, alone, chest deep in
Someone approached the counter and peered down at him. “Are
you okay in there? Do you need some help?”
He realized he didn't know the process for breaking the spell, only
the one for casting it. He might be stuck this way for a while. But
the tea was so warm—the perfect temperature, really—and he felt
so serene. His worries felt a million miles away. “Just help
yourself to some coffee,” he called in what must have sounded
like an absurdly squeaky and small voice. “I’m just here finding
myself. I’m sure it won't take long.”
A.C. Koch is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has
been published in a variety of literary journals such as Mississippi
Review, Exquisite Corpse, and the Columbia Journal. Two of his
short stories have been awarded first place in the Raymond
Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine (2003, 2007). He
lives in Denver, CO where he teaches linguistics and plays guitar
in Firstimers, a bossanova powerpop ensemble.
Photo credit: Denise Andert