fiction, poetry & more

Honorable Mention
$25 Award


by A.C. Koch 

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 direction.

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 jasmine souchong.

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

December 2018