The Three Stages of Boiling

In the dim store that smelled of raked leaves, the woman behind the counter interrogated me. “Is it for you, or is it a gift? Are you a business person? A worker? Or creative? To drink in the morning, afternoon or evening? Stimulating or relaxing? Flavoured or black?”

Maybe it was our addiction to inky coffee that had driven me and George to rage. “Relaxing would be good,” I replied.

“What kind of pot do you have?”

This line of questioning pried right into our kitchen. Touchy territory. “A white one?”

“Porcelain,” she noted, a generous term for the thick pot with a stained crack running down its side.

She made notes and disappeared behind the black velvet curtain at the back of the store. I was left in front, alone. In The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo says that Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. The Book was a small library book with yellowed pages. It described the five steps for making tea and the three stages of boiling. The first boil occurs when little bubbles like the eyes of fishes swim on the surface. In the second boil the bubbles are crystal beads rolling in a fountain. At the third boil, the billows surge wildly in the kettle. You add the tea at the second boil. At the third, you pour in a dipperful of cold water to revive the youth of the water. Eyes of fishes, crystal beads, wild billows. I read The Book as George surfed the net for vermiculture information, printing out articles on “Vermicomposting vs. Composting” and “Using Earthworm Systems.”

Today was close, humid, and hot first thing in the morning. Montreal shimmered in a haze and the stacks of neighbors in the triplexes on both sides of us felt suffocating. George said it was the humidex and the denser the air, the better sound travels. I used to worry about the neighbours hearing us in bed. Now I closed windows and doors when I felt the crescendo of a fight coming on. This morning, though, it all happened too fast for that.

Afterward, to escape, I’d come to Outremont. Just a short walk away, it was a different world. Trees, lawns, parks with trickling fountains. I stomped down the cool shady sidewalks. George had started it with his carelessness. Sure, I’d yelled, but I’d been startled—shocked, even. Then he’d ratcheted up my outrage by refusing to acknowledge what any normal person would have seen as a problem. If he hadn’t shrugged at me, I wouldn’t have done what I did. His dismissal of my distress, which, I repeat, any normal person would have felt under the circumstances, filled me with hot rage. In the park I clenched my muscles until my neck hurt. Then I flopped down on a bench by a fountain.

A little girl hopped along the rocks while a pigeon drifted in circles toward the middle of the pond, flapping. I felt my mood shift from fury to despair. I wondered how serious this ugly fight was and I wondered “what now?” Then I wondered if a pigeon could drown. It made a commotion beating its wings against the water but couldn’t move closer to the edge. A man waded into the water. He grabbed the flailing bird and waded out, depositing it onto the grass and rolling his damp pants back down as the wet thing flapped on the lawn. George would do that. If a bird were drowning he would act without worrying how strange it might look or if he could get some disease from a pigeon scratch or how a slimy pond bottom would feel on his feet. He wasn’t afraid of looking weird. Today though, for a minute there, things had gone beyond unusual. They had unhinged a little bit. Each of us had lost it. And, so, how do you find it again? How do you re-hinge?

I got up and walked through the park and along Bernard. When I wandered into the tea store where I’d never been before, two people were in quiet conversation. They murmured to each other and ignored me. I paced; touched a cup, a tin, a bamboo tray.

The woman assessed me. She said, “The Tea Master will recommend certain teas for you to choose from, once you have answered questions about who the tea is for and when it will be drunk. But you’ll have to wait until I’m done here.” She was dressed in black and very solemn.

I sat on a wicker chair surrounded by shelves of tiny iron tea pots. Maybe I could use recommendations from a master. I watched as the clerk asked the other customer questions, noted down the answers and disappeared to the back of the store through a black velvet curtain, leaving us alone.

“She gives the Tea Master notes and he searches for inspiration,” he told me.

“What if I don’t like what he recommends?”

“You can say no.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It affects us. The way things smell. Maybe I feel comfortable standing here with you because your scent is speaking to me in a way we don’t even realize. And maybe mine, to you.”

There was a moment of silence, as we looked at each other.

“I like talking about this stuff. It’s part of my job,” he said. “Sommelier.”

A whole job based on smelling wine. I bet he’d read The Book of Tea. I pictured, with some longing, how spotless a sommelier’s kitchen must be (“One of the first requisites of a tea master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting”). Then the Tea Master’s assistant reappeared through the curtain. She looked at what was written on a slip of paper and pulled down one canister after another, holding up the big bins to the sommelier who leaned into the tea.

“Ah, yes” he said, closing his eyes. “Mmmm,” as he inhaled from the next one, and the one after that. The tea clerk sifted different teas into neat packets for him.

The Book of Tea says Teaism is the religion of the art of life. If that’s the case, I am a heretic. Often I just toss a bag into a cup and add a splash of milk—sometimes even before it’s finished steeping. Such behaviour would scandalize my present company—the assistant, the sommelier and the Master hidden behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz.

The Tea Master had sent a written message from behind the curtain and his emissary read it out from a scrap of paper: “You have a powerful exactitude, you must always remember to save room in your cup for new flavours.”

The sommelier listened with his eyes closed, as if he were smelling the words. “Could I take that with me?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “It is meant to be ephemeral.”

“Of course. Thank you, thank you.” The sommelier nodded to each of us and made his way out of the store. I was almost sad to see him go and wished I could have followed him to his kitchen. I could see it neat and tidy and cared for, stocked with bottles of wine and tins of tea. I knew that he knew there was art in cleaning and dusting. I wondered what kind of teapot he had, what his clean house smelled like.

After responding to the list of questions, I waited alone for suggestions from the Tea Master. It was true that George had always smelled good to me. Like sandalwood, for some reason, even though he used no aftershave or lotion or anything like that. I wished we could go back to this morning, early, to the dappled light coming through the window, to his arm around me as we woke up to the sounds of the neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, when George had harvested his first batch of castings—that’s what you call the compost once the worms have processed it—he handed it to me proudly, a loamy little heap on a section of the Saturday paper I’d planned on reading. “This,” he said, “is the Cadillac of composts. You will have the world’s happiest, healthiest potted plants.”

“Thanks,” I said. “All five of them will be ecstatic. What are you going to do with the rest of it?” We didn’t have a garden. What was to become of all the castings his box of worms would create?

“I’ll give it away. People will be glad to have it. I’ll bring it to the community gardens. Or the neighbours. I’ll put up a sign. You know how much we’re reducing our contribution to over-flowing landfills by using a vermicompost?”

I couldn’t argue with the principles. Worm composting was more efficient than regular composting because worms turned vegetable matter into soil overnight. And red wrigglers, as they were called, had the ability to turn smelly garbage odorless. But to me, worms were one more element in a household that was bursting at the cracks with debris and disorder. Scooter parts and bicycle frames and doors and broken chairs that George scavenged from the garbage filled every corner. Between my piles of books and papers and his dusty bags of plaster of Paris and saws and spokes and pails of tools it was like living in a garage. Some people’s houses, I’d noticed, actually had cleared off, clean surfaces. Our natural tendency was to live in a mess but I was trying to foster some tidy, even artful à la Book of Tea, domesticity. Furthermore, as he’d once read to me from the FAQs on vermiculture, digestion is not the only thing worms do efficiently. Red wrigglers multiply faster than rabbits and 10 pounds of earthworms can turn into over two tons in just two years. “Two tons,” I reminded him. “Two tons.”

This morning, the kids next door had been out in the tiny yard getting a head-start on yelling and breaking things. Through the open window I could hear the sound of Norma, our downstairs neighbour, showering, then vacuuming. I got up, ground some coffee beans and took apart the stove-top espresso pot with a clunk and a rattle. Then I reached down to empty the old coffee grounds into the vermicompost and my hand touched a slimy wriggling mass, a writhing spaghetti of worms, all over the lid of the big rubber tub. It was all, suddenly, too much.

“I can’t live like this!” I cried to George who was just sitting down at the kitchen table. “It’s disgusting!”

He glanced at the tub. “Don’t over-dramatize,” he said in a bored voice, without getting up.

“Something has to change.” I was yelling. “Now.”

“Relax. It just got too wet in there. Red wrigglers are very sensitive. The conditions have to be just right.”

“What about me?”

“What about you?”

“My conditions. What if I’m very sensitive to wet worms and chaos?” Books, magazines, print-outs from websites on vermiculture, flyers and phone bills sat in piles on the kitchen table, next to newspapers sticky with jam. Pots and pans were piled in the sink and dirty dishes sat on the counter. “This is our home.”

He shrugged as if I were too bourgeois for words. “So clean then,” he said.

That’s when I hit him. Whack! My hand struck his chest, hard.

Harder, faster, he punched my shoulder. “Don’t. Hit. Me,” he warned.

“Don’t hit me!” I yelped back.

A phone rang downstairs and I heard Norma answer, as clear as if she were in our kitchen watching this unlikable eruption. “Hello? Excellent. See you in ten minutes,” she said. Norma was having a sunny summer morning while her neighbours came to blows.

I stood there, stunned, rubbing my sore shoulder, wanting to rub it all away: the worms, the messy apartment, the neighbours. I grabbed my wallet and got out of there.

My thoughts were interrupted by the return of the solemn messenger. “The Tea Master recommends a few teas for your consideration. One of them is an Emperor’s Blend. Not everyone gets that choice. This, in itself, is an honour,” she emphasized. “He suggests that two creative working people in need of peace might deserve this tea. First, I will show you the others.” She pulled down a tin and lifted off the lid. The shreds of black tea in the first canister surprised me with the smell of clover, hay, a grassy summer field. I murmured, just like the sommelier had. The next tin was peppery and pungent. The teas were as rich as perfume, they had nothing to do with dusty tea bags. I would take small amounts of each one. But I’d already set my hopes on the transformative powers of Emperor’s Blend, the honoured and out of the ordinary.

By the time I got home it was afternoon. George was wiping the counter. The dishes were done and the worm tub was in place under the sink, its contents sealed inside; no one was crawling through the air holes in the lid. George rinsed his hands and dried them on a dish towel and looked at me.

After 10 years together, we couldn’t undo everything, but maybe, if we tried, we could start the day over. It was still hot out, but I put the kettle on. I opened the packet of Emperor’s Blend and breathed in the scent of it as I held it out to him. It smelled rich, earthy, slightly smoky, and gave off a hint of something unnamable.

Sarah Gilbert has written for TV and radio and Matrix and Le Bathyscaphe and writes a blog of stories about her neighbourhood at: