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At first we called him Teabag, not because he had any tendency to drape his balls on passed out partiers but because he only drank tea, even during keggers, carrying mugs of it around that he held with two hands, shaking off invitations to play Fuck the Dealer or Circle of Death. When the weather was a fug of heat, he held plastic tumblers full of Darjeeling over ice. Girls teased him, and no matter how much cajoling we did on bid night, he wouldn’t guzzle the bottle of Cold Duck on the front porch that was tradition for the new pledges, but we let it go because we prided ourselves on accepting people for who they were, even if refusing a complimentary Natural Lite from a senior who hardly ever came around was the greatest sin one could commit, of which he was guilty on many occasions.
We started calling him Frequent Flyer because he spent almost every weekend out of town. It took some goading—especially because he was never drunk, tongue never loosened enough to release his deepest and silliest secrets like the rest of us were wont to do after a twelve-pack—but he eventually admitted that his parents were rich. They’d wanted him to go to one of the Ivys on the east coast, or Stanford or Pomona, but he wheeled and dealed with them, convincing them to let him go to our sleepy SLAC just south of the Iowa border, a school with a much smaller price tag—and smaller reputation and smaller student body—and that instead, with the savings, he would travel on the weekends, taking puddle jumpers down to St. Louis, where he’d board a Delta or American flight to some off-the-beaten-path hiking trail or nature preserve or cultural vista that would provide deep personal growth. His part of the bargain? Maintaining a perfect GPA, never getting in legal trouble, and making enough connections with the mid-tier faculty in the business department to get a cushy internship that would hopefully lead to an at least marginally boast-worthy job in hedge fund management or investment brokerage.
His parents signed him up for a frequent flyer program and a credit card through one of the airlines, on which he purchased all of his tickets and hotel rooms. Sometimes, he said, he stayed in hostels, like when he went down to Guanajuato and the Nicoya Peninsula. He racked up enough miles to go to Rio de Janeiro, where he spent all of spring break while the rest of us either drove back to our middle Missouri suburbs to pick up shifts at jobs we left behind nine months out of the year or caravanned to the Gulf Shores and drank shitty, sugary concoctions on the beach crowded with other idiots looking to get high during the day and laid at night. He came back every weekend with a story about some hole-in-the-wall restaurant or a majestic outcropping overlooking a waterfall or river. He never took pictures, but he carried Moleskines with him when he traveled, jotting down notes and observations. We never knew what his major was—he seemed to take slapdash courses each term, a weird mix of art and history and English and chemistry—and he never went to the library like the rest of us. But his grades were good, and he seemed to know something about everything, helping people out with calculus homework, business ethics papers, and microbiology lab write-ups. He was also a good pledge, memorizing the chapter’s history, our founding date and names of the exec board. Even though he was gone so much, he learned the motto and could recite the entire Greek alphabet after one week, and when we asked what his deal was he shrugged and said he’d taught himself the language when he was fifteen because he thought it was interesting and he wanted, one day, to go to Athens.
He kept a tea kettle in his room, which he filled with tap water and carried to the kitchen, which was situated in a corner of the house’s basement, one wall a row of cabinets with combination locks on them so no one had their snacks and laundry detergent stolen. He would wander the house knocking on doors asking if anyone wanted a cuppa—that’s how he said it, a cuppa—holding up the kettle and swinging it gently. He offered a variety of options from his stores: Oolong, Pu’er, Jasmine, Yerba Mate, and when people said yes, he never jotted down their requests like a waiter at a diner might; instead, he nodded, trundled down the stairs, and returned fifteen minutes later with steaming cups on a tray that he polished every Sunday evening after chapter meetings, delivering exactly what had been asked of him to exactly who had asked for it.
“Don’t you get tired of flying?” we asked, and he would shake his head, smile, and say no. He loved arriving at an airport an hour before take-off, slithering through the security line, playing the speed game of peeling off his shoes and belt and dumping his personal items into the plastic bins as fast as he could so as not to frustrate the business executives waiting in line behind him or the ragged parents trying to corral their sugar-loopy children. He loved nestling into a seat near his gate and pulling out a book, focusing on a few pages before being distracted by the sights and sounds of fellow travelers, men and women with cell phones pasted to their ears power-walking past the Sbarro and CNN Newsstand, their roller bags clacking across the tile. His greatest joy was finding his seat—always a window—and peering out at the employees carting up the luggage or refueling the jet or waving the small flags with gestures that were like a different language, then feeling the growl of the engine as the pilot revved up for takeoff, and then, of course, the feeling of lift in his stomach as the plane kissed away from the ground and his ears went stuffy from the sudden change in elevation and the earth zoomed out, buildings and farmland and highways turning to specks and colorful squares and gray ribbons far below.
He loved telling us about where he went. With a mug steaming in his hands, one foot curled under his body, the other tapping the floor, he would tell us about flying to Denver and renting a car so he could drive across the Continental Divide, the geography of America laid out like a banquet below. Or his trip to Petrified Forest National Park, sighting mule deer and black-tailed jack rabbits, to Pike Place Market in Seattle, where he took in the smells of fresh flowers and fish and bought a cup of mango cut right there. How he flew from St. Louis to LAX to Seoul and back, stopping in South Korea only long enough to take a bike tour and see the Gyeongbokgung Palace before turning around and flying out of Incheon International. Frequent Flyer’s voice would rise in pitch as he told his stories, as he reveled in eating crawfish in Lake Charles and slurping hot bowls of caldos in El Paso. His cheeks would flush, the joy of his voice warming his blood, and then he would sip his tea, nod as he swallowed, and tell us to add these places to our bucket lists.
But then it all stopped.
We knew something was up the night he came back to campus after winter break his sophomore year and asked if someone would buy him beer. A dozen of us were sitting in the house’s foyer, where a trio of leather sofas surrounded a flat-screen television where we watched whatever shitty movies were on USA or TBS, flimsy-plotted action flicks with mediocre CGI but decent enough fight scenes. We thought his request was some kind of test, and for a moment none of us said anything, an explosion on the television the only noise. We looked at one another, our own cases of beer tucked between our legs on the floor, and finally a senior let out a yawn, slapped his thighs, and said, “Sure thing.” They came back twenty minutes later, Frequent Flyer looking bizarre with a six-pack of Bud Light bottles cradled in his arms like one of those flour-bag babies teenagers are compelled to care for to show them the ravages of early parenthood and the risks of porking before you have a full-time job.
We watched him twist the cap off the first bottle and slip it carefully into his pocket like a delicate souvenir. He read the label, squinting at the surgeon general’s warning and the ABV. Then he took a sip. His face betrayed nothing, as if he was simply drinking some English breakfast, long-steeped so its bitterness dragged across his tongue. We watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple and the cartilage in his neck fluttering. Frequent Flyer said nothing, cupping the beer in his hand like his palm and fingers were a koozie. He sunk into the cushions, stared at the tv for a minute, and then drank another sip, letting the bottle linger on his lips.
He only drank two of the beers, taking the remainder up into his room, which he shared with a guy named Keith who always slept at his girlfriend’s apartment several blocks from campus. We gathered near his room, listening, but he didn’t emerge the rest of that evening. In the morning, he looked haggard, as if he hadn’t slept. We gave him gentle ribbing about a hangover, but he hardly responded, swatting away our jokes as if they were mosquitoes buzzing at his ears.
We watched him fall apart. When he stayed that first weekend, the eve of the new semester, he drank his tea as usual, offering to bring us our own steaming cups, but he mixed up who asked for jasmine versus green or white, which of us wanted sugar and who didn’t. He blinked at us when we joked that he was going soft, and we noticed darkness beneath his eyes, how puffy and red they’d gone, as if he’d spent the previous night crying through the wee hours. During that night’s party, he brought down the rest of his six-pack and drank three of his beers, lifting the bottles to his lips with a hitchy slowness, like he was an infant finding his legs.
We eventually figured it out: his father was in legal trouble, something about taxes and off-shore bank accounts, the kind of thing we saw on police procedurals and in the B-movies we watched in the afternoon. His credit card, with all those miles, all those promises of future flight, no longer worked, and his parents were getting divorced, his mother leaving not because of destitution but because of the dishonesty. Frequent Flyer had earned himself a merit scholarship, so he could still go to school, but he would have to find a job to pay his rent, which was only a few hundred bucks a month because living in our house was cheap; the rooms were small and the kitchen in need of a remodel. He said all this in bits and pieces, his voice slurry as he mumbled the truth to whoever was nearby. We didn’t know what to say beyond, “Jeez” and “That sucks, dude,” but most of us didn’t say a thing at all, instead slapping him on the back and offering a cheers, which he accepted with the dulled automation of a robot in need of a good oiling.
We watched him with worry, our necks going tingly when we saw him stumble out of his room past noon when we knew he had morning classes. His hair was tangly, his body stank. He never asked for more than a six-pack of beer, of which he would maybe drink half in a night. Sometimes he still made tea, and we wondered if we should start calling him Teabag again, if Frequent Flyer was like a fresh stab wound, or a ripped-open scar, every time we used it. But we also didn’t want him to feel the renewed sting of loss, as if our nickname for him was the last thread of a life he no longer possessed. As if, somehow, if he was still Frequent Flyer, it might all come back to him. Instead, those of us with eight a.m. classes started knocking on his door before we trooped across the street to campus, demanding he get up, drink himself some black tea, and start his day. We pulled him along to the library on Friday afternoons, foregoing our end-of-week pre-partying in the front yard for the sake of salvaging his grades. He fidgeted, taking twice as long as he should have to complete his Latin translations or his History of Sub-Saharan Africa papers (we still had no idea what his major was), but he got the work done. We started asking him for tea, and some of us began carrying our own steeping mugs down to parties, blinking and shrugging when our friends said, “What the hell?”
“It’s tea,” we would say, sipping and staring over the lips of our cups as we drank, inhaling the sharp scents of hibiscus or chamomile or rooibos. They ragged us, wanted to know why we weren’t taking shots or shotgunning beers, how we could play beer die with bone china or porcelain. We shrugged and said, “Maybe not tonight.”
Soon enough, we were all drinking tea, even when we went to keggers, carrying our own plastic tumblers full of iced chai or lukewarm peppermint. On Sundays, we drank TAZO Dream and got strong, eight-hour sleeps, waking up fresh and ready for our econ tests and marketing presentations. Frequent Flyer watched us when we asked to borrow the tea kettle and crowded around the stove in the kitchen, which we started cleaning, venturing into the communal refrigerator, holding our noses while we disposed of the funk-laden Tupperwares and curdled milk in its plastic gallon jugs. We bought fruits and veggies, started sauteing with the non-stick skillets we deep-cleaned in the industrial-size sink.
“This is nice,” we said to each other.
When spring break rolled around, some of us organized a road trip to Clemson, South Carolina, home of our founding chapter. We asked Frequent Flyer if he wanted to come, and we saw the yearning in his eyes, but he shook his head no. “I have to go home to work,” he said.
“My parents are both broke,” he said. We waited for more, but nothing else came.
Finally, someone said, “Will one week do that much? You need a break.”
Frequent Flyer closed his eyes. We were sitting on the couches on a Tuesday afternoon, drinking our tea and watching Jeopardy!, yelling out ridiculous answers when no one knew the right one. Someone had bought a tray of cucumber sandwiches from Hyvee and a spread of petit fours, and we’d stripped a bed of its top sheet and laid that over the coffee table so we could pretend we were refined, enjoying a true afternoon high tea. We had no kidney pies or pickled salmon, and no one had any idea how to make onion cakes, but when Frequent Flyer had seen the setup, he’d laughed, tossed himself down on the couch, and picked up the mug we’d prepared for him. But now his jaw was set, his gaze fixed on the screen, where the Final Jeopardy category—English History—had just been revealed, Alex Trebek sending the show into its final commercial break. He sat silent and stony except for the hinge of his arm as he lifted his teacup to his mouth and slurped.
“I’ve taken plenty of breaks,” he said, finally. He set his cup down, empty. “I deserve some hard work.”
We looked at one another. Frequent Flyer’s hands were curled in his lap like a pair of nestled pups. He stared at the television, then barked out, “Anne of Cleves!” We looked at the screen, where the Final Jeopardy clue was scrolled over the screen: This wife of Henry VIII outlived the rest of his wives after their marriage was annulled after six months, when it was declared unconsummated. Frequent Flyer looked at us. “I went to Westminster Abbey freshman year. She’s buried there.” He picked up his teacup. “Lots of famous dead are.”
We went to Clemson without him, nine of us crammed into two cars, taking turns behind the wheel. We passed through Nashville and Atlanta, stopping to check out the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry. We toured the Coca-Cola Headquarters, sampling soft drinks from around the world. When we ate dinner in Chattanooga, we all ordered sweet teas in Frequent Flyer’s honor. We took photos out the car windows as we crossed the Savannah River and texted them to him, wishing he was with us. He didn’t respond. In Clemson, we slept in a trio of hotel rooms that stunk of our beer breath and drunk sweating after two days. We wandered the South Carolina Botanical Gardens, drank cheap lagers in the bleachers at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. We found a tea shop and stomped through, buying up baggies of leaves we’d never heard of before: purple beauty, tomato mint, maple. We decided to make Frequent Flyer a basket full of the most exotic things we could find, adding comfrey and Labrador, along with a set of sparkling green cups that we all pitched in to pay for.
At the end of break, we were tired and hungover from so many nights at Clemson’s downtown bars. We skipped any sightseeing on the long drive home, stopping only to piss, grab burgers at drive-thrus, and screech onto the shoulder when someone needed to puke. But we were excited when we reached our familiar tiny town with its lawn supply outlet on the outskirts, its dusty gas station parking lots, the fast food restaurant cups and wrappers trapped along storm drains. And the dogwoods along the edge of campus, the familiar gold of our fraternity letters lit up in the night atop our house. We piled out, careful to pull our basket of wares for Frequent Flyer as we brought our duffel bags and leftover beer in through the back door. We were all excited to give it to him, to watch him smell at the ground leaves, to hold the new cups and their saucers in his hands.
But he wasn’t there.
Frequent Flyer’s room was empty, not only him missing but also his bedsheets and textbooks and clothing; his closet was like a mouth with its teeth ripped out. We asked around the house if anyone had seen him go, but everyone shook their heads. Those who had stayed in town for break said that he was there one day, gone the next; he snuck out in the dead of night. We imagined him carrying his things downstairs, one pile at a time, and cramming them into his car. We dropped the basket in the middle of his room, letting it thud against the hardwood, the teacups rattling like they’d been clinked together in a toast.
The one thing he’d left behind was his teas. And beneath a canister full of Earl Grey we found a note, written in his simple, blocky handwriting. It was only three sentences: the first an apology, the second an explanation—he was leaving school to work full-time—and the third a goodbye. We stood around, looking down as if the piece of notebook paper was a dead body, and said nothing. Then someone said, “But what about his teakettle?”
We found it in the kitchen, sitting on the back burner. Frequent Flyer had polished it so that the steel shone; we could see our stretched shapes, reflections wonky like we were staring at a funhouse mirror, in the curved surface.
We made tea. We set out sugar cubes, arranged the saucers on Frequent Flyer’s tray, which he’d left on the kitchen counter, equally polished and fine. We imagined him working at a restaurant or a retail store, stuck behind a cash register or in a warehouse. We listened to the squeal of the whistle as steam erupted from its spout, imagined that it was the yearning cry that he must let out from time to time as he worked, steeped in the loneliness of the walls and high ceilings and his sorry inability to break free, to see the world, to burst forth and take flight.