Every night Cassie made tea and read until her eyelids slowly fell shut, sleep whisking her away into dream. Not always the same tea. No, she varied her tastes. Green tea, chamomile, mint, ginger, mixed berry—on any given night her tastes were unpredictable.

Once a month we went to a boutique tea and spice shop in Old Town. She browsed for what felt like hours, opening each container of tea and taking long, sumptuous sniffs of the leaves inside. I didn’t mind. Seeing her happy made me happy, and the place was fun to explore. Once in a while I’d even find a few good spice rubs for grilling steaks and salmon. When she’d had her fill on samples (or maybe when her sense of smell was overwhelmed) she would pick out three or four packets of tea, and we’d go home. She would make whatever struck her fancy that night, then sit and read until the pot was gone.

She did this every night. And every morning I would find her teacup in the living room, where she did her reading, only a small puddle of cold tea soaking a spattering of leaves left at the cup’s bottom. So, every morning I would take the cup to the kitchen and wash it before making breakfast and getting myself ready for work.

The first few times this happened, she thanked me. Promised to do better. But after a little while—a few days or a few weeks, I don’t remember—it became expectation. Part of our routine was her drinking tea and reading late into the night, and me getting up early and cleaning it. I think this may have bothered some people, but not me. I found it endearing. She probably noticed without ever saying anything, but one of my favorite things to do before bed was to peek in on her curled up with a cup of tea and a book in the little egg chair we kept in the corner (she called it her “book nook”), the fragrance of the tea wafting throughout our tiny apartment, and her content to be somewhere else for a little while.

For her, it was an escape. Our routine was for me, too, considering the difficulties we faced in the daytime. I was at the beginning of my career, barely making $45k to work 60-hour weeks. She was in medical school, accruing more debt in six months than I earned in a year. We were far from home, alone in an expensive new city. And she had to deal with all the guilt of someone who left behind a sick mother. Those few hours per night were the closest either of us came to calm. A recurring eye of a storm that washed over us anew with daybreak.

Her tea was the warning. One night I peeked in on her and she had her book, but her tea was untouched. She only stared ahead. “You ok?” I asked.

She snapped out of her reverie. “Yeah. Going to bed?”

I didn’t think much of it at the time. Cass had just gotten word from her sister that their mother had taken a turn. Instead of her cancer going into remission, it had spread. The medical bills were piling up. She was too young for Medicare and her health insurance was quickly meeting its maximums. Of course she’d be distracted. Thoughtful. Worried.

On another night, I don’t remember when exactly, she asked me for advice while she brewed her nightly pot. “Should I take time off?” she asked. “I feel like I should go home.”

“I don’t know,” I answered, somewhere between truth and lie. If every answer could be mapped on a spectrum from right to wrong, my feelings were firmly set right in the middle. I could see the guilt eating away at her, the fact that she wasn’t with her mother in what looked to be her final days weighing on her, but if she went home then she wouldn’t be with me. Either way, there was time someone would never be able to get back. “Will it affect school?”

She shrugged. “I’ll graduate later.”

“Will it affect your loans?”

“I’ll have to start paying them off before graduation.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Not ideal.”

She carried the teapot into the living room, lit the tea candle inside the warming stand, and gently placed the pot on top of it. With that, she picked up her book and allowed herself to disappear for the night. Not wanting to bother her, I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Eventually, she joined me. We both lay awake all night, holding hands.

The semester ended. My job had gotten more demanding. On most days, I’d leave before Cass was awake and return as she was nearing the end of her tea pot. Exhausted, I might grab a snack and a shower before crawling into bed, dreading the Sisyphean task of doing it all over again the next day.

In hindsight, perhaps it was my own absence that led to hers. I came home from work late one night and the apartment smelled empty. There was no fragrance of jasmine, or chamomile, or berry. No flickering light spilling out into the hallway. And no Cass.

I searched the apartment, too tired to panic. Finding nothing, I called her cell phone.

“Hey,” she answered.

“Hey. Where are you?”

“Home.”

“How is she?”

“Sick. Getting worse. Hopefully there’s some time left.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, hoping that I could somehow imbue the words with the layers of meaning I needed to express and she needed to hear. “How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. I think I need to stay with her. I’ve already lost a lot of time.”

“I understand.”

We were both quiet. An unasked but perhaps already answered question hung over everything we might say. “Tell your mom I send my love,” I said.

“I will. Good night.”

She hung up. Still, I kept the phone to my ear. Listening for the ghost of her voice to ask me to join her. To make up for the time we lost in our own problems, our own worlds, even though we were supposed to be inextricably tied together in every way. Listening for her to tell me that my comfort in our routines was only part of a much longer, much more complicated equation—one I had already accrued several errors in and would need to fix. Listening for any hint at all that we still had a future together even though our present was, it turns out, as tangible as the worlds she lost herself in every night.

But there was only silence. And when I woke up the next morning, there was no tea cup to wash.

Some background on this story can be found here.