The things we do for love. A short story where a magical elixir, passed down through generations, serves as a key offering access to the heart…
by: Toshiya Kamei
A muffled voice penetrates my mental fog. “Jasmine! It’s me!” The muted cry sounds as though it’s coming from the bottom of a well. I try to open my eyes, but they’re gummy. I feel hands grab my shoulders, shaking them. A headache assails me in ever-increasing waves. A fit of coughing shakes my body. At least I’m alive.
“Oh, you’re alive!” Tai says and kisses me. I manage to open my eyes.
Darkness ebbs all. The air reeks of death. I blink a few times. I’m inside a gloomy crypt. I was “dead,” like Juliet, for what must have been days, but I’m breathing again. Luckily, my Romeo is still with me. He hands me a bottle of water.
“Get me out of here,” I utter softly as I sip the water.
“How does it feel?” Tai asks as we drive away. “To be alive again?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I frown and put a hand to my head as a sharp pain stabs at my temple. The nocturnal desert whisks by outside the windows.
“Forgive me for doubting you, babe, but I had little faith in your grandmother’s home remedies. Jasmine roots crushed and mixed in wine? Was she some kind of witch?”
“She wasn’t. She only practiced virtuous magic. I miss her.” I was named after Grandma. In her home village, jasmine flowers bloom in early summer. I’ve never been there, but Grandma told me so many stories. As a young girl, she walked through meadows carpeted with jasmine flowers. She always wore jasmine-scented perfume. The scent still triggers my memories of her. But flowers and roots are two different things. In our social hierarchy, Tai is a flower, and I’m a root.
Tai had no idea why he had fallen for me in the first place. For a long time, I didn’t exist in his universe. He was Mr. Popularity, words that crossed my mind every time I saw him in school. He was the starting quarterback, worshipped by all. Unbeknownst to him, he was the center of my universe, yet this was the case for many other girls. But apart from cheering on our team from the sidelines, I never let my feelings show. I was far from popular. At best, Tai and I were complete opposites. Other girls tried to get his attention, I wouldn’t dare. It wasn’t my thing. The fire of jealousy burned within me. I made a few half-hearted attempts to flirt, but he responded with a cold shoulder. Doesn’t he remember that? Then one day, I came across Grandma’s recipe for a love potion. Coriander seeds crushed and mixed with white wine. A game changer. Tai still has no idea what I did to win his attention, and ignorance is bliss. As long as we’re happy, that is. I have no intention of volunteering this information.
When we cross the state line between California and Arizona, he pulls off the highway and pulls over at the first motel we find. I’m relieved. When we walk inside the lobby, a bored-looking old man mumbles a greeting without looking up from his magazine.
“One night?” he groans. We nod and check in under variations of our real names. We go by Mr. and Mrs. Ling.
“Is this our honeymoon or what?” I ask as we step into the creaky elevator with graffiti scrawled on the bare steel walls. The air feels stuffy. “I hope not,” I mumble under my breath, but Tai doesn’t hear me.
“You bet, honey,” Tai says, dead serious. He squeezes my hand before we arrive at our floor. He lifts me up when we enter our room.
“What are you doing?” I cry. The odor of stale tobacco stings my nose.
In spite of everything, we kiss. We’re horny like any teenagers. He stumbles and we collapse onto the bed. The nightstand is scarred with cigarette burns and drink rings. We kiss more. We make love for the first time.
On our first night in our new apartment, we order Chinese takeout and eat it on the floor. Our eyes meet. We smile and I know he loves me. It’s in his gaze. It’s not just Grandma’s love portion anymore. As we clean up after ourselves, our hands accidentally brush, and we’re close enough to smell each other. We tangle up as we spark each other’s desire. We kiss, and I feel Tai’s heart beating against mine.
“Do you love me?”
“Of course, babe. You know I do. Why do you even ask?” His slurred speech worries me a bit, but it’s only temporary. Grandma’s recipe may not be perfect, but my love is. Soon he’ll fall in love with me entirely, for who I am. Then I won’t need to use the potion.
Later that night, my mom’s face floods back to me. My dad’s voice haunts me. Every time I see someone who looks remotely familiar, my heart races, pounding in my ears. Tai is worth it. He’s everything a girl can hope for. I’m not going to let him go. He’s mine.
A couple of months have flown by. If Tai is happy, I’m happy. We get a day off and go out for a little fun. We stroll through the park while holding each other’s hands. Occasionally, we stop for no reason and stare into each other’s eyes. A gentle, jasmine-scented breeze stirs my hair into a dance. We greet other strollers, exchanging pleasantries about the weather. An elderly couple beams a smile. I squeeze Tai’s hand, and he squeezes mine back in silence. A group of joggers passes us by like a wind. A young girl who walks ahead of her parents tells us she’s just turned three. We wish her a happy birthday. Maybe someday we’ll have a child of our own. I glance at Tai. He looks radiant.
At night, he screams in his dreams. I shake him awake.
“Honey, it’s okay. I’m here.” I swallow his groan with my mouth and shush him gently.
“I miss my family,” Tai mumbles.
“I know, Tai, but I’m your family now.” I run my fingers through his hair and kiss him lightly on the neck. “I won’t leave you. Our love is deeper than blood. You need to snap out of this funk, honey.”
“Yeah.” He blinks a few times.
I kiss him again, he kisses me back, and we ignite each other’s passion. We melt under each other’s kisses and caresses. We lean in to each other and remain silent. We hear only each other’s breathing. I dive into his deep, brown eyes and linger there — in a vision of tremor and bliss. Time stops, and then accelerates. Afterward, everything feels perfect again.
Tai falls asleep beside me, his chest fluidly lifting and falling. The sound of his breathing soothes me. It’s calm. Peaceful, even. I rest my head against his heart, its beat swelling through me. I slide my fingers over his chest, idly writing my name. My beautiful Tai. Sometimes he acts like a robot learning to be a human. Sometimes he doesn’t seem interested in anything I say. Lately, Grandma’s love potion is wearing off faster than it did in the past. His body is building up resistance. I’ve had to increase the dose each time. But there’s no turning back.
A bustling air fills the store. Shoppers push their carts down the crowded aisles. A middle-aged man in the checkout line looks at me in an odd way as I mutter “you find everything all right?” for the hundredth time today. He forces a smile and nods. He looks at my name tag on my chest. His eyes linger a few seconds too long.
“Hey, Andrea. How are you doing?” he says. I’m used to it now. Mr. Brown saw me the same way when I was in his homeroom. I don’t let my guard down, though. He tries to strike up a conversation, but I’m not in the mood to humor him.
I fake a half-smile and mumble, “Paper or plastic?” I’m not some geisha girl, you flabby-assed geezer. I get it, we’re all objects of their miserable fantasies. An elderly woman behind him clears her throat, prompting him to move along.
Now that we work different shifts, I hardly see Tai anymore. I smear greasy ointment onto my chapped and cracked fingers in the locker room before I walk to the bus stop. I take the bus to the downtown terminal. I don’t want to be alone with the driver checking me out in the mirror, so I join the flow of passengers. A short stroll will do me good. I stop by a bookstore on my way home. I peruse the Classical Literature section and grab a copy of Romeo and Juliet. I flip through to the final scene in which Romeo stands over Juliet’s body. I know how the story ends, but I am compelled to revisit it. Romeo kisses Juliet, drinks poison, and dies.
“Jasmine? Oh, god. Is that you, Jasmine?” A familiar voice snaps me out of my reverie. I turn by reflex and see my cousin Mike. A look of disbelief flashes across his face and I feel panic overcome me. It’s too late to pretend. I’m not supposed to be Jasmine anymore. Not here. Damn it. I’m Andrea. How many times have I practiced in front of the mirror? But it’s too late. I increase my pace and hurry out of the bookstore and melt into the crowd.
I make sure Mike isn’t on my tail and pull out my phone.
“Tai, guess who I ran into?” I say when he answers. “Cousin Mike!”
“Are you serious? Did you talk to him?”
“No. I left.”
“Shoot.” He clicks his tongue loudly. “We’re in deep doo-doo. Do you think he’ll tell your folks?”
“Of course he will. Duh. What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean ‘you don’t know’?” I sigh. “Think of something, Tai! You promised to stick with me no matter what happened.”
“But this is more than what I signed up for when you didn’t want to marry the guy your folks had chosen for you.”
“Of course not. I hardly knew the guy. If Grandma were still around, it would’ve never come to this.” I sigh again, and bury my face in my hands.
One afternoon, my supervisor comes looking for me and tells me I have a phone call in her office. I follow her there, and she hands me the phone on her desk. She nods and leaves me alone.
“Hello? Andrea speaking.”
“Jasmine.” It’s Mom. How did she track me down? Great detective work? Or Grandma’s magic?
“Excuse me? Who is this?”
“Who is Jasmine? My name is Andrea. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anybody by that name.”
“Why are you doing this to us, sweetheart? We miss you. Your cousin Mike—”
I hang up.
When Mom was pregnant with me, my parents promised me to the first-born son of their friends back home. I had no say whatsoever. After I graduated, I was going to marry him. At first, I didn’t question my fate. After all, I was brought up to be a dutiful daughter.
When I get home, I knock on Tai’s door. He answers it, half asleep.
“Mom called,” I tell him.
“What did she want?” He sounds disinterested. His eyes gaze at nothing in particular.
“She wants me to go home.”
“Really?” He squints in the semi-darkness of the flickering TV light. “Did you tell her you were going home?” He slurs his words.
“Of course not!” I snap at him. “What’s the matter with you?”
Something explodes on the television. The room brightens for a second. The veins are visible on the backs of my hands.
Tai meets my gaze as the light dims, and I step back from what I see. His eyes are brimming with an eerie, surreal clarity. “I don’t know, Jasmine. What’s wrong with me? I can’t figure it out. I loved football. School. My friends. My life was going somewhere. Now I’m stuck here. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I love you. But I don’t know.”
“But we’re together. What else do we need? I can give you everything you need, honey.”
“I know, babe. I love you,” he says.
Tai turns away from me. I swallow a scream before I can answer. “What do you want, honey?”
“Do you still have the sleeping potion?”
“I can’t sleep. Let me have some.”
“Wait a sec.” I get up, go to the bathroom, and rummage through the top drawer. “I’ve found it,” I say to nobody in particular and grab the vial. I gaze into the mirror, but it fails to show my reflection. “What’s going on?” I whisper. I shake my head. I sit on the toilet and pee, to prove I’m still alive. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
I leave the bathroom and go up to Tai’s room. I hand him the potion.
“Sleep tight. I’ll be here if you need me.” I go back to the living room and sit on the couch. I vegetate in front of the flickering screen. Nothing seems to matter anymore.
A couple of hours later, I hear a thud from the bedroom. I go inside and find him lying face down on the floor. I flip his body. His lips have turned blue.
“Tai, are you okay?” I comb his hair with my fingers, hoping to elicit a response.
There’s no reply. I kneel beside him and poke his chest. Fear seizes me, squeezing my insides.
“Hey, stop kidding. It’s not funny. Get up.” I already sense it’s no joke. Panic surges inside me. “No, don’t leave me alone! Wake up, Tai. Wake up!”
His skin is cold. I move my face closer to his. He’s not breathing. I kiss him. His lips taste bittersweet like the potion. I kiss him again and again. My tongue slips into his mouth and searches for his warmth. Kisses can heal anything, and kisses can clear up any misunderstandings. I’ll wait for him to wake like he once did for me.