At ten of two, as the Monday afternoon shadows moved across the oak floor, Brita could put it off no longer. The dean expected tea. She rose from her metal desk and walked to the kitchenette to turn on the electric kettle. He required that she steep his tea for exactly three minutes. Tea must be served with a slice of lemon on the side. Brita set out the china cup and saucer and opened the box of teabags.
“Brita?” The dean called from his office. “Are you brewing?”
Brita returned to her desk. He’d made it clear over the years that he presumed Brita would provide the lemon for his afternoon tea. He was the dean of liberal arts at a prestigious Midwestern college, too busy to bother bringing his own lemon. Each Saturday for the past ten years, Brita had paid for a lemon along with her own groceries, cut five slices and wrapped them in plastic.
The tea kettle screeched. Brita turned it off, poured water into the china cup with the teabag, and set the timer. Making tea seemed civilized, a way of pretending everything was fine. Everything was not fine. The nightly news began with the body count in Vietnam. The week before, college girls had marched through campus carrying signs about equal rights. Over the lunch hour, Brita had walked outside. One of the protesters glanced at Brita’s gray hair and pushed a leaflet at her. “It’s never too late to liberate yourself.”
Now Brita opened a drawer and read it again. “The smallest act of resistance transforms the world.”
The timer buzzed. The dean cleared his throat.
Let him clear it all he wants. For years, Brita had endured his self-important rituals, his endless throat-clearing, the dirty cups he left for her to clean. She’d viewed him as her nemesis, and she was right in part. But the enemy was also her failure to imagine she could do anything about it.
“Tea time.” The dean stood next to her, frowning. “You forgot the lemon.”
Brita’s hand shook as she tossed the teabag in the trash. She pictured the mountain of lemons she’d sliced for this man who assumed she was too grateful for her job to challenge his authority.
“I forgot nothing.” She raised the china cup to her lips. The hot liquid, strong and golden, warmed her throat.
Kristen M. Olsen is a writer and lawyer in Minneapolis, MN, where she studies creative writing at The Loft Literary Center. She writes adult and YA novels and short stories. Her work has been published on fiftiness.com