Felicia, Ramona and Lupe are three friends who meet every month at the St. James Tearoom. But when Lupe proposes to invite a young woman named Carmen, Ramona gets all nervous. Will Carmen fit in their tight-knit group? What if she doesn't?
The sculpture of a spotted black and white dog welcomed patrons at the Saint James Tearoom. Once they crossed the threshold, the scent of bygone times wrapped them up like a beaded, fragrant veil.
The Marketplace -- the tearoom shop -- was bathed in a soft blue light that favored most complexions. Shelves were full of teacups, teapots, kettles, strainers and an assortment of loose-leaf teas. There were books and stationary; scarves and gloves; sparkling necklaces and rings. All that transported Ramona to Queen Victoria's era, which she imagined opulent, full of fancy feathered hats, powder puffs and marble boudoirs.
"Only if you were part of the nobility, Cubana pretenciosa," Felicia would say. "Life wasn't all that glittery for poor girls working in factories during the industrial revolution. Why doesn't anybody mention them when talking about Victorian times?"
Ramona would just roll her eyes. Was she a pretentious Cuban? She checked her face in a large mirror with a golden frame. She didn't wear make-up. Her short hair was perfectly coiffed and her small turquoise earrings matched her eyes. She always dressed up for the tea experience and had chosen that day a beige pencil skirt and a white blouse. She put on a pink bonnet from the store's collection of "loaner hats" and winked.
"You look great, girl," she told herself.
If that made her pretentious, so be it.
As usual, the tearoom was full. The waitresses wore white uniforms with lace appliqués. They weren't Disneyesque costumes but stylish dresses that Ramona would like to try on someday.
The seating areas were either "nooks" that could accommodate up to four guests and had names like 18 Duke St., Woodridge Estate and Newstead Abbey, or the more spacious Library alcoves, reserved for larger parties. They were roomier than the nooks, but equally cozy. Ramona favored one called Pemberley. Pages from Jane Austen's novels served as wallpaper and Ramona liked to imagine the benevolent shadow of the writer fluttering over them, listening to their chat.
The menu, served over the course of two hours, was presented on a three-tiered tray. With monthly variations, it consisted of breads (traditional English scones served with lemon curd and clotted cream); savories (tea sandwiches, tiny pies, quiches), and sweets (éclairs, cakes, pavlovas), each paired with a different pot of tea.
Ramona had arrived at a quarter to 4. She knew that she would probably have to wait until their table was ready, at 4:00 sharp, but didn't mind browsing The Marketplace shelves. She might discover a new variety of tea or a quaint-sized teapot, though she had already collected enough tea paraphernalia to open her own store. Her friends showed much more restraint in that department.
A small bag of apple-currant cookies caught her eye. But before she could pick it up, a hand with long, red-painted fingernails snatched it. Ramona looked up and saw the nails' proprietress, a young woman dressed in snug jeans and a T-shirt. She seemed to be inspecting the bag. No, she was opening it! Ramona scanned the room, but there were no waitresses or other employees in sight.
"Excuse me," she said as the woman struggled with the cellophane cover. "Are you going to buy those cookies?"
"You work here?" she replied curtly.
"No, but I may want to buy them myself and wouldn't appreciate finding the package opened."
The woman threw the bag on the self and walked away.
"What lack of manners," Ramona muttered, shaking her head.
She had lost all interest in the cookies.
The hostess led her to Pemberley. The velvet curtains had been opened and the napkins were neatly folded. There was a welcoming card with four handwritten names. The third one was "Carmen." Ramona wondered if Lupe's friend spoke Spanish too. She certainly hoped so.
Felicia showed up right away.
In Ramona's opinion, Felicia had changed for the worst when she started living with Papacito -- way too soon, she also thought, less than two months after meeting him. She used to wear sensible shoes and ample dresses that camouflaged the 10 pounds that she needed to lose. Now she balanced precariously on a pair of high heels and her blouse was too tight and flimsy.
Ramona was ready to dispense some unsolicited advice, but changed her mind. She had started attending a meditation class at the YMCA. In the last meeting, the instructor had said: "Nature has given us one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak. Let's cultivate compassionate speaking as a way of healing the world." Ramona didn't like being preached at but, just for a day, she decided to bite her tongue.
"What's going on with Lupe?" she asked Felicia after several minutes of compassionate chitchat. "She's never late."
"Maybe she's waiting for her friend."
Her friend, right. Ramona sighed. With luck, "her friend" might have decided not to show up after all.
Find the Spanish version of this story here.