Estella, the seemingly ageless proprietor of Dour Power Café, hired me the day I slumped in. I ordered a small cup of Ennui Tea (which honestly tasted like vinegar), quietly thrilled to have a new goth cave to hide in. Nowhere else in town was safe from patriotism, town pride, and school spirit.
I didn’t even ask for the job. She seemed to know I needed one.
The only question she asked in my job interview was: “Are you happy?”
“Only fools are happy,” I said.
“Well…no, but that’s a start,” she said as she tossed me my apron.
She told me right away that she was an herbologist, a witch who made potions, and that she went from town to town helping people ditch their false performance of joy and embark on the rocky path to enlightenment.
“Like some nonconsensual Oprah?” I asked. Estella seemed more like a hippie than a witch, and I could tell she’d let me get away with some impertinence.
“They only drink if their spirit is willing. I give them what they’re searching for, even if they don’t know they’re searching.”
It sounded ridiculous.
“I believe you, though,” I said. “Why do I believe you?”
“I’m very persuasive when you want to believe,” she said.
Of course, she was right. For once I actually wanted to trust someone, though I hated to admit it. She was the strangest person I’d ever met, and I wanted to be just like her.
I started the job that very afternoon, expecting all the cheery, pastel-clad people I’d gone to high school with to walk in, wrinkle their noses at the stark interior, and walk right out again. Instead, Estella’s magic made the place as attractive to them as a Target Starbucks, and she made them fans of bitter drinks like Ennui Tea and Doldrums Coffee. Within a week, both the chatty churchgoing types and the arrogant preppy types were wearing tight black jeans and reading poetry.
Like any good goth, I’d always dreamed of being a witch myself. Estella kept telling me she saw something special in me—some spark of power in my honesty. She kept inviting me to attempt her spells, but I declined. She said failure was part of the process, but I didn’t want to fail in front of the only person I’d ever met who seemed to think I was special.
Most days, I worked out front alone while she performed her magic rituals in her private office, but sometimes she’d come out and unsuccessfully try to sell people more advanced drinks, little nudges along the path to enlightenment. Estella had spent most of her long life in places like Berlin and Paris and New York, and ours was the first Midwestern town where she’d set up shop. She thought that in a small town, it would be easier to see the difference she was making. I tried to explain the Midwest to her, but she just didn’t understand the crushing burden of forced niceness and optimism. Melancholy was such a relief for my fellow townspeople that they weren’t willing to exchange it for more heavy-lifting. People had been telling them to smile their whole lives, and they were finally having a rest from insincerity. Stuff like self-actualization seemed way too taxing to them.
After a couple of months of fruitless salesmanship, Estella was discouraged. One rainy Monday, she stood beside me at the front counter and looked out at our bleak clientele and asked, “Why don’t our customers want to become enlightened, Eris? Why do they only order Ennui Tea and Doldrums Coffee? Why won’t they try the Self-Acceptance Cold Brew, or even a simple Epiphany Tea? I’ve sold my potions in dozens of different towns, and I’ve never encountered a group so stubborn and stagnant.”
“Well…” I didn’t want to remind her I hadn’t tried her more advanced drinks yet either. “I keep telling you—I’m not sure they can handle any more. It’s a miracle they’ve come this far.”
“Melancholy is only the first stage of enlightenment, Eris. Despair at the awful plight of the world is supposed to inspire us to grow and help others grow. I know you’re capable if you open your mind. But please do it quickly! I need your help to appeal to your fellow townspeople.”
Her advice would have annoyed me even more if she hadn’t already told me I was the most mature person in town. Although based on how she described the other people in town, it didn’t seem like much of a competition.
“Are you enlightened?” I asked her with as much politeness as I could manage.
“I’m on my way. That’s why I’m here, to help others along the path.”
So even she wasn’t entirely enlightened. At least she was honest with me.
“I don’t understand why it has to be so serious,” I said. “Why can’t this just be a cool place to hang out?”
“Do you find this place cool?” she said, gesturing at the clientele.
I liked the way everyone had changed. No one was propping up the world like Atlas anymore—no more catchphrases, no more masks of joy, no more pretending. On the other hand, I could see why Estella might find her new customers dull. Now they all acted like they had the flu, and they could only talk about mortality.
“They need to find the satisfaction in sadness.” I loved heartbreaking songs and movies where everyone died in the end, and I took pride in drifting around town like a shadow. Most people thought I was miserable, but it took talent to find the perverse joy I’d found in misery. Due to Estella’s powerfully depressing concoctions (sold with panache by yours truly), I was finally on-trend.
Estella shook her head at me and smiled the way that people in their 30s (or in Estella’s case, her 130s) smile at people in their early 20s. I hated it when she treated me like I was a child wearing a paper crown.
“Someday you’ll taste a melancholy fruit so bitter, it will open your eyes. Then you’ll want to help others through their suffering,” she said. Or prophesied.
I didn’t have to wait long for the prophecy to be fulfilled. The next day, I fell in love.
A guy walked in wearing grandpa slacks and a baggy button-down shirt and thick glasses and an addictive smirk. He was charming and sensitive, witty and intense. He said his name was Berlin, and he went to college a few towns over and had been looking everywhere for a cool place to hang out.
He teased me about my stereotypical goth look—heavy makeup and funereal garb. But he said it was cool I’d named myself Eris, after the Greek goddess of conflict and being pissed-off. I teased him about carrying a copy of Sartre’s No Exit under his arm like a first-year philosophy major.
“I am a first-year philosophy major. I’ll be a sophomore this fall,” he said.
“I’m not going to college. It’s a waste of time,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s only a waste of time if you aren’t becoming enlightened.”
There was that word again. To me, enlightenment was a product sold on TV, like an acne medication that promised more than it could deliver. But it made people feel good, as if salvation were just around the corner.
“College is too expensive.”
“It all depends on your perspective. But yes, I won’t relish paying back my student loans with my philosopher’s salary.” He smirked again, and I rolled my eyes, but I was already obsessed with him.
He asked what I recommended from the menu, and I poured him a cup of Doldrums Coffee (pre-magicked by Estella), but it didn’t seem to dampen his high spirits. He had the enthusiasm of a kid on Halloween, and we were running the haunted house.
Estella came out from her office and asked him what he thought about Sartre. He stared at her like she was a sculpture. He’d been able to talk to me so easily, but he couldn’t string two words together for her. As I watched them, my stomach began to burn. I hated Estella.
She invited him to her office where he could calm down and communicate. While they were gone, I was even more unfriendly to the customers than usual. I had never seen her take such an interest in anyone but me.
When he returned with an apron, I wasn’t surprised.
“She offered me a job! And I didn’t even apply! She says she sees something in me. Something special.”
“Congratulations,” I said without looking at him.
“And can you believe?” He got close to my ear and whispered. “She’s a witch? And she can teach us some of her spells?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to pretend his breath in my ear hadn’t made me shiver. “I tried her potion, too. What can I say? She hooked me.”
I found myself jealous both ways—of his regard for her and hers for him. What made him so special to her?
In spite of the awful turn of events, I still wanted to be with him, so I tried to steer the conversation to things he liked to do, to make it easy for him to invite me on a date. He kept changing the subject, asking me what I knew about magic. I tried to tell him that magic was probably painful and difficult, but he wasn’t listening.
“I’m going to ask her for instructions every chance I get,” he said, ignoring my cynicism. He seemed to lose interest in me for the rest of the day, which pained me more than anything. I wished we could have met somewhere else, without all the distractions. Then again, he might have looked right through me without the intrigue of my job.
It galled me when people ignored me. I’d been the town sourpuss for years before Estella arrived. People hadn’t even treated me like I was weird. They’d treated me like I wasn’t there. Even now that Estella had changed everything, no one credited me with being melancholy before it was cool.
For the rest of the afternoon, I listened to Berlin’s charming banter as he worked the cash register. I kept my back to him, pouring drinks. The job was the best thing that had ever happened to me, but I was thinking about running away—leaving the shop and leaving town, even though realistically, I hadn’t saved up enough money to move out of my parents’ house.
That evening, when Estella came out to help us close, Berlin begged her for some magical secrets. He explained at length why he could be trusted, gesturing with urgency. His arms looked like the elegant tusks of some beautiful wild beast, and I wanted to know what it felt like to hold them in my hands.
“I like your enthusiasm, but you seem to think it’s so simple,” Estella said. She gave him the same look she always gave me—that ‘what a cute kid’ look. That, at least, was some relief. She clearly wasn’t going to fall in love with him. He acted injured, but he said he’d ask again after work every day. And he said he was going on a thirst strike—he wasn’t drinking another of her potions until she showed him how to make them. I would have fired him for insubordination, but Estella seemed to admire his intensity.
Her obvious lack of romantic interest in him made me less despairingly angry. I was able to come back to work the next day. And the day after. And the day after. All week, I worked with Berlin, and I observed not only his sex appeal, but his kindness. If I was the employee who provided the dour credibility, he was the one who cared.
By the end of the week, she finally agreed to teach him one spell—as long as I agreed to learn it with him. I wanted to resist, but one look into his eyes made me relent.
“I’ll teach you how to brew Epiphany Tea,” she said. She opened one of the cabinets under the counter and pulled out some of her creepy-looking materials—sticks and herbs and seeds and other dried, misshapen things.
“You don’t lock this up?” Berlin asked her.
“The ingredients are inert without the magic. Magic is like enlightenment, you see,” she said, giving me a serious look. “It comes upon you after hard experiences and reflection. I asked you both to work here because I can tell you’ve already put in some effort. You’re nowhere close to enlightenment, of course, but you’re on the path. After you’ve had a try, I’ll make an Epiphany Tea for you so you can have the genuine experience.”
Berlin bent his head near mine, and we stared at the instructions together.
Mix a spoonful of grated ginger with three whole cloves and a pinch of lemongrass. Boil water. As the tea steeps, think of your own past epiphanies and put your hands around the mug to imbue the drink with your energy. After five minutes, strain and serve.
“Cool, sounds easy,” he said, which made Estella laugh a little. He seemed happy to have made her laugh, even though she was clearly laughing at his ignorance.
After we’d mixed up the brew, Berlin put his hands around the mug first, and without looking up at him, I put mine above his so that our hands were barely touching. It almost burned to graze his skin, but I tried to concentrate on things I’d learned in my short, pointless life. I started small, remembering when I realized I had to pedal faster to learn to ride a bike. I tried to think neutral thoughts, but of course, my mind took me to more hurtful realizations. I remembered being the only kid in the class not invited to any birthday parties in the fourth grade, realizing I was going to be alone for the rest of my life if I couldn’t find a way out. I remembered the day in sixth grade when everyone partnered up to kick the soccer ball in PE, and I was left with “Stinky Sarah” again (a new girl who ate cabbage rolls for lunch and was even more unpopular than I was), and I got so mad that I hid in the bathroom for the rest of the class in protest. I’d blocked the memory. I’d forgotten that I was an asshole, too.
I looked up and saw a tear on Berlin’s left cheek. What sad scenes had passed through his mind?
After several minutes, Estella told us we could stop. I stared into the pretty golden drink, and for once, I was thirsty for it. It looked so sweet, I hoped it would relieve some of the sadness I’d unearthed.
“Go ahead!” Estella said. “We can all drink. I doubt there’s enough magic here to give us epiphanies, but we wouldn’t want the tea to go to waste.”
We each took a sip, and I waited for the earth to quake under my feet or the sky to fall to pieces overhead. Although nothing loud or sudden happened, it occurred to me that in spite of my morose attitude, I preferred to keep my life unexamined. The truth was, I’d been alone and overlooked for most of my childhood, and learning how to embrace a style of sadness had freed me. It had meant I didn’t have to take things so seriously. I didn’t want the fun to end by looking too closely at myself or my life.
Was that it? Was my epiphany that I’d been avoiding epiphanies?
I looked at Berlin and Estella to see if they’d learned anything. Berlin stared out the window at the waning evening light. I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but I didn’t want to seem too mushy. Estella was always inscrutable to me, but even she seemed a bit shaken.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to do it yet,” she said. “You’re both wiser than I realized. I didn’t realize…”
Without elaborating, she left us. She practically ran from the front counter to her office and shut the door.
“That was weird,” I said. As always, my instinct was to play it cool, but I was dying to know what Berlin’s epiphany had been, so I asked him. “I don’t want to be nosy, but I saw you were crying a little. What did you realize when you drank the tea?”
He looked utterly forlorn. “I’m embarrassed to admit it.”
The result of my epiphany was that I wanted to try harder to be honest, even though I hated to look like I was trying too hard at anything. “Look, you can tell me. I’ll tell you first if you want.”
“Okay, you go first,” he said, refusing to look at me.
“I realized that…I’ve been a poser. I’ve wanted to seem deep, but I thought most of my deep thoughts when I was thirteen and depressed and alone. Things have gotten better since then, especially since I got this job, and so I haven’t wanted to think about anything difficult at all. For show, I named myself after the goddess of conflict, but the truth is, I avoid every kind of discomfort. That means I’m not so different from the people I’ve always looked down on. Like the people who are our customers now.”
My voice sounded different than usual as I made this admission. It seemed higher and squeakier, like the voice of a child.
“God. I relate so much,” Berlin said. He finally looked up, and I could see the florescent overhead lights shining in his brown velvet eyes. “After I took that sip, I realized that I’m full of shit. I pretend like I’m a philosopher, but I don’t know anything.” He reached under the counter to pick up the book he’d brought in with him. “No Exit. I’ve been walking around with this under my arm for months to impress everyone, and I haven’t read a word of it.” He slammed it down on the counter.
I tried to hide my smile. I wasn’t surprised.
He shrank back. “And I’m so transparent! People aren’t impressed by me. They just feel sorry for me.”
“Actually…” I hesitated. I wanted to take the plunge and tell him the truth, though. If I didn’t take risks, how would I gain anything? “To tell you the truth, Berlin…I’m impressed by you. I think you’re smart and interesting and weird and funny and…I know I just met you, but I think I really like you.”
I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see his reaction. In the silence that followed, I hid my face in my hands.
“Forget I said anything,” I said. But I didn’t want him to forget.
“Look Eris, I think you’re great, but I don’t feel—”
“I don’t want to hear it. Since you’re in love with our ancient boss, why don’t you stay and lock up with her? And while you’re at it, tell her I quit.”
With those bitter words, I took off. I went home and ignored my parents’ greetings (though they didn’t find that unusual), and I turned off the lights in my bedroom and listened to the saddest unrequited love songs I knew. I’d never been able to relate to them before. I’d had crushes, but I’d never admitted to having one, so it had never seemed real before. The next morning, I woke up sadder but wiser. I’d been humiliated, but it hadn’t killed me. And in the process, I’d used real magic. I felt an urge to tell Estella about my heartbreak. Not only was she my witch mentor, but she was kind of my best friend.
I went into work as usual that morning. The doors were unlocked, but no one was out front. I checked the back office and found Estella peering over her notecards.
“Maybe you can find a recipe for happiness or something,” I said. “Epiphanies suck, just like I knew they would.”
She gave me such a tragic, apologetic look that I felt a little guilty for complaining.
“Oh, Eris. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how condescending I’d been to you. I hired you because I believed in you, but I kept thinking you needed to learn so much more from me before you could do anything. Like I was the key. I open certain people’s eyes to magic, yes, but then I act as if I’m so much more important than they are. I rarely even bother tasting the potions my students make. But I learned something from you yesterday.”
“I learned something, too. I ate a piece of melancholy fruit, just as you predicted. I fell in love-at-first-sight with Berlin and confessed it to him. And he rejected me.”
“I’m sorry, Eris. Well, he quit.”
“He said he needed to do some soul-searching and didn’t have time for a job yet. I told him to come back in a few months when he was ready.”
“Did he tell you that I tried to quit?”
“No! I had no idea you were unhappy here.”
“I’m not, I’m not. But I knew Berlin was in love with you and not me, and I got angry. I’m sorry I was so rash. I realized that getting my heart broken isn’t the end of the world. It sucks, but it’s an experience, right?”
Estella laughed. “Sure. It’s happened to me seventy-three times. And I’m glad you’re not quitting after all. I have more spells to teach you. But I do think Berlin will come back eventually. I have a feeling about him. Do you think it would be too hard to work with him again?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, though I didn’t know if that was true. I didn’t know whether my feelings for Berlin were like heat lightning or a hurricane. Either way, I was curious.
“Maybe the clients need a little boost themselves,” she said. “I haven’t been as good at promoting Epiphany and other healing drinks as I have been at selling Ennui and Doldrums. It’s my own fault. I must seem so strange to everyone since I’m not from around here. You’re a much better salesperson.”
“I can try talking to them. Who knows?” I said.
I went to the counter and opened Estella’s secret stash and started brewing up golden cups of Epiphany Tea infused with my own fresh melancholy memories. When Kaitlyn, a former homecoming queen and recently-converted goth, walked in, I knew she was the influencer I needed. She was still the town trendsetter, and if I could convert her, I could convert them all. I told her I’d discovered the best new drink, Epiphany Tea, and I was surprised to find that she actually cared what I thought and ordered one. When she took her first sip, my heart ached for her as her face bloomed with painful recognition. I told her it was going to be all right—that everyone was full of shit, and sooner or later, we were all doomed to realize it.
That week, most of our customers starting trying Epiphany Tea after seeing Kaitlyn drink it, and ours became a more complicated café. They began showing off a range of insights and emotions, and I had to admit, I was proud of them. I stopped being rude by default when anyone walked in the door. I at least waited to see if they did anything warranting my rudeness. Making Epiphany Tea was taxing and painful at times, but when I saw how much it helped everyone, I felt like I could handle the unpleasantness.
When Berlin came back to work that December, his eyes were still velvet, but my crush had died. I was almost disappointed.
Before I showed him some of the new recipes I’d learned, I asked, “Did you ever read No Exit?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s where that famous quote comes from—Hell is other people. But it turns out that he doesn’t just mean that other people suck. He means it’s hell to have to spend every moment impressing other people. I get it now.”
I looked at him skeptically.
“Well, that is to say, I’m figuring it out.”
“Me too,” I said.