Anna Davis-Abel :: Southern Sweet Tea ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern legitimacy statement– The South is inextricable from me as my bones. I was born in Mississippi to two families that traced their lineages to poor antebellum share croppers and then grew up in Alabama. I left the south for only three years for Grad School in West Virginia, but then returned in 2020 to teach at the University of Alabama.

Southern Sweet Tea

My husband met me when I was half a girl. The other half of me was like the bags of Red Diamond tea stashed in my cupboard: full of promise, but shredded, held together with a see-through veneer. 

I learned early that in Alabama, women are supposed to be as sweet as our tea. My first boyfriend –the man before my husband – had turned me bitter. He’d steeped me too long in water as hot as the Alabama summer. I’d withered in the heat. 

I was nineteen, living in an apartment with carpeting the color of cornbread. At nights, I laid in my bed, staring at the lights cast from cars passing by. They were from college students living lives more vibrant than mine. I would hold my breath as the panic rose, thinking of the man before my husband’s hand around my neck. Loving him felt like drinking scalding water, filling me and burning me but leaving me too full to ask for something – anything – else. Nights when I felt the memory of his heat was going to burn me dry, I climbed into my empty bathtub. I was pressed in at all sides, small as a tea glass when I laid down. I felt safety in knowing where the boundaries lie.

Three months after that boyfriend, I met my husband. It was a blind date in the cold wet of December. We met at a shopping mall abandoned by students who’d gone home for Christmas. I had nowhere to go, so I went to dinner. As my Mississippi grandmother always said, the way to healing is through the stomach.

Things moved fast, like sugar melting at the bottom of a freshly brewed pitcher. One date turned to three. We left the shopping mall behind for my bed. His breath was hot like humidity as he kissed the skin of my collar bone. He tongued the cross necklace my mother had given me. I gripped his hair between my fingers and pulled. He stiffened against the pain and looked up at me. I saw three men in him: 

Him, with his eyes as dark as pecan tree branches. 

My father with thick lashes that grew like Timothy Grass by the lake where I learned to fish. 

The man who came before him, with lips that taught me in a thick drawl what heartbreak could be. What womanhood could be. 

The moment unwrapped in declarative sentences. Panic gripped me. The warmth at my throat tightened like a hand. Breath escaped me. I was drowning, falling into a pit of Earl Grey. He pulled back. I closed my eyes, gasping. I was floating. I was nowhere. I was crying.

When the steam pulled back from my eyes, I was too ashamed to see him. I knew he was watching me. I climbed, naked as the day I was born, from bed. The feeling of the scratchy cornbread carpet under foot gave way to cream sickle coldness when I entered my bathroom. I found my way in the darkness to my bathtub and climbed in. The Formica pressed cold where his hot breath had been. Pulling the shower curtain closed around me, I became entombed. 

It was a long while before I heard the cry of the bathroom door creaking open. My dog, I thought. I knew the boy must have left because who would have stayed?

I waited for the sound of paws on ceramic tiles but there was none. Only a rustling. The sound of the shower curtain moving. 

In the darkness, I could just make out a hand. A hand bigger than mine, but open. I reached with shaking fingers and took the palm in mine. It was hot against my clammy skin.

We sat in the grey darkness, the curtain drawn between us, our hands clasped. There were no words, no attempts to pull me free. We just were in the purest sense, like tea leaves bled into hot water.