There is a stranger at the bottom of my mug. He waits there for me every morning, to stare up at me with tea-stained eyes peering out from a liquid face. It emerges, slowly, with each sip. Cautiously at first, reluctant to leave the comfort of the heat, but as the rich concoction begins to cool, more and more of that blanket pulled away and down my throat, the man begins to reveal himself. The brow slips into view, the quivering surface of the drink like an uncertain blade, deciding where to cut the image, what to strip away. But the man fights the blade, and as the line sinks lower, he raises his eyes to mine, silently announcing his presence, mocking my inability to look away, to pretend that I have not noticed. He is there, pressing his face higher and higher above the shrinking pool. Earl Grey cheeks gleam from below the brow; a Darjeeling nose pokes unavoidably in my direction; Jasmine eyes fix themselves upon me. Always, always he is there.
But the face is not the same. How can one man have so many faces? One man, doubtless the same in every way, but with faces as varied as tea itself. There is the Smiling Man. The creases in his forehead are enough to give him away, long before I meet the laughter in his eyes and the wrinkles in his bulging cheeks. He makes me smile as well, and it is this face that I like best on the stranger who occupies my mug. There is a kindness, a mirth, a joyful outpouring of love and acceptance that radiates from it with the steam that wafts up from the bottom to meet me. This face knows no pain, it knows no heartache. It longs to share, and I hope that it understands how much I long to share my happiness in return.
The Smiling Man, however, is not always the one that I see. There is also the Sad Man. His face sags and droops, waterlogged and soggy, and his eyes are full of bitter tears. The tea-line rises and hides his grief, then falls to send another stream of hot liquid running down his cheeks. It calls to me, the landscape of this face. It is a face that aches to be known, to escape the confines of this mug, to be embraced and kissed and loved. There is longing there, and when I meet this face I can feel this longing in myself. His pain becomes my own and lingers after he has withdrawn. If only I could lend him the peace that the Smiling Man always lends me.
And there are more still that lie in wait. The Weary Man and the Hopeful Man. The Confident Man and the Lost Man. The Frightened Man and the Healthy Man. They come unbidden, they come as they will, and I love and fear them according to their nature. But there is one that I dread the most, one that comes when I most need a friendlier face, and this is the Ugly Man. The Ugly Man is not sad, but dejected. His features are set and cruelly turned. There is no anger, but there is hatred, and he locks me in his loathing eyes, drawing me into that miserable visage as if to swallow me whole. Not depressed, but wretched, resigned, abandoned by his very self. He is blight and pestilence, and in this he revels. There is no end other than what he has already become, and the face has atrophied into stone. Unmoving, unyielding. He is terrifying, and if he could possibly twist his lips into a smile, the knowledge of this terror that he inspires would surely surely move him to do so.
Would that I could choose, would that I could decide for myself each morning whom I would find there, down below, staring up at me. I would choose the Happy Man, the Fulfilled Man, the Joyful Man, the Carefree Man. The Nervous, Worried, Desperate Man would never darken my mug again. The Spiteful Man and the Sick Man would stay far away, and the Angry Man would let go and allow another face to greet me. I would see the Smiling Man, his eyes wet with laughter, and never more fear that the Ugly Man might creep up from the dregs to torture me. That face would be gone, with the rest of his kind, and leave only warm, inspiring faces behind to lift me up and give me cheer. If only it were my choice, which face I would see there. I would choose a happy one. Always a happy one.