A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.

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Staring at Nothing, Seeing It All

nightblizzard

All alone while south-bounding
this midnight highway, I’m staring
at the painted lines on the road.
The high beams serve as the conduit
through which I’m reeling
yellow-yellow-yellow into my eyes as I
draw closer to here, to there, please
don’t let it be once more to nowhere.

Now the snow is falling, though
from my aspect behind the wheel
it surges toward me in one long burst
of white and I dare not blink
or I might lose the road altogether,
the touchstone lines now erased.

My eyes must be stinging from all
this gaping into the glare
of faded yellow lines on black,
now motes of white ice dust
streaming upon a beam of light.
I just tell you they’re sweating tears
from the strain as I idly wipe
them aside with the back of my hand.

All I really see is your face out there.
All the rest is mere background…nothing.
All I want is to make it home and ask for
one more chance to make it all —
all the unbroken lines of all our strife,
all the blizzards of guilt I’ve run from since
all I knew was walking. I’ve run out of road.
All I want is back there by you.

In Poem #22 in the April Poem-A-Day slog to May, I’m responding to Robert Lee Brewer’s promo for a piece with “Star (Something)” in its title. Well, you know how Hesch rolls…too cute by half. Mission accomplished, Robert.

Just Standing Around

All night she sat in her chair across the room as we watched television. Finally, she muted the show, looked over at me and asked, “Do you still miss her?”

I thought it was a silly question. How could I not? But I answered, “Of course I do. She was such an important piece of my life.”

“Well, what do you miss most?” she said, in that hard-wired interrogative way women have in trying to mine men’s emotions. “Playing with her, petting her, feeling her unconditional love?”

See what I mean?

I played along because she was so damned earnest and I understood she wanted to show she cared. I’m an evolved kinda guy like that anyway.

“Well all those things. Sure.” I said.

She aimed those never-miss, sapphire laser-guided eyes into me and said, “But what most?”

Sigh…

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know.”

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was digging way down to bring forth the Hope Diamond of her hope to connect at a deeper level with me. I began running the home movies of my beloved old dog and me on the tacked up sheet of my heart.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “Well?”

Women would love it if the whole other half of the planet’s population could just pull out some emotion or feeling (the coin of the female realm) just as easily as they can. In an oddly effective bit of incentive, she played the cuddle card, which signified to me she expected something not necessarily weepy, but at least eye-blinking.

The funny thing is, I had her answer after my first sip of suds.

“It’s kinda a selfish thing” I said.

“Oh? Well what is it?”

“Just standing around,” I said.

Her expression turned a bit rigid and then fell like a sheet of melting ice off the church roof.

“Oh,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “My life no longer has those periods of…how can say this? Momentary stasis, thought, acceptance of now, that it did when my pup was alive.”

I could actually hear her blink, I think. But not the “Could you give me a Kleenex?” sort of blink.

“Every morning around dawn we’d go out the door and were greeted by a waking world. Pink clouds, tangerine windows of other early risers, hoo-hooing of mourning doves, songs of the other birds. Sometimes, I’d whistle back, just to see if they’d answer. And they DID! At night, we’d hang out and watch the stars look like they were doing the moving, instead of the clouds in front of ’em. And all because, for that moment in my life, I could just stand there.”

Her expression appeared to be taking on a little CPR, color and warmth returning to what a minute ago had all the life of a drowning victim.

“So that’s it?” she said, still on the verge of disappointment.

“I didn’t think you’d understand,” I said. “Look, Old Fluffybutt and I would go out there day and night. She’d do her in-the-moment thing and taught me I’d better learn to do mine, because she was in no hurry. I’d feel the air surround me, winter or summer, full of snowflakes, leaves or skeeters, and I could hear it talk to me, telling me to take it easy, don’t freak, life’s pretty good. Ya know what I mean?”

“M-m-maybe,” she said.

“All the while, I would watch her and then the sky, the trees, the clouds, airplanes’ scratching the sky with their contrails, critters and birds, and her shitty loads I forgot to pick up and the shitty grass I wish I didn’t have to. And I haven’t done that since she’s gone. And it’s a double loss to me, maybe a triple.”

“What do you mean?” she said, perking up a bit.

“I mean I don’t have her to share it with me the way we did anymore. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a guy and his dog thing.”

“No, dear,” she said. “It’s a very, very human thing.”

She hugged me, kissed me warmly and went into full cuddle mode, making these little happy noises as if she’d just enjoyed a fine meal. I’m sure she thought she’d made that brass-ring connection with me. Or a gold one.

I still really don’t think she understood ol’ Fluff’s and my deal, because she’s a woman, ya know?

Not a dog.

Soft-Serve

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From our back window I watched wind whipping the snow and was struck by how much it reminded me of the ice cream of my youth–the pines were the twisty tops of drippy cones and the drifts like clouds of soft-serve so sweet that she came to mind.

The summer I met her was full of sunburnt days on the beach, nights spent holding soft, warm and sweaty, and empty dishes of runny chocolate and vanilla, tossed aside there in the sand as easily as all those previous summer romances.

The wind breathed cold against a dip out by the oak stump, as if scooping another big plastic spoonful of memory I’d long since let melt away, as I sighed a warm smear of my own feelings of empty dishness against the windowpane.

“What in the world’s so interesting out there in the middle of a blizzard?” Barbara asked, tapping me on the shoulder and breaking my frosty reverie.

“Umm, nothing…but whaddaya say we go out and get ourselves a sundae or something?”  I said, brushing a strand of gray behind her ear and hugging her close, soft, warm and dry.

Ten minutes of first-draft Five Sentence Fiction combining Lillie McFerrin’s prompt FROZEN with my dear friend Heather Grace Stewart’s new Take Ten Thursday feature at her blog, Where the Butterflies Go. Heather’s photo prompt is at the top of this almost-story.  Maybe it’s a prose poem. If it is, then I won’t feel so stupid linking it to Sam Peralta’s call for them at dVerse.

Ice in the Blood

blood winter wallpaper

It’s not winter cold I sense
shifting the form of my blood
from liquid to solid. I feel
crystals of plasma and the cells
clink and link with one another
in the freezing cold
within my sweater and vest.
Perhaps bundled in
suitable-for-shipping layers
of fluff and flannel insulates
this cold old heart,
sluggishly pumping its slush of life,
since no longer are you here
to stoke the flames
of its imaginings. You know,
the ones I’d walk through for you
each day, head swiveling, sensing all
in the ninety-eight degree heat
that lit this pen with which
I brand a world.

Shared with my friends at dVerse Poets for the Feb. 4, 2014 Open Link Night, where I’m tending bar. At least I know I have sufficient ice, eh?

Popping the Question

Candle Glow 149/365

Candle Glow 149/365 (Photo credit: gravity_grave)

“So what are we celebrating here in THE most expensive restaurant in the tri-county area,” Miranda asked Jack, who slid her Cosmo just a little closer to her hand, there on the other side of the table’s pulsing candle light.

“Why do we need a reason, isn’t just going together for, what, ten months, enough?” Jack said, and took two very large gulps of his double Maker’s Mark on the rocks and shifted his eyes everywhere but upon Miranda’s.

Jack took a finishing swig of his tumbler of bourbon, held it aloft and shook it for the waitress’ benefit, showing her his ice cubes were in need of more than this remaining dilute tawny dribble of Kentucky oak dance floor.

Miranda shivered with a chill yet felt her face burn with a fear and excitement she was about to hear she might be losing her intelligent, funny, sexy, “beautiful man” — a doctor no less — or perhaps that he was going to ask her something just the opposite.

Jack took yet another big pull on his new drink, then took Miranda’s warm hand into his moist, ice-chilled fingers, gazed decisively into her eyes and said, “Sweetie, I’ve been thinking about this for months and months and then you came into my life and I knew you were different and, well … how would feel about having a lifelong partner, someone who loved you more than anyone in the world..someone named Jacqueline?”

Celebrating the two-year anniversary of Lillie McFerrin’s Five Sentence Fiction prompts, with this week’s perfect prompt…Celebration.

Entitled to Love

Dandelion-Fluff_Sun-Shining__104258

Dandelion-Fluff_Sun-Shining__104258 (Photo credit: Public Domain Photos)

When we were new,
and life, that skeleton gate
upon which the ivy of our season
clung and climbed, we bloomed
like flames within stacked kindling.

We burst from darkness,
your spark upon the dry past of one
who should never love another.
But when your spark flared,
my black heart dissolved.

A twilight of promise grew
where deep shadows and
brightest illumination
crossed in a jumble of
fuzzy possibility.

We chose not to wait for
the full bloom of what
the night voices,
the midnight call of lovers,
said would come.

What would they know of
the sere and broken tinder
from our time untended
in the green years of lost,
if ever lived, youth?

And so we watch, together,
as they step off the steps from
one side of their lover’s cages
to the other, held captive
like exhibits owned by others’ greed.

We sway free in our light
and lightness like dandelions,
ready to burst and fly together
upon whatever breeze takes us
to all our tomorrows.

A Free Write Friday exercise based on my friend Kellie Elmore’s prompt to use one of the following titles as inspiration for a poem:

“Dandelion Season”
“Phone Call at Midnight”
“The Green Years”
“The Human Zoo”
“The Fires of Spring”
“The Ivy Covered Gate”

Typically, I chose them all.