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?”
“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.