On browned wax paper warm granola crackles With a scent of chai cupped in my hands And the feeling of ease I could grow into, Waking up late With the full light of day as my only alarm, Abetted by two taps from a gray paw.
I am sad to leave you, My companion for all these weeks. Over your words I linger On my lips and in my mind. Soft moments from your past, Present in our here and now. A quiet leaf falling, A flurry of crimson in mid air. The glancing light on the sill, Departing when I look away.
In a nondescript strip mall, we saw Pho U. We were hungry and had already passed many fast food places, tempted by their convenience and familiarity. But we soldiered on in the light of a
departing dusk, E driving, while my eyes avidly searched for novelty along the road. We were in Chicago's western suburbs, their uniformity of chain stores and restaurants were mind-numbing.
Barely lighted with flickering streetlamps, Pho U stood next to an Uzbekistani restaurant. From the car, I could see the bustle and lights inside Pho U. Next door, in contrast, was the forlorn formality of white lace linens in an empty dining room.
We soon joined the bright bustle in what turned out to be a Vietnamese-Korean hybrid of an eatery. Bui Go Ki shared menu space with a handful of pho dishes.
The tables around us quickly filled up with Korean-Americans. The one next to us ordered a bevy of deep-fried appetizers, which smelled awfully good despite their unrecognizability as food products. Large bowls of steaming pho soon followed amidst conversations in Korean. I strained in vain to hear Vietnamese spoken in the restaurant.
We ordered pho ourselves. Mine came with a trove of seafood: plump shrimp, squid, clams and mussels still in their shells, and porcelain-hued fish cakes. The beef broth was robust, made sweet with fresh mint leaves and cilantro which came on the side.
We ate as a pouty tween from the next table engaged in cold war antics with her younger brother.
We shared a pot of green tea, poured into square-mouthed teacups; the tea, smoky like hay, and vegetal, was much like the tea I've drank in Vietnam.
The cold war antics between the kids came to a close, replaced by new activity to and from the front door, quick raps on its glass panes, and faces contorted in mutual sibling disdain made at each other.
I finished my pho and was full, but made room for dessert nevertheless: mini cheesecakes seemed too good to pass up. Soon, our waitress returned with an oblong tray arrayed with bite-sized pieces of different flavored cheesecakes. The piece de resistance, however, were the Craisins garnishing the plate.
Sweet cream cheese paired nicely with cups of green tea. We finished our meal, a cross-pollination of cuisines, as the overhead TV announced the score of the Packers' game.
A leaf whirls gently through the whistling breeze Pillowed by the light of noon Along its downward flight. From the distance, I hear A leaf-blower bray. It enters the scrim of sweet fall songs As the golden leaf comes to its rest.
October comes, And the leaves turn a golden russet. The mail truck drives Through a flutter of breezes. Inside, gray wool worn until soft, Brushes across my cheeks, Its slight weight on my shoulders. As I hold the warm bowl of tea And bring the first sip to my lips, You lie conch-like across my lap.
I blink and see sunlight. Dully green, the pendant vine leaves have turned lucent. Each leaf shot through with light like a membrane. My eyelids flicker in the afternoon sun. Light and shadow, And still the leaves rustle. They are wavelets across my half-sleep mind.
Deep into summer and notwithstanding the bounty of Michigan blueberries around here, I have not made one clafoutis this year. By this time last summer, I was churning them out and eating them with abandon. I'd devour this dish as it came out of the oven, still steaming and scalding, and have it cold for breakfast the next day. It was my fruity strata, a sweet take on this originally savoury dish.
So I remedied this clafoutis-less situation, and with midnight-blue stains on my fingers, a piping hot blueberry clafoutis soon emerged from the oven to accompany a tea tasting of Silver Needles.
Each yielded a straw-colored liquor, the Fuding more deeply shaded.
I sipped from each cup and let the liquor linger in my mouth. The differences between the two teas were subtle. The Zhenghe was roundly honeyed, without a jarring note. In the Fuding, however, I detected an artichoke-y flavor, a not unpleasant puckering in its otherwise sweet nature.
With the duel between the Silver Needles satisfactorily at an end, I dug into my slice of the clafoutis.
She still walks with a limp although I no longer see her with a cane. It's been three years since her back surgery, but I remember well the day she came to see me for the problem. She was a patient whom I've known for a long time although I rarely saw her. When I did, it was often for something serious, when she couldn't ignore the problem any longer.
I saw that she was unable to rise from her chair without pushing herself forward, each hand clutching an armrest. It had been this way for days, she said. Her legs felt weak and numb, her balance unsteady. At home, she'd walk upstairs, holding onto the banister and suddenly watch her legs crumple beneath her.
I helped her to the examining table. Her arms and legs were visibly weak, she lurched while holding on to my arms. After I finished examining her, I reviewed my concerns with her: she needed an MRI of her back right away - she was facing imminent quadriplegia.
Several days later, she had urgent back surgery to relieve the narrowing spinal canal that was pressing on her spinal cord. I'd see her several times a year after that. Initially, her husband whom I had met but once, came along to her appointments, pushing her in a wheelchair. Months later, she came alone, moving down the hallway with a four-wheeled walker, her steps halting but resolute.
Now, she is in her chair, upright, and her smile is genial but wry. She knows that I will ask her if she has stopped smoking, if she has cut back on the sodas to get her weight down. She prepares herself to be truthful.
I ask her how she fared during the recent storm, the one that knocked out power lines, flooded the city streets and basements.
She shakes her head and looks at me ruefully. She had watched the events unfold on TV as they were happening in other parts of the city. Then, she looked out her window and saw the rain pouring onto her lawn. Minutes later, her son cried out from the basement: water was cascading through their windows, onto their sofa and carpeting. Mother and son looked on silently as the water filled up their basement.
She recounts her story with animation. There is more work to do, she says. They are discarding most of the contents of their basement and have gone through what could be salvaged with buckets of bleach and water.
She no longer has her stationary bike to ride daily, it's waterlogged alongside the washer and dryer. But she'll walk in her neighborhood for exercise, she says.
Her voice is unwavering when she speaks. I'm down to half a pack a day. I'll quit soon.
We say goodbye, and she easily rises from her chair to leave.
Yellow-tongued and reflected in windows. Tapers of wax in a darkened kitchen. We sit at the window, a rumble, a flash. Silver-rimmed, a slash in the sky. Rain in sheets, the din is steady. I jolt in my seat and clasp my mug.
Camellia sinensis, where are your fronds? Alas, no hot liquor brushes my lips. Instead, I drink the tepid milk and go off to bed.
Heat-heavy, a bowl of blueberries between us. Fingers dipping simultaneously, tips pressing close on blue. Water-moistened, the berries a deep midnight hue. Sweetness in my mouth. A flitting red, then lush green. A cardinal alights, his plume in the sun.
And by a francophone friend:
Nous avons mange tous les bleuets. C'est un repas qui n'a pour objet Que de proclamer la verite de l'ete.
Under the birch tree I sat. Its tendrils of leaves shaded me in the middle of a blindingly sunny field, up the hill from my office. I was playing hooky during a ten minute wait between patients.
I'd turned away from my computer screen, saw the flawless blue sky through the half-open blinds, and easily turned my steps towards the front door. With a mug of lotus tea in one hand and my beeper in the other, I walked up the hill.
Here, the sound of cars in the parking lot was muffled, my figure sheltered from view. I drank my tea on the grass and squinted at the oblong strips of sky peeking through the birch.
My mind wandered. Door County sour cherries, recently pitted and now frozen in a large ziploc bag at home. I'd think about them often, prodded by their appearance when I open the freezer, feeling the blast of cold on my face.
Shiny red and tangy when I'd plopped one into my mouth, I had to remind myself to stop eating them as they were destined for another purpose. Pits slickly dropping onto the bottom of a mason jar when I inaugurated the cherry pitter brought back from a roadside stand in Door County weeks ago -along with the pint of sour cherries.
I'd make a cherry crisp, crumbly with oats, piquant with cardamon. The juices would bubble on the edges as I'd take a peek in the oven, impatient for that first slice.
Our green tea (Lung Ching or sencha) would brew patiently on the side, the cats limply sleeping on cool tiles.
The beeper tugged me back to the present, and I walked down the hill, the mug empty of tea.
The three little sparrows chirped maniacally at my feet. A bit of apple pulp on the ground drew them near me. They hopped, pecked at the fruit, alighted onto my table, and then flew into the canopy of a nearby hemlock. Overhead, the chirps continued.
Occasionally, one would dart out, followed by his companion. Then there was a fluttering of wings as a mid-air melee broke out. Unscathed, they flitted away and I turned back to my tea.
The cup of chai was sweet in a cloying way, the black tea base barely detected in the liquor. My heart had sunk when I saw the barista pour a dark, thick liquid from a cardboard carton into my cup. This brown syrup flowed generously, topped with frothed and crested milk.
I took several sips and put the chai to the side. As intense as my sweet tooth may be where desserts are concerned, I like my tea unadorned with sweeteners. This is especially so in the case of chai, its blend of spices already a heady melange of aromas and flavors, benefitting little from the addition of anything else.
The cheeps, the chirps of birds, the quaking aspens, their leaves like wind chimes in the breeze. We sat amidst treetops, our balcony an eyrie overlooking the lake.
Light blue, defined in the distance, the lake became blurred as the fog set in, sky and water gradually merging.
A pot of Assam, another a tisane redolent with plump raspberries, and finally, a pot of homemade chai. We drank the cups of tea in our eyrie, watching the fog clear, the song of birds in our midst.