Clouds streamed by in Bionic-Woman-like slow motion outside the window. I had been relegated to the aisle seat, having lost two out three rounds of roshambo to my cousin. In the two seats in front of us were his mom and his older sister.
“Ocha. Japanese tea? Ocha. Japanese tea?” The air stewardess repeated her mantra. We ignored her, waiting for the real tea lady to show up, several paces behind her in the aisle.
The second air stewardess proffered her little tray just so. I parked my plastic teacup in the spot unoccupied by the pitcher of cream, finger packets of sugar or the neat, overlapping scales of lemon slices. She ceremoniously poured the tannic-puckery brew into my cup, vivid vapors wafting in the stale cabin air.
With a reminding nudge from my cousin, I grabbed two sugars. After she had moved on down the aisle, I poured half my tea into my cousin’s teacup.
Remains of our doll-house sized meals were littered all over our folding tray tables. From under the debris, we retrieved the still-intact sachets of salt, pepper, sugar and non-dairy creamer that had been swaddled in the napkin with the icy cold silverware. We tore open each packet, and the powders spilled out, drowning in our teacups. With the curve of my finger, I hooked up a dollop of Wrigley green wasabi and smeared it inside my cup. My cousin added the soyish brine labeled ‘soba-dipping sauce’ into his teacup. From its crumpled, silvery shroud, I scraped unctuous blobs of butter to add to my tea. After vigorous stirring, the contents in each cup were still recognizably brown, and still smelled indistinguishable from Lipton’s Brisk.
“I’ll give you 10 baht if you drink it.”
“I’ll give you 20.”
“Why don’t you drink it?”
“Why don’t you drink it? You said it first.”
“You won’t drink it ‘cause you’re a scaredy cat!”
“You’re the scaredy cat.”
His mom and sister still hadn’t noticed anything. Neither had turned around to frown at us through the padded crack of their reclining seat backs. Once a year, we flew on an airplane to visit Grandmother. From the seat-back pocket, we would filch air-sickness bags; from the stewardesses, we wheedled decks of cards. And we would play “Auntie-Granny”. We looked forward to these plane-rides more than we did for our birthdays.
* * *
The curry-fried crab had been mostly polished off. The only remaining traces of its short brutish life on earth were vermillion confetti of chalky shell and sucked-off pearly cartilage gathered in little piles. Juicy fingers were licked clean in contented idyll.
The steamed fish and the fried rice hadn’t arrived. In that gastronomic intermission, Auntie-Granny rose from her seat and strode over to the kids’ table with her brandy in hand. By this time, there was probably already at least one refill already under her belt.
The majestic heft of her bosom led the way, heralded by the jangling jewelry around her neck, wrists and fingers, dangling from her ears. Fidgeting ceased, all eyes were on her expectantly, as she approached.
By every table, there was a drinks trolley with opened bottles of Coca Cola and Green Spot soda pop, Singh beer and Polaris still water, a teapot, an ice bucket, a bottle of Hennessey, and empty glasses. But the trolley for the kids’ table was alcohol-free. Into an unused glass, she generously poured out half the contents from her copiously-filled snifter of Hennessey. She added some tepid tea, the amber fading to a lighter shade as the plumes of alcohol swirled and then stilled. She topped it off with some Coca-cola. The glass bubbled with a wicked flourish, and instantly subsided, a potion straight out of a Disney fairytale.
“I’ll give whoever drinks this 100 baht,” Auntie-Granny proclaimed, holding up the glass of alchemic brew. At the kids’s table, we sat still in atypical muteness, nine cousins aged six to thirteen, whose skinniness belied the capacity to put away the same 388 baht ten-course Chinese menu that ten adults could barely finish. At the adults’ table, our parents squirmed in silence. Frizzy-perm, cocoa-dyed hair, glittering baubles and all, this brassy ex-bartender was my grandfather’s girlfriend. This was her favorite party-trick at our family dinners.
In my nocturnal, solitary cocoon that was the back seat of the car on the way home after these family dinners, I always wondered in the regret of opportunity lost: What would have happened if I took up Auntie-Granny’s challenge? And what would her cocktail have tasted like?
The 100 baht bounty meant more than mere money; the reward was also paid out in family currency: bragging rights amongst us cousins, and the gloating satisfaction of seeing the indignant outrage of my pinched-faced aunts. What sort of punishment would be commensurate with this crime of unknown gravity? Next time, I vowed to myself, I would say yes.
* * *
The first year I made the acquaintance of Auntie-Granny, she had asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought longingly of my best friend’s collection of hardbound Nancy Drew books, neatly lined up in her bedroom bookshelf. When I ripped the dancing reindeer wrapping paper from her present, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” emerged, to my disappointment. Especially since I had specifically told her, even taking the trouble of spelling out the author’s name. The books were paperback; the covers featured unexciting black-on-white ink drawings. I started reading anyway. By the time I got to Prince Pondicherry and his chocolate palace in India, “. . . when you turned on the taps in the bathroom, hot chocolate came pouring out . . .” it was epiphany. (Although I did wonder why he didn’t commission the palace to be made out of Wonka’s melt-proof chocolate ice cream that stayed cold for hours without being in an icebox, to preclude it from dissolving into a sticky chocolate puddle.)
Auntie Granny’s command of English was limited to three minutes’ worth of genially timeless barfly chitchat. In all likelihood, she had simply requested the clerk at Asia Books select ‘two books suitable for a seven-year-old girl.’ She had given me my first taste of literature. But I never tasted her cocktail.