It's a #NAChristmas!
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The rules for swimming are simple:
Rule #1: There is no lifeguard on duty.
Since her mom died three years ago, nineteen-year-old Zosia Easton’s
been treading water. Living at home. Community college. Same old Saturday
nights. So when her father breaks the news he’s taken a job transfer—and by the
way, it means renting out the house that’s been her refuge—a summer in Tokyo
feels like it just might be a chance to start swimming again.
Rule #2: Beware of unexpected currents.
Finn O’Leary has spent God knows how many years trying to drown out
his past. Juvenile detention. Bad decisions. Worse choices. He’s managed to
turn it around – MIT, Dean’s List, a sexier-than-thou body with a smile to
match – at least on the surface. When his mom asks him to spend the summer with
her, Tokyo seems as good a place as any to float through the summer.
Rule #3: Swim at your own risk.
TO TOKYO – Bonus scene
Babci’s tiny kitchen is at least
eighty degrees, which is why I’m stripping down to a tank top in the middle of
mashing the potatoes. Although, truth be told, Finn’s raised eyebrows and
appreciative smile as I lift the hem of my sweater are awfully encouraging. So
is the way he bites his lip like that. Good Lord. He’s not even doing anything.
I just know what usually follows that look…
I turn back to the potatoes and
slam the metal masher down with extra force. Babci has an electric mixer, but
she says it makes the potatoes too smooth and I learned a long time ago not to
argue with her in the kitchen. Especially on Christmas Eve. It’s probably
better anyway. Gives me an outlet for this sudden energy zinging through my
“Zosia, you are going to go through
the bottom of the pot pounding like that. Gently.” Babci places her gnarled
hand on mine and then turns to Finn. Whose expression changes from come hither to oh crap in an instant. “Can you get the plates and the silverware? Three
and an extra. Everything’s almost ready.”
A look of relief crosses Finn’s
face as he nods and I swallow a smile. This big tough guy is still nervous as
hell about spending Christmas with Babci.
don’t do parents, let alone grandparents.
go and I’ll meet up with you on the twenty-seventh.
Blah, blah, blah. Only after I had
an honest-to-God, foot-stomping almost-tantrum did he agree to come with me.
It’s not like he hasn’t met Babci before and there’s no way I’m letting her
spend Christmas on her own. Besides, if I’m honest, I’m just starting to accept
Christmas without Mom. With Dad in Tokyo this Christmas, Babci’s the only
family I’ve got. If Finn made me choose…
Ok. I’ll do this because I love you. But you’re going to owe me.
Indeed. Heat flashes across my
chest. That was one debt I wouldn’t mind paying again. Twice.
I give the potatoes one last smash
and say to Babci, “I think these are good. Do you want me to get the fish out?”
“No, leave it until last. We have
the soup first after the oplatek,”
She reaches for the cream-colored
envelope on the shelf next to the sink. It looks like a business letter, except
for the blue Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus stamped on the front. Finn comes
back into the kitchen and she hands him the envelope. “Will you put these on
the table, too?”
He glances down and then to me.
“It’s the wafer I told you about. We break it before the meal,” I say.
“Right. I remember.” He smiles and
shakes his head, glancing at Babci. “Zosia tried to teach me how to say Merry
Christmas in Polish, but it didn’t really go so well.”
I laugh. “You get an A for effort.”
“And an F for execution,” Finn
says. “Does Feliz Navidad count?
Because I’m good at that one.”
“Wesołych Świąt,” says Babci. Then she shrugs. “But Feliz Navidad is okay. Is not the words that matter, yes?”
She hands me three
bowls from the cupboard to dish up the mushroom soup bubbling on the stovetop.
We don’t have all twelve traditional Polish dishes for Christmas Eve, but Babci
always makes mushroom soup and carp – mushroom soup because I won’t touch red
borscht and carp because it’s pretty much the Polish equivalent of turkey at
This year she’s also
made kielbasa, even though our Christmas Eve meal is usually meatless. Finn
adores the kielbasa from the Polish grocery on 68th Avenue, which he
loudly declares anytime we’re in Queens. Babci hasn’t said anything about it,
but the fact she’s made something special because she knows he loves it speaks
I carry the bowls of
soup into the dining room and carefully set them down. Babci says grace in
Polish and then gestures to the empty place Finn set. “We are blessed to be
together at Christmas and prepared to welcome strangers and friends to this
table to share our many blessings.”
The words are the same
ones I’ve been hearing my whole life, but it’s the first time for Finn and he
looks almost sad. I can’t help wondering what his childhood Christmases were
like. He’s never once mentioned going to Baltimore even though his best friend
lives there and his responses to my questions about Christmas in his family have
been one-sentence answers, at best.
Not exactly a ringing
endorsement for Christmas past.
Babci gives each of
us a white oplatek and then holds
hers out to Finn. “Wesołych Świąt.
Merry Christmas. Feliz Navidad. Thank
you for joining us in our celebration.”
He smiles and breaks
off a piece, eating it slowly while I break the wafer with Babci. Finn’s turn
is next and, in keeping with custom he breaks his wafer first with Babci.
“Merry Christmas. Feliz Navidad.
Thank you for inviting me here today.”
To me, he says,
“Merry Christmas. Feliz Navidad.” His
smile softens and he squeezes my thigh underneath the table. “Thank you for inviting
me here today. Thank you for every day.”
I feel my eyes well
up, but manage to get through breaking my wafer with Babci dry-eyed. When I
turn back to Finn, though, my voice cracks as I say, “Wesołych Świąt. Merry Christmas. Feliz Navidad.” I squeeze his hand. “Thank you for being here even
though you weren’t sure.”
Finn squeezes my hand
Before he can say
anything, Babci clears her throat. Her gaze rests on Finn. “You are welcome
here. Christmas. Easter. An odd Tuesday. You need anything, you don’t need
anything, you come.” Babci smiles then. “And you bring her sometimes, too,
We all laugh and
Babci raises her glass of red wine. Finn and I do the same, taking turns
clinking glasses. Then, one by one we tip a bit of our wine into the glass at
the empty place setting. This is part of our family tradition, too – the
figurative sharing of our many blessings. Although this year there’s nothing
figurative about it. This year, surrounded by two of the people I love most in
the world, I feel blessed beyond measure and have more than enough to share.
About Brenda St John Brown:
Brenda is a
displaced New Yorker living in the English countryside. She writes novels about
teens and twenty-somethings kissing. Her characters do other things, too, but
there's always kissing.
When she's not writing, Brenda enjoys hiking, running and reading. In
theory, she also enjoys cooking, but it's more that she enjoys eating and, try
as she might, she can't live on Doritos alone.
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