FEATURED ARTIST – Alexis Millena
STORY by William Keck
I’m from Santee, California. In that small, poor suburb of San Diego, I grew up in a big, Mexican family. Every Christmas was an enormous shared celebration at my grandmother’s house that involved helping my grandmother hang her decades-old Christmas decorations, coercing my cousins to practice songs to sing for adults, aunts and uncles buying games for the kids to play overnight as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, and never-ending trips to the grocery stores.
Know what Christmas smells like to me? A combination of my grandmother’s homemade secret salsa, the spicy molasses of gingerbread cookies, the earthy wet-corn of steaming tamales, and the simple savoriness of roasting turkey. Christmas is the smell of my family.
In 1996, my grandmother called me to make sure my boyfriend, Donnie, was going to be coming with me for Christmas. I had just assumed he was and hadn’t thought to ask her specifically – Donnie and I had been dating for the better part of a year at that point, and I had been out to my entire family for years. But my grandmother’s asking made me nervous. She had never met Donnie, and I wanted her to. But did she not want us to come as a couple? Was she afraid her sisters would disapprove of her gay grandson and his gay boyfriend? I had never brought a boyfriend home for Christmas because I had never had one during Christmas-time. Was Christmas a bad time to be gay?
Donnie was nervous, but he wanted to go, to meet the rest of my family. He had met a few relatives here and there, but a sprinkling of close family members spread over a year’s time is entirely different from being overwhelmed by forty strangers – some speaking English, some speaking Spanish, some a unique combination of both — all at once.
As we opened up my grandmother’s front door on Christmas Eve, my entire family (and the Christmas smell) moved to greet us. My sisters and cousins hugged me and then Donnie, and they took the small gifts from our hands. The older men made a visible, and visibly difficult, effort to step in our direction. My mother had met Donnie before, of course, so when we walked in she screamed and gave us both a big hug. (I always thought Donnie reminded my mom of my dad.)
My grandmother walked through the dining room, dried her hands on a dish towel, then flung that towel over her shoulder. She stood for a moment in front of Donnie. After that pause, she reached up to him and hugged him and softly touched his hair. Guero, guero, she said. Blondie, blondie. Donnie squatted down and awkwardly hugged her back, resting his chin on the dishtowel while looking at me over her shoulder.
My grandmother asked if were hungry. Donnie always was. She led us to through her dining room – already overflowing with gingerbread cookies, carrot cake, and rhubarb pies – to her kitchen. My grandmother, Donnie, and I were trailed by my mom, a couple of aunts, my sisters, a handful of female cousins, and one or two great-aunts.
My grandmother sat Donnie down at her kitchen table while she quickly assembled for him a plate of tamales, refried beans, and just-made tortillas. My mom moved behind her and took each serving utensil from her as she finished using it. My mom wanted to assemble my plate herself. My grandmother handed Donnie his plate, and my mother handed me mine, saying, “Mijo, here.” I took it and sat down across from Donnie.
My grandmother handed me a jar of her secret salsa, the salsa whose recipe was known only to her, the secret salsa that everyone in my family calls “Peter Pan,” named so partly because my grandmother’s name is Petra, but everyone calls her Peter or Pete or Petey. But mostly it’s called “Peter Pan” because, after my grandmother oven-roasts her home-grown chilies, filling her house with a choking and agonizing cloud of capsaicin, she grinds those chilies up, adds her secret ingredients, and then pours the resulting scorching concoction into empty Peter Pan peanut butter jars that she saves throughout the year just for the occasion. Peter Pan. But when my grandmother says it, it sounds like one word: “peterpan.” And while it’s delicious, it’s also blistering.
After I quickly explained to Donnie, who blushed just a bit, that he had to unwrap the tamales — he had tried to cut into them, husk and all — I took the jar of peterpan from my grandmother as she said, “Here, have some peterpan.” I scooped a small, cautious spoonful on to my plate and then began screwing the lid back on the jar. But Donnie stopped me and said, “Can I try some of that?”
I looked at my grandmother and then back to Donnie and explained to him that it was very, very hot and he might not be able to handle it. I knew he liked jalapenos, but there’s hot and then there’s peterpan. He waved away my concern, and the more I told him he shouldn’t eat it the more he smiled and demanded it. So I shrugged and handed the jar over to him.
He scooped out, poured really, three big spoonfuls on to his plate. My grandmother took an alarmed step forward and held her hand up and said to Donnie, “Are you sure you don’t want to try it first, at least?” She gave me a look that said, “Stop him! It’s too much for white people!”
Donnie smiled and said, “Nah! I can handle it.” And he began eating.
Within the first two bites, his face flushed pinker. Then red. Then maroon. But he kept eating. He started sniffling. But he kept eating. The women in the kitchen slowly, consciously, casually began to gather around the table to watch Donnie eat until they were all surrounding him in a semi-circle and staring openly at the gay white man sitting, eating what looked like a gallon of peterpan at my grandmother’s table. The gay white man who exhaled loudly with each flaming bite, as sweat beads began to swell and balance precariously above his upper lip while trickles of sweat started to stream from his florid scalp, through his buzzed hair, down his berry-stained cheeks and in to his collared shirt. And he kept eating, focused entirely, exclusively on the plate in front of him. One of his feet began tapping, faster and faster and faster, punctuating his loud sniffling that had turned into snorting, until he had finished the entire plate.
With the last bite, Donnie let out a quiet grunt, sank back in his chair, and closed his eyes, blinking them quickly a few times before fully opening them back up. His clear blue eyes widened at the group of brown faces encircling him. In unison, everyone who had been bending expectantly forward started back, surprised themselves, and turned to find something to do. Donnie didn’t move or even look at me.
My grandmother smiled, mostly to herself, and asked, “Would you like a glass of milk, Donnie?”
Donnie wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand and nodded. My grandmother quickly poured the milk, and she handed the glass to him with a napkin tucked underneath it, gesturing with her other hand to her own forehead and then to Donnie’s damp forehead. Donnie gratefully gulped down the milk in two swallows, then wiped his brow, then his nose. As she walked by me, my grandmother gently touched my arm.
It was Christmas.
That night, Donnie and I sat side-by-side as we played Trivial Pursuit and Uno and Monopoly with my sisters and cousins and uncles. My family kept asking me to sing a Christmas song, but I was too embarrassed to do it in front of Donnie, so I talked my cousin into doing it instead. She loved to sing, but she hated doing it in front of anyone. But she stood awkwardly in front of the Christmas tree and shot me narrow-eyed looks each time someone else shouted out another and another and another song for her to sing.
As we watched, Donnie and I wrapped ourselves together in one of my grandmother’s hand-knitted blankets – the ones she kept in an old trunk – and held hands. Christmas Eve did turn into Christmas Day, and after the fire in the fireplace (that was lit just for Christmas) quieted down, my grandmother gave Donnie and me the extra bedroom. And while my cousins and sisters and aunts and uncles and even my mother had to find room to sleep on the floor, Donnie and I cuddled together in a big, warm, soft bed. And, there, we had quiet, Christmas sex.
Donnie and I, being in our early twenties, of course broke up a year or so later, but, after a few awkward months, we remained friends. I returned to the Bay Area for school, then moved to New York, and Donnie stayed in San Diego. Our lives so quickly became so different, and it became harder and harder to keep in regular touch with him. The last time we talked on the phone, about two years ago, we got into a weird argument about why I wasn’t calling him more, as if there were some truer, realer explanation other than, “I’m too busy?”
Last year, Donnie died. He was 33. He came home from work on a Friday. Made a plate of food and a margarita. Sat down at his computer to play an online video game. And then his brain broke. His brain broke because brains sometimes do. And he died.
I found out when I got a text from a mutual friend while I was out to dinner with a few close friends. “Have you heard about Donnie?” And I was once again reminded how much the beginning of a sob feels like the highest point of a laugh.
I’m going home to San Diego for Christmas this year, having missed last year. Donnie’s parents asked if I would come see them while I’m in town. I will see them. And I’m bringing them a jar of peterpan. My grandmother, now in her 80s, stopped making her secret salsa, but my sister makes it for the family now, using my grandmother’s recipe.
NOTE: The author, William Keck, has a great gay news blog which you can follow at AKA William.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
San Diego native Alexis Millena utilizes predominantly inks and watercolors. His content consists of figure studies and deep sea creatures. He plays piano and cello in a string ensemble, composes short songs of melodic prose, and is The Unofficial Photographer. Though the interests are varied, there is an ever present desire for self expression despite the jack of all trades, master of none dilemma.
You can see more of his work and follow him on his blog, youtookmypicture.tumblr.com
If you’re interested in being a Featured Artist, lemme know!