For show and tell, Sunny demonstrated how to make tea the Japanese way. With long blond hair and a tomboy’s beauty and poise, she stood at the teacher’s desk, heating the water, an electric cord trailing to the single steel-plated plug under the blackboard. There were a few workarounds to bring the tea to an American classroom and I doubt that now a twelve year old would be allowed to heat water over a glowing red burner in front of their schoolmates.
I remember only a few technical things about the demonstration. Sunny measured loose leaves into what I believe was a chamber that stacked overtop of the pot, perhaps with small holes that allowed the water to steep with the leaves before descending to the lower vessel. That part is vague. What stood out is that she said the proper way to prepare tea was to use the water when it was not quite boiling. The temperature was important to open up the leaves.
The teacher nodded knowingly.
It’s funny to me that I can remember this so clearly, the tea demonstration, the light on Sunny’s hair, the brief introduction that let us know Sunny’s father had served overseas and that they had only recently returned to America. She had a posture that was almost athletic, a confident way of holding her head, a smile that was broad and free. Her jeans were light blue with curves of stitching on the pockets.
The room filled up with the scent of tea, exotic to me because the only hot drink I ever smelled at home was the Eight O’Clock coffee that cooked itself thick every morning in the percolator. The same batch that Dad made at four-thirty before leaving for work, mom would finish off at seven after she’d dragged us out of bed. No wonder she was seduced by cans of International Coffees only a few short years later.
I want to imagine that it was spring when Sunny made tea, that a tree was in bloom outside the metal-cased windows, covered in pink blooms that imitated cherry blossoms. But this is my adult mind embroidering the story with a designer’s inclination for well-defined motifs.
It was autumn, though, and in a few months the shuttle Challenger would explode on a television set in our science class. We would go home that day on a bus quietly full of hushed whispers shielded behind dirty mittens. But on the day that Sunny made tea, we were ahead of a tragedy; no snow had yet fallen and the leaves were only just turning. The school year was new and so were Sunny and I to this school.
I think of Sunny and her tea demonstration at least a handful of times a year and I cannot imagine why. It has been thirty years since that pot of tea cooled and the leaves made their way into the waste basket. I’ve only just tried to imagine the details I wouldn’t have seen, like Sunny and her mom washing up the teapot together at a kitchen sink that evening. Her father might have sat at the table nearby, his military shoulders set square and mighty as he glanced up over the paper to ask how the demonstration went.
I can imagine that most of us watching her from our desks could have been sketched as round cartoon faces with slack oval mouths, diagonal lines to show our brows raised in wonderment. I think I remember that some of the girls came up to Sunny afterward, more than convinced that she ought to be ushered into their group.
Later Jamie White stood beside her at recess, talking to her comfortably as they each dug their hands into their back pockets, bookends clearly well suited to one another. Jamie could hold onto the flagpole with both hands and hold his body straight out like he was being blown away in a gale force wind. The pair of terrycloth athletic wrist bands he always wore didn’t help him with this trick, but they made him seem a little more badass. The only time I ever saw him look less than completely confident is when Sunny smiled at him and his face went red behind the little corn chip moles on his cheeks. He dropped his eyes to the cracked concrete, grinning so wide it looked like it hurt.