Let’s Eat

The alarm sang its 7 a.m. tune, and Akiko awoke feeling refreshed but hungry. She’d had a tiny dinner the night before and was ravenous. Moments later Akiko was in the kitchen, opening the refrigerator and pulling out a carton of nattō. “Mmm, this will be good,” she murmured as she eagerly dug her chopsticks into the sticky, slippery beans.

The Martians came to me in bed,
“The earth is decomposed,” they said,
“Come to the moon, it’s made of cheese.”
I went with them. We sailed the seas
Of Nectar and Serenity
Where I met God and God met me.
We walked through stilton hand in hand,
“I think,” I said, “I understand.”
My head was like an open spout
My cerebellum dribbled out
And God replaced my brain with brie,
“I’m free at last,” I cried. “I’m free.”

My mom’s on Facebook, and I’ve accepted her friend request. (Hi, Mom!) She doesn’t own a computer, she doesn’t own a cell phone, she still deposits checks and withdraws cash by walking up to the bank counter, but she’s been on Facebook for a few months now, which is long enough, as she informed me (actually, when she was just a few weeks in), to learn more about me by clicking links than she’s learned from me in person. She found one mention of herself in my online writing—it was on this site, in my self interview—and she took issue with it. She wants you to know: That hummingbird that got into her bedroom? She tried every other way to get it out, she tried for hours, before she killed it with bug spray. It was horrible and it was late at night and she needed to go to bed.

It’s not that pre-Facebook I hid my writing from my mother, or from anyone, exactly. In the nineties, I co-published a zine called Maxine, and I included in it writing of mine that was sometimes sexy, sometimes weird, and almost always personal—for example, I collaborated on a comic loosely based on my best friend and I that involved cunnilingus. And I sent the copies to my parents. I sold copies to co-workers. Devil may care! I liked the feeling, actually. I liked the combination of accepting ownership but relinquishing the fantasy that I could control others’ perceptions. It felt very different than finding someone listening at the door or rustling through my stash of journals and love letters. (You know you did that, Mom!)

In fact, publishing personal writing on paper felt like an anecdote to privacy invasion. I’m not sure why online writing feels like something in between. Is it just because it’s more likely that something online can worm its way anywhere, easily? That it wouldn’t be a magical, fate-ridden thing for someone I knew to stumble onto a blog post the way it would be to stumble onto a zine? All it takes is being bored at 2 AM. What’s that old girlfriend doing. What about that cousin who I played doctor with once. What about that daughter. She always kept the room to her door closed. She always had her nose in some book or up in the air. She’d always give me this look, like. . . . And now, when she finally does call, she’s too busy to talk.

My mom knows her own inclinations. She says that’s one reason why she doesn’t want a computer: she’s a voyeur; it’d be too tempting. She did her Facebook sleuthing this summer, when she was living with my sister-in-law, whom my brother has been divorcing for years. They’re still fighting over money and visitation and blame. I told my mother that it was a bad idea, that things would get awkward. And they did. She was on the phone complaining about it one day, perhaps commenting about the quality of my sister-in-law’s mothering—and her appearance and her eating habits and her housekeeping—without realizing that her hostess was sitting on the porch just outside the open window. When my mom walked out there, Stephanie told her, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

When my husband and I found my mother snooping around our windows the summer before, when she was house-sitting down the street, we choose not to say anything. We just pretended it had never happened.

My mother, who when I told her I had quit smoking, said, “That’s not very sociable, is it?”

My mother, who when I told her as a new parent that I didn’t have time to go shopping for sales said, “If you’d get off your high-horse and go to McDonalds once a week you’d have one night a week to go shopping.”

My mother, who was actually very concerned about nutrition when I was growing up, and who insisted for awhile that I eat cubes of cheese in the morning, for fat and protein. I did not want to eat cubes of cheese in the morning; they disgusted me. So I did what any self-respecting kid would do: I palmed them and later slipped them into a drawer in the playroom.

And my mother, upon discovering the colony of cheese cubes—by this time with edges turned a waxy blood orange and sides coated in powdery mold— became enraged and made me eat them as punishment. It was a Mommy Dearest moment, her towering over me and brandishing the plastic spatula with which she sometimes spanked us, me choking down a cube or two before pushing past her to go retch into the toilet. I can still see the hunter-orange curdles floating in the shining white bowl—my mother kept a very clean house. But she is no Joan Crawford. She didn’t make me eat any more after that, and cheese was taken off the breakfast menu. So I think I won that round.

Yes, when it comes to my mother, I am a perpetual adolescent who will—obviously—air old and dirty linen in public to score a point.

Although this is the first time I am doing so. In a piece that I am posting to the internet.

As a kid, I was the kind of good girl who was secretly, sneakily bad.

In first or second grade, I went to the bathroom and locked all the stalls from the inside before crawling out of the last one and going back to the teacher with a report: I couldn’t use the bathroom; someone locked all the doors. “Probably some sixth grader,” the teacher said, “who thinks she’s being smart.”

When I was in sixth grade—an impeccable student—I had already developed a taste for bad boys, and I befriended the grottiest trouble-maker in class, Scott Bilow. He was actually a pretty nice kid who had a rough lot. His dad was a drunk, and a good day for Scott was when he was sent to the bar to get his dad and was invited in and given a Coke instead of a back-hand. Scott had stories to tell, and dirty poetry to recite, and I was all ears. One ditty ended with the memorable line: “Sister’s on the corner yelling pussy for sale.” I thought on that a lot. The pieces were just starting to add up for me. Sometimes, if we had indoor recess or whatever, I’d play a game he taught us where I’d hold a pencil and follow directions that resulted in the spelling of fuck or shit or mother fucker on the lined, grey paper of his writing tablet.

When the teacher found these pages in his notebook, she took him out in the hall and hollered at him. The rest of the class couldn’t hear his side of the conversation, but we didn’t need to:

“What did you say?”

“You’re trying to tell me Zoe Zolbrod wrote those awful words in that awful handwriting?”

“Zoe Zolbrod has beautiful handwriting and she would never write those dirty words!”

Thirty years later, I’m still proud that I accepted the blame. The teacher was so dumbstruck at the dissolution of her categories that I don’t think either Scott or I was ever punished. Or maybe the punishment was just a note home to my parents, still married then. They wouldn’t have given me a hard time for something like that. They might have congratulated me on taking responsibility when I could have skirted it. Honesty was their big thing. As a teenager, especiallywhen some of my friends physically feared their parents or were routinely denied freedoms—my mom and dad let me get away with a lot, as long as I told the truth.

So, my mom’s on Facebook  (welcome, Mom!) and that’s what’s inspiring me to trash talk her to you all and to post this up on TNB. But I’m not sure whether I’ll link to it. And my mom’s back home now, no longer living with my sister-in-law’s laptop and internet connection. She uses the computer at the library sometimes, but it’s not open at 2 AM, and during business hours, well—she still works part-time as a care-taker for elderly people, and she plays tennis, and volunteers, and shops the sales. (She basically clothes my children with her findings, saving me needed time and money. She’s the only person who has ever watched the kids overnight or over two. She . . . but I digress.) So she might not see this. And if she does, I’ll own up to it. These are some facts. Shrug. Nose in air. Laid out just so. That’s all I’m saying.

 

This is mariachi operetta, nervous breakdown, a broken spirit stitched with corn silk. And this is breakfast. Breakfast after losing ourselves in the streets, after shedding the snakeskin of the guidebooks, dodging glass and flying water. Perhaps we will find our huitlacoche one day, but it won’t be today. Perhaps that’s the last anniversary a couple has before they die, no matter their age: the huitlacoche anniversary, attainable only on the verges, rendering in a smear of its black smut, the others obsolete: paper cotton leather linen wood iron sugar steel huitlacoche huitlacoche huitlacoche…

Louisa and I nearly fall from the street into the restaurant, México Viejo, Old Mexico, and are berated by its pottery, its orange walls, contained pockets of steam kicking like the tar pits into the yellow film of iron chandelier light. This is, after all, the best buffet we’ve ever seen, and the place is stuffed with patrons—families with freight trains of kids, business-suited groups basking in the lunch break, old men eating alone, old women staring them down from behind blue clay bowls of caldo de res.

The host, a barrel-chested man with a thick moustache, comes at us with a puzzled look. He stands about as high as my sternum, and I am only five feet, seven. He says nothing, carries no menu, and shrugs. I look to Louisa for help and, miraculously, she says, “Dos.”

“Una mesa para dos personas,” I say, needlessly, forcing my remedial Spanish onto anyone willing to listen. Yes, I am a gringo, I want to tell them, but not one of those gringos, you know? ¿Verdad?

The man nods, his moustache appearing to take flight, leave his face like some hirsute moth and flit about the room. He sits us at a wooden table as squat as he is and gestures, almost dismissively, toward the buffet with the back of his hand.

“Muchas gracias,” I say.

Here, the man stops and manages a smile, his moustache returning from its flirtation with some underage mamacita in a corner booth, once again perching on his face like some gothic canary. He parts his lips. His moustache flaps for dear life.

“De nada,” he says, or growls, or rasps. The words sound forced through knife-cut vocal cords and tracheotomy, plopping into our ears, rheumatic, robotic, phlegmatic, sweet. And we do, we do feel welcome.

Our waitress, a young, curly-haired woman in a flowing brown dress so diaphanous, she should be our waitressssssss, steps to our table with two mugs of coffee before we even order it. This is assumption of the highest working order and I want to stroke her hair, if only to test the perfect spring of the curls. Louisa blows her a kiss and descends into a clatter of South African-accented “Gracias, gracias, gracias…”

Our waitressssssss laughs, her voice carrying into the air like a coffee percolator run on helium, and disappears again into the psychedelic madness of the restaurant. Louisa and I look to the buffet, an L-shaped number covered in white tablecloths, different stations manned and womanned by the staff, clad in purple button-down silk shirts bearing white irises, the women with red flowers pushed behind their ears, flattening masa dough for fresh tortillas, searing various meats to order, juicing papayas and carrots, unraveling spools of white cheese, roasting green chilies until their skins blacken and blister, this tiny opera of food played out on a pot-bellied guitar, and we don’t now what to do, how we can accommodate all of this food, taste everything made to order, taste everything premade and marinating in pottery pots and bowls, painted garishly with fat women hauling grapefruit, with Jesus bleeding on the gustatory cross, his crown of thorns replaced with a mass of seething beans. All the juices, all the soups, each diner bearing a calm that we can’t seem to enforce upon ourselves, our hearts festering in pots of their own, the gas-heat turned up way too high, burning to the bottoms.

“Oh my god,” Louisa says, and she’s absolutely right. The best of nervous breakdowns. Of broken spirits stitched with corn silk. We stand. We step toward it, this burbling beast of breakfast. It opens its arms to us like the obese aunt, over-make-upped, over-perfumed, we only see at holidays. This buffet, before we are done, will surely pinch our cheeks red. I feel off-course, having jumped the tracks. I don’t know where to begin. Louisa slaps me on the ass, and rights me with a word.

“Taco,” she says.

Again, she is absolutely right.

 

**NOTE** Please forgive me if I do not respond to your comments.  I am presently on the road for my BAROLO Book Tour.  If I’m coming to your area for an event, I’d love to extend you an invitation!

Tour schedule here: http://matthewgfrank.com/?page_id=101

Info. about the book here: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Barolo,674189.aspx

Thanks!  -MGF

Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).


In my previous post, I revealed one of the most embarrassing things that has ever happened to me. Here is another embarrassment (the list is endless, as the only thing I am sure of in my life is the fact that I will repeatedly humiliate myself!):

My husband and I had moved from California to Toronto, one of my favorite cities in the world. After a few weeks in a basement apartment, we bought a creaky old row house in the Greek neighborhood not far from the center of city. Everything was new and exciting to me—I loved buying my cheese at the World of Cheese near the Pape subway stop; I gawked at the slayed lambs hanging from the butchers’ windows during Easter week; I had my cardboard passport stamped by almost every country during the multicultural Caravan festival; and I rode the subway and streetcar whenever I could. The Canadian mosaic was great by me; I had no problem waving goodbye to the American melting pot.

And even my mistakes were fun. It took me about seven months to realize that mail is not picked up from your house, only dropped off (I repeatedly told my husband that I thought our mailman hated us as he refused to pick up my out-going letters!), I frequently forgot that speed limits were posted in kilometers and once went careening around a winding onramp thinking, Damn, these Canadians take their turns fast!, and I did not understand how spectacular hockey is until someone gave us tickets to a Maple Leaf game where we were seated just behind the plexi-glass barrier. (If you haven’t been to a hockey game, you must go! The skaters are like beautiful, graceful seals in an aquarium as they speed-skim around the rink. When they fight, fisting each other against the flimsy walls, you are startled into feeling alive.)

Eventually, I figured out most stuff, although it seemed that little unfamiliar encounters would pop up every now and then, as one did shortly after the birth of my first daughter.

I had just returned home with my baby from Womens’ College Hospital after a week of recuperating from a c-section while my baby was in Intensive Care. I’d had infrequent sleep and was teetering on the razor of extreme emotion. Additionally, there was a banana-shaped oozing gash at my pubic bone, my breasts were bigger than Dolly Parton’s (in fact, when I hobbled to the bathroom from my hospital bed one day, a tiny Philippina nurse looked at me and said, “Dolly Parton look out!”) and I was wearing my husband’s giant blue jeans with one of his over-sized triathalon tee-shirts. I looked, and was, a complete wreck.

There was a knock at the door, so I carried the tiny baby on my shoulder (one hand on her bottom, one hand free) and went to answer. A uniformed man stood on my porch. He had a clipboard in his hand.

“I’m here to read the meter,” he said.

I looked at him a bit stunned. In California, the meter reader went to the backyard and read the meter; he never knocked on your door. I had no idea what this moment would entail—him going into the basement perhaps?

“Okay,” I said.

“Here’s my I.D.” He handed me a laminated, drivers’ license-sized I.D. card.

I took the I.D. from him and didn’t even look at it. And then, in almost hypnotic slow motion, I put the I.D. in my mouth.

Yes. I PUT IT IN MY MOUTH. And I held it there, as if I were a human ATM just waiting for the cash to come out of some orifice.

I have no idea why I did this. I was delirious. I had been sniffing the baby’s hands and feet while she nursed. I think I put them in my mouth at times, too.

I didn’t realize what I had done until the man reached out and gently removed the I.D. from my mouth.

“I’ll take that now,” he said, and it was like I had suddenly awoken. My heart started beating, which in turn ramped on the pumping machine in my breasts. Milk pulsated out into wet bulls-eyes on my tee-shirt. I wanted to cry but I knew that to have stuck his I.D. in my mouth and then to burst out crying would only make the matter worse.


“Can I come in and read your meter?” he asked.

I sucked back the tears, stepped aside and let him pass. I figured he’d know exactly where to go.

When he left, he didn’t say goodbye.