As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.
“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.
Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.
“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”
Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.
The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…
Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.
Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.
“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.
I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.
“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.
She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”
My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.
“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”
She giggles, “You can only say food?”
I shrug and she asks where I am from.
“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”
“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”
“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.
“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.
I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.
As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.
“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.
“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.
I smile. I decide not to tell her.
“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.
We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.