Food. And I am reminded of the mystery of life. Mine I denuded. I unsheathed, peeled back. Uncovered and consumed. Such complex succulent creation.
When I lived in Spain I ate a banana every day to remind myself I was alive. I had no kitchen, no oven, no hot water. My small living area, shared first with Pepe then Paco, students at the Universidad de Granada, boasted two electric appliances. One a space heater that sat under the big round table blanketed like an old woman. And we youthful things were to spend nights with our legs under the blanket, good Spanish grandchildren tucked into grandma’s folds, doing our homework by dim light.
Our other appliance was a hot plate. One to be exact. One coiled burner and one cheap saucepan. I bought a box of chamomile teabags, which in Spain came with sugar built in. The one thing I ever cooked in an entire year, hot chamomile tea. I smoked and drank and ploughed my body with sugar, and so the tea was a reminder that I was loved. By a mother and father far away, a whole world accessible through crackling phone lines, although we rarely talked.
My staples were:
- Cafe-con-leche, which I bought every morning from another Pepe, the owner of La Llave, the tiny narrow bar a hop-skip-and-jump across the cobblestone street. That Pepe opened La Llave by 10 each morning, when the street came alive with pigeons making their noisy coo-coo-coos, little delivery trucks stopping and starting, aluminum doors rolling back. Pepe’s son called from up the street, Pa-pa, Pa-pa, his small voice echoed and made grand by the old, tightly wedged buildings.
- Crusty white bread I ate with hard cheese. Spanish women my age pulled out the chewy insides of the loaves so as not to gain weight. I bought mine from a small bakery whose glass cases opened to the street, and I defiantly ate the whole thing, like a savage at times.
Grapes from the fruit vendor, which after I ate them made me feel as if I had swallowed water balloons and was floating inside myself.
- Pasteles and nuts I bought almost every morning from Mina, a billowy working-class neighbor who my vieja landladies called vulgar because she spent nights in La Llave. For a long while I preferred the packaged cakes (they were small, and not exactly cakes) in Mina’s kiosk over the freshly baked ones from the bakery. One time during that phase I walked across Plaza Romanilla and as I passed an entryway to a cigarette shop, a fat, toadlike man clucked his tongue at me and said, “Te engorda.” “It’ll make you fat.” I told him calm and businesslike, as if I were bidding him good morning, “Gordo, tu, tocate el pollo.” You, fatso, go jerk off. I held my head high and jiggled on down the road with the 20 pounds I’d already gained.
- Sweet Cortesia white wine, after noon, of course.
- An occasional plum.
- And small bananas brought across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. Or so I imagined.
The bananas in Spain were an explosion of taste, sweet and thick. Not a drop of water in any bite. Rich like cream or an old woman’s rice pudding.
I never knew where I was going in Spain, only that I was navigating away from loneliness. The bananas were not exactly a compass, but they were an anchor. They were what was right about being in Spain, what was wrong with the U.S. I assigned them to the continent of Africa, and rendered my life in Spain that much more exotic. Located in Europe, accessible to France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and a hop-skip-jump even to Morocco and then the rest of Africa. I allowed that I (nor anyone in America, for that matter) had never truly tasted a banana, not in all my 26 years. That we were inferior, unschooled, unsophisticated. White and bland, so unlike southern Spain or even the dark, vast, wondrous, bounty of Africa, rich in minerals, raw materials, rhinos, and true bananas.
My banana this morning musters only a memory. It is sweet and bittersweet. I was looking for myself, and what I found was a tiny ray of sun in an otherwise gray, muffled aloneness. I drudged through each day as if it were a sentence in prison. I would do my time. I eventually enrolled in aerobics, which I took from a teacher with firm everything. I noticed when she undressed for her shower that she had a dimple in her left buttock.
My banana today is big and long–too much for my tastes. In my mouth a bite smacks gloppy. I don’t like the sound of chewed American banana. Did it take too long getting here from southern nethers? How did it lose so much?
Still. Any banana is a miracle. It’s a miracle any of us survives. Our flesh is delicate.