Here I Am
The cabinets are full of delectables. Thick plastic bags of chocolate-covered almonds and berries. Finely shaped containers of cashews. Boxes of sesame-covered crackers. Fancy chocolates in red and gold wrappers. It is more beautiful in there than anywhere in the house.
I’m six months pregnant and unsure. I want to open one of them, but it is my in-laws’ house and so instead I just stare. In wonder. This one expired two years ago; that one, five. Back in the farthest, darkest corner of the hexagonal cabinet are five unopened bags of Starbucks coffee, one 10 years expired. Items my mother-in-law has picked up free, over the years, from the food bank, and likes to save. I reach for one and pull it out, loving the polished-stone feel of the vacuum-packed beans against the plastic. Its Christmasy packaging, a deep blue covered in snowflakes, reminds me of what now seems like the absolute happiness of some of my childhood—wandering endlessly in snow-heavy forests, digging out tunnels in sky-high forts, sinking back to stare right up at the flakes coming down from black sky, returning home to a fire snapping in the fire place and music and a table set for dinner.
No one drinks coffee in this house.
While I wait for my husband to return from trying to find a job and a place to live, I walk. Sometimes five miles, sometimes seven. In fact, I’ve walked nearly the entire 7x7 city. I write and read and wash the dishes and pick the lemons from the lemon tree, to stay sharp, to seem useful. I apply for jobs because I am not a bum, because I have worked my entire life. I wonder who will hire me, this many months pregnant. I try to fight off the urge to sleep too much. I offer to cook dinner. “Your food will be better with spices,” my father-in-law says. The other night I cut off too much of the thick stems of the Chinese vegetable they gave me. “Oh,” they sighed, shaking their heads into the compost bin where I had dumped them moments before.
It is strange, my mother-in-law tells me, that I brush my teeth after breakfast and not right after getting up from bed. “Why do you?” she asks. “To get the food out,” I say. And she shakes her head and chuckles.
One day on one of my walks, I stop at the Korean market to buy kiwi. When I return, I add the fuzzy brown things to the plastic-covered formal dining room table laid with lines of apricots, apples, oranges, and bananas, best prices only. Occasionally, my in-laws stand in line at the Methodist church down the street where they can pick up boxes of food for free. Against the wall on trays on the floor are piled sweet potatoes, onions, yams, zucchini, garlic, and one large winter melon, a gift from my sister-in-law’s garden. On a smaller table in the corner are stacks of sealed packages of dried mushrooms, New Year candies sent from a daughter in China, unopened moon cakes from the last Moon Festival, tins of chocolate wafer cookies sealed in plastic.
“How much?” my mother-in-law asks.
“Three for a dollar,” I say, pleased.
“Oh! Too much! Too much!” she admonishes me as I put them in a pile on the burdened table, watching one roll away. If it falls it will bruise. I think I would take some satisfaction from that, but the kiwi stops just short, riding the plastic-sloped edge of the table.
“Now this is a good price,” my mother-in-law says at the Chinese market the next day as she shows me, six for a dollar.
When we leave, our cart full of bitter-smelling leafy greens and fruit meticulously picked over, nothing over 50 cents a pound, and one recently alive fish now flaccid in a see-through plastic bag, on sale for two dollars a pound, my mother-in-law, without stopping, surely requiring great coordination and agility, slides a roll of plastic bags off its holder by the bins of outdoor produce. I hate that I am suddenly too hot and look down, hoping no one has seen. “The store can afford more,” she explains. As we approach their Volvo, I see a flower shop across the street, spilling onto the sidewalk like a mirage. “I’ll be right back,” I say, and for the first time I go forth.
What I notice first is the smell, which is not the smell of dead shellfish and bleach and mold and dried shrimp from across the street, but the smell of hot jungle, sweet and earthy, and unabashed life, extravagant in texture and color, rooted in nothing other than soil and water and heat. It doesn’t take much, I think. I touch everything, feeling the softness of flower petals, some leathery, others like aged skin, easily torn; the points of deep-green ferns hiding braille-like brown pores beneath; the slick sturdiness of some trunks; the plastic-y sheen of leaves that leak white liquid when creased. I plunge my face into a bouquet of cascading purples and greens and palm-sized reds-verging-on-pinks with fuzzy brown stamens. I am alive, I think. I find the most expensive bouquet, 25 dollars, and hand over my credit card.
In the car I hold the huge bouquet in my lap and its fullness shields me. My mother-in-law tsks at the windshield as rain begins to fall. “A waste.” Once, twice, I simply lean in and smell.
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