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Green Tacos
By Heather Bryant

January 2009

“If you don’t mix constantly the thick sauce will tend to erupt in hot little geysers of taco sauce that could burn you.” ~ Almost La Victoria’s Green Taco Sauce

“The world no longer resembles itself.” ~Cervantes 

Anaheim or New Mexico Chiles
2 lbs – roasted, peeled, diced

Tomas arrived on an early flight one morning in July and it seemed he would never leave.  “A short visit,” Gina told Martin, “Just passing through town.”  But three weeks passed and still he walked up and down the halls of the apartment in bare feet as though it were his own.  The whole place had started to smell of rotten fruit to Martin.  Something sour filled the air. 

Tomas was Gina’s ex and the son of her father’s best friend from Buenos Aires.  He wore T-shirts with holes and left bread crusts in the sink.  He and Gina spoke only in Spanish, which had started to seem like a secret code to Martin.  Martin had never been good with languages.  Even with Pig Latin, it took him until seventh grade to learn and he still blurted out the real word, disappointing his friends.  He’d taken French in school, but forgot every word he learned the instant he graduated.  Somewhere in his brain, he knew those words still existed, tumbling around, each one small and wrapped tight, blank but ready to be opened.  He thought of those lost words when he listened to Tomas and Gina toss Spanish back and forth like a game with a million pieces.

Yellow Hungarian Wax Chiles
1 lb – seeded and chopped

The only languages Martin spoke were English and Food, the latter of which included many French words, though he didn’t think of them as belonging to a country.  They belonged to the taste in his mouth when he tried a new dish for the first time.  They belonged to the sizzle and pop in the kitchen, the gradual transformation of food into something new and unknown, an alchemy he’d learned first watching his father at the stove of the family restaurant and later apprenticing to Chef Giles Lubjilik who was known only by his last name.  Lubjilik showed him how to make a tomato sweet, how to reduce meat to pudding, and how to kiss a sauce just past good into delicious.  Lubjilik also introduced him to Gina who worked in the restaurant part-time doing the accounting while in graduate school for urban planning. 

Gina wanted to rebuild the city and Martin wanted to feed its people.  At first, this seemed the ideal combination, an unbreakable match.  They spent nights charting out a new world under warm sheets.  The night Gina first mentioned Tomas, she said his name like a new word she’d learned and wanted to show off to the world.  Martin hated him in an instant, months before he met him.

Tomatillos
2 ½ lbs – sliced 1/8 inch thick

Martin didn’t know what words to use to ask Tomas to leave, so he decided to make a dish Gina would understand.  Her grandmother used to make her Green Tacos whenever she was sad, reminding her that things could be worse, her skin could be the green of tomatillos, her mouth could be forever frowning like the soft corn tacos.  Eating the tacos reminded her that each worry would pass one by one, bite by bite.  The first time Martin made the dish, she cried happy tears and kissed him, leaving traces of green around his mouth.  If he made the dish just right, she would remember that swell of happiness and ask Tomas to leave.  Martin was sure of this.

Green Tomatoes
7 lbs – sliced ¼ inch thick

He announced to Gina and Tomas that he would be making the dish Tuesday evening, but when he arrived home the apartment was empty.  A note perched on the dining table:

“Tomas & I at Salt and Pepper café.
 Be home 11?
~Gina”

Martin wanted to throw the bag of groceries he’d carried from the D’Agostino’s down, letting the ingredients tumble and break open on the rough grain hardwood floor.  Gina often forgot about things.  Her mind danced from place to place like a butterfly.  She rarely landed on anything for too long.  Green tacos could have morphed into something else in her mind.  That he was teaching his cooking class how to make them; that he was staying at work late to finish the sauce.  And now she’d gone to the Salt and Pepper café where the tables were tiny and there was never enough room.  They would have to move closer, even hold hands as the waiters shimmied through the narrow spaces.  The close quarters required the agility of an acrobat. 

Gina never wore perfume, but maybe the faint scent from her shampoo would set Tomas off and his eyes would glaze over like all men’s did when Gina walked through the door.  Martin had seen it happen at Carmen’s the other night, the way the scruffy man by the door ate his olive like it was a part of Gina’s body and Martin had to suppress his urge to slap the man right there.  That man was a stranger, but Tomas she knew and had even mentioned loving him, not romantically anymore, she said, but she loved him.  Like family, she’d said.  Gina threw the word around so casually.  She “loved” pigeons and she loved biscotti, she loved Tomas.  Martin only used the word when he was talking to Gina and he could count on one hand the times he’d said it:

Once, when she dropped their take-out pizza on their way back to the apartment, and it landed cheese-side down and she dropkicked the box into the courtyard of the snooty co-op near the pizza place.  Twice, on their way back from a revival screening of a Preston Sturges film, “Miracle at Morgan’s Creek,” which was supposed to be funny, but Gina couldn’t stop crying because in the last scene the woman gave birth to septuplets and it reminded her of her aunt, who was a midwife and who lived so far she rarely saw her.  Number three, on a whale-watching boat, though they hadn’t seen a single whale.  And the fourth time on the roof of their apartment building three nights before Tomas’s arrival in town, when he said it, all the while thinking about how he’d started to feel at home with her, more comfortable even than with his own family.  And since Tomas’ arrival he’d hardly seen her aside from when they first woke in the morning and just before they went to sleep at night.  He talked to her in her sleep, but usually she only mumbled back nonsense, stuff from the wake of her dreams.  He spoke of their future, of the cities they would build, but in the morning she remembered none of his words.  She jumped out of bed and called out the word that was like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Tomas?”

Cilantro
½ bunch – rough chopped

Through the whole visit, Tomas had slept on the couch, not even bothering to pull out the sofa bed from under the cushions.  He’d camped his way through the Andes.  Who needed sheets?  Who needed more than a place to rest his head?  Martin, who couldn’t sleep without his Temperpedic pillow, resented Tomas taking over the living room.  No late night TV, no reading under the light of the globe-shaped lamp.  Having a guest was an invasion to Martin and he wanted Tomas to leave so much, he decided to make the dish and carry it up to the Salt and Pepper café, present it to them at their table.  Surprise Gina with her favorite dish in the world.

Garlic
4 cloves – minced

Martin still had a covered serving platter from a catering job he’d done in June, and he lined up the tacos in perfect formation like a flower around the sauce that should always be kept separate until just before serving. 

White Onion
1 medium-sized – peeled and chopped

He walked up Broadway towards the Salt and Pepper café alongside the yellow wave of taxis.  Smells of damp garbage, steam from restaurant kitchens, the woodsy smell of incense from a bar. The residue of an afternoon storm dripped from the awnings as he passed.  At 110th, the fluorescent lights from Rite-Aid washed everyone in a bluish pallor and Martin noticed all the men who Gina may have passed on her way to the Salt and Pepper café.  A dreadlocked man played cat’s cradle on the doorsteps of an apartment building.  A skinny man sold watches on the corner.  Even an elderly man smoking a pipe and walking with a cane Martin eyed with the consideration of a gambler surveying the competition.

Martin reached 111th and could see the dim green sign for the Salt and Pepper café down the way.  His legs ached from walking ten blocks with such intensity.  He saw Gina and Tomas in every couple who left the café, but as they came closer, their faces changed and he stared into the faces of strangers.  In front of the café, people stood hailing taxis and blocked his view.  He maneuvered closer and tried to catch a glimpse of the couples in the window leaning over votive candles. 

“Martin.”

He thought he heard his name in the warbles and sighs of the patrons as they pushed through the café’s heavy glass-paneled door.  But no familiar faces appeared.  A crowd of flushed twenty-year-olds blocked the door, men and women hot from drinks and the mix of smoke and close bodies inside.  Intensity thrummed through their voices, as if the conversation indicated who would be naked together at the end of the night.  It reminded Martin of his first date with Gina, sitting in plush red bucket-seats at the opera so far from the stage, and he’d been plagued by a vision of himself taking turns with each woman in the row ahead, unable to control his desires.  Gina sat next to him, this woman, this soft-spoken woman, who’d brought him flowers: a bunch of dried lavender tied with string.  He feared he would let her down, disappoint her, and it was this fear that somehow propelled him into the Salt and Pepper café, balancing the platter in his arms.  After the walk, it had grown heavier and he wondered if he could keep holding it in time to reach the table where she and Tomas sat.

Throngs of people crowded by the bar, sipping Coronitas and Miller Lite or waiting to be seated.  Martin noticed a competitive glare from a man in an electric blue leisure suit as he approached the hostess.  She flitted between stacks of menus and a list of names bird-scratched on a large white piece of paper, a map of the restaurant’s tables.  Her orange hair looked like an inverted tulip and her bright pink lipstick declared—had the hair not convinced—that she’d abandoned her natural looks and gone neon.

“An hour at least,” she snapped before Martin had even opened his mouth.

“No I’m meeting friends.”

She looked at him doubtfully and shook her head.

“You can’t bring in outside food.”

“We won’t eat it here,” he said.

“You’ll have to leave it at the bar,” she said, holding up a menu like a shield.  Usually Martin deferred to others’ requests, especially at a restaurant that wasn’t his own, but he’d grown so convinced that the Green Tacos would save him that he wouldn’t take her refusal without a fight.

Lime Juice
¼ cup

“I won’t even open the top,” he protested.

“I understand, sir,” she said, making him feel a hundred years old with her inflection on the sir.  “But we simply can’t allow—”

Martin pushed past her using the wobbling platter as his own shield and entered the dining area with its buffed wooden floor and sheer cloth, draped from the ceiling and walls, torn in places on purpose, but the effect was a half-dressed look that unsettled Martin as he tried to find….  Gina. He saw her first, slipping by a table of twelve on her way back from the bathroom.  She rubbed her hands together as though applying lotion and when she turned, before she saw him, he noticed a large gob of what looked like mustard in the corner of her mouth and his heart sank in a half-joy half-bewilderment; the change that came inside him from her presence. 

The hostess followed him, swatting at his back with a menu.  As usual, the café was crammed with people and the narrow route between tables afforded him little space.

“Sir!  Sir!”  The hostess called and this was when Gina spotted him.  She tilted her head in confusion, watching Martin advance with the unsteady platter and the neon-capped waitress behind him waving her arms.  It almost looked like the waitress’ arms were coming out of Martin as though he’d morphed into a hydra with tentacles waving.

He just wanted Gina to know he adored her more than Tomas possibly could.  This message he stirred into every swirl of the sauce, folded into each taco carefully bundled so the sauce wouldn’t seep inside prematurely.

Apple Cider Vinegar
¼ cup

Gina met his eyes with amusement and he felt so close to the purpose of his journey, so near the end, that he let up his guard.  The hostess reached around to seize the platter at the same time that a large man stood up from his table without looking, still wiping his mouth with his napkin.  Had the man taken one step forward, had there been just an inch more room in the aisle.  Had Tomas left town when he said he would.  Had Gina murmured the three words Martin longed to hear a bit more often.  Had the hostess stayed at her post, guarding the coveted dining area with her fortress of menus.  Had all of these happened otherwise, Martin wouldn’t have jerked back suddenly, loosening the lid from the platter and sending the sleeping mass of tacos into the air.  Martin pulled the platter closer in his reflex to save, to prevent the loss of the tacos so the sauce came backwards, its plastic wrap loose, and soaked his chest and arms as well as the arm of an irate businessman in a dry-clean only linen suit.  The hostess held the now empty platter and he turned to Gina.

“I made green tacos,” he said so quietly she couldn’t hear him.

Gina put her hand to her mouth, frozen in place.  The hostess called to busboys who quickly shimmied through the close quarters armed with mops and rags.  The businessman peeled off his linen jacket and surveyed the damage.  All worked around Martin as though he were a statue in the midst of the chaos instead of the cause. 

From outside the shuffle and clinks, the sliding of tables, Tomas (who had ketchup smeared down the front of his thin white T-shirt torn at the shoulder) stood to take the damp arm of Martin and lead him back to the men’s bathroom.

Salt
2 tbsp.

Behind a door decorated with dancing beer cans, the bathroom was a welcome space of quiet and echo.  An unfurled roll of paper towels dotted with wet fingerprints and the usual mess of splashes and stray hairs on the sink were the only sign of other visitors.  For now, Martin and Tomas were the only ones there.  Martin turned to the mirror and saw a sweating pale stranger who looked like he’d been caught in a stream of green vomit.

“Smooth, my man,” Tomas said in his thick Argentinean accent, and Martin angled his arm so that the green sauce dripped onto Tomas’ back ever so lightly. 

Tomas took a stream of white paper towel from the open roll and handed it to Martin who held it, his heart still beating quick and steady.  He wanted to wad it up and stuff it into Tomas’ mouth, make him eat pulpy paper.  Instead, he leaned against the corner of the wooden stall, his arms hanging limp at his sides.  Tomas took the towel back.

Martin let himself be washed clean by Tomas who now used a dampened paper towel and then a dry one in alternation.  His saturated clothes hung over the stall door.  He’d felt more exposed out in the mess of tables and people than he did now, half-naked in the bathroom.  Someone started to open the bathroom door, then let it swing shut again with a clang.

“What a mess,” Tomas said, more to himself than to Martin.

Martin caught a glimpse of his future with Gina.  There would be a thousand Tomases, each with their own name and profile, strange hair-dos and different colored eyes.  A whole army of Tomases were stationed throughout the city and even on airplanes, and in other countries that they would visit.  He would spend more time with the Tomases than with Gina, turning them over in his mind, judging them, noticing their every move.  To stay with Gina was to commit himself to a crowd of Tomases, to invite them into his living room, feed them his garlic and tomatillo salsa, offer them his shoes to stain with dank pungent sweat.  They would track mud on his floors, use his best towels, and leave his spice rack in disarray, moving the Cumin to the Pepper’s place and the Cardamom into the spot where he kept the Ginger.

That morning, Tomas had left a frying pan with congealed, burnt eggs in the bottom soaking in the sink. 

“When you cook eggs, you should use medium heat so they won’t stick so much,” Martin said, looking at Tomas’s hands, now covered in green sauce.

“That was Gina,” Tomas said, and Martin’s stomach sank.  He’d taught Gina the proper way to cook eggs on their third date on a day when Lubjilik was out of the kitchen.  She’d burned three batches before doing it right.  Now she’d forgotten.  Tomas dried Martin’s shirt under the hand dryer and handed it to him, stiff and green.

Cornstarch
4 tbsp.

In the main dining room, mundane chatter had resumed.  The mess was gone as though it had never happened.  Gina sat at the tiny table, munching on French fries and bouncing her head back and forth to the sound of a song playing over the restaurant.  Absorbed in a world of her own invention.  As they left the Salt and Pepper café, Martin’s still-damp shirt clung to his skin in the muggy summer air.  Gina took one of his sticky hands in hers as they walked down the block.  She lifted it to her mouth and kissed his palm.

“Mmm…yes,” she said, tasting the remnants of the taco sauce. 

She let his hand fall and walked ahead with Tomas.  He felt the jagged edge of her absence though she was only paces away.  He tasted the spot on his hand where her lips had landed. 

To lose someone seventeen times a day took its toll after a while.  Martin dreamed of making his dish worthy of the sea nymph Calypso’s magic, one that would make Gina stay.  He kept a list of ingredients.  But always he was missing one.


Heather prefers food to cookbooks and poetry to philosophy. For her fiction writing, she has received the Gertrude Posner Spencer award as well as fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She studied writing at Smith College, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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