The Tomato

Creative Nonfiction
Carol Shank


Photo Credit: pepperberryfarm/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Day three of my stay in Nice, I returned to the hotel with a magnificent red tomato I’d bought with the last of my money. The tomato couldn’t possibly satisfy my hunger, but it would have to do. I wondered­—should I eat it now or wait? Waiting was all I’d done since arriving in Nice.

It was early September and I was expecting a letter from my mother with money from the sale of my car, and another letter from Poal, my Danish lover, telling me when he’d pick me up for our trip to Rome. I’d been traveling through Europe on five dollars a day like so many other young people, and I wasn’t ready to return to the states. My Eurail Pass had just expired so I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d thrown my fate to the wind.

My hotel room was windowless, and by the elevator on the sixth floor. It had a narrow bed, a small stuffed chair, and a floor lamp. There was a stool by the chair that I used for a table. One wall was part of a brick chimney. Had the room been a maid’s quarters? A broom closet? I suspected broom closet, since the faint odor of cleaning supplies lingered.

I’d paid for two nights only, and stayed a third night. I’d sheepishly pass by the desk clerk who’d been kind enough to rent me the room at a special rate. One more unpaid night and I could be homeless, and sleeping with the hippies farther down the beach.

The first couple of days going to the American Express were disappointing. The middle-aged clerk behind the counter wore Clark Kent glasses and was dressed in a fine suit, which I found odd considering his lackluster job. I’d ask if I had any mail and he’d say, “Nothing. Next,” at which point I’d go outside and join the hippies who sat on benches lining the shady grove of trees. They’d bum cigarettes from me and we’d chat. I figured they were also waiting for letters containing money or information, lifelines to help them move on.

Ian, a tall Canadian, had a lion’s mane of brown hair streaked with gold, and a five o’clock shadow that highlighted his angular face. He seemed like the leader of the tribe of drifters running low on their luck. He’d ask how I was doing and I’d assure him that any minute my letters would arrive. I had some bread and butter and a couple packs of cigarettes to help ward off hunger. Somehow I’d manage until my ship came in.

Besides going to the Amex twice a day, there wasn’t much to do other than act the part of a tourist, donning my two-piece bathing suit for dips in the glorious Mediterranean, an infinite bathtub of light blue water. I’d float on my back in a dreamy state, tilting and gliding as the sea sought alignment with the shore. Somewhere beyond the cloudless sky an invisible moon orchestrated the gentle waves so different from the rough, dark waves of the Atlantic that I knew. This was the sea I’d seen so many times on maps in college classes as I learned about the ancient world and beyond. It seemed any moment Botticelli’s Venus would float by on her half shell. Neptune would rear his head, holding his trident high. These waters had rocked the cradle of Western civilization and now they were rocking me. Me! I loved that thought.

However, stepping from the water and weaving through the crowd of sunbathers, I felt out of place amidst the bronzed men wearing expensive sunglasses and the bikini-clad women tending to their toddlers. It seemed Western civilization had been reduced to a postcard of bourgeois pleasure seekers, and all that heady historical and cultural stuff I’d learned was sitting idly in my brain without any practical purpose. Yet, on the surface, I was part of the scene—an American chick on her holiday perhaps? I entered the hotel like other sun-kissed guests, sand between my toes, before vanishing into my broom closet.

On day three I awoke to sounds inside my stomach. Gurgles echoed. Boings ricocheted off cavern walls. This body needs food!

My bed groaned in sympathy as I sat up and placed my feet on the cool linoleum. I had the end part of a baguette left to eat and a tab of soft butter. I spread the butter with my finger and gnawed on the bread like a dog—so unladylike! I smiled and thought, “If Poal could see me now” and was glad he couldn’t.

On my morning visit to the Amex, before I could open my mouth to ask for mail, the impeccably dressed clerk shook his head and said, “Next,” fixating his gaze on the customer behind me. I was stunned. I stared at him, but he failed to acknowledge me.

Cheeks hot, thoughts racing, I walked out. I must have looked distraught, because Ian, who was sitting on a stone bench, gestured for me to join him.

“That man is rude,” I said, collapsing beside him. “He didn’t let me ask for my mail. He dismissed me like… like I wasn’t even there.”

“Oh, don’t mind him. He probably assumes you’re a middle-class American girl waiting for a handout from her family.”

What? Was Ian a jerk, too?

But then he smiled. “You Americans have some nerve traipsing around Europe carefree.”

“Ha, ha. Well, Americans are fortunate, generally speaking,” I said, still feeling defensive. “But my family hasn’t much money. It’s money from the sale of my car that will keep me here longer. I’m not ready to leave. My life in Europe is interesting, not like my drab life back home.”

Ian laughed. “Interesting means many things. What’s it mean to you?”

I felt myself blush and thought a minute. “Adventure, I suppose. Marrying and settling down isn’t for me. Do you know the picture of the Fool on the Tarot card?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s me. I’m stepping off a cliff with my bag on a stick, a hobo off to see the world, each day a new beginning.”

He nodded like he understood and we talked some more. I gazed up at him, marveling at the contrast between his sandpaper beard and straight white teeth. He exuded goodness. I wondered was this goodness a Canadian quality? He told me not to be upset about the clerk. He was just a bureaucrat doing his job.

Ian invited me to the beach at seven o’clock to play music, and I said I’d go.

With my handful of centimes and other small coins I dug from the bottom of my bag, I went to the outdoor market to buy what food I could, maybe a pear or an apple. Whatever it was, I’d know it when I saw it.

The tomato sat on top of the pile, a plump jewel of a fruit, a queen on her throne! I picked it up, marveling at its girth. The woman weighed it, and looked at me quizzically, probably wondering why an American girl had to pay with French pennies. On the surface I did seem pathetic, but I didn’t care. I was fortunate to have such a perfectly ripe, gorgeous tomato.

Back at the hotel, I took out my travel kit, removed the plate and stunted knife and fork, and arranged them on the stool with the tomato. I sat down on the floor, ready to devour it, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t want hunger to win. Not yet.

I found the hippies by the sound of drums, and joined them in a circle on the beach though I didn’t like calling them hippies because they weren’t like the free love, sex-crazed American hippies. They were an international group, ready to engage in conversation on just about anything—books they’d read, music, art, and philosophies of life. One of the men (they were mostly men) handed me a drum, and though I’d never played one before, to my surprise I kept the beat. The guys I’d known back in the states had always hogged the drums, like it was their manly right to play them, relegating tambourines to the girls.

Our arms moved in sync, our sound radiating out over sand and sea. Above the crescent moon, a bowl of stars seemed to twinkle in delight as it received our insistent message of good will. Maybe I could live like this. I could be part of a tribe like this.

Walking back to the hotel, my stomach rumbled from deep inside, a major upheaval was going on. The desk clerk looked up when I entered and said, “Miss,” but I pretended not to hear and kept walking.

Back in my room, I lay on my bed, attentive to the chaos that emanated from my body. The light from the lamp was dim like the glow of a candle, because I’d hung two pair of clean wet underwear on it to dry. The tomato on the stool seemed to shimmer in the soft light, and every few minutes I’d look at it and wonder if the moment had come to consume it. Could I last a little longer? No, it was tempting me. Yes, no, yes. Yes, I could wait. The tomato was giving me strength to persevere. We’d coexist a little longer.

I awoke the next day to the same guttural sounds as the day before, only worse. I sat in the chair and read a few chapters of a novel, barely able to concentrate, until it was time to check the mail.

As I walked down the tree-lined sidewalk, for a wild moment I could feel another body inside me—a woman dressed in rags. She was looking furtively about, something I didn’t normally do. I feared she’d call out to strangers and beg for food. Oh, when would the Fates relinquish the letters and allow me to save face? Please! I didn’t want to be a rag woman.

Mr. Clark Kent clerk shook his head and called “Next!” dismissing me like he’d done the day before. I wanted to both cry and lash out at him, but I just left, eyes smarting. Ian wasn’t outside to calm me. I was on my own.

Hadn’t I’d gotten exactly what I deserved? I wasn’t the Fool on a Tarot card, I was just a plain fool. I’d tricked myself, thinking I could live in the present moment, a member of the “be here now” generation, but I wasn’t liberated. I was waiting for a letter from home to rescue me, just like other American girls the clerk had to deal with. His job seemed incredibly boring, but at least he could be independent, dress nicely, eat out at cafes. Had he realized early on he wasn’t superman or anyone special? Or maybe he had a special spark, nothing grand, but something worth cultivating and yet… and yet, he had to put food on the table. I wasn’t so different from him. It was just taking me a long time to realize it.

I spent the day in misery with the added anxiety of a note from the hotel to pay up by tomorrow. On my afternoon visit to the Amex there were no letters and more humiliation, but I saw Ian. He invited me to come again at seven o’clock and join the tribe. He assured me if I were kicked out of the hotel the group would protect me and teach me how to survive on the street. I appreciated his offer, and would take him up on it if I had to.

When early evening came I lay on my bed, too weak and hungry to walk down the beach. The rag woman inside was taking over, crying out for me to act.

I rolled onto the floor, and edged over to the stool. I lifted the tomato from the plate, and inhaled the sun-blessed, dry-leafed aroma of the sweet field it came from. I encircled it in my palms turning it over and over, our skins kindred in their smoothness. I could feel the sun’s heat inside it even though it had spent a day in my cool room. It seemed like a warm-blooded creature and I could almost feel a heartbeat, hear the crickets from the field where it had lived, like the crickets by my mother’s cellar door.

I held it close against my chest and the sun’s energy passed into my heart.

Oh! I thought of the sacrifices the priestesses made in the temples in ancient Greece. Of course it was with love they slit the animals throats. I had thought it a terrible thing to do, but in this moment I understood.

I set the tomato back down on the makeshift table, its altar. If time and my hunger didn’t matter I’d keep its beauty whole, a “joy for ever” as John Keats would put it. Its skin shone without blemish as good on the outside as I imagined the glorious interior.

I would eat it European style. I would bring each morsel to my mouth, holding the fork in my left hand, after cutting it with the knife in my right hand. I needed to begin a new path and do it with a sacrifice—something red, something round, something ripe. The life of the tomato laid down for me, to make me right again with the world.

I made the first cut. The skin sprung away from the wound and there was no turning back. I sliced downward and the tomato opened to me.

The architecture was all that I’d imagined—vaulted ceilings like in the finest European cathedrals. Arches. Thick, blushing walls. A bounty of seeds spilled forth. Manna from heaven! I cut a section free and the semi-opaque, seed laden liquid oozed onto the plate in a seemingly endless flow. This was the wet stuff of life. This is how the world began.

I stabbed the piece with my stubby fork and lifted it to salute the gods. Pieces to lips, to nest of mouth, to explosion of taste buds, to blessing of throat, swallowing flesh, seeds of wisdom, seeds of infinity.

Whatever would be would be. I could accept whatever lay ahead, letters or no letters. Yet somehow I knew the letters were coming, clickety-click, speeding through the night on a train. I could see far into the future as well. A tomato seed lodged in my brain would send out its root, keeping this bond, this memory with the tomato alive. Always.

My plate licked clean, I lay in a state of suspension, not unlike my brief floats in the sea. For the first time since renting the room I could hear the sea whispering through the cracks of the windowless walls. The foam of the waves seemed to dissolve in my ears, the retreat of the waves carrying me out to sea, slowly enveloping me in sleep.

The next morning at the Amex I felt certain the letters were there, but if they weren’t they’d be there soon. The clerk couldn’t treat me like I was invisible, because I’d never been more present. I had a name, a voice, and a smile.

I asked if I had any mail.

The clerk smiled back at me and our eyes met. He handed me two letters. Two!

“Next!” he called. Had I imagined his disdain or was I worthy of his glance now that I had something of substance in my hands? Or was he just glad to be rid of me?

I walked out and eagerly ripped open the letter from home, relieved that it contained traveler’s checks though my car hadn’t been sold yet. I nervously opened Poal’s letter and discovered he was coming that day! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Roma here I come!

I rushed over to Ian who was standing with three other tribe members by a huge beech tree. I announced my news and Ian was glad for me.

“The next chapter of your interesting life begins!” he said, and we laughed.

We hugged goodbye. I said farewell to the others and wished them well, but their eyes had veils. A chasm had formed between us, for my luck had changed and theirs hadn’t. I wanted to say I was still like them, that I understood poverty and the communion with food that hunger brings. But I wasn’t like them anymore. Money had changed everything.

I slunk back into the Amex and cashed a check. My brain was spinning. Had sacrificing the tomato brought my good fortune, or would it have happened anyway? Had my tomato experience been written in the stars, always meant to be? I sensed if I told anyone about it, the magical feeling would disappear, so I’d keep it to myself.

The tectonic plate I stood on was sliding away from the tribe, the drums, the broom closet, the sea, from Venus on her half shell. I was moving on.

pencil

Carol Shank is working on a memoir of her European travels. She’s written picture books for educational publishers and her poetry has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Chronogram, and First Literary Review-East. Her poem “Bug Lights” won Highlights High Five 2016 Pewter Plate Award for “Poem of the Year.” Carol recently became a dual citizen with Canada, and is excited to be an American/Canadian. Email: crl.firefly.shnk[at]gmail.com