this is my body

eating and drinking at the end of the world
by Jonah james fontela
Nina works long and hard these days. She’s up before the dawn and out the door, leaving me in a pile under the bed covers. She pounds nails and works saws on a huge carpentry project in a distant southern suburb. It’s damn near dusk when she’s off the gnarled highway and, finally, home again.Our time together is short. I make a dinner and we eat it together. I can make whatever I want. The heartier the better. Protein. There will be no arguments when she’s home. There will be no objections or questions. There will be no salads. I plan the menu. Two nights ago it was beef stew, perfect for the colder winds and shortening days, and to warm up the insides and fill a body with life. Last night was stewed squid with garlic and green peas, a favorite of my late grandfather. I served it with hunks of crusty bread for smearing and a plate of soft, yellow polenta. Morbido. I stirred for half an hour until it was smooth as cake batter, and drizzled over it with olive oil, salt and pepper.I am a homemaker these days. It’s simple and plain. I do my work, typing and seated, and I do the laundry and clean the house too. Nina is out working her body into a profound exhaustion and I am here to replenish her and help her. I feel tickles of family, and home, in the rhythm of these days. I miss her. I wait by the window for her to return, the table set and a candle lit, eager to hug. The light bulbs are dimmed and the smell of dinner spills into the hallway to meet her. We do hug and we eat and, after her hot shower, she falls asleep on the couch with her foot against my thigh.[Painting: The Green Diner by Edouard Vuillard, 1891]

Nina works long and hard these days. She’s up before the dawn and out the door, leaving me in a pile under the bed covers. She pounds nails and works saws on a huge carpentry project in a distant southern suburb. It’s damn near dusk when she’s off the gnarled highway and, finally, home again.

Our time together is short. I make a dinner and we eat it together. I can make whatever I want. The heartier the better. Protein. There will be no arguments when she’s home. There will be no objections or questions. There will be no salads. I plan the menu. Two nights ago it was beef stew, perfect for the colder winds and shortening days, and to warm up the insides and fill a body with life. Last night was stewed squid with garlic and green peas, a favorite of my late grandfather. I served it with hunks of crusty bread for smearing and a plate of soft, yellow polenta. Morbido. I stirred for half an hour until it was smooth as cake batter, and drizzled over it with olive oil, salt and pepper.

I am a homemaker these days. It’s simple and plain. I do my work, typing and seated, and I do the laundry and clean the house too. Nina is out working her body into a profound exhaustion and I am here to replenish her and help her. I feel tickles of family, and home, in the rhythm of these days. I miss her. I wait by the window for her to return, the table set and a candle lit, eager to hug. The light bulbs are dimmed and the smell of dinner spills into the hallway to meet her. We do hug and we eat and, after her hot shower, she falls asleep on the couch with her foot against my thigh.

[Painting: The Green Diner by Edouard Vuillard, 1891]

The last of the summer tomatoes is gone. I ate it for lunch. Its bright flesh whispered silently while I sawed away slices of bright sunset. I left them like wagon wheels, raw on a white plate, and walked outside. The sun is still warm. I want to feel it on my back, but it’s feeble and grayed and challenged by the bullying breezes. I walked the neighborhood before returning to my final summertime lunch. The red fruit, dressed with salt and olive oil, covered with a wafer of raw sweet onion, said goodbye. As I ate, slowly and deliberately, delighting in the sweet and the tang soon to be gone for what will feel an eternity, the house inflated with the aroma of onion and carrot, beef and garlic. The smells of winter. The first salty stew of the season is on the fire, simmering like an idling motor. The gateway from summer to fall, winter’s sad and beautiful minion, was never more clear. The muscle, tough and sinewy, melts away through the hours, rocking gently in a broth, bubbling relentlessly. Thickening. A film of condensation grows on the dusty glass of the kitchen’s one window. Winter, like a ragged army, masses on the other side.  

The last of the summer tomatoes is gone. I ate it for lunch. Its bright flesh whispered silently while I sawed away slices of bright sunset. I left them like wagon wheels, raw on a white plate, and walked outside. The sun is still warm. I want to feel it on my back, but it’s feeble and grayed and challenged by the bullying breezes. I walked the neighborhood before returning to my final summertime lunch. The red fruit, dressed with salt and olive oil, covered with a wafer of raw sweet onion, said goodbye. As I ate, slowly and deliberately, delighting in the sweet and the tang soon to be gone for what will feel an eternity, the house inflated with the aroma of onion and carrot, beef and garlic. The smells of winter. The first salty stew of the season is on the fire, simmering like an idling motor. The gateway from summer to fall, winter’s sad and beautiful minion, was never more clear. The muscle, tough and sinewy, melts away through the hours, rocking gently in a broth, bubbling relentlessly. Thickening. A film of condensation grows on the dusty glass of the kitchen’s one window. Winter, like a ragged army, masses on the other side.  

Potatoes aren’t as dumb as they look. They are heavy and dense. They are bumpy and dirty, irregular in size and shape and desperate to reproduce. Leave them in the dark for a few weeks and sharp nodules of light pink and green poke through rough skin and grasp out for moist soil. Potatoes are humble. And as with most humble things – like beans and eggs and pasta – they require attention and craft to cook properly.My favorite potatoes are fried in a shallow pan. Peel them with a small knife and cut them into slices. Not thin, even slices (imagine au gratin.) No. I hold the peeled potato, a Golden potato, in the palm of my left hand and slice the long way with a stubby knife. I pull the blade toward my wrist and pivot on my thumb. Rotate the naked potato. It gets thinner, and I end up with a pile of slices. Most of them have three sides, like a triangle in three dimensions. Think of the roof of a long farmhouse. Some are trapezoidal. Others are rectangular. But they are generally the same size. Dry them. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan and drop in a tester. When it begins to bubble, drop in the rest. There will be a hiss, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll burn the skin of your hand with splashing hot oil. Use a large enough pan so all the potatoes nestle in the oil. Then wait. When the edges begin to show a little brown, flip them over, one at a time, or in new, larger formations as some of them fuse together. I use tongs. If it’s done right, they will come out crisp and the lightest brown – fluffy, not powdery, inside.  It’s taken me more than ten years to do this right consistently, to unlock the way my mother did it with what looked like very little effort. She told me how, step-by-step. But when talking about oil, what is hot? I don’t use a thermometer. How brown is brown? Just how dry should the potatoes be before they meet the oil? How far along is the end, when the salt goes on? Which kind of potato? How big is a big pan? I’ve fucked up in infinite ways. Too crispy. Too mushy. Too hard. There is so much more than the telling and the hearing, or the jotting down and the reading. There are secrets hiding in the feeling and the failing. And potatoes, smudged with soil, have more secrets than most.  [Image: Sketch Study of ‘Potato Eaters’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1890]

Potatoes aren’t as dumb as they look. They are heavy and dense. They are bumpy and dirty, irregular in size and shape and desperate to reproduce. Leave them in the dark for a few weeks and sharp nodules of light pink and green poke through rough skin and grasp out for moist soil. Potatoes are humble. And as with most humble things – like beans and eggs and pasta – they require attention and craft to cook properly.

My favorite potatoes are fried in a shallow pan. Peel them with a small knife and cut them into slices. Not thin, even slices (imagine au gratin.) No. I hold the peeled potato, a Golden potato, in the palm of my left hand and slice the long way with a stubby knife. I pull the blade toward my wrist and pivot on my thumb. Rotate the naked potato. It gets thinner, and I end up with a pile of slices. Most of them have three sides, like a triangle in three dimensions. Think of the roof of a long farmhouse. Some are trapezoidal. Others are rectangular. But they are generally the same size. Dry them. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan and drop in a tester. When it begins to bubble, drop in the rest. There will be a hiss, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll burn the skin of your hand with splashing hot oil. Use a large enough pan so all the potatoes nestle in the oil. Then wait. When the edges begin to show a little brown, flip them over, one at a time, or in new, larger formations as some of them fuse together. I use tongs. If it’s done right, they will come out crisp and the lightest brown – fluffy, not powdery, inside. 

It’s taken me more than ten years to do this right consistently, to unlock the way my mother did it with what looked like very little effort. She told me how, step-by-step. But when talking about oil, what is hot? I don’t use a thermometer. How brown is brown? Just how dry should the potatoes be before they meet the oil? How far along is the end, when the salt goes on? Which kind of potato? How big is a big pan? I’ve fucked up in infinite ways. Too crispy. Too mushy. Too hard. There is so much more than the telling and the hearing, or the jotting down and the reading. There are secrets hiding in the feeling and the failing. And potatoes, smudged with soil, have more secrets than most.

[Image: Sketch Study of ‘Potato Eaters’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1890]

Something is rotting in your home right now. There’s food in the fridge that’s gone past useful, to the other side of veil. Maybe you’ve ignored it or forgotten it, but there’s meat that smells of vinegar and ammonia. Vegetables oozed a liquid slime with a whiff of sulfur. Sometimes rot can smell sweet. I once found a mouse under the fridge, dead and bloated. Its belly writhed and split open by a colony of blind maggots that smelled of the apocalypse. In an airtight container, right now, a film of delicate crystals, gentle blue and white, is growing over the top of some neglected meal like a summer bed sheet. These are ruins. Think of vines creeping up ancient stone walls. Libraries full of pages, printed with letters and sentiments imagined eternal, turned to dust. How little time it takes for nature to cover our own well-built walls under blankets of green and brown. We had a leak inside our bathroom wall. A pipe broke. We could hear a drip. Something very much like a mushroom pushed its way through a crack and began to reach, slowly, toward the light of the window. It filled me with a dread beyond reason. I imagined what was unseen behind that wall. Death is only the middle. There’s rot and more to come. We all have conversations about what we want done with our bodies when they die. Burned or buried? These are the popular options and both are meant to obscure the next phase, the rot and devouring. It’s worms instead of wolves and dogs, or rats, if you go into the ground. Cremation is a waste of resources and a greedy negation of your body’s organic promise. Leave me where I fall I once said, and it got a big laugh. Too big. [Photo: Tree taking root in an old building by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

Something is rotting in your home right now. There’s food in the fridge that’s gone past useful, to the other side of veil. Maybe you’ve ignored it or forgotten it, but there’s meat that smells of vinegar and ammonia. Vegetables oozed a liquid slime with a whiff of sulfur. Sometimes rot can smell sweet. I once found a mouse under the fridge, dead and bloated. Its belly writhed and split open by a colony of blind maggots that smelled of the apocalypse. In an airtight container, right now, a film of delicate crystals, gentle blue and white, is growing over the top of some neglected meal like a summer bed sheet. These are ruins. Think of vines creeping up ancient stone walls. Libraries full of pages, printed with letters and sentiments imagined eternal, turned to dust. How little time it takes for nature to cover our own well-built walls under blankets of green and brown. We had a leak inside our bathroom wall. A pipe broke. We could hear a drip. Something very much like a mushroom pushed its way through a crack and began to reach, slowly, toward the light of the window. It filled me with a dread beyond reason. I imagined what was unseen behind that wall. Death is only the middle. There’s rot and more to come. We all have conversations about what we want done with our bodies when they die. Burned or buried? These are the popular options and both are meant to obscure the next phase, the rot and devouring. It’s worms instead of wolves and dogs, or rats, if you go into the ground. Cremation is a waste of resources and a greedy negation of your body’s organic promise. Leave me where I fall I once said, and it got a big laugh. Too big.

[Photo: Tree taking root in an old building by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

Milva runs the house. Her husband runs the kitchen. The restaurant, Le Mangiatoie da Tormento, is small, at the top of Via San Francesco in Buti. A spirited woman you ought never to cross, Milva races through the tiny room like a hurricane. She is never servile, always in charge, and she indulges in the old Tuscan practice of sitting with diners at their table to engage them in conversation. It was as much this norm, as her friendship with my late grandfather, that saw her sit with me, my mother, my father and my Nina.  The building that houses the restaurant was once a stable. Horses were fed in what is now the dining room. Mangiatoie translates to manger and small marble pools, about the size of a kitchen sink, still ring the ancient walls. The food of the region, of the hills of Tuscany, is served. The fare that makes sense at the base of Monte Serra. The beef, sliced and tender and topped with arugula and slivers of salty cheese and olive oil, is called La Tagliata, which means cut or severed. The pasta is made by hand and tossed in a yellow sauce of wild boar or rabbit they hunt in the hills. An antipasto plate was stacked with a Salami Toscana, flecked with huge hunks of white fat, and a crostini of raw local pork sausage. My mother refused it, worrier she is, but the rest of us relished its pink softness smeared across the bread.  My father, a willful and stubborn man not to be taken lightly, made an error on this night. He asked Milva if they had any fish on the menu. It was a pedantic request and he knew it. She replied appropriately: “You want fish? Go fishing.” A native Spanish speaker, my father can understand most of what is said without the help of my mother, a native Italian speaker, and Milva left no doubt as to what she meant. He broke apart in laughter. Milva owned him for the rest of the night. And what a performance it was. When he asked about the wine, a simple question, she took her cue and sat down. She rolled her eyes under her wild dark hair. She asked the rest of us if my old man was always such a rompe-coglione, or ball-breaker. She waved her arms, speaking at high volume. She pretended to be offended. You come all the way from America, she said, in her fevered Italian, to break my balls?! The point was: the wine is good, just like the meat, so drink it. She called my father Profesore di Cazzo, loosely translated to Professor of Dick, and my mother howled. So did he.   We were all in tears. In the roar of our laughter, diners at the other tables, locals of this tiny village, grew curious. They began to join in, somehow, to become part of our meal. My tears turned mournful when I understood how this woman and my Nonno came to be so close. They had so much mischief and wonder in common. My grandfather came to life for a moment in my heart, a few hundred yards from the house where he died. Orders began to pile up in the kitchen. The chef, Milva’s man, requested she collect the plates and bring them to the diners. She dismissed him with a wave. He brandished a large cleaver in the air and asked, politely, if she’d mind putting her head on the counter beneath it. At this, Milva pounded our table with delight.  [Photo: View of Buti from Monte Serra by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]  

Milva runs the house. Her husband runs the kitchen. The restaurant, Le Mangiatoie da Tormento, is small, at the top of Via San Francesco in Buti. A spirited woman you ought never to cross, Milva races through the tiny room like a hurricane. She is never servile, always in charge, and she indulges in the old Tuscan practice of sitting with diners at their table to engage them in conversation. It was as much this norm, as her friendship with my late grandfather, that saw her sit with me, my mother, my father and my Nina.

The building that houses the restaurant was once a stable. Horses were fed in what is now the dining room.
Mangiatoie translates to manger and small marble pools, about the size of a kitchen sink, still ring the ancient walls. The food of the region, of the hills of Tuscany, is served. The fare that makes sense at the base of Monte Serra. The beef, sliced and tender and topped with arugula and slivers of salty cheese and olive oil, is called La Tagliata, which means cut or severed. The pasta is made by hand and tossed in a yellow sauce of wild boar or rabbit they hunt in the hills. An antipasto plate was stacked with a Salami Toscana, flecked with huge hunks of white fat, and a crostini of raw local pork sausage. My mother refused it, worrier she is, but the rest of us relished its pink softness smeared across the bread.

My father, a willful and stubborn man not to be taken lightly, made an error on this night. He asked Milva if they had any fish on the menu. It was a pedantic request and he knew it. She replied appropriately: “You want fish? Go fishing.” A native Spanish speaker, my father can understand most of what is said without the help of my mother, a native Italian speaker, and Milva left no doubt as to what she meant. He broke apart in laughter. Milva owned him for the rest of the night. And what a performance it was.

When he asked about the wine, a simple question, she took her cue and sat down. She rolled her eyes under her wild dark hair. She asked the rest of us if my old man was always such a rompe-coglione, or ball-breaker. She waved her arms, speaking at high volume. She pretended to be offended. You come all the way from America, she said, in her fevered Italian, to break my balls?! The point was: the wine is good, just like the meat, so drink it. She called my father Profesore di Cazzo, loosely translated to Professor of Dick, and my mother howled. So did he.  

We were all in tears. In the roar of our laughter, diners at the other tables, locals of this tiny village, grew curious. They began to join in, somehow, to become part of our meal. My tears turned mournful when I understood how this woman and my Nonno came to be so close. They had so much mischief and wonder in common. My grandfather came to life for a moment in my heart, a few hundred yards from the house where he died. Orders began to pile up in the kitchen. The chef, Milva’s man, requested she collect the plates and bring them to the diners. She dismissed him with a wave. He brandished a large cleaver in the air and asked, politely, if she’d mind putting her head on the counter beneath it. At this, Milva pounded our table with delight.

[Photo: View of Buti from Monte Serra by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]
 

Something drew me toward the meat. The pot roast and pork shoulders, the oxtail and top round in their cold case at the back of the market. I ate my last farm tomato, ravishing orbs that store a year’s worth of the sun and stars, for yesterday’s lunch. One tomato rotted itself to the bottom of the box, leaving a smell of decay that no cleanser can wash away. The sun is gone. It left us suddenly with a huge rumbling thunderstorm that turned day into night and left a cold breeze, a permanent one, in place of thudding waves of warmth. The cool air means that the leaves now should change. They will change now. The cold nudged me into Nina’s flank last night, in our dark bedroom where the windows are still flung open. I feel an energy dragging me into the kitchen, but no longer bare-foot and shirtless. I won’t worry about how long I boil water, or fuss over leaving fiery pots and pans near the exhaust fan to keep the temperatures down. I want the oven on. I want it roaring. I want the metal coils and springs to bang like the house’s old radiators when they heat up. The sun is done warming us, and I will grieve it in the coming days of change while the shadows grow longer. This stained hearth will warm us now. Cauldrons of broth and flesh, softening muscle and humble roots will fill this tiny house with life. We will make our own warmth and keep our own health, be our own sun through these vile dark months I detest. At least we’ll do our best.    [Painting: Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth by Vincent van Gogh, 1881]

Something drew me toward the meat. The pot roast and pork shoulders, the oxtail and top round in their cold case at the back of the market. I ate my last farm tomato, ravishing orbs that store a year’s worth of the sun and stars, for yesterday’s lunch. One tomato rotted itself to the bottom of the box, leaving a smell of decay that no cleanser can wash away. The sun is gone. It left us suddenly with a huge rumbling thunderstorm that turned day into night and left a cold breeze, a permanent one, in place of thudding waves of warmth. The cool air means that the leaves now should change. They will change now. The cold nudged me into Nina’s flank last night, in our dark bedroom where the windows are still flung open. I feel an energy dragging me into the kitchen, but no longer bare-foot and shirtless. I won’t worry about how long I boil water, or fuss over leaving fiery pots and pans near the exhaust fan to keep the temperatures down. I want the oven on. I want it roaring. I want the metal coils and springs to bang like the house’s old radiators when they heat up. The sun is done warming us, and I will grieve it in the coming days of change while the shadows grow longer. This stained hearth will warm us now. Cauldrons of broth and flesh, softening muscle and humble roots will fill this tiny house with life. We will make our own warmth and keep our own health, be our own sun through these vile dark months I detest. At least we’ll do our best.  

[Painting: Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth by Vincent van Gogh, 1881]

A yellow light glowed on my chest. It was the middle of the night, all was dark, and the only sound was my urine bubbling in the toilet water. I was disoriented, barely awake, and the trapezoid on my skin, burning bright in a world of night’s deep grays and cold blues, filled me with wonder. I believed for a moment that the glow came from inside my body. But no magic was afoot. It was a lone light of the world shining through the bathroom window and reflecting off the mirror, landing on me in the darkness. A shadow in reverse. I leaned forward and the shape moved, its boundaries and dimensions growing. I looked through the window and found the source. The bulb was tucked away behind our house, through a maze of dark shadows and smudges, houses of various shapes and sizes. It was the porch light of a neighbor, a large white house where three generations of the same family live. The police came there one night to take a man away, quietly, in chains. I couldn’t tell how many turns the forgotten burning light took, or how many windows it bounced off, or trees it dodged. But it found me, striking me just above the heart.[Painting: Street Light - Study of light by Giacomo Balla, 1909] 

A yellow light glowed on my chest. It was the middle of the night, all was dark, and the only sound was my urine bubbling in the toilet water. I was disoriented, barely awake, and the trapezoid on my skin, burning bright in a world of night’s deep grays and cold blues, filled me with wonder. I believed for a moment that the glow came from inside my body. But no magic was afoot. It was a lone light of the world shining through the bathroom window and reflecting off the mirror, landing on me in the darkness. A shadow in reverse. I leaned forward and the shape moved, its boundaries and dimensions growing. I looked through the window and found the source. The bulb was tucked away behind our house, through a maze of dark shadows and smudges, houses of various shapes and sizes. It was the porch light of a neighbor, a large white house where three generations of the same family live. The police came there one night to take a man away, quietly, in chains. I couldn’t tell how many turns the forgotten burning light took, or how many windows it bounced off, or trees it dodged. But it found me, striking me just above the heart.

[Painting: Street Light - Study of light by Giacomo Balla, 1909] 

The leaves are confused by the weather. So am I. It hardly broke eighty degrees on any August day this year. The bees were made dopey by chilly mornings and flew clumsily, in a haze, afraid that fall had come early. They scrambled, neglecting their sleep, and tried to catch up on their labors. Clumps of leaves, which should have burned green for another month, began to brown and dry, standing out across the sky like bruises on a fresh apple. It comes every year, that first sign of autumn’s great die-off, but this was too early by far. And September, a sober month of few surprises, has played us a trick of its own. Temperatures blaze into the nineties. Hot winds blow through and sap energy when cool breezes should be chilling and sending us scrambling into sweaters We should be thinking of fires and soft pears and softening carrots in the oven, and apple crisp. But my shirt is soaked in sweat as I wander, drunk with the sun’s moistening scorch, along the banks of the river. Brown leaves crinkle under my feet like old paper and I imagine them as thin shells, dead horseshoe crabs on a warm beach, crackling under me.