this is my body

eating and drinking at the end of the world
by Jonah james fontela
I leave the pieces of lettuce large when making salads. It irritates Nina. She makes most of the salads in our house, and keeps the lettuce uniform and small - the right size for stabbing with forks and cramming into mouths. I shrug off her objections not because I’m laid-back. I am certainly not. I don’t take criticism well. I shrug because it’s not by accident that I leave the lettuce in long and wide pieces, as close to whole as possible without becoming totally absurd. They dangle from the tip of a fork like a loose sail or a tarp in the back of a moving truck. It reminds me of a picnic table and lunches under fruit trees in the breezes of summer, when the lettuce was picked from a small garden and torn in half and thrown in a bright yellow bowl. I’m brought back to a time when the sun was warmer and when olive oil dripped from our chins. I see the rays of the sun through a bottle of red wine vinegar, bursting from the glass in a million new directions. [Image: Vegetarians Judge on sheetrock by Joseph McVetty III, date unknown]

I leave the pieces of lettuce large when making salads. It irritates Nina. She makes most of the salads in our house, and keeps the lettuce uniform and small - the right size for stabbing with forks and cramming into mouths. I shrug off her objections not because I’m laid-back. I am certainly not. I don’t take criticism well. I shrug because it’s not by accident that I leave the lettuce in long and wide pieces, as close to whole as possible without becoming totally absurd. They dangle from the tip of a fork like a loose sail or a tarp in the back of a moving truck. It reminds me of a picnic table and lunches under fruit trees in the breezes of summer, when the lettuce was picked from a small garden and torn in half and thrown in a bright yellow bowl. I’m brought back to a time when the sun was warmer and when olive oil dripped from our chins. I see the rays of the sun through a bottle of red wine vinegar, bursting from the glass in a million new directions.

[Image: Vegetarians Judge on sheetrock by Joseph McVetty III, date unknown]

Small crosses appeared in the darkened corners of our home. They arrived with early spring and its firm breezes. With the smell of the dirt through open windows. Green and yellow and smaller than your little finger, they were made from the palm fronds we pulled out of large baskets on the altar after Palm Sunday mass. My grandmother, a seamstress who spent her life bent over a sewing machine, tore thin ribbons, folding and weaving through a loop to conjure these perfect little crosses. She hid them in every dark nook, where the evil things hide. They protected us for the whole of the year. You bumped into them running your hand across the cool linen in a top drawer. A palm cross huddled alone in the dim at the base of a copper pot with a long spout. One was buried deep in the woodpile, and one in the fireplace too, among the ashes of winter. They were in with the knives in the kitchen and tucked away in a sleeve in a chest full of sweaters. One always in the bottom of the scratchy baskets woven from the split bark of olive trees by old ladies slumped in doorways.[Painting: A Palm Sunday Painting by German artist Kai Althoff, year unknown]

Small crosses appeared in the darkened corners of our home. They arrived with early spring and its firm breezes. With the smell of the dirt through open windows. Green and yellow and smaller than your little finger, they were made from the palm fronds we pulled out of large baskets on the altar after Palm Sunday mass. My grandmother, a seamstress who spent her life bent over a sewing machine, tore thin ribbons, folding and weaving through a loop to conjure these perfect little crosses. She hid them in every dark nook, where the evil things hide. They protected us for the whole of the year. You bumped into them running your hand across the cool linen in a top drawer. A palm cross huddled alone in the dim at the base of a copper pot with a long spout. One was buried deep in the woodpile, and one in the fireplace too, among the ashes of winter. They were in with the knives in the kitchen and tucked away in a sleeve in a chest full of sweaters. One always in the bottom of the scratchy baskets woven from the split bark of olive trees by old ladies slumped in doorways.

[Painting: A Palm Sunday Painting by German artist Kai Althoff, year unknown]

The only doctor my grandfather admitted to seeing was a fiction. Dr. Menanni. The name, in some loose Italian, means to take away or subtract years. “What did Dr. Menanni tell you this time, Bruno?” My father asked, egging him on from across the table. “He told me to have just one glass of red wine a day, but he never said how big a glass.” We laughed, no matter how many times we’d heard it before, and my Nonno sipped his cognac with big, wet mischief eyes blazing away.  I tried the joke out on my real doctor when she told me how too much booze can fuck up your heart rhythms and kill the muscle over time. She laughed, but I think she was just being polite.  [Painting: The Drinkers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890]

The only doctor my grandfather admitted to seeing was a fiction. Dr. Menanni. The name, in some loose Italian, means to take away or subtract years. “What did Dr. Menanni tell you this time, Bruno?” My father asked, egging him on from across the table. “He told me to have just one glass of red wine a day, but he never said how big a glass.” We laughed, no matter how many times we’d heard it before, and my Nonno sipped his cognac with big, wet mischief eyes blazing away.

I tried the joke out on my real doctor when she told me how too much booze can fuck up your heart rhythms and kill the muscle over time. She laughed, but I think she was just being polite.

[Painting: The Drinkers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890]

My Abuela’s house was small. A two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a brick building in Queens. There were smells of fish and red peppers and the dark red chorizo sausages that you could only get in the city, in New York, and the sun-bright yellow of tortillas made of eggs and potatoes and onions.  

We rarely stayed the night. There wasn’t any room, so we left late, my father driving the hour and a half north and east on the two lanes of the Merritt Parkway. I drifted to sleep laying down in the backseat. My slumber delayed or silenced the noisy arguments that accompanied visits to New York. My mother upset; my father defensive. On the attack. I hallucinated in the rock and curve of the road wishing I could sleep forever in the cradle of the high walls and climbing banks of cement as we left the city. I sensed the familiar turns when we drew closer to home, my eyes pressed closed. I’d wake up in the morning in my bed, my pajamas on. No memory. Did I float up to my room through the window, as I feared the devil or the serial killers might?

I had a dream last night that I inherited that apartment in Queens where my grandparents lived for decades, the one my grandmother gave up a few weeks before she died. Where my Abuelo hanged himself in the back room, the one with the ancient exercise bicycle and the view of the playground five stories below. In the dream I was disappointed because the apartment was freshly painted, white and light blue. It was empty. No more yellow stepladder by the kitchen window with plants on it. The round table had changed color too. It was only unfamiliar walls, the smell of home and kitchen replaced with the astringent sting of fresh paint.

I woke up wondering about the yuppies who might live there now, and how much they must pay with the rent control washed away, and how they don’t know a man hanged himself in their baby’s room. How, if they look close, they can still see a little notch in the top of the door, where he fixed the cord.

I was in Lagos once. The frenzy of people and the buzz of constant, indistinct motion put me off my balance. I warmed to the city’s cocktail of opportunism and hospitality. If you try to wriggle against its pace or its confusions, you are lost. Angry and lost. I asked for a cup of tea in a small cafe and, after a long wait, the man brought me a bowl of chicken and rice. It was heavily spiced with pepper. He brought it not because he misunderstood me, but because there was no tea and he had to bring me something. It was delicious.

The birds are noisy on these early spring mornings. Screeches punctuate the rise and fall of the 44 city bus burning through its gears. Some of the birds sound like meowing cats, others cluck like chickens. Many are just passing through on their way farther south. Some will stay with us for the warm months, desperate and hungry in these days when the frost first melts and the moisture of April pools and drips into sewer drains. There’s a woodpecker in the distance poking away at a still-bare tree. Our aging neighbors, resting from the rigors of raking up papery leaves that hid away under the snow, think they see it. Black and white with red tuft on its breast they say, handing me binoculars. I can’t see anything but ancient gray sky. magnified. I think of last summer when a hawk plucked a squirrel from a tree, an Elm tree that no longer stands. The giant bird flew off with the furry thing clutched in its talons like a hat. I think of how there was another squirrel on that tree and how it froze in place before darting away. There is more sun in the mornings now. You can almost feel its warmth. More of it cuts through the narrow spaces between the houses. It wakes us earlier and earlier every day. Soon the bare branches, like the pointing fingers of old witches, will be covered. Green leaves replace the plastic shopping bags caught in updrafts and stuck. We will have our blues and greens. We will grill meats and fish over coals, whole chickens flattened and soaked in garlic and oil, thyme and lemon. We arrange the chairs in our narrow alleyway and hang the twinkling wind chimes. We dust off the table and sip at our beer, shivering against the last chills of a dying season.

Cook a good chorizo sausage hard in a pan with a few drops of olive oil. Fat pours through rips in the skin. The oil and the pork fat mix to make a liquid that runs like blood. It’s red-yellow, flavored with the spices inside – garlic, smoked paprika, hot pepper. There’s no better alchemy in my kitchen than the creation of this perfect grease. You can fry an egg in it, or wipe it clean from the plate with a piece of bread. Drizzle it over potatoes or into a tortilla with eggs and potatoes. Fry bread in it. Fry anything in it.  When I was a kid we only had chorizo when my father’s parents, my Abuela and Abuelo, came for visits from New York City. The Z in chorizo was pronounced like a TH. The sausages were tied together in a chain. They were dramatic, a dark dusk red, not the gray and pink links I knew from my mother’s side. My father was from Spain and it stuck me out among my peers, only being half Italian. No one else had Spanish blood and all my full dago mates called me spic for kicks. That oil, the spice of it in my nose, sizzling and bending in the pan. The corners and bits of sausage burning to a black char, that is my Abuela’s kitchen. The round table. The view of bricks through the window. The way she walked, chin up, hands locked behind her back, through the foulest hardships of life.   [Photo: Chorizo oil with roasted red pepper puree by Jonah James Fontela.]

Cook a good chorizo sausage hard in a pan with a few drops of olive oil. Fat pours through rips in the skin. The oil and the pork fat mix to make a liquid that runs like blood. It’s red-yellow, flavored with the spices inside – garlic, smoked paprika, hot pepper. There’s no better alchemy in my kitchen than the creation of this perfect grease. You can fry an egg in it, or wipe it clean from the plate with a piece of bread. Drizzle it over potatoes or into a tortilla with eggs and potatoes. Fry bread in it. Fry anything in it.

When I was a kid we only had chorizo when my father’s parents, my Abuela and Abuelo, came for visits from New York City. The Z in chorizo was pronounced like a TH. The sausages were tied together in a chain. They were dramatic, a dark dusk red, not the gray and pink links I knew from my mother’s side. My father was from Spain and it stuck me out among my peers, only being half Italian. No one else had Spanish blood and all my full dago mates called me spic for kicks. That oil, the spice of it in my nose, sizzling and bending in the pan. The corners and bits of sausage burning to a black char, that is my Abuela’s kitchen. The round table. The view of bricks through the window. The way she walked, chin up, hands locked behind her back, through the foulest hardships of life.  

[Photo: Chorizo oil with roasted red pepper puree by Jonah James Fontela.]

You end up dirty when you clean a house right. When you pull wet tangles of hair and grime from dark kitchen corners, from under ancient peeling radiators. Some of it gets on you, on your knees and under your fingernails. You know where you are and what you’ll put up with. You make decisions about how terrible or disorganized or unhealthy you allow your life to become. You don’t have a home if you don’t clean your house. There are exceptions: the very old and the ill and weak. You tried as long as you could, but you can’t anymore – of course. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anything that’s easy and pleasant and the same pretty shining way all the time. The disgusting corners are important. The dead gray-black of the mop water is too. The foulness on the underside of the toilet seat matters. So does the way bleach pinches after drying on your skin. You must face it. How can your world be clean without any effort, or without getting you dirty? If it does, you live inside a collection of walls. You live in a hotel room.  [Image: Mop Painting by Jinny Yu. Oil on Aluminum, 2010]

You end up dirty when you clean a house right. When you pull wet tangles of hair and grime from dark kitchen corners, from under ancient peeling radiators. Some of it gets on you, on your knees and under your fingernails. You know where you are and what you’ll put up with. You make decisions about how terrible or disorganized or unhealthy you allow your life to become. You don’t have a home if you don’t clean your house. There are exceptions: the very old and the ill and weak. You tried as long as you could, but you can’t anymore – of course. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anything that’s easy and pleasant and the same pretty shining way all the time. The disgusting corners are important. The dead gray-black of the mop water is too. The foulness on the underside of the toilet seat matters. So does the way bleach pinches after drying on your skin. You must face it. How can your world be clean without any effort, or without getting you dirty? If it does, you live inside a collection of walls. You live in a hotel room.

[Image: Mop Painting by Jinny Yu. Oil on Aluminum, 2010]