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It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Come Monday

By Meg Worden

Memoir


We stood outside The Copa watching drag queens pull suitcases tied with feather boas, smeared with lipstick and glitter into the infamous nightclub. The air was thick and still. Instead of moving around, it pushed in and down on us, like gravity.

The barometric pressure drops lower than low before a hurricane.

My boyfriend, Jimmy, and I took a final breath before dragging our own things, two suitcases, sleeping bags, our cockatiel, Sonny, in his cage along with the tension of our precarious relationship through the doors of the Italian restaurant where we would be riding out Hurricane Georges – a category three hurricane headed directly for our island home of Key West.

Fourteen people, four dogs, two cats and our bird gathered in the restaurant to wait out the storm. While most of the residents and all of the tourists had evacuated the island, we’d opted to stay, and in little groups of threes and fours we listened at the back door and peeked through the cracks in the plywood covering the windows, waiting with a combined excitement, dread, for the forces of nature to remind us of our particular human- ness, to demand that we relinquish ourselves, powerless before the face of God as it surged forth from the heavens.

Dining tables were transformed into activity centers. Someone had set out puzzles on one, and another had a couple of guitars, and a harmonica. Another was covered with paper, scissors and paints. That’s where Maggie sat. The beautiful girl from Queens that Jimmy was falling in love with.  It was obvious how much he was into her, preferred her company to mine. He told me he liked the way she said “Moms.”

“There’s a whole group of people here that get up in the morning and go kayaking and biking and aren’t hung over everyday.” He had said to me when he first met her.

I responded by looking at him like he was crazy talking.

While some sat around putting the puzzles together and strumming the guitars, others filled the bar stools sipping wine, rolling joints and giggling through hazy, gray smoke rings.

I was one of them.

The part of me that could deny my own rampant infidelity and nurture monster-sized jealousy of Maggie could fill the room, hang off the edge of the island, spill onto the reef and impale itself on the jagged edge of a wrecked ship.

I drank to that.

Jimmy said I should come home before dawn once in awhile.

I said, Don’t cramp my style.

By the time the storm hit, it was demoted to a category one. But it was still strong enough to bend palm trees in half, send rooftops flying like carpets down the center of Duval street and blow thousands of terrified little birds with bright orange and electric blue wings all the way from Cuba. One would land shivering underneath the Bougainvillea bushes outside the back door.

I tried to save it, cupping it in my palms and nestling it into a box with water and some of Sonny’s birdseed. I tried to save it by sheer-willing it to live. It was lying all cold and stiff the next morning, its tiny legs curled like telephone wire on its chest.

The parallel was completely lost on me.

We were fortunate to be connected to a small generator and propane tank and we heartily took to the task of emptying the walk-in refrigerator before the food spoiled and wasted.

By candlelight, the chefs prepared buffets of cheese and berries for breakfast, antipasto for lunch and for dinner we pushed tables together, set them with linens, silver and crystal stemware for family-style Italian dinners; heaping trays of medium-rare filet mignon, baskets of crispy carta de musica, toasty brushettas, pomodoro pasta and spicy arugula salads dripping with truffle oil.

Afterwards we sipped creamy cappuccinos till nothing was left but the sweetest, foamiest bits to mix into our tiny glasses of grappa. Like jet fuel, we joked. Drinking grappa made our eyes become glassy little slits, caused our laughter to break out in gusts.

As I worked my way to the back door to smoke my mind burned with the image of  Jimmy, at dinner, leaning in to Maggie’s every word, unabashedly held rapt by her perfect bone structure and bright, salty eyes.

It was obvious.

I held onto the door jam for support, my legs, full to the thighs with Barolo and Aquavit, and lit the wrong end of my cigarette while the wind blew the whole entire sea right up onto the island with a howl, a force, a screaming gale that shook the walls, ripped holes in the rooftop, sent briny rivers down the sidewalks.

Cayo Hueso shook and rattled its long dead bones.

I’d like to scream that loud, I thought. I’d like to blow the whole world down.

I imagined Jim and Maggie would be caught in my outburst and be thrown out into the atmosphere until they were just tiny specks that eventually disappeared. Like debris.

During the ethereal eye of the hurricane that passed directly over us we cautiously opened the doors and took intrepid walks through an atmosphere, heavy and silent as a wool cloak, a vacuum. We said Hey to the drag queens peeking their stubbled chins out of the Copa before we all had to hide away again from a wind that blew in from the opposite direction, bending the palm trees over to the other side. Their fronds would be left vertical and askew, like wild, punk rock hair.

The giant banyan in the front yard of Shel Silverstein’s house on Williams Street fell over during this backhanded wind. Rumor said it was the tree that inspired The Giving Tree, a beautiful book about a tree that loves, unconditionally, a selfish little boy.

Its enormous root ball lay wet on the sidewalk, exposed and vulnerable, its trunk, cracked and broken.

I would read in the Miami Herald about the death of Shel Silverstein seven months later, an event that lay to rest a powerful piece of my childhood. He was downed, like his tree, by a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-eight.

We became goldfish in a bowl, swimming circles around the dining room during the second half of the storm.  The novelty worn, everyone wanting a shower, some privacy. Round and round we passed, wearing expressions that said, “You again?” The smell of wet leaves, algae and unearthing seeped in through the leaking ceiling, dripped with a plipplipplip into plastic bus tubs on the floor.

Georges raged on by his own set of rules.

The great storm ended, as all things do, even trees, and birds and poets. Even love. It eventually dissipated, melted into driving, then drizzling rain, and moved up into mainland Florida late on a Sunday night. The next morning, as the sun peeked through the cloud cover, the DJ’s on the crackling transistor radio that had kept us connected to the world that week chose Jimmy Buffet’s Come Monday as the first song since the evacuations began.

Someone, maybe even Beautiful Maggie From Queens, turned up the volume.

Come Monday, it’ll be all right.
Come Monday, I’ll be holding you tight.

To this day, that song transports me.

And, of course, we were all right. We had survived the storm and would come, over the years to survive many other things.

But it was she, not me, that he was holding tight.

That Monday.