Umami

Laia Jufresa

Umami

For Tod, por todo

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

Then it would.

— Carol Ann Duffy

~ ~ ~

‌I

2004

‘A milpa,’ I said.

I stood up on my chair in the dining room and said, ‘A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash. I could plant it myself, right next to the picnic table.’

I drew a great circle in the air with my hands and proclaimed, ‘Like our forefathers.’

The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminum travel case. Not anymore. It’d probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard. If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.

‘And herbs,’ I told them. ‘Parsley, cilantro, tomatillos, and chili for the green salsa Dad makes when we have people over.’

Dad bought into the idea straight away. He asked for some of those knobby tomatoes he once ate on tour in California. But Mom, the one who supposedly loves plants, wasn’t having any of it. She went to her room before I’d even got off the chair, and only agreed to the deal three days later. We wrote the full agreement on a napkin, then signed it, making one small change to appeal to Mom’s gringo sensibility: ‘a milpa with some grass on it’. A milpa-garden, if you will. There’s a history of milpas in our little development, Belldrop Mews. I’m not the first to try it. But anyway, now it’s official: ‘In exchange for plowing, planting, and tending the yard, Ana is excused from summer camp and may spend her vacation at home.’

My own home, I might add. Doesn’t this essentially mean I’m paying rent? Other people might see it that way. Not my parents. They’re really into fair trade. Fair trade and nature. Mom grew up next to a lake. She gets nostalgic about dragonflies.

In Mom’s head, summer camp = privileged childhood. But in this case camp is just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with her stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house. Mom equates a passion for these kinds of activities with a healthy constitution; something like drinking a glass of milk a day or waking up with the birds. She brought us up in Mexico City, and yet she doesn’t want us to be city-kids, which is exactly what we are. She’s been living here twenty years and still ties a hippie scarf around her head: her personal take on the national flags other expats hang from their windows. Uprooted. This is how Mom refers to herself when we have visitors and she’s drinking red wine and her teeth and tongue start turning black. When I was little, I imagined wiry roots growing out of her feet, filling her bed with soil.

Protestant is another way Mom describes herself. And the word comes with a specific gesture: a slow flick of her wrist, a kind of curtsey of the hand; as much to defend as to mock herself. Within the family the mere gesture has come to mean Protestant. It’s our way of laughing at Mom’s neuroses: for a job well done; for punctuality. When someone flicks their wrist it’s like they’re dusting off the invisible cobwebs of Mexico’s Catholicism. Or it means it’s time to go to the airport, even if it’s too early. No matter who does it, the rest of us will translate the wrist-flick as ‘Behold, the Protestant ethic.’

The truth is there’s a Walmart next to her childhood lake now. But it’s not wise to bring that up. Neither that nor the suggestion that she too could go visit Emma. Mom tends to forget that the uprooting was her own doing. Sometimes I think I should do the same. Pack my things and get out of here the moment I hit fourteen. But I won’t, because she would just love that: her eldest daughter following in her footsteps. That’d be the family’s interpretation, no doubt about it. Mom twists things with the same firm delicacy she uses to fold our clothes and wring out the mop. I’ve seen pictures of her from when she was fifteen, with her cello between her legs and no shoes on. It was easy to vanish when you looked like that. Easy to float up and away. When I sit down my thighs meet, and there’s always something spilling out from the waistband of my pants, or my chair, or my mouth. And I’m a lost cause when it comes to rhythm. Same with adventures. I suspect if I ever ran away, I’d only end up coming back.

*

Now we have two sacks of ‘optimized’ soil. The owner of the garden center convinced me that our soil, the stuff that’s already there in the yard, won’t do. He told us it’s contaminated with lead. He told us that throughout the whole of Cuauhtémoc, the whole of Benito Juárez, and the whole of the city center, there are 1,300 micrograms of lead for every kilo of soil. I’m not sure I believe him, but in any case I bought some of his. Really I bought it so that my best friend Pina and I could get the heck out of there. He didn’t stare at our titties or anything, but he did sink his hands slowly into the sack of soil, all the way up to his forearm, while lecturing us about terrains and fertilizers. At that point, Pina, who’d only come on the condition that I buy her a half-liter of horchata afterward, dug her elbow into me.

‘Buy the soil,’ she said. ‘There’s enough shit in our tuna already.’

After we left, we hung out at La Michoacana, an establishment that by all appearances survives solely off our business.

‘You think he was a pervert?’ I asked Pina.

Pi licked her lips, stroked one of the sacks and moaned, ‘Mm, soil.’

Then she put her hand between her legs.

‘Mm, a little lead worm!’

Sometimes I truly resent having to be seen with her in public. The rest of the time I just feel jealous. I don’t know how to say no to Pina. When we were in fourth grade she made me play a game where you scratched your hand until it bled. Then we did a blood pact to be sisters. But lately we’re not so similar: everything she does, everything that happens to her, makes me jealous. It’s all so much more exciting than anything going on in my life. And I don’t know when this started. Actually, I do. It started when her mom reappeared. Before that we each had our own ghost: she had her mom and I had my sister. But three months ago her ghost contacted her online. It’s not the same, obviously, your mother leaving or your sister dying. But what’s worse: a mother that reappears out of nowhere, or one that never leaves the house?

Pina has stopped moaning.

‘Don’t say “pervert”,’ she says.

‘Why not?’

‘It’s what assholes call gay people. It’s a discrimatry word.’

‘Discriminatory.’

‘Whatever.’

*

‘Shall I just throw the new soil on top of the old soil and forget about it?’

We’re in my yard. Pina’s got one arm raised, with her head turned in toward her armpit. With the help of some tweezers, which she’s holding in the other hand, she slowly plucks out the hairs. When her neck gets stiff, she changes side. She looks like a heron: beautiful and twisted. I stare at the sacks of new soil but they’re not hiding any answers. My current favorite word is ‘ennui’. This is ennui: that time of the day when even the flies are sleepy. Everything is still. Everything stinks of dust and cement. I don’t know about lead, but I did find a flip-flop in the old soil. And some bottle tops. And my cuddly toy dog who disappeared a zillion years ago, clearly buried with malice aforethought. If my brothers weren’t at camp, I’d be taking my revenge.

‘You have to take off the old soil first,’ says Pina, who doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about.

‘And what am I supposed to do with it then?’

‘You sell it to Marina. Or give it to her, so she can plant something and eat it.’

‘With lead in it?’

‘It’s a mineral, Ana. She could do with it.’

‘Maybe she could do with reading Umami.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Alf’s book. I lent it to you a zillion years ago.’

‘I gave it to someone else. Was it a novel about pedophilia?’

‘Not even remotely. It was an anthropological essay on the relationship between the fifth taste and pre-Hispanic food. Do you even know which mews you live in?’

‘Yes, Ana, I know what umami is, but why would he write a book with the same name as his house?’

‘You are so dumb.’

‘You’re the dumb one who doesn’t know what to do with your dirt.’

Dad comes out through the sliding door. He got rid of his beard a couple of weeks ago and I still haven’t got used to it. He looks younger. Or maybe uglier. The other day I turned up at one of his rehearsals so he could give me a ride home and I barely recognized him. Throughout his entire career he’s always sat at t ...

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