The first thing I want to tell you before I go any further is that I hadn’t eaten a slice of baloney in 40 years prior to tonight.
The next thing is that I know what sparked this whole story. It’s because in a couple weeks, I’m returning to Buffalo, New York, to assist my 89-year-old mother as she moves from one apartment to another. It’s nothing I’m looking forward to, by the way. And I might even change my mind about going. But I just thought you’d like to know what set this whole thing off.
You know how one thing leads to another?….how you can be facebooking one person then the next thing you know you’re looking up your first boyfriend from when you were 17 and never yet kissed? Then, the virulent roots of Memory Lane (the ones you thought disintegrated so long ago) start pushing their way through the pavement, creating a small crack that turns into a crevice that turns into a voracious pothole that fucks up your car’s front-end alignment if you happen to drive into it unaware of its existence.
So I went to Publix around 7 o’clock tonight to get a few things, including turkey breast from the deli. Turkey breast, I have found, is a good, low-fat and healthy choice for the little girl in me who’s been weight-obsessed since age 10.
When I arrived at the deli, Clarissa, the clerk, was standing at the scale holding one, leftover slice of mortadella from the one-pound order she was just wrapping up. I thought it was simple baloney and I was instantly drawn into baloney memories from my childhood. (I didn’t yet know it was mortadella, which is basically baloney with some kind of white fat chunks and pistachios, of all things. The Italians. I love ‘em. But go figure.) Clarissa stood there at the scale, that lone slice drooping off the paper. I really wanted that slice of baloney.
Then, Unusual Thing Number One happened: With the mortadella customer standing right there, Clarissa looked right at me and asked, “Would you like to try a slice of mortadella?”
“Actually”, I said, “you just read my mind.” She thought I was kidding but Clarissa had the gift. Normally, you’d hand that slice over to the customer as a sample – in this case, it would’ve been a back-end sample, but, so what? I have never – in my whole life – seen a deli clerk offer a slice of a customer’s order to another customer. Have you?
I rolled the slice up and took a bite. Its slightly soapy taste and vaguely spongey texture was enough to release the Kraken from my limbic system (which had already been released from my facebookin’ from earlier). Did I mention that I hadn’t eaten a slice of baloney in 40 years?
Every Friday night growing up, my mother and I went grocery shopping at Twin Fair. She placed the same deli order every time (except for those special occasions when she bought herself a hunk of liverwurst that she stored in the butter dish area of the refrigerator – off limits to us kids). One pound of cole slaw, one pound of potato salad, one pound of ham salad, two pounds of baloney.
Who among us can truly understand how it is that our synapses fire and our memories are formed in the first place and why certain memories are stoked when they are but I found myself thinking about that first boyfriend I was just telling you about, John, whom we all called Jake back then. About how much I liked him. How much we laughed. Of how terrified I was at the prospect of kissing him, until it happened. Of how different he was from my disrespectful brothers.
“You know what”, I told Clarissa. “That tasted so good that I think I’m going to get some baloney for the first time in 40 years.”
“REALLY?” she beamed. “The garlic baloney is really good. I love garlic. Do you like garlic?”
“I love garlic”, I said. “Give me six, thin slices of garlic baloney.”
Clarissa offered me my sample slice and I heard another crevice pop open on Memory Lane.
How, eight years after my two-month friendship with Jake, and, after having lived in California, Switzerland, London, and Paris, and (falsely believing) that I was no longer so deeply scarred by my family imprint, I recontacted him, we hit it off like we never parted company, and we (finally) slept together. Always a “big girl”, my ample ass splayed out on his bed as I lay on my stomach awaiting his caresses. “Whoa”, he commented, as if Godzilla had just walked in. If I had had any idea then of how beautiful I was – ample ass and all – I would’ve gotten up and left right then instead of enduring one more bit of disrespect, especially from him.
But don’t cry for me, Argentina, for I experienced a feeling of smug revenge when, shortly thereafter, he ended up marrying a woman who was short and morbidly obese on their wedding day and remains so to this very day.
Let’s get back to the deli…
“I don’t know what’s going on here, Clarissa. This is crazy! I never buy this stuff! I’d like to get some of that sandwich-style salami now. Give me six, thin slices, please.”
Salami? We never kept salami in our house, growing up. We were baloney people. The closest I ever got to salami was via my Grandma Reinig’s thuringer, which is kind of a German version of salami, I suppose. Thuringer. Sounds like the name of an inventor. Maybe the inventor of thuringer.
Memory Lane was buckling, so much so that I could now see the dirt beneath the asphalt. Why didn’t I get so much out of my life once I left home? A family? Children? A home? A community? Roots? Traditions? A retirement plan? A 401k (whatever that is). Requisite vacations to overtrodden places? Why couldn’t I have stayed put in the same place and built up something so I’d have something now instead of having nothing is what I wanted to know.
While I was standing at the deli, a teenage boy came up and I felt an immediate kinship with him and we introduced ourselves. His name was Kim – baggy pants, mixed race, and a wild mane of natural, maverick hair taking a stand for itself from beneath his hoodie.
From out of nowhere, he said, “I come here every Tuesday to buy a sandwich and Clarissa is the best worker here.”
“I was just thinking the same, exact thing”, I told him.
While Clarissa was slicing that salami, I ran off to get a loaf of 5-grain whole wheat bread. On my way, I encountered a store manager and took the time to tell her how great I thought Clarissa was.
I returned to the counter. “Clarissa”, I said, “you really are great at your job. You’re great with people, you care about what you’re doing, you care about people. Right, Kim?”
“RIGHT!” he practically screamed.
“You two are gonna make me cry”, she said, on her way to starting to cry.
“You have a natural rapport with people, Clarissa. That’s a real skill. Right, Kim?”
“It’s a GIFT”, he almost yelled. And that’s when I noticed that Kim’s smallish eyes beamed light in a way that reminded me of my brother, Brian, who had been a deeply-troubled teen, but through God’s grace had made it through.
And, while I’m telling you all this, I have to point out Unusual Thing Number Two: having a conversation with a teenager in a hoodie about how great of a job the deli worker was doing was another thing that’s never happened to me in life.
I bade a good evening to Kim and Clarissa and headed over to the tortilla aisle. Along the way, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of the Hostess products at buy one/get one free. Here comes Unusual Thing Number Three: I hadn’t even noticed a Hostess product for 20 years. Now, here I was, transfixed as to which to choose. Would it be the Ho Hos, the Zingers, the Twinkies, the Suzi Qs or the Ding Dongs?
In the end, I selected the Ho Hos, as it harkened me back to the day 20 years ago when I found myself in a post-entire-box consumption sugar stupor that left my forehead numb and which soon enough introduced me to the eating disorder I’d been consumed by for 30 years – unawares, as they say.
I was aware, however, that Jake was never going to be my guy because he came from a strong Polish family and he needed to be with someone who had a strong family. That wasn’t me. That wasn’t my family. I recall now the stab of his rejection deep in my gut the day he said, “Where’s your family, Sandi?” with a blaming tone, like it was my fucking fault.
No, my life’s reel was packed with a whole lot of moving around, gathering up unique experiences and befriending a gallery of interesting souls from faraway places (faraway from Buffalo, New York, anyway.)
Every so often, I wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed in Buffalo and tried to live that conventional life. My next thought quickly steps in to crack me in the lip and remind me that, knowing my character, my temperament, and ultimately, my destiny, I would never have been able to do it in the first place so why don’t I shut the fuck up.
The truth is: I would have dried up and blown away. We are who we are and we’re not who we’re not.
As I stood in line at the self-checkout, Kim, who was already halfway through checking out his order, caught my attention. He was holding up his 2-liter bottle of Coke to the cashier. “I don’t have enough money on my card”, he told her. Which led to Unusual Thing Number Four: Instead of handing the bottle to the attendant, he was actually walking that Coke back to its aisle. When he neared me, I asked, “How much is that Coke?”
“I don’t know”, he said. “A couple bucks.”
“I’d like to pay for that for you. Let me see if I have any cash.”
“You don’t have to do that”, he said.
“I know. But I’d like to – if you can receive it.”
The twinkle in Kim’s eyes glistened and a moist glare of appreciation shone through as I handed over two measly bucks. He went back to finish his order and I stepped up to ring up my own.
A couple moments later, he was standing next to me, holding out a handful of change.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You keep it.”
“Have a great night”, he said. Then he walked off, a little dumbfounded.
In that moment, I wished I could have given that young man everything I own, everything I know, everything I’ve learned, all the wisdom that the life I’ve lived, quested, and been gifted with has given me.
It’s only as I write this now that I understand why.
Kim reminded me of my brother Brian, for whom I would have wanted to do the same.
But that wasn’t the kind of family we were.
That wasn’t my family. That wasn’t our family.
That was somebody else’s.