The Fragrant Flavor

of the Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Jhon Sánchez

 

I had hoped that once Liz tasted the strawberry rhubarb pie, she would agree to the abortion. That was why I was driving her to this diner. She didn’t know why I’d brought her to New York Mills, this tiny town in Minnesota partially named after the big city in which we lived. When she asked why New York Mills, I gave her a sly smile that hinted I wanted to show her a site for the wedding that I had promised we’d have after her due date.

It was the beginning of September, more than twenty years ago, early on a Thursday morning. Beyond our car was an endless horizon with golden brushes over the still green of the hay, the cornfields, and, from time to time, the bluestem that dotted the bottom of the sky. There were almost no trees and the water tanks looked like spaceships ready to take off over the prairie.

She repeated the lyrics of radio songs that helped improve her English. She turned down the volume on Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and said, “I could never live in this loneliness. Walking in winter would be like trudging between a heavy blanket of clouds and sheets of snow.” It was a warning that I’d better not even consider trying to move us here, which wasn’t an issue because we already had our brownstone in Brooklyn.

What I loved most about Liz, besides the taste of her lips, were the moments of silence she let hang comfortably in the air. From time to time, she made an effort to make me say something by saying things like, “Minnesotans…. Minnesotonians. Minnesotaneses?” I never responded, because I knew her game. For her, love was poker, guessing the cards in the other’s hand. For me, love was the taste of her lips, for which I still drool, even now, these twenty years later.

“New York Mills probably has a tiny Central Park and maybe even a Broadway,” was another of her attempts to get me to explain—I don’t remember how many times now—that it wasn’t a diminutive replica of New York as she wanted to imagine it, with a scarecrow in a cornfield as the Statue of Liberty.

What I wanted was for her to taste the strawberry rhubarb pie so that she could be part of me, or at least understand why I loved to kiss her, the only one I have ever loved to kiss. Liz’s first kiss at the Christmas party baited me. I couldn’t imagine that an eighteen-year-old, in her first job, would have brushed her lips against mine, saying only, “You’re my favorite engineer in the company.” The kiss was cool, visceral, and red.

One afternoon, early summer, in my office while looking at the Bank of America building, she proposed marriage to me. “I’m afraid and alone in this country,” she said. “I don’t know when my parents can come here. I don’t want to be alone with your baby in me.” She honeyed her speech with kisses on each corner of my mouth until she yanked my tongue with a bite. I had never bitten hers. If I had, I probably never would have stopped.

I was ten years her senior, a well-paid engineer. I guessed she wanted a sense of security, even though her parents would never have approved her pregnancy before marriage. For that reason, they never knew about me. No, there was no house, job, or secret that could save us from my desire.

Outside, in front of the diner, a giant plaster bird perched on a neon sign above the word EAGLE’S. I joked to Liz that all neon signs were bound to disappear and be replaced with holograms. “Probably with an eagle, flying down to take its prey,” I said as we got out of the car.

Inside Eagle’s, we sat at a booth by the window facing the small library across the street. The waitress looked at me straight in the eyes, very different from New York City waitresses who would already be looking for their next customers while handing you the menus.

“Where’ve you been?” she asked, treating me like a friend.

“He’s been back home,” Liz said, with a sort of jealousy that I couldn’t understand because, even though the waitress was beautiful, with perfect cheekbones and adorable dimples, nobody had the same flavor as Liz.

“My fiancée,” I said.

The waitress looked at Liz’s belly under the pink waist-less maternity blouse.

“He came here every day for an entire month,” the waitress said, “and had our pie every morning at eight o’clock. Nothing else. Not even coffee….” Then, perhaps noticing Liz’s annoyance, the waitress added, “The woman who makes the pies is so ancient we all call her Old Betsy.”

The waitress pointed to the wall above the counter on which hung a hand-colored photograph of a woman in a green turban with black polka dots. At that moment, Old Betsy appeared at the counter. I’d guess she’s over a hundred now, but back then she’d still come in every day to make the pies from scratch.

I knew that I had to explain my pie obsession to Liz since I did not like the taste of anything, except for her sugary lips. Ever since I was small, all food tasted bland, yet my grandmother, my aunts—all the women who raised me—forced me to eat. Ice cream tastes the same to me as grass, grilled ribs as rusted metal, clam chowder as tar. It seems that my taste buds only activated for two flavors—Liz’s lips and strawberry rhubarb pie.

I asked for a double order of the pie. Liz looked at me, her dark eyes like lagoons in a dense forest, and ordered milk, saying, “For the baby.”

My heart turned into a furious bull, ramming the cage of my chest, at the mere mention of the unborn.

The pie arrived.

When Liz ate the first piece and a red drop of filling was left on her lips, I couldn’t resist and leaned in for a kiss. Even though our mouths didn’t mesh, it was the perfect kiss, slightly bitter and sweet. I noticed the guys sitting at the long counter staring at us. “We haven’t had so much fun since Miss America visited this town ten years ago in 2004, right, folks?” one of them yelled, standing as he rolled up the checkered sleeve of his shirt.

“You like this pie?” Liz asked me, drying her lips with a napkin.

“It’s about my dad,” I whispered.

Before I could continue, a large woman with dirty blond hair and pee smell came over to show us a selfie that she had taken with Liz and me kissing in the background. She promised to email it to us as the waitress ushered her away. I never received it.

“What about your dad?” Liz asked.

“My biological father was from here,” I said.

“We’re about to marry and you didn’t trust me enough to tell me this before?” Liz said.

I had suffered many disappointments in my search, and though I’d considered giving up, an obsessive drive to know where my spunky hair, my nose shaped like the tip of a knife, and this tanned skin, almost rust-colored along the jawline had come from. Those Native American features kept me searching. Since I saw my mother in her coffin with her flat nose and dark brown face; since I felt my aunts’ lips, round and wet like seals on my cheeks; since my aunts first smiled at me, showing their long marble teeth; since I first asked Grandma, with her hair like cauliflower florets, whether there was a Santa Claus, I had wanted to know who my father was.

Liz frowned and pouted her lips, pretending to be angry, but I knew that she was eager to hear the whole story. She, of course, knew of the times I woke sleepwalking, moving my hand as if to catch an object, which, in those night visions, represented my soul in the form of a white fog that streamed from my nose. She had heard those words that repeat during those dreams. “Mi alma, mi alma.” She knew of my drawings of the strange faces that appeared in my dreams. There are two faces that I recall most clearly: a one-eared man with long hair and a woman in a green, polka-dotted turban.

Liz was eating an omelet, having lost interest in the second half of the pie and its mountain of cream. I knew that I needed to get to the point of my story quickly, and so I told her, in a somewhat dramatic fashion, that I had hired a private investigator and he had discovered the true name of my biological father. “Alejandro Charleston.” The investigator had added, “It is unlikely that he had ever met you or your mother.” He had died in a motorcycle accident in his twenties, shortly after my conception.

“I was an embryo, or should I say, I am an embryo, one that my mom rescued from experimentation,” I explained to Liz. “My mother won three of her fertilized eggs in a legal battle. I am the only one who survived.”

Liz blinked, as she did when nervous, probably guessing that there was something more serious coming, and so she avoided any questions and squeezed my hand.

When I explained that I was a product of research, it felt as if I were confessing to being some kind of mutant. Liz was so in tune with me, however, that I was sure that once I explained everything, she would connect the dots between the taste of the pie and the abortion I wanted her to have.

I told her the story as the investigator told it to me. A group of scientists wanted to explore whether genetic information could transmit trauma from one generation to another. They believed that they could isolate genes related to depression or other predispositions to emotional problems. They recorded the thoughts and memories of men and women at the moment of orgasm in order to look for the biological imprint in the afterwards-fertilized egg. Immediately after fertilization, when the embryo was a basic organism of just a few cells, they applied a protein that allowed the reading of genetic information tied to memory. The applied substance would work like a magnifier.

“Does that mean they can read the thoughts of babies now? Can they do that with our baby?”

“No, no.” I covered my eyes with my hands, but I didn’t tell her that the problem was that the protein had altered and possibly enhanced the genetic information of the embryos. I felt as if this magnifier that had been implanted in me made me aware of memories not my own, an endlessly repeating tape of them. But what I told her was, “I shouldn’t even have been born in the first place.”

“Your father never wanted you? At least this won’t be the case with our baby. Are you sure your father never knew about your existence?”

“Hard to say. Certainly he died without knowing of my existence or even caring about it. I guess this experiment was only easy money for him, good money for a college student.”

Liz began biting her nails, a habit that disgusted me.

“The research was shut down after a scandal involving the doctors selling fertilized eggs to cosmetic companies. The investigator found the notes and the taped recordings of my father’s mental images during eleven ejaculation sessions: a diner counter, a gust of wind, gloves, a sweet red bite, the woman with a green turban, the letters E-A-G-L-E-S.”

I told Liz that my father was selected for the research because as a child he suffered from starvation and other kinds of trauma. In fact, a doctor and his wife rescued him from the streets of Medellin when he was seven years old, adopting him and bringing him to New York Mills.

“So you came here to find your adoptive grandparents?”

Even though I said, “Yes,” I’d known that the doctor and his wife were already long dead. Back then, my only surviving family member was an aunt who showed me a picture of my father. In the photo, my father appeared with his nose full of cream and Dr. Charleston had an arm around my father’s shoulder. My aunt told me that her brother Alejandro had this strange way of eating. He always had to mix everything in one single dish: the coffee, the soup, and even the dessert, a slice of pie from EAGLE’S. It was a disgusting concoction of salad, soup, coffee, milk, and cake. My aunt kissed the photo. “Alejandro was obsessive about this. He said that Old Betsy’s pie reminded him of the first time he came to New York Mills.”

After reading the private investigator report, I’d driven there in the hope of finding some information about the taped images from my father’s memories. I’d been driving aimlessly when I saw the sign for the diner—EAGLE’S, neon lights shining through a distant fog.

I asked for coffee, but the woman, the same waitress who served Liz and me, came with a piece of that pie and said, “It’s free.” She pointed to the end of the counter, where an old woman sat, staring with sleepy eyes the same as in the photograph on the lintel. “Old Betsy says you remind her of someone who died long ago. The slice is on her.”

Old Betsy’s staring, and the waitress waiting for me to stab the pie, reminded me of my black grandmother and my aunts holding my mouth to shovel food down my throat until I choked. I closed my eyes and tried the pie, hoping to drive those women from my memories.

As soon as I took a bite, I thought of Liz’s lips: the tenderness, the natural red color, and taste of celery water she liked to drink.

Now, with Liz with me, I placed a folder on the table. Inside, there were two drawings I had created when I was twelve, and a photograph, procured by the investigator, of Dr. Charleston, my father’s adoptive father.

“They look alike, don’t they?” One of my drawings showed a man with long black hair tied in a ponytail and a black hole where his ear should have been, the same as in the photograph.

Liz stared at them for a moment and nodded cautiously.

“Look at this drawing and then look at the portrait,” I said, pointing at Old Betsy’s photograph above the counter.

“A green turban with black polka dots,” she said, holding my second drawing and examining it. “You made this when you were a kid?”

“There is something else. Dr. Charleston lost an ear during the Korean War.” I was so happy to have gotten this far into the story that I ordered a second piece of pie.

The waitress smiled. “Old Betsy says that you always have seconds, just like ‘her Alejandro.’” She made air quotes as I felt the stabbing sensation that she was talking about my father.

“I really don’t like cherry pie and you love this strawberry stuff,” said Liz. “Maybe our baby will like pumpkin.”

I released a frustrated puff of air. But I calmed down, and I told Liz that as I ate the pie for the first time, everything became clear like a movie, the imaginary movie of my father in which I was him—Alejandro. A small boy looking up at a man with long hair, sliding his fingers through it, revealing a crater instead of a left ear and then covering it with a wool hat, a green and red ball dangling from the tip that made me think of Christmas. The man wrapped me in a scarf, buttoned up my jacket with a hoodie, and put some white gloves on me. I thought of running away, but I was paralyzed by the cloud coming out of my nostrils. I again tried to catch my soul with my hands. “Mi alma, mi alma.”

In the dream, the man without an ear knelt and hugged me, saying, “Just breath, my boy.” Then he blew out a white wafting cloud, which dissipated and revealed the letters E-A-G-L-E-S. The man grabbed my hand and took me inside a long corridor with hanging pictures. The only one I saw clearly was of Old Betsy, with a green turban and intense red lips, the same picture on the wall at Eagle’s. Old Betsy appeared before me with a pie in her hands and said, “This is for you.” She handed the pie to me and kissed me on the lips. A heat sensation arose inside me and became an overwhelming desire to nibble on Old Betsy’s lips.

“Dr. Charleston and his wife adopted four children,” I said to Liz. “My father was the youngest. I have his memories. And your lips remind me of the same exact flavor of the strawberry rhubarb pie that I discovered just by coincidence. If you hadn’t kissed me at that Christmas party … I would never have….” I hesitated. “You know I never liked kissing … only you…. I have these urges….” I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to kiss her, to swallow her lips. That was the only thing that could quench my desire.

Liz reached for my hand. “Thanks for telling me this,” she said. “My mom always said that if I want to know my husband, I should look at my father-in-law. I guess I now know you better, the future father of my child.”

I wanted to yell that this wasn’t the point. She couldn’t comprehend that if my father had given me those memories, I was going to give those same obsessive thoughts to my child, those urges to taste and eat Liz’s lips. I took a napkin and rubbed it in my hand until it turned into shredded white pieces. “Think about the risks of having a child. The physical burden. The liability, so to speak.”

Liz blew the white shredded paper out of my hand.

“I am talking seriously. What if he has all these memories that aren’t his? How is he going to live with those problems?”

“The doctor said our boy is perfectly healthy.” She tautened her blouse to show her belly and belly button, which was the size of a cherry. “And no matter what, it will be our child. I love you. Every time that I’ll feed our baby, I’ll remember he has a taste for me like his daddy.”

I took my fork and stabbed the remnants of Liz’s pie until it became only crumbs.

While driving to our lodging, I asked, “Are you not concerned that I have all these crazy dreams? You’ve seen my drawings.”

She crossed her arms and looked through the window at the town’s water tower, which looked like a huge egg with two legs. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted this baby. I want the baby to have your eyes.”

It was only when we arrived at our cabin that I finally said, “I don’t want the baby.”

She was in her robe, standing with her hands on her hips. “What the hell? You might not be ready, but I am. Why did you buy the house? You have cold feet, just before we move in together? Coward!”

“It’s the pie!” I tried to explain, knowing I sounded crazy.

She began to yell and call me terrible names, tossing a container of liquid soap, the hair dryer, each of three bottles of water laying on the side of sink, and even the scale, which I thought was going to smash into pieces against the floor. Then she stopped, panting, and with her eyes fixed in the mirror, she asked, “Is it another woman?”

“No.” I knelt at her feet. “We can’t have this baby.”

She put my head between her legs. “It’s my baby, too, with my memories. The moments that you made me laugh, the images of your kisses.”

My mother also gave me her memories. She had a cleft lip, and in exchange for surgery to repair it, she also participated in the research. Every time I masturbated, I saw my mother making up her plump lips, trying to cover the tiny cut on the left side. She repeated and repeated until it bled. Oh God, how could I give that terrible memory to another being? If she loved me, why did Liz refuse to listen? Why didn’t she understand?

“All that business with the pie made you sick,” Liz said, crying as she went to the bed. I stood and followed her. She soon fell deeply asleep. I leaned over, hoping to taste her lips. Instead, I took the pillow and put it over her head. After that, my mind went blank. There was no other sound than the train whistle at midnight.

The following morning, I put her body in the passenger seat and covered it with a blanket. She looked deeply asleep, and I kissed her for the last time. Her taste was gone. I was relieved that there was no flavor, no aroma left on her; otherwise her lifeless body would allow me to nip, kiss, and relish her lips as if I were devouring Old Betsy’s pie. I would have ended up naked on Liz’s body, tasting her bloody face as if it was strawberry rhubarb filling, eating her lips. Death finally took that aroma and ended my hunger. Killing Liz was the right decision because the baby, the creature, was bound to live with desires worse than mine.

I drove for hours until I found a spot near the bank of a lake.

Now I often visit the place where her body is buried. During the summer, I even smell strawberries in the nearby bushes of wild rice, but all of that could be in my mind.

In New York City, I quit my job. How easy it was to convince my coworkers that Liz and I had decided to move to Colombia where her parents lived.

When I came back to New York Mills area, I settled in nearby Fargo. I’m no longer the clean-cut engineer that I once was. I let my hair grow and I rarely shave. I survive. Every Friday, I drive almost two hours west to go to Eagle’s to relive the taste of that pie, feeling what my father must have felt when he came to this country: the sense of security of having a family. I come here to calm my urges, to taste Liz’s lips again.

Sometimes I imagine myself holding a little boy. In my dream, he looks like an eight-year-old, nibbling his lower lip, plump like my African grandmother’s. The boy’s bite reminds me of the times I kissed—or should I say tasted—Liz.

For the past three weeks, I am told a woman has been asking for me. The waitress gave me a slip of paper with a phone number and a name written on it. Liz’s sister. I don’t want to see her, to smell her. Maybe she tastes like Liz, and my urges would turn me into a bison in stampede. Liz never understood, her sister would never understand, nobody understands; perhaps the only one who might understand is that unborn creature, my boy. He would now be twenty. He would live with his grandfather’s compulsion for the pie and with my obsession with Liz’s lips. I never wanted to hear in the news that one, two, three, or more other women’s bodies would be found with their lips missing. I don’t want to imagine what other horrible desires this being could have had because he was born from me.

 

A native of Colombia, Jhon Sánchez immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum. His publications in 2017 are available in Swamp Ape Review, Existere, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and 34thParallel. He would like to dedicate this story to the New York Mills Cultural Center and to the real Eagle’s Café.