La buona cucina
By Emma Metcalf
Check your coat with the doorman. Check your expectations, too, leaving them in his white-gloved hands. He’s the only one dressed up here. He’s the only one in black and white. Bubbles rising to the top of the flute as it meets your lips. Bubbles rising to the top of the fluid as it rushes down your esophagus. Your mother never drinks this early in the evening, with the glasses clinking, eyes crinkling. You used to forget to smile, but now you’ve forgotten how to scowl, muscles atrophying from lack of use. Maps cover the walls of your small apartment with the high ceilings and stained-glass windows. Italy is remembering things that you forgot. Italy is finding things you had lost. Your fingers know how to curl around the stem of a champagne flute better than they used to and your fingers know how to curl around other fingers better than they used to. Pop an olive in your mouth, taste the savory juices when you bite down. Think to yourself, how was it possible that you forgot how to taste?
Still standing, but you’ve taken off your shoes. Feel an odd sensation in your stomach. You never let yourself get hungry until you came here. Remember how getting hungry can feel like a million diamonds shimmering in your abdomen and climbing up your throat. Remember how getting hungry makes prosciutto taste so much better in a few minutes, makes a person seem so much closer when their words turn into fuel, their syllables your nutrition.
Sit down now and forget what the word feast is, because this lengthy meal is like filling up the tank of a car without being afraid of running out of gas. Forget what the word feast is and remember the word savor. The pasta comes on worn white ceramic platters, piled to a rounded top. Laugh because you can. Suck down the strands and feel what digestion is.
Be done with pasta. Jump up in your seat because you remember what those kids are talking about every time they use the expression, “I still have room”. Spread out your arms, one around the stranger sitting next to you, hand on an overflowing glass of wine that makes you remember grapes everywhere, running through a vineyard with wind in your hair. Eat a whole fish. Like wooden shapes in kindergarten make bites that fit perfectly into the rounded ‘o’ of your mouth. Give yourself a gold star.
Use your fingers. Go ahead. Don’t remember your mother in her white lace dress at brunches, pushing down your hands when you tried to pick up a bite of sliced fruit from your breakfast plate. Don’t remember yourself in your white lace dress at the end of brunches, shoving fruit into your purse to eat in the bathroom with your hands.
Remember sweetness. Don’t be afraid of the moment when it goes away, your mother that day when you were in middle school. Don’t be afraid of your mother, the moment she was half-asleep in her bed, letting you lean against her for a few minutes, all gone in the moment she pushed you away. “Go to your room,” she told you. Go to your room, you tell yourself. Feel the beat of her heart in your ears, feel the beat of her heart in the rhythm of your spoon going to and from your plate. Sip sweetness from your glass, from the cheek of the person sitting next to you as you give two kisses goodbye on each side of her face. Sip sweetness from the syrup that is her name in your mouth.
Now lose yourself. Forget your mother, the way her fingers felt the day you left America, cold on your skin. Forget your mother, the way her voice clenched around you when she told you not to leave, when she told you Italy would be a mistake. Forget the name she gave you. Forget the name you gave yourself a few moments before. Forget the day of the week, the month of the year. Forget it all, feel it sink down into your body and make a home there. Don’t be afraid of losing anything ever again. Learn espresso, cutting away the remnants of the sugar from before, the knowing. Think to yourself that there is no knowing, never was. Finish your cup, now set it down. Stop trying to remember your name. It’s waiting for you outside of this room, this heavy, candlelit room. The doorman is holding it for you, will give it to you when you’re ready.
Say the word limoncello. No, say it. Now drink it. Do you taste the lemon? Do you taste the letters of your name swimming around at the bottom of your glass? They’ll fall into place when it’s over and the doorman will read their poem even if you cannot. This wasn’t about anything. It is about anything. Finish your drink, forget about washing it down with a cup of water after. The letters are lined up inside of you. The steps are laid out in front of you. Take your coat and your name from the doorman. Don’t look back.