(cited in BAE 2015, 2016, 2020, 2022); PUSHCART poetry finalist

Those Who Can’t Travel, Cook

When the pandemic erupted like a cursed piece of do-it-yourself Ikea furniture, I was planning to travel to Rome with my mom. The trip was to be her seventieth birthday present. To date, I have done very little to mark her birthdays: no surprise diamonds, no cruises (thank god!), no large family gatherings. It’s just the two of us, it’s always been the two of us since I was born. The trip was to be a walking marathon, an echo of the only trip we’ve taken together to the south of Spain.

Instead, I was haggling over a refund with a travel company, and moving out of my mom’s apartment. She lives in a building reserved for the elderly, and many of the residents are already on ventilators. The thought of infecting anyone drove me out one night, a suitcase packed with a change of clothes, running shoes, a laptop, a handful of books, and remains of a recent Trader Joe’s run—oranges, cheese, eggs, and bread. Thankfully, I had a place to go—the apartment of my boyfriend who was traveling, and whose return would mean I wouldn’t be seeing my mom for two weeks, maybe more.

I know I have a lot to be thankful for, especially at a time when many are saying goodbye to loved ones for the final time over unreliable networks, on a rectangular screen. A canceled trip is very low on the list of casualties during a pandemic. And yet, I have been mourning the loss of wandering the piazzas with my mom, recreating our time in Spain.

In all the travel movies, the travelers are supposed to learn a significant truth about themselves. If their parents are the chief cause of angst, they learn the valuable lesson of forgiveness.

Mom and I had no major fights or revelations during our trip to Spain. She did not tell me she had decided to get married, or worse, I wasn’t her daughter at all. Instead, we had a straight set of ten sun-filled days in Seville, Córdoba, Granada, and Madrid. 

Curiously, the thing in common between three out of the four cities was our accommodation. Three of our hosts turned out to be single mothers who were renting a spare room to put a kid through school or college.

The truth of their condition revealed itself slowly. In Madrid, through broken language, our fashionable host, Carmen, with salon hair passed me her phone to communicate what bus I should take to the city center, that I must visit the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which was near College Claudio Coello, where her daughter was studying fashion design. In response, I mumbled vale, vale, as I waited to download Google Translate, because the only full sentence I could remember at the moment (learned on Duolingo) was cada día te quiero mas. 

In Córdoba, as we ate the breakfast laid out for us on the patio (a gray cat giving us the evil eye for overtaking her quarters), our hands fluttering over the abundance of butter cubes and bread, we watched the host’s daughter slip books into a school bag, while her mother looked on, a lit cigarette between her fingers.

In Sevilla, the revelation of our host’s financial condition came even more quietly. In the small, complex apartment full of corners and edges like Picasso’s cubist phase, our dormitorio lay above half a flight of stairs. Every morning, we emerged into the sun-filled living room to find Eva ushering us to breakfast on the terrace. From the corner of my eye, I discerned a pile of bed sheets and pillows on the living room sofa, but each time I got distracted by the stack of greeting cards she’d been painting. Blues and purples and reds flowed like water over stiff cream paper in the shape of faces and city scenes. Often she joined us on the terrace, bringing a cup of hot water for my mom’s tea, coffee for me. She was an artist, and when she learned I was a writer, we both somehow found a language that did not require the use of Google Translate. I fully understood her admiration of Victor Hugo’s ability to portray so well the lives of market women in Les Mis. While I watched her speak, as much with her fingers as with her Andalusian-accented Spanish, I wondered about the dark circles under her eyes. Had she given up her own bed? At twenty-five euros a night, it did not seem like a worthwhile bargain.

One evening we came home early enough to find Eva cooking. Red tomatoes danced in a pot of boiling water. Clouds of garlic lay massacred on a cutting board. “Salmorejo,” she said, pointing to a blender full of pastel orange soup. “Salmon,” my mom understood and nodded, hoping to learn a new way of cooking her favorite fish. Eva poured generous helpings of the creamy liquid into bowls for us to try. “Tomate,” she explained, as we tasted garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, but no salmon. I tasted other things, but couldn’t name them, but the feelings of comfort and familiarity and warmth spread through my body with each spoonful. The most enchanting thing about the soup was not its tangy, hearty taste, but its color. It wasn’t red like tomatoes, or orange like naranjas or carrots. Instead, the soup reminded me of the pastel walls I’d seen all around Seville; it reminded me of the afternoons Mom and I had spent at the Alcazar Real, the royal palace where we’d taken photos against the sun-bathed walls. The soup reminded me of the pastel sunshine of Andalusia. Perhaps it was the color of the defeat of the Moors and the glory of the Moors also. Days later, we encountered the same color at La Alhambra in Granada. The soup was the color of the afternoon Mom and I walked up the Alhambra hills and took the view of the desert, her heart racing from all the walking I forced her to do, and the joy she felt when at the end of the trip she stepped on the weighing scale and declared she’d lost five pounds.

Perhaps this was the goal for the trip to Spain all along, forcing my mother to live a more active life. She is a little bit overweight, and I feel partly responsible. She never lost the extra pounds she gained while pregnant with me, having to provide for our household as the sole breadwinner for the next several decades. I like to think she held onto the memory of her pregnancy in her body, the memory of a time she was strong and took the single greatest decisions of her life (her words), to choose to keep me alive instead of giving me up (Dad’s choice). 

On the last day of our stay in Seville, after we’d locked the taste of Eva’s salmorejo on our tongues, the objective specs of our host’s place finally revealed themselves: Eva had indeed given up her own room. We found her sheets on our bed when we came to collect our bags. The second, bigger room was her son’s, who’d been visiting his father the past week. Each night the money Eva earned through Airbnb went to pay for groceries and bills and her art projects. Like my mom, Eva too had been piecing together a nest, her own sleep completed in the comfort of the thought that she was providing for her child.

This past March, as I left my mom’s apartment, I mourned the loss of our trip to Italy, wishing I’d taken more walks with her so that her chances of winning over COVID-19 if she got it, would be higher.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen my mom occasionally when I’ve brought her groceries. Both of us wear a mask, and I try to face her sideways so the trajectory of my words doesn’t hit her straight. I talk softly, usually keeping the words to myself on my breath, communicating via nods and shakes of head. We’ve begun exchanging things we’ve cooked—mango ice-cream, chickpea stew, rice-and-beans, and a bowl of salmorejo.

Making salmorejo took me back to those ten days in Andalusia, where our host had so lovingly introduced us to a new idea of tomatoes and bread, and a different version of mine and my mom’s story.

I thought of Eva as I watched the blood red vine tomatoes turn pastel orange in the blender. Would I have the privilege of becoming a mom someday? Would it be the responsible thing to do during a pandemic? I did not have the answers. But at least I had a jar of Andalusian tomato soup. Even in the cold of Boston I could taste the heat of the desert. I felt grateful Mom and I had seen new colors, walked until we tired, seen a bit of ourselves in a foreign place. We’d already been there, perhaps in a different lifetime.

Shilpi Suneja holds an MA in English from New York University as well as an MFA from Boston University. She has been awarded multiple fellowships and has been published in Asia Literary Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Little Fiction, as well as our very own Solstice Literary Magazine blog.


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