I'm sitting in a diner in early fall 2017. The gas station next door saw its roof collapse. The air conditioning at my parents' house is out, as it is at my sister's apartment. Everything smells like still water and wet leaves. The driving is slow as commuters make their way around knee-deep puddles and overflowing ditches. I'm sitting in my booth with friends and family, drinking coffee, eating avocado toast. The company and the food comfort me. Avocado toast is the kind of order that you should accompany with an eye roll if you were born between 1982 and 1999, lest the server think you're an aspiring influencer, but it's delicious and healthy and important to me. The toast and coffee are every cheap breakfast I ever had in college and seminary. The avocado is every sporting event, Christmas Eve, and house party I've been to in my entire life in South Florida. And they console me when things are uncertain.
The soft texture and savoriness have been exchanged now for itching in my palms and soles. It's like you've been bit by an ant but inside. There is a perceptible but hard to describe change in consciousness that goes with it--probably a change in blood pressure. Soon, I feel my forehead sweating but not because I'm hot. It's all weird and wrong. I resisted this involuntary change. Every meal I ate that included the weird fruit left me feeling progressively worse each time. And each time I blamed something else or played dumb or just pretended it wasn't happening. Because I didn't want to acknowledge that this boon from my youth and my home could hurt me.
My sister doesn't like them. That's the first thing I remember learning about tomatoes. She doesn't like them because one time when she was very little she bit into one in the supermarket thinking it was another fruit and it ruined the taste for her. It was a while until I would try them apart from pizza, but God I adored them when I did. And with so many kinds of them, there was such a richness to explore. I tried the little tangy ones and the ridgey sweet ones and the ones that somehow taste like they have olive oil in them but don't. I learned to love them sliced with cheese and with vinegar, on rye toast with mayonnaise, diced with cilantro and lime. And I was not alone in loving this crop that is so in demand that much of the center of Florida is devoted to growing and shipping it. And I felt like part of the club, enjoying salsa and pizza and ketchup with my friends and neighbors.
The sweet tanginess has been exchanged for pain and swelling in my sinuses and hives on the backs of my arms. Tomato powder and paste have been transmuted into scratchiness in the soft spots on my elbows. And I am set apart. Sharing a pizza with friends is not advised, nor is accepting a sandwich without stipulations. I have my chips without salsa now and the kindly cook at the hospice frowns when I turn down her spaghetti as the rest of my coworkers accept their free lunch. And each time I feel I must explain and apologize for myself when I'm offered hospitality, as my host says "Tomatoes, huh? I've never heard that one."
I'm driving from Temple Terrace to downtown St. Pete. It's mid-morning and my friends are already at the festival. I had something to do on a Saturday, but I can't remember what (music students work unusual hours). I swing through the drive-thru and ask for the usual--double cheeseburger, fries, bottled water--then one-handedly fly with youthful confidence down 275 to get there before some band I like goes up. It's a thoughtless meal, and one that relies more on salt, fat, and msg than it does on potatoes, wheat, and beef, but something about it is heavenly. Perhaps its the thoughtlessness with which the entire exchange happens, from initial decision to eventual regret there is not one critical thought that crosses my mind. And food needs to be that occasionally, some sort of spiritual defibrillator for the spent students and aspirational vacationers.
The fries in my bag are poison to me now, bringing me nothing but discomfort in my gut and frustration. No more late night laziness when my girlfriend finishes a shift. No more loud backseat meals halfway through nights of ill-advised consumption. What remains is caution. I check with the store manager before I order about possible assassins in my food. I read every ingredient of every boxed product that goes in my shopping cart. And on every night drive I'm tempted by neon and fluorescence and sullen teenagers promising magic I can't receive.
I'm packed into a booth in a nook in a kitchen a 10 minute-or-so walk from the Mosel river. Six or seven of us from four or five countries have finished a huge vegan curry meal after a long day picking grapes and we're settling in for wine. Our host, the winemaker, brings three bottles for us to try. I enjoy listening to the German apprentice, the Italian viticulture student, and my Costa Rican girlfriend plumb their tangled vocabularies for the right words and attach them to varieties and regions. The Dutch couple tells us about their upcoming move, and the German retiree reminisces about her time working in a bakery. I know more about and expect more from these people than I should given that I have only known them about a month, but such is the power that is conducted when people come together over drinks, a socializing force so potent that religious rites have taken shape around it and God itself was known to take a sip here and there.
My body no longer accepts the fruit of the vine. A roughness in my throat and a splotchiness on my chest remind me of that these days. The slatey rieslings and spicy riojas send little pin pricks up my arms and make whatever I had earlier in the day punch me that much harder ("there weren't bell peppers in the rice, were there?"). My hands throb like they've been slammed in the door, and benadryl tosses a thick quilt of lethargy over me as I stare at the ceiling. In the morning as I'm recording the worship service I lift the cup of the people and falter as I bring it to my lips.