Stories

The Strawberry – Mia Pattillo

I still remember the taste of those strawberries. The small sweet ones from the farmer’s market. Those deep red ones, shiny and speckled all over. Turned all hot and juicy under the summer sun. They sat in a cardboard carton on the kitchen table while he stood by the stove, sharing his newfound expertise on perfecting homemade miso soup. The notion of indulging in miso soup didn’t particularly appeal in the sweltering heat of July, but even if it did, the process to make it was so simple that his earnestness came across as a woefully clumsy attempt to connect with my heritage, and by extension, with me. My gaze remained transfixed upon the carton of strawberries as I pretended to listen.

“I did some research on where to find the best bonito flakes for the broth,” he said, pointing to a package I didn’t recognize. “You might not know the brand. Had to order it from a special website that ships them from somewhere off the coast of Japan.” Then a peculiar craving surged within me: I suddenly wanted nothing but the succulent flesh of a strawberry upon my tongue. I can’t explain it, this intense desire. It seemed to have arisen by some primordial instinct, as if buried deep in my core all along and at long last rising to my attention—my full attention—for the first time.

“A high-quality seaweed can really take the whole thing home, you know?” he was saying as I popped a strawberry in my mouth. I nodded as if I knew. The nectar percolated into my tongue and blended into an amalgam of fruity saliva. It was so sweet, so delicious. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I continued to chew very slowly, fixated on the task of holding all of the chewed-up morsels in my mouth until they became thoroughly pulverized into a pulp. I swished the pulp back-and-forth between my cheeks, tilted my head back and gargled it like mouthwash, then swallowed it in one gulp. He was still going on about seaweed, emphasizing its under-appreciated capacity for flavor.

I noticed that one strawberry seed had gotten trapped in the crevice of my back molar, and spent a few minutes digging around with my finger in an attempt to dislodge it. When I couldn’t, I picked up the mechanical pencil lying on the table, stuck it into my mouth, and flicked the seed out. It flew across the table and landed on his leg. He didn’t bother to wipe it off. His brow furrowed in concentration, trying to recall the name of the fungus that initiated the miso fermentation process. I watched the seed lay there, brittle and brown against his pale skin, naked and pitiful without its luscious red meat. I sensed the deepest loneliness in its isolation: I can still recall how lonely that seed was, growing deeper and deeper into isolation under my gaze. Nothing could rival its complete and utter loneliness, nothing ever would—not the year, nor the season, nor the place nor time nor circumstance. Yet I kept watching it, absorbed by the loneliness no matter how terrible, as he waved his hands around explaining the nuances among each miso variant—their fermentation times, salt content, microorganisms—and naturally, how these variables culminated in markedly different flavor profiles which was why you couldn’t just settle for any old miso at the nearest grocery store. I raised my eyebrows to indicate I was impressed by his insight. The strawberry seed clung desperately to his limb.

My gaze was finally pulled away by the soft ruby glow emanating from the remaining strawberries resting on the table. I reached over, dragged the carton over, and ate them all—one after another, very, very fast. The stems lay in a pile in front of me. Elegant, like a tower of foliage, the way they splayed out.

Rarely did I succumb to indulgence with such recklessness, so entirely devoid of remorse. There was a whole world of people who wasted their time anxiously chasing their desires, which, upon moment of conquest, would instantly spoil. No, I recognized the wisdom in surrendering these pursuits to the strokes of chance—albeit volatile strokes—that twisted and turned and rerouted until, when they at last did converge, presented a tenuous and fleeting moment of gratification, so tenuous and fleeting it was nearly imperceptible. But in my heady consumption that day, I harbored no regard for the consequences of my unbridled pleasure. As I swallowed the last strawberry, I felt endowed with a great power.

I turned my attention toward the singular indulgence I allowed myself: picking the scab on my wrist. This was my cherished secret—self-destruction unrestrained and at the same time self-controlled, the two not necessarily mutually exclusive of one another. The scab was hard and stubborn, its crust increasingly thickened by each layer of dried blood. I inserted the tip of my fingernail beneath a slit in the scab, trying to peel it back like a flap. The longer I tugged the more irritated it grew, until bubbles of pus began to seep from the edges over the adjacent pink flesh. But I kept at it, methodically working my way under. Finally I ripped off a hefty chunk. It let out a crunch, then crumbled into pieces like red velvet cake as I rolled it back and forth between my fingers. Crimson beads trickled in rivulets down my wrist. They smelled like blood, and when I licked them, tasted like strawberries. Painful indulgence is so much more satisfying than painless restraint, I thought to myself while sucking the strawberry-flavored blood. I sucked so hard my skin turned white.

By the time he concluded on miso and transitioned to the topic of tofu, the sweetness in my mouth had subsided and I began to feel queasy. A strange impression seized me: the strawberry I’d ingested now pulsating in tandem with my heartbeat, not just its digested pieces but its whole unified body yolked to the lining of my innards, sucking on my blood vessels and nourished by my intestines, pounding my liver, kidneys, spleen to a pulp. The room grew thick with an artificially saccharine drip. A fleshy mass seemed to slither between my ribs, then anchored in my chest, blooming in my lungs. Suddenly, every mundane sensation within my body surged in intensity—the searing burn of chafing armpits against my torso, the piercing sting of eczema on my inner elbow—all crawling beneath my skin and penetrating deep into my organs.

I tried to let out a burp, only to find my throat polluted. I could hardly breathe. A pressure welled within my gut, sputtering and convulsing like oatmeal in the microwave, propelled by the rhythmic contractions of peristalsis. Blood began to cascade from my wrist. It was so red. Beautiful, like a fern, the way it embellished my dress and unfurled across the kitchen floor. My eyelids fluttered, my vision blurred, my heart thumped frantically for a few seconds. Then I died. It was a bit dramatic.

The last traces of pink froth were still dribbling from my lips when he got up, filled a pot with water, and placed the pot on the stove. Once the water came to a boil, he added a few slabs of seaweed and a sachet of flakes into the pot, adjusting the heat to a simmer. He crouched down on the floor next to me and began wiping up the pool of oily blood with table napkins. Nina Simone crooned from the radio. He abandoned the blood-wiping and whisked together a miso slurry before adding it to the broth, along with tofu and seaweed. The soup simmered for another minute or so. Then he took a sip and nodded. His expression indicated he was rather pleased with himself.

On the far left side of my kitchen cabinet sat two porcelain bowls adorned with cobalt and gold accents, which I had purchased while traveling in Japan a few years ago. I reserved them for very special occasions. He removed the two bowls from the cabinet and ladled some soup into each of them, before placing one bowl in front of my dead body and the other at his spot across from me. The two bowls he had selected seemed to indicate something important: today, then, was a very special occasion.

He sat down at the table and slurped the soup directly from the bowl. “Green onion?” he asked, glancing up at my drooped head as he sprinkled some green onion over my bowl. My hair had fallen forward over my face. My expression lay listless underneath. He reached across the table, tucked the hair behind my ear, and picked a piece of green onion off my shoulder. Then he finished his miso soup. I crawled into the empty strawberry carton box. We both fell asleep.