by Craig Arnold
I’m cooking Thai—you bring the beer.
The same order, although it’s been a year
—friendships based on food are rarely stable.
We should have left ours at the table
where it began, and went to seed,
that appetite we shared, based less in need
than boredom—always at the cheapest restaurants,
Thai, Szechwan, taking our chance
with gangs and salmonella—what was hot?
The five-starred curries? The pencilled out
entrees?—the first to break a sweat
would leave the tip. I raise the knocker, let
it fall, once, twice, and when the door is opened
I can’t absorb, at first, what happened
—face loosened a notch, eyes with the gloss
of a fever left to run its course
too long, letting the unpropped skin collapse
in a wrinkled heap. Only the lips
I recognize—dry, cracked, chapped
from licking. He looks as though he’s slept
a week in the same clothes. Come in, kick back
he says, putting my warm six-pack
of Pale & Bitter into the fridge to chill.
There’s no music. I had to sell
the stereo to support my jones, he jokes
meaning the glut of good cookbooks
that cover the whole wall, in stacked milk crates
six high, nine wide, two deep. He grates
unripe papaya into a bowl,
fires off questions—When did you finish school?
Why not? Still single?—Why? That dive
that served the ginger eels, did it survive?
I don’t get out much. Shall we go sometime?
He squeezes the quarters of a lime
into the salad, adds a liberal squirt
of chili sauce. I won’t be hurt
if you don’t want seconds. It’s not as hot
as I would like to make it, but
you always were a bit of a lightweight.
Here, it’s finished, try a bite.
He holds a forkful of the crisp
green shreds for me to take. I swallow, gasp,
choke—pins and needles shoot
through mouth and throat, a heat so absolute
as to seem freezing. I know better
not to wash it down with ice water
—it seems to cool, but only spreads the fire—
I can only bite my lip and swear
quietly to myself, so caught
up in our old routine—What? This is hot?
You’re sweating. Care for another beer?
—it doesn’t occur to me that he’s sincere
until, my eyes watering, half in rage,
I open the door and find the fridge
stacked full with little jars of curry paste,
arranged by color, labels faced
carefully outward, some pushed back
to make room for the beer—no milk, no take-
out cartons of gelatinous chow mein,
no pickles rotting in green brine,
not even a jar of moldy mayonnaise.
—I see you’re eating well these days,
I snap, pressing the beaded glass
of a beer bottle against my neck, face,
temples, anywhere it will hurt
enough to draw the fire out, and divert
attention from the fear that follows
close behind … He stares at me, the hollows
under his eyes more prominent than ever.
—I don’t eat much these days. The flavor
has gone out of everything, almost.
For the first time it’s not a boast.
You know those small bird chili pods—the type
you wear surgical gloves to chop,
then soak your knife and cutting board
in vinegar? A month ago I scored
a fresh bag—they were so ripe
I couldn’t cut them warm, I had to keep
them frozen. I forgot what I had meant
to make, that night—I’d just cleaned
the kitchen, wanted to fool around
with some old recipe I’d lost, and found
jammed behind a drawer—I had
maybe too much to drink. “Can’t be that bad,”
I remember thinking. “What’s the fuss
about? It’s not as if they’re poisonous…”
Those peppers, I ate them, raw—a big fistful
shoved in my mouth, swallowed whole,
and more, and more. It wasn’t hard.
You hear of people getting their eyes charred
to cinders, staring into en eclipse…
He speaks so quickly, one of his lips
has cracked, leaks a trickle of blood
along his chin … I never understood.
I try to speak, to offer some
small shocked rejoinder, but my mouth is numb,
tingling, hurts to move—I called in sick
next morning, said I’d like to take
time off. She thinks I’ve hit the bottle.
The high those peppers gave me is more subtle—
I’m lucid, I remember my full name,
my parents’ birthdays, how to win a game
of chess in seven moves, why which and that
mean different things. But what we eat,
why, what it means, it’s all been explained
—Take this curry, this fine-tuned
balance of humors, coconut liquor thinned
by broth, sour pulp of tamarind
cut through by salt, set off by fragrant
galangal, ginger, basil, cilantro, mint,
the warp and woof of texture, aubergines
that barely hold their shape, snap beans
heaped on jasmine, basmati rice
—it’s a lie, all of it—pretext—artifice
He stops, expressing heat from every pore
of his full face, unable to give vent
to any more, and sits, silent,
a whole minute.—You understand?
Of course, I tell him. As he takes my hand
I can’t help but notice the strength his grip
has lost, as he lifts it to his lip,
presses it for a second, the torn flesh
as soft, as tenuous, as ash,
not in the least harsh or rough,
wreck of a mouth, that couldn’t say enough.