Short story collection- 3.
By Leila Baez / Matthew staff
Sometimes the best food can come from the worst looking places. It is a bittersweet memory, to think of this poor man’s food, but somewhere in Panama City there is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves the best ojaldas I’ve ever had. That was the first place I ever had them. No one would imagine a trip to the morgue and finding what just might be your favorite comfort food would happen on the same day, let alone just a couple hours apart. My mother, Aunt Guillermina, and I had left the hotel bright and early that morning. We hadn’t eaten breakfast which, in hindsight, was a great choice considering the place we were heading to. I do not remember how long it took for the creepy taxi driver to drive across the city to the hospital, but I do remember when we got there. There were tropical plants lining the entrance but the inside looked like something out of a 90s horror film. There wasn’t any blood or gore, but everything felt off. It was unnerving and uncomfortable, not to mention hot. The walk into the morgue was worse. It was an elevator ride down and you could smell the stench rising from the floor.
When we exited the elevator we went into a room with this huge ice box. The worker opened it. And there, on a flat shelf, was my grandfather. I didn’t cry, I barely got emotional, at least not like my mother and aunt seemed to. I was never close to him, between the distance, the passive aggressive conservatism when he was around, or straight up insults about my “baby fat” no longer being “baby” among other things, I just didn’t feel any connection, but it was a dead body, and for some reason that is what made me cry. We left soon after. It seemed that way. I don’t remember how much time really went by, I just remember walking back out after a while and not looking back.
My grandfather was a poor man, and it took his service in the military to give the family a comfortable place in the not-so comfortable middle class. It only made sense that the three of us crammed into the taxi, Guillermina in the front passenger seat, Mom and I in the back. We were exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. He asked us if we wanted to go to a good place to eat. We said yes, not thinking we’d eat anything at all. We were all far too nauseated. The drive to the place was a dash through the city: full of the terrors of Panamanian traffic and random multi-colored small businesses that lined the pavement of every street, filling every urban nook and cranny. The driver pulled into a business complex, thirty crammed together parking spaces, at least ten businesses open, no one knew who was where or how we were getting inside, but the driver managed. He’d been driving in Panama for years.
We did not want to leave the car, but figured being inside a comida tipica restaurant was safer than a one-of-a-million Panamanian taxi in the middle of the city. It was a hole in the wall in every sense of the word. The door was barely wide enough for Guillermina to enter. Sideways. If I hadn’t just been traumatized by visiting Grandpa Lee, I’d have giggled. We sat at a handmade wooden table, careful to keep our bodies on the placemats and seat padding, not sure if we’d end up getting splinters by touching anything else. But the interior was beautiful. Alive with the natural colors of the rainforest and the most recent futbol game on the TV, plugged into the speakers. I glanced at the menu, all in Spanish. I understood keywords but still asked my mother what would be a good choice. She pointed to a bistec encebollado dish. Meat, rice, beans, plantains, and something called an ojalda. I had no clue and my mother was not completely sure either. But we figured, if anything, I would leave it on the plate. I asked Aunt Guillermina and she said I would like it. I was immediately scared of it. But mother didn’t raise a coward, so I took a bite anyway.
It was a weird looking type of bread? Was it bread? I know it was fried, not Kentucky Fried Chicken fried, but shiny enough to know it had just been beautifully bathed in oil. Crisp edges and a soft flimsy center. Doughy, like it was fresh out of whatever heaven it came from. Turns out it was, the cooks were making them in made-to-order batches. Then I stopped staring at it like I knew the cooks and staff were staring at me. After I learned the history of the ojalda, I could only imagine their disdain. Gringa estupida. Pendeja. Cabrona. Sin cultura. They weren’t wrong. My mother never learned the art of Latin cooking and I realized there is a distinct difference between Puerto Rican food my Nana made and the comida tipica of Panama. There is a larger difference between ojaldas and its closest known relative: polenta. There was a warmth to it that is impossible to name. I finally took a bite.
Ojaldas. This poor man’s food, the existence of something I had only learned of that day, hour, minute. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of it, but I had only been to Panama twice at that point. And none of the family seemed to have any intent of carrying on the country’s culinary culture. Too much effort. It took a single bite of my first ojalda to grow an eternal disdain for that fact. Good God or whatever higher being existed, I was in paradise and Grandpa Lee definitely wasn’t there. My mother had eventually eaten hers after seeing me nearly swoon for a piece of fried dough. I had never seen my mother so happy about a bite of food. Aunt Guillermina followed and immediately called the waiter over. Another order. An entire batch. Just ojaldas. The waiter obliged. The taxi driver, seated at a table across from us, looked very satisfied. I didn’t care about anyone else in the room. I only wanted more ojaldas. Batch one was devoured, two, three. I think it was batch four when I stopped in my tracks. I wanted to cry. I was going to throw up.
This entire time I was eating slice of fried dough after slice of fried dough, completely uncaring of the fact that just four months prior I had had a stomach surgery that had taken out eighty percent of the organ. I could only handle one out of every five bites I took and if I overate it would force itself right back up through the way it came. And, at that table, I had devoured five times the amount I would have had pre-surgery. Of course, in this situation, in this tipica restaurant where no one knew what the hell was going on, I glanced at my mother about to cry and she knew. She hurriedly asked where the bathroom was and they pointed to a corner room behind the dinner tables and TV speakers. And I was forced to vomit up every ounce of paradise and then some that I had gotten to experience. My Nirvana was over.
Somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes passed based on the way everyone, family, taxi driver, and restaurant staff included were staring at the door, the unknowing staff looking ready to call an ambulancia. Like hell I’d do that. They’d take me back to that place. But instead I blamed it on a fake menstrual cycle and sat back down, everyone relieved it was something so insignificant. My mother told me not to eat anything and to just freshen my mouth with water. I complied for a while, visibly grieving more for my loss of the soft, sweet slices than anything else I had faced that day. No. I refused to have my little pieces of paradise ripped from me. While Mom and Guillermina spoke about the estate or what has been going on during the last half decade they were estranged, I snuck out a perfect pair of ojaldas from the basket, placing one between my left hand and my lap, no one was the wiser. Then I took a swift bite into the one in my right hand. My sigh of sweet relief alerted them. They looked at me in shock, an amused smirk tugging at Guillermina’s lips, my mother’s incredulous stare trying to drill the ojaldas from my hand. I was determined. I refused. I took another purposeful, larger bite. Then I kept on chewing. I finished the first one then, before Mom could utter a word of disapproval, I showed the surprise second slice, right into my mouth.
I felt a different stare on my back from the taxi driver and restaurant staff.
Panameña. Latina. Educada. Buena niña. I was very proud.