Slices of Onions, Part 2


On Saturday, for the second time this month, I thought of my brother when chopping up an onion and texted him a line from an unwritten poem about onions and some theme of love. It feels like the time to share these lines, and what they have become, more broadly. This time I won’t even attribute what is said in the back rooms of my mind when I’m craving breakfast to the writings of French author, as I have been known to do on occasion. For, as the French say, “Occupe-toi de tes oignons.” Mind your own onions. Yes, they really say this. And I am taking it to heart.

The Blues

I could fall in love faster than I can cut up an onion
And when I hold the slices of my heart
I could cry more too
I could cry more too


After the Blues

Last night, I cut up an onion, and I didn’t feel any sting in my eyes. No tears flowed. I imagine this is what it was like for you when you broke my heart.

But did you still put it in the sauce–this onion, your clean work of five minutes? The light of the end of the afternoon coming through your kitchen, did you stand over your stove and empty, with one pass of the back of your knife across the cutting board, the pieces of onion into the pan? Or did you pick them apart one at a time, the roughly cut ones, the thick wedges, the slivers too tiny to withstand the heat, the cones and the spirals, and place them with your fingers into the burning oil?

Maybe it was too late in the day. Maybe it was already too dark for you to see the rush of steam rising from the pan. But you could hear the hissing because you stepped back from each flash of oil, for seconds at a time, when you lowered each new piece into the heat. Still your hands got pricked, didn’t they? For precious too many minutes, you made this music of singeing then waiting then singeing again until all the slices of onion were in the pan and the burner had brought the oil and onions to a gentle hum.

You flicked on the light. The fleshier cuts were translucent and already turning brown. The thinner ones were crisping at the edges. You could feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks as you gazed into the pan, now close enough almost to feel the heat in your eyes. Could you?

You stepped back to the counter and returned with handfuls of diced garlic and shavings of ginger, which you stirred in with the onions. This is the part of the recipe that everyone asks for but that everyone knows is a secret. In another bowl were freshly cut chiles, and you added them to the pan, sprinkling them with salt, with pepper, and with lime. And soon even the back rooms of the house were filled with the perfume of spices, and filled too, when you turned back up the heat, with the sounds of sobbing: the gaspings, and then again the sighs, coming from the onions, the garlic, the chiles, and the ginger, in ruffles of steam.

I wish that I could have been with you to smell this sadness, to taste with you this love we shared one last time.


Slices of Onions, Part 1

I remember listening to a news story a couple years back about Japanese families returning to their homes in villages harmed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. For years, homeowners were only allowed one visit per month, and this not an overnight stay. They would use this time mostly to tend their gardens and take care of their houses.

This feels like the makings of a beautiful anime. It could show moments from before and after the Fukushima accident in the life of a family. It could show how generations of a family grow together and grow separately. It could show how we recover from tragedy and how we maintain our families in the loss of our home as it used to be.

My brother says that if you were writing a Japanese anime, you would have to start with the visual style. He says that this, rather than the verbal language, is the foundation of anime. I agree with him, but if I were to write a Japanese anime, I would write something like this. Here is my latest exploration of genre. Think of this as a scherzo. 


UNCLE: This is none of your concern.

JIROU: Isn’t it uncle?

[Steam rises from UNCLE’S bowl of rice. He grunts. JIROU sits in silence.]

[Rays of sun fall on YOUNGER UNCLE and YOUNGER JIROU in their vegetable garden before the accident. YOUNGER JIROU struggles to pull up a weed stalk. YOUNGER UNCLE watches on with a smile of delight before placing one of his large hands over his nephew’s and the other further down at the root of the weed stalk. Together, they pull it up. It glints in the sun. YOUNGER JIROU’s eyes fill with water. His hands sting. But then he looks up at his uncle, his eyes shimmering through his tears with wonder. It really is a large weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: In France, they have a saying. Occupez-vous de vos oignons.

YOUNGER JIROU: What does it mean?

[YOUNGER JIROU beats the weed stalk against the ground, casting off chunks of earth.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: It means, “Mind your onions.” It is, I suppose, what a woman might say to her neighbor when she catches her listening to her conversation over the garden fence. It means, “This is none of your concern.” Go back to your own garden.

[YOUNGER JIROU knocks more pieces of dirt off the weed stalk with increasing violence.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: But of all the plants in our garden, there is one that we should tend to with the greatest care.

[YOUNGER JIROU is distracted. YOUNGER UNCLE tugs at the root end of the weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: One is the sweetest to taste. One is the most useful, when we are sick, for healing. When we are hungry, one is the most sure to fill us up with goodness. Jirou, do you not want to know what this plant is?

[He tickles YOUNGER JIROU. YOUNGER JIROU giggles. YOUNGER JIROU, curious, looks up into his uncle’s eyes.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: I am talking about the heart.

[JIROU grows silent. Gray clouds appear in the sky. Rain is coming.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: Above all else, we must occupy ourselves with the heart.

[YOUNGER UNCLE takes the weed stalk in his hands as YOUNGER JIROU releases it.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: If weeds take up root and choke the heart, even if the garden is filled with color and alive with the buzz of insects and replenished by its seasons of rain, even if we have all these, if we do not let the heart grow…

[He looks up at the sky]

YOUNGER UNCLE: …there is nothing left.

In honor of Saint Valentine

I get phrases stuck in my head.

Lines from poems that are unwritable. Bad moments of prayer. Bob Dylan lyrics. Psalms. Just glimpses. Just the words.

I was telling my friends today about the phrase I repeat, “I want slices of mango and avocado,” a line from a very sensual poem, a statement of something that she, that we all–let’s face it–profoundly desire.

But there’s another line I’ve been carrying with me. If I had to write a Valentine’s Day card, I think I would include it in the note. In the interest of being more romantic, I offer here a glimpse of my decidedly unromantic life.

I went on a sort of date once with a friend in college. It was the end of her senior year, and I was a sophomore. When we got in the car, she said, “You should feel special. I shaved my legs for you today.” I didn’t realize it in that moment–sitting in the car, parked, the spring wind still feeling cold in the trees, too early for fireflies, music playing in the grove–but that was the most provocative thing anyone had ever said to me. I did feel special but I guess I didn’t feel that special.

Tonight I broke the spell. My roommate asked me what I was doing later. Later. “What are you doing later tonight?” he said. He brought out a Chimay beer. “I thought we’d drink this. I’ve been saving this since you gave it to me.”

“I gave it to you?”

“Yes, when I drove you to the airport one time last year, you gave it to me as a gift.”

“Yes, I vaguely remember that now.” Then I said, “You should feel special. You’re the one person I’ve given a gift to in two years, and I’ve had a lot of people drive me to the airport.”

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve broken the spell or just doubled the force of the incantation. Blues poetry works the same way. “I’ll always be in love, it hurts me so bad. I’ll always be in love, it hurst me so bad.” Not demystifying but adding another layer of enchantment.

I’m still waiting for him to get back so we can drink that beer.