Tomatoes

Roberta Allen

For years I didn’t eat tomatoes. I liked them well enough but a healer had told me that I shouldn’t eat them. Though I didn’t like the healer and never saw him again, the idea that tomatoes might cause some catastrophic illness stuck. Who could have known that I would fall in love or imagine myself in love with a man in Memphis who grew tomatoes in his garden.

I never looked so closely at tomatoes until I was his guest. Every morning I stepped through the dewy grass and peered through the tangle of vines to see which tomatoes had ripened overnight. The vines were so thick it took effort to see the tomatoes. Two or three would be huddled on a stem, some far back in the shade up against the fence. He had harvested at least a score before my visit. The latest batch were big and green. He complained that they weren’t turning red. Or, if they were, they were taking their time.

Soon after I arrived, however, the tomatoes ripened quickly. “Tomorrow those two will be ripe enough to eat,” he would say, as we strained to see the fruits in question: he, very tall with dark curly hair and a deep Southern drawl, looking over the vines while I stooped to see them from below.

Since I didn’t know anything about growing tomatoes and never had a garden except for one on my tar roof in Manhattan where I was too afraid of pollutants to grow anything edible, I said nothing, though it seemed to me we were waiting too long to pick them. When we did, their smooth skins, perfect the day before, were splitting: in fact, the tomatoes were practically bursting.

Still, I liked to hold them in my hands. I liked their weight, their warmth, their roundness, their size, their smell. I would turn them and look at them from all angles. They appealed to my artistic sense. Each one was a little different; larger or wider or redder than the last. Each one had a slightly different shape. I would take pictures of them on a table in the garden before we deposited them on the windowsill in the kitchen where they posed for the sun.

When I clipped the arugula from the garden and made a salad, R tore into the biggest, juiciest tomato and, while eating it with the arugula, lemon, a little olive oil, and fresh pepper, made sounds I wished he would make in bed with me at night. I had never before slept in a bedroom with shotguns and statues of Jesus. Though these objects seemed as exotic to me as his calling his mother “Mama” when he phoned her every morning, I didn’t feel inspired to make the first move, especially after knowing about his problem. I mean it wasn’t as though we were young.

Once I broke down and ate one of the few tomatoes in its hour of perfection. It was a small tomato. Delicious. Too small, I thought, to harm me even if the healer was right. When R told his Mama one afternoon in her immaculate living room while drinking a Sprite that I did not eat tomatoes, he did so with disdain. I sensed the same disdain in his mother’s barely visible nod.

Though R ate a tomato every day when he remembered, he did not have a very good memory and could not focus on any one thing for very long, which is why his windowsill was soon filled with overripe tomatoes, some with soft spots, juices leaking. He would forget to give tomatoes to Mama. He would forget to give tomatoes to his old friend Mac, who helped him, while I watched, launch the motorboat R had not used in the twelve years since his son had committed suicide. Mac had found the boy in his car in front of Mac’s cabin in the woods, puffy and bloated, dead for two days, after poisoning himself with carbon monoxide.

Every night on the porch after we’d had a couple of shots of Grey Goose on the rocks, R would defend himself for not looking with Mac at his son in the car. He had driven out there with him that day. “What good would it have done to see him like that?” he would say. Then he would rant about his second wife, Irma. His first wife, Kathy, had been frigid. Nevertheless, they had three kids, including the one who had died. The second wife was bipolar but he didn’t find that out until she threw a heavy pot at his head in the kitchen and he started seeing a shrink. He had known Irma a total of ten days before they married. In the divorce settlement, he gave her all his money and the big suburban house to get rid of her as quickly as possible, but she stalked him for several years afterward.

Only when Mac said, “You’re leaving the tomatoes on the vines too long,” did R decide to pick them before their skins were stretched to the limit. But that only made it sadder to see them go to waste.
When I came back home and developed my films, the pictures I took of the tomatoes came out best, even better than the water lilies and the cypress trees rising in Lake Carefree that I snapped from the boat while Mac, his legs swollen from some condition he had, bitched to R about his hated wife of forty years who, R had told me earlier, Mac would never divorce.

When I looked at R in the pictures, especially in the ones I took on the boat, where he wore a life jacket because he couldn’t swim and a baseball cap turned backwards, instead of seeing the handsome, sexy, funny, and caring man I had met on an island in the Caribbean that winter, I saw an angry, bitter, tired man, who was resigned to growing old, a man as damaged as the tomatoes, so beautiful at first, but doomed to rot on the sill in the sun.

 

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