Cue that time you remember your mother is dead and it’s her birthday weekend, and you’re in a city where you don’t belong and you realize you did this on purpose and decide to take dead ma out to a brunch buffet like she used to take you. You think, I’ll write her a letter and sip iced tea. You know, really, you’ll eat too many appetizers, leaving behind some crumbs that you’ll find on your shirt hours later.
In the restaurant-slash-greenhouse, the LA sun rays make it impossible for your transplanted east coast spirit to believe December is just a week away. You did this on purpose. Left the cold weather for a climate that could let you be sleeveless, let you dangle your toes in some pool to help you not break out into tears, sniffling around every corner when you realize you are still here and she is not. You are seated at the hipster communal table under hanging plants, and a full plate of salmon gravlax is soon to arrive because that’s the American dream. Plants dangle above the swirled Italian marble tabletop with cloth napkins folded upright in attention: String of Pearls, Scindapsus Pictus, Marble Pothos. You can’t tell if they are looming or guarding you, their leaves outstretched like some movie you’ve seen where the smooth green spades ruffle a passerby’s hair.
You notice you’re crying over your first plate of seafood as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” plays, and it doesn’t seem to stop. You shiver over the towering bowl of shrimp cocktail because you truly are your mama’s child, and she taught you to eat the expensive stuff first. You recall how she would’ve stayed until close, waitstaff clearing her clanking, empty plates like trophies, her once spotless cutlery smeared in unctuous sauces and parsley butter. How a pile of chicken bones or crab leg shells would look crestfallen and defeated as she took a toothpick to the shells not to miss a morsel. You clumsily smile at the thought of her eating of all the things, proudly not cooking or cleaning up after anybody. There are rushed men of Color with your uncle’s faces bussing tables, smiling at your determination: “Take this away? How was it? Ready for more?” Beads of sweat silk their temples. They know your mission, you’re convinced. They’re rooting for you.
You recall other times when we had almost nothing to eat. You, a 10-year-old child, wiped up the table, put shriveled meat in Saran Wrap to be re-purposed like magic, and rocked your ma—over a hundred pounds heavier than you—in your arms. Now in your thirties, you’re long decades somewhere else with spider plants and philodendrons cascading overhead. In a place where wispy ladies wear pearls, you’re wearing cowry shells and your best denim collared shirt. There’s a prime rib carving station, which is basically prime eating real estate, and honestly, fuck the dessert station: you’re a man of protein. When you collect yourself, you think, you’ll eat all of it, you’ll eat all that she couldn’t. Eat radish. Eat eggs. Order extra for her. You rampage, PacMan style, chomping away. Your jaws, unstoppable. Still in tears, you chew morsels that she could never afford after paying winter rent and buying high tops for school, or giving money to somebody else—scared and uncertain—who’d just migrated to this country.
You have matured into a hard-to-please creature. You ignore your fork and knife now, eating with your hands: bacon in one, heirloom tomatoes in the other, the kind you used to steal for her when you went to the fancy university in the rich neighborhood you never even toured with family until after you got that scholarship. You can see your ma squish the fruit between her thumb & forefinger. Their pluck and pop were like candy, she told you once.
As your ma did, you talk to the brown waitstaff as if they’re cousins from the same province, even though you’re strangers and it’s confusing for everybody. When you first began working on the road, one thing was consistent: your ma’s check-ins. Before every out-of-state guest lecture or keynote you traveled for, your ma would call and say, “Eat good for me, OK?” Naturally, you promised you would take her with you when she stopped working so hard. That day never came. So here you are, talking to a ghost, full speed on your third plate. Now you eat all the shrimp cocktail and prime rib they can muster, though it’s only 10 a.m. and you’re only one human. A promise is sacred, and there are teeny pastries that look like the ones she’d pack for you from working long shifts at the hotel after big events. She and her friends would split the food nobody wanted, raising their children (you included) on other people’s leftovers. How you loved their flaky half croissants. How you devoured their thin, wrinkled cheese rinds with round crackers and bruised grapes during Saturday morning cartoons.
By this point, you’ve taken off your glasses not to make room for the tears (added bonus!) but to make sure there isn’t an obstacle on your face between you and your goal. A skinny white woman with an even skinnier ponytail side-eyes you and sneers, but to the bartender she smizes and says, “I’ll get a green juice.” You say, in between crunches, “More bacon for me!” because that’s what your ma would’ve wanted, and you ask Jeff the bartender to take a photo of you. As Jeff holds a phone, counts to three, you crookedly smile and overshare by saying, “It’s for my mom.” And of course, Jeff smiles politely, not getting she’s dead, which makes the gesture a half-truth, which is how you’ve been feeling lately, but what’s the point of saying that aloud.
Here’s your American dream: consuming everything in public and sobbing, holding the butt of a roasted carrot to prove some point that doesn’t really matter because dead people are still dead and you can’t eat with them anymore. The waitstaff whisper and brush past you as though you’re a spill no one knows how to clean up. So, you eat food in every city trying to find recipes as good as hers, but they all basically fail, and you never stop being hungry. By the end, you’re taking small bites as if to say, For you, for you.
Nobody told you when you faxed over her death certificate that you’d xeroxed while chewing carabao, that from then on, nothing you ate would be good enough. Her miswa? Supple pieces of pork stirred with herbed flecks of green, translucent crescent moon onions floating in a lavish swirl of shrimp broth. You’ll never have that again. Her pancit palabok? Pork again, but this time with ripples of crumpled, crunchy skin over thick strands of rice noodles. That’s extinct now. You find out you’ll never be as full as the times your mama fed you, not even with anything made by your own hands. The restaurants, the buffets, the waiters all feel like crude substitutes because by “full” what you mean isn’t actually related to food at all. You’ve left tables in havoc, emptied plates, and stained napkins in zip codes you don’t remember, and the only thing that takes up space in your belly is grief.
Kay Ulanday Barrett
Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. K. has featured at The Lincoln Center, The U.N., Symphony Space, The Poetry Foundation, The Poetry Project, Princeton University, Tucson Poetry Festival, NY Poetry Festival, The Dodge Poetry Foundation, The Hemispheric Institute, & Brooklyn Museum. They received fellowships from Lambda Literary Review, Drunken Boat, VONA/Voices, The Home School, and Macondo. Their contributions are found in The New York Times, Asian American Literary Review, Vogue, PBS News Hour, Poets House, Foglifter, Apogee, F(r)