Eggplant Elegy

· Honorable Mention ·

March 15, 2014

In an act of defiance, I purchased a beautiful, shiny, offensive, dangerous thing, a thing of deep purple black. I intended to slice it into little pieces and drown it in saltwater and throw it into boiling oil, but one night after bringing it into my house, I still couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I didn’t dare.

We Mormons are not a superstitious people. We believe in faith and action and divine intervention and grace and purpose. We do not believe in superstition. If we toss salt over shoulders, avoid sidewalk cracks, or knock on wood, we’re acting out reflexive habits. I attribute no greater power to performing these rituals of superstition than I do to following accepted protocols of greeting others, like shaking hands in the U.S. or kissing both cheeks in Italy.

So I blush while confessing my irrational fear of a seemingly harmless vegetable.

The pathetic part of my pathological prejudice is that I enjoy well-prepared eggplant. My mouth waters over its name paired with parmigiana on restaurant menus. In supermarkets, I respond when its exotic, shining blackness shouts, “Look at me! Pick me!”

Yet I’ve intentionally, deliberately, and actively ignored eggplants for years. Stepping into the produce department feels like entering the Minotaur’s maze, knowing I must bypass lurking purple monsters. My knees wobble when walking by gleaming bins full of the dark vegetables. I’ve forced my eyes forward-fixed down store aisles, determined not to let my vision waver toward them. In my head, I’ve even chanted, “I’m not listening!” as I shoved my cart onward seeking escape from their siren calls.

Why have I fled from fleshy eggplants when files of recipes feature them promising temptation for my finicky, vegetarian daughter? Why have I worked to avoid the potential perils of a plump, purple vegetable?

It started with the eggplant I purchased three years ago.

That Friday morning began as a low-maintenance day, a good day that allowed me to sneak off to the store so early the freshly arranged produce lay untouched by fellow shoppers. Among other items, a handsome eggplant caught my eye. I picked up the strapping specimen, smoothing my thumb over its slick skin. It was a real beaut’, and I flirted with ideas of how to prepare it. I brought it home, tucked it into refrigerated guest quarters, and went about my day, but that “good” morning devolved into another high-maintenance afternoon like so many others over the previous two years. Given the worsening demands of my 47-year-old husband’s still unexplained symptoms, I knew I’d never be able to peel, slice, soak, drain, marinate, and sauté that eggplant in time for dinner. I’d be lucky if I managed time to peel and eat a banana.

That evening a call came, one I’d begged, prayed, and worked over six months to receive. I almost dropped the phone when I recognized the woman’s voice. She worked in the admissions department of a prestigious hospital specializing in multi-disciplinary diagnostics. My pulse raced as I listened, and I pressed her to repeat her message. “Yes, we’ll have a bed for your husband in one of two departments—whichever’s available first—within the next week or two at most.” My whole body warmed with relief—I was ecstatic. We would finally get answers! I fell to weakened knees, sobbing my gratitude heavenward as renewed optimism infused my soul.

The following week began beautifully—it was one of a scant handful of Monday mornings he’d experienced relatively symptom-free in two years. He even flirted with me over breakfast. Late in the afternoon, however, after I’d initiated eviction proceedings against the no-longer-intact eggplant I’d given temporary lodgings in our fridge, my husband’s bizarre behavioral symptoms returned in all their familiar manifestations. By the time I readied dinner, he neither spoke nor made eye contact, as happened more days than not.

It took 30 minutes to coax a few minced bites down him, a quarter-forkful at a time. During mealtimes like these, feeding my husband of 24 years was like feeding our daughters when they were young. They’d opened their mouths baby bird wide when hungry, eager for the next spoonful of preferred puree; his mouth gaped open, indifferent to offered nourishment. The girls had sent spoons clattering to the ground or clamped tiny jaws airtight against anything they refused; he didn’t close his mouth around any morsels unless my finger lifted his slack jaw into position. They’d acted reflexively, either swallowing or spewing each tiny mouthful; he did neither, allowing the food to fall from his tongue unless I reminded him to swallow while supporting his jaw with my finger and stroking his Adam’s apple to coax the process along.

By the time I’d fed him two or three tablespoons of mashed eggplant that night, I felt exhausted in body and spirit. Two years’ experience forewarned against hopes of undisturbed sleep—for either of us—but nothing prepared me for the unrest of that night. Midway between dinner and bedtime, he collapsed without warning, a symptom unlike any he’d previously manifest. I followed the ambulance to the hospital where my teenage daughter and I were ushered into a private consultation area. The ER doctor entered with a barrage of questions about my husband’s medical history. I’d learned to present symptoms in clinical terms, so my voice rushed forward without emotion. I summarized the tests and treatments he’d undergone thus far, and I explained he’d be admitted to the diagnostics hospital soon. At the same time, I hoped (but didn’t dare verbalize), Maybe they’ll transfer him directly from this hospital to that one. Maybe I can get a few days’ rest.

Then the doctor asked when my husband last took his medications—and what and when was his last meal? After I answered, he clarified his reasons for asking.

The eggplant was my husband’s last—his final—meal.

Two days from store to table. Two hours from table to widowhood.

In the next month, the world drifted in and out of focus. “Widow’s fog,” some called it. Within that blur existed two utterly unrelated constants, one spiritual and the other physical. The anchor was my absolute awareness of my loving, mindful God and Savior. The untouchable black hole was in my refrigerator.

For three weeks, I avoided the clear plastic container of leftover eggplant. I knew I’d never—could never—forget when I’d cooked it. Reason told me I should throw it out, but irrationality prevented me from doing so. As the days wore on, I shifted things above, under, behind, and in front of the despised leftovers—still without touching it or allowing myself to notice the changes evolving inside. When the fog thinned briefly one day, I finally witnessed the colorful colonies within—colors no eggplant fresh, frozen, cooked, or dyed should ever display—and I feared them. Rather than make their acquaintance by further tainting other senses, I chucked them—closed container and all—into the garbage.

Two weeks later, I stared down another eggplant. It was every bit as handsome as the first, but my stomach churned over memories of the last time I’d seen one like it. I carted the thing home with reluctance, persuaded only by the recipes my daughter had asked me to try.

I intended to cook it that week, but the plan was put on hold by a call from my mother-in-law. I nearly dropped the phone when I heard her message: another of her sons had died. My heart sank as I fell to my knees, knowing the pain and fog about to descend on my sister-in-law and her children. Within one or two days, I would “be there” for her as she’d done for me.

Two days from store to phone call. Two days from call to hugging my brother-in-law’s widow at another family funeral.

Grief eradicated all thoughts of grocery management, along with my barely returning appetite. By the time I flew home from the unplanned, emotionally charged cross-country funeral trip, all thoughts of the forgotten vegetable eluded my overtaxed psyche. Until I opened the fridge the next morning.

That morning three years ago, I paled to find the despicable eggplant leaning upright against the milk, as if it had awaited my return, leering. No longer glossy or unblemished as on the day I’d purchased it over a week earlier, it had lost all appeal. Mold oozed from the stem of its olive-browning hat onto its shriveling, aged body. Distancing my hand as far from my face as possible, I two-finger plucked the loiterer from its hangout and evicted it with as much force as I could muster, flinging it into the kitchen trash.

My next trip to the store was far shorter but nearly as draining. At the produce department my feet grew too heavy and my arms too weak to push the cart. I bypassed fruits and veggies that day, so eager to avoid the now-despised eggplants that I ignored the rest of my list. On subsequent visits their presence offended me, but after a time I accepted their existence as inevitable. Sometimes I picked up a gleaming specimen, almost admiring its sheen, but with my palms glistening more brightly. Other weeks, I placed one in my cart, took a few steps, then calmed my pounding heart by shoving it back in its bin, often with more force than appropriate. I felt ridiculous fearing that what happened the last times I bought eggplant might happen the next. Twice I took one as far as the cashier’s line—feeling momentarily brave—before I rushed it back to safety. On the day an eggplant finally accompanied me all the way to the register, I counted my breathing—in, two, three, out, two, three—with every step I took.

We Mormons are not a superstitious people, but I crossed my fingers at the checkout counter.

Two years to the day after bringing home that second fateful eggplant, I took a risk and bought this third, hoping to cook it within 24 hours.

The next day when I opened the fridge, my hand paused midway toward the milk. The flawless eggplant lay nestled against the gallon jug as if reposed in early morning slumber. Its fresh, green-stemmed hat angled toward me, shading the sleeper from the refrigerator bulb’s glare. A brighter illumination blazed inside me as I gazed on the supine vegetable. I no longer pondered the appeal of its shining skin or the promise of its plump flesh. Instead, I again saw images of its cruel predecessors whose presence preceded the deaths of dear ones. I’d pretended I’d made peace with the kin of those enemy entrees, but the shivering in my spine said otherwise. I thought of my daughter, still sleeping two rooms away, my older daughters two time zones away, and my father in his house two miles away.

My hand moved again, but not toward the milk. I two-finger snatched the beautiful, hapless sleeper from the fridge and flung it into the kitchen trash. I strangled the bag closed and disposed of it in the outside can, then wheeled it out to the street—just in case.

March 15, 2014