Dirty hominy. That’s what we call it. Mote sucio. Plump maize garnered with pork gravy. There was a kiosk in my hometown where motorcyclists, jaywalkers, the young and old waited patiently for a paper bag with the thick of pork skin oozing from it. I could smell it from blocks away—the smothered chicharrón seeped in garlic, the cumin spicing the air. My father took me the first time, then an uncle, then cousins, then boyfriends. We ate the mote with our hands, licking our fingers if we forgot in the frenzy to ask for napkins, hoping the roadside lady would share the recipe with her children and someone would take up the mantle. That they wouldn’t mind men in line slurping—saying rico, sabroso, más. The maize was cooked enough that it’d begin to dissolve before the first bite, the pork lard’s saltiness perking the palate. I’d get there before three, because sometimes by then she’d begin to close shop, all out of mote. My father left the country, my uncles were too busy, my boyfriends found other women, other street food, but I’d still go, arrive in a taxi, just to allow the taste to make up for those who left and all that was missing.
* * *
When my husband and I propose to my parents we live together in our new house, we don’t imagine a lockdown is months away. We can’t escape each other, and all we want some days is to eat by ourselves—have a conversation only between us. We don our masks, drive two towns north, and order a platter of sushi rolls too large for us. We park on a dead-end street that touches the Long Island Sound. We don’t see anyone as he opens the back of the Jeep, the chill of April telling us we should have also donned coats. We sit in the back, making sure we lather our hands with sanitizer. I wait for the smell to evaporate as I look at the sunset, tinges of light orange and almost-coral decorating the sky. Ducks are splashing by the shore, and I look at the waterfront houses and see no one outside. My husband leaves everything spicy to me: tuna, crab, shrimp. The avocado soaks in with the soy sauce and prickly wasabi. It all feels verboten. Finding a way to smell the ocean while the local beach is closed, escaping my parents, eating in the back of his car. I drench each roll into the sauce, place it on my tongue, and let it linger. Because there won’t be another time like this. This once-common view that is now rare, my husband’s beard getting soaked, how we talk about when this will end, how we make bets on it, how his laugh calms me, how I’m glad I’m going through this with him. How he saves the last roll for me no matter which one it is. Because what we’re going through isn’t ordinary and I need to save this taste—this memory.
* * *
I live far from my hometown, in another country, in a place that on the Day of the Dead doesn’t savor colada morada—a drink, hot or cold, made from berries, ishpingo, fruit pulp, corn flour. We make it once a year because the recipe is convoluted, requiring too many ingredients, too time-consuming. I don’t make it, but a friend of a friend does. I pour a cup, bring it close to my nose, and at first—a peculiarity—I smell nothing. Like with most prized foods, I breathe it in before tasting, before gulping and chewing on the blueberries, the tangy pineapples. I place the cup to my mouth and try something I’ve never tried before. I try to taste. Then it occurs to me that tasting is like breathing, it’s a reflex that happens, not something to try. But taste is nonexistent and smell is blank. The shock—the absence of what once was—somehow makes me gag. I wonder how long it’ll be. I hope not too long because in a few days, I lose ten pounds.
A week of nothingness. Not even of blandness or a tepid taste, just nothing. On the eighth day my tongue can sense when something is spicy or drenched with salt. It’s odd, forcing myself to eat only when my stomach bellows in hunger. Without taste there’s no eating for pleasure—just eating to survive. Without a preemptive smell, there’s no gratification. Food is only texture.
In the second week, I feel the bitter of ginger. Not taste it, but feel its essence on my tongue. I use my memory to create a palate. Every day, once I’m out of quarantine, I walk around my neighborhood, hoping that I smell something. The wood burning in our fireplace, the sweet scent of my husband, some feces on my shoes. Anything. It isn’t until December, a month after the Day of the Dead, that there’s a shift on a walk. Blocks away from my house, with rain drying on the pavement, the sun struggling to be seen, I stop in my tracks. I look at the houses to see who’s the daring individual with a grill outside. It’s the first time since I lost my smell that an odor feels swift, present, that it can precede the moment of placing joy in my mouth. I stop, cars pass while I take it in, a family’s food, imagine the gunk of ribs in my mouth before I run back to kiss my husband, to say that even wandering smells reach me from behind closed doors. To say I thought I knew what absence was, but it wasn’t until these two senses disappeared with their undertones and recollections and past that I learned what it truly means to lack. And that, like before, I’ll treasure my nose and tongue’s associations to memory as if each fusion of odor and tang were sharp sassafras.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in The Citron Review, Bending Genres, Lost Balloon, and more.