Something Recognizable by Anika Fajardo
I knew as little about Colombia as I knew about my father. I hadn’t read the guidebooks and I hadn’t studied the culture or geography before my visit. I suppose I’d been depending instead on instinct, some string in my half-Colombian DNA, believing I could conjure imagined memories. But my certificate of birth abroad didn’t help me decipher the cries of the peddler pushing his cart in the rum-dark night of the Andes Mountains. I was with my father’s wife and her niece in the tiny town of Coconuco where, at 8,000 feet, the air was thin and smelled of sulfur from the region’s hot springs.
“¡Arepas muy ricas y calientes!” the man cried.
“¿Qué venden?” I asked. I’d thought perfecting my Spanish was all I needed to be prepared for this trip. That and a careful examination of photographs of my father. I’d studied the images in my mother’s albums, and although his black mustache was now twined with gray and his skin was creased with lines around his eyes, his face looked nearly identical to the one in the twenty-year-old snapshots of my parents.
“This is my wife, Ceci,” my father had said as they met me at the arrival gate in Cali. After Ceci kissed me on the cheek, my father embraced me as if I were still the baby he had left behind in Minnesota. He laid his hand on my shoulder and I couldn’t help but compare the sensation of my father’s arm around me to that of my mother’s. I thought of her sure grip after the many times I’d scraped my knees raw on the sidewalk outside the rented townhouse in Minneapolis where I grew up. Her touch had always felt reassuringly gentle as she swabbed away the blood. My father’s touch was less sure but, surprisingly, just as intimate.
“You’ve never tried arepas?” Ceci’s niece Maria Fernanda asked me in Spanish. The three of us had come to Coconuco to swim in the hot springs, and Maria Fernanda’s long black braid was still wet, a trail of water dripping down her back.
I shook my head. I’d never heard the word. My parents were married for five years, and though my mother had lived in Colombia for nearly all of them, she hadn’t told me many stories of her brief life in this place. But last summer, when I was home from college, she bought a fresh mango from the supermarket, one of those half-red, half-green imported things. “I loved the fruits in Colombia,” she’d told me, slicing the mango into misshapen chunks. This information, this clue to her life before mine, was a sparkly gift.
The chunks of mango slipped from my fingers as I picked them up, and when I bit into the flesh, juice dripped down my chin. That first taste of the soft sugar was as homey and honey-sweet as her sunny kitchen in the little house she bought after her second divorce.
My mother said, “You used to teethe on mango seeds.”
I didn’t remember those seeds from my infancy any more than I remembered my father’s touch, but the taste inexplicably made me want to cry. With its simultaneous foreignness and familiarity, it was a sensory sort of déjà vu. Perhaps there was, hidden somewhere in my brain, a warm recollection of orange-yellow meat and strands of pulp, a visceral and instinctual memory. Or perhaps the sensation was simply a trick.
“When you were a baby,” my mother said, “you just held on to the seed with both hands and gnawed on it.”
Maybe it was merely the power of suggestion, but with the mango in my mouth, I could felt the urge to masticate with tiny milk teeth, to score the flesh with little nubs of white. That I had teethed on mango pits had made two parallel lives momentarily appear as vividly as the mango itself—what happened and what could have.
“Haven’t I ever told you that before?” my mother asked in genuine surprise. Her back was to me as she stood at the sink washing juice from her hands, wrists, elbows, washing away the evidence of her actions. There were so many things that she didn’t even realize she needed to tell me, things she might imagine I remembered because I, as a baby, had been there. But childhood memories are fluid and malleable—they don’t solidify until we’re older, and until then, each memory is replaced with the stories we’re told as children. Without the story of teething on seeds, I hadn’t remembered the mango, and if I had ever eaten arepas, I didn’t remember them.
“Bueno,” Ceci said decisively. “Comemos arepas.”
Ceci was small and compact. She had a smooth face and wispy brown ponytail, and she always looked ready to spring into action. She was barely fifteen years older than me, but she still guided me and Maria Fernanda like children. We followed dutifully as she led the way toward the peddler’s cart, her flip-flops flapping on the road.
I watched as she exchanged a few unfamiliar coins for a paper envelope containing the corn cake. The arepa was warm in my hands, a golden-brown disc as round as the moon above us. The sweet tang mingled with the scent of the hibiscus that grew along the road. Beyond the circle of streetlight in which we stood, I could hear the people of Coconuco in their houses—the murmur of their conversations, the clatter of their supper dishes.
“¿Qué te pareces?” Ceci asked after I had taken my first nibble.
The white cornmeal tasted a little dry, different from that of the vast farm fields of my Midwestern childhood, nothing like the neat yellow squares of cornbread my mother used to bake. The fresh cheese that gave the arepa its salty flavor reminded me of a crumbly feta: tart and rich. Or was it a creamy mozzarella? I struggled to fit each new experience alongside anything familiar, tried to find something recognizable in each moment.
“Deliciosa,” I told her, smiling.
It was delicious, and yet, it had the faintly bitter taste of something completely foreign. I knew I had never tasted arepas before, but as I took each bite, I wished I had, wished that I had simply forgotten the first taste of arepa, wished that its memory would come floating back as quickly as the mango had. I hoped that I was experiencing jamais vu, the psychological cousin of déjà vu. Jamais vu describes the sensation of the familiar feeling suddenly unfamiliar. Your own face in the mirror becomes a stranger’s. The touch of a loved one is like icy fingers. You repeat a word over and over. Arepa. Arepa. Arepa. You begin to wonder what that jumble of sounds means. You question what those letters are, and then maybe you wonder what a word is. Jamais vu describes both that disconcerting sense of loss, confusion, and momentary fear of the unknown, and also the delight of experiencing things anew.
“¿Son ricas, no?” Maria Fernanda asked me, wiping her hands on her jeans.
I nodded. But it was more than that—more than deciding if the arepa was good, whether I liked it or not. The corn and cheese, oil and smoke were only part of the taste. I closed my eyes and listened to the distant waterfalls of the hot springs, wishing I could circumvent this first taste and route it directly into memory, to claim my past with salt and corn. As I rolled each mouthful on my tongue, I found myself hoping for a flash of déjà vu. I couldn’t quite believe that I’d never had this experience before, that the happenstance of my birth in this country hadn’t somehow placed memories of corn cakes in my subconscious, hadn’t slipped it between the folds of my brain. I inhaled the mountain air to test if the scent transported me. In the street near the peddler’s cart lay a crumpled grease-stained paper. For a moment it seemed that the litter—along with cigarette butts, a candy wrapper, a plastic bottle—could have been the trash left behind in any town, any city, in any time. Then I looked again and saw that the candy wrapper was in Spanish, the bottle bore an unrecognizable brand, and the greasy paper envelope was as unfamiliar as the taste of the arepa itself.
“Muy rica,” I said, willing myself to remember this moment, to begin the process of transforming moments into stories. Without stories, without repeated telling, memories vanish.
“¿Listas?” Ceci asked, already heading away from the cart. It was time to go to the hotel where we would spend the night before heading back to my father’s house.
I watched Maria Fernanda’s braid swinging in the moonlight and swallowed the last bite of arepa. My mind wasn’t tricking me; my brain was doing its job discerning what was real from what was not. This was not jamais vu, not déjà vu. It was desire making me feel like I was drowning in amnesia. Even though I wanted it to, my half-Colombian DNA wouldn’t help me, couldn’t teach me everything I needed to know about this country. All I could hope was that each experience—a hand on my shoulder, a peddler’s cry in the night air—would soon become as recognizable as mango in my mother’s kitchen.
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of publications including Brief Encouters (Norton), Oh Baby (InFact Books), Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, and (the best for last!) apt, among others.