Tomato Sandwiches

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By Rumpus Assistant Features Editor and IG Savior Anna Held

A few months into the pandemic, my friend Claire brought over heirloom tomatoes from her partner’s mother’s garden north of the city. She also brought salad and chocolate chip cookies, and we shucked oysters on the roof. The tomatoes were for later. I ate one for breakfast thickly sliced on sourdough bread from the bakery in my San Francisco neighborhood with organic mayo from Whole Foods and a heavy hand of salt and pepper, and it was too close and too far from what I wanted it to be. The tomatoes themselves were beautiful, lumpy and irregular the way things are when you let them grow how they want to, marbled on the inside like expensive meat. The bread was excellent but not right for the sandwich, too chewy and assertive. Organic mayo is a scam.

It was 55 degrees during that late July, which was the right and the wrong time to eat a tomato sandwich. Late July is the beginning of tomato season, six weeks or so in late summer when the fruits are the quintessential representations of their form. When I was a kid, my dad grew them in the backyard. He would yell at my brothers and me who never helped in the garden except when it came time to pick. We had to wait until  the tomatoes were almost to the edge of rot, when they were so heavy and thin-skinned that they almost fell off the vine from their own weight. All of August, my dad would grill steak or fish and we would eat squash casserole with Ritz crackers on top and wedges of tomato swimming in their own juice, drink Publix lemonade by the gallon, iced tea for my parents. It was still hot at dinnertime, but we ate on the patio anyway. My mom lit citronella candles and put bug spray on the table that my brother would accidentally-on-purpose spray on my food. She made sandwiches on soft white bread with Blue Plate mayo, the tomato torn by our dull knives.

 

I am writing a book that’s set in the South. I was born and raised there. It’s where my family still lives. Both my brothers have bought houses there, something I still can’t quite wrap my head around. It is a place that I love but that I don’t feel is mine, a place that I am equal parts defensive and critical of. Mostly, I feel guilty about how badly I wanted to leave. I feel like I can write about what it feels like to be there, what it sounds like to sit on a roof that’s still warm from the sun and drink shitty beer as the cicadas wake or what the Chattahoochee smells like first thing in the morning when your body is the first thing to break the fog, but the specificity of those experiences is not a substitute for true engagement with a place or a history that goes beyond an individual life. The South is like New York City in that way; to call yourself a Southerner means something more than being born or living there. It is ownership and contribution and action. Appropriately, the only thing I’ve ever written about Georgia before this book was about the Atlanta airport.

San Francisco is in many ways an objectively good place to live and frankly I feel shitty for complaining about anything right now. I am an outsider whose critiques are fairly meaningless and resenting how expensive the city is is not a novel or interesting sentiment. Ultimately, my biggest gripe with San Francisco is that it does not feel like home to me.

 

My neighborhood here is in some ways similar to where I grew up, with magnolia trees lining the street and impossibly long hills. It is close enough to feeling like home that when I realize it isn’t, I feel betrayed. Getting close enough is my favorite way to let myself down. I’ve taken jobs that were close enough to what I wanted to do, accepted behavior that was close enough to how I should have been treated, agreed to living situations that were close enough to what I thought I could tolerate. The problem with “close enough” is it is permission to stop trying while still never getting what I want.
When I moved here, I told myself that planes had shrunk the world to the extent that I could live in California and still be present and useful for and to my family, that with modern technology, anywhere could be close enough. Now, it feels exactly as far away as it is, five days driving and four nights in hotels, which isn’t something that bothered me until my grandmother fell broke her arm. I did what I could from here, which meant ordering my grandmother autobiographies of men she finds handsome (Alex Trebek) and fighting with my brothers about who did what wrong thing. What became certain is that I am not close enough. I don’t know how I ever believed I was.

Two years later, I remain resentful. I resent thatI still am safer here than they are there and Brian Kemp, who is the reason I am safer, and that my grandmother didn’t get to vote because she’d been purged from the registrations. I resent the federal government and my friend who got on a plane to go to a party when my flying home to help my grandmother could have  killed her. Like many writers, I also resent myself, that I can’t eat one fucking tomato without going long on a family crisis or whether I can claim belonging to anywhere or the shallow well of regret I feel about so many of my choices. I resent my persistent inability to accept things as they are.

So much of being a writer is finding significance in the little pieces, mapping out how the big things manifest in the smaller ones and how the smaller ones illuminate the obscure. Every detail, sentence, and scene has to earn its purpose. The specific has to be stitched to the universal. The tomato has to mean something.

A few years ago, before all this started, I went to see Taffy Brodesser-Akner read. She was in conversation with Elizabeth Weil, and they said something to the effect of, in writing a story, you have to ask yourself three questions: What is it about? No, what is it really about? No, what is it really, really about?

My grandmother fell, and it feels like so much more than that. And in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t, but either way, I am extraordinarily lucky that I can still call her whenever I want to. My apartment is cold and small, and it’s filled with family, too, and two animals who follow me through it all day. I made a sandwich that wasn’t like my mother’s, but to have a friend that brings me perfect tomatoes? Maybe those are the things that this is really, really about.