Sometimes things just pop into your head, like finding your car keys in plain sight after spending 15 panic stricken minutes looking everywhere for them. Suddenly, they are just there, even though you know you have looked in exactly that spot 10 times in the last quarter hour. Lots of things are like that. For Matthew, clarity suddenly popped into his head for no good reason in the middle of the produce section of Whole Foods Market on a Tuesday afternoon in April. Searching for a firm cantaloupe, he noticed a woman approaching out of the corner of his eye. At that precise moment, a long dormant synapse fired and instantly he understood the profound correlation between his relationships with women, who he didn’t understand at all, and tomatoes, which he did. In that sublime nanosecond, their parallel paths disturbingly and conclusively crystallized.
Inevitably, his affairs with each began in the Spring, but the tomato ritual was of far greater certainty, having occurred annually now for more than a decade. The Spring tomato trip to the Farmer’s Market was preceded by the slow growth of desire, frustration and anxiety. After a winter of almost tasteless hot house fruit, he would be doubting himself, wondering if the taste he was longing for was just a trick of his memory. Maybe they were never really that good. Maybe those great tomatoes of his youth were simply an adult’s fantasy. Or maybe, with all the hybridization and modern influences, they just couldn’t taste that good in this day and age. The anticipation began long before the last weekend in March, when Dan Hockley would be bringing the season’s first truly perfect vine ripened tomatoes to market. Throughout the entire month of March, he would get reports from Dan on the progress of what was reputed to be the finest tomato crop grown in Travis County. Then, at last, the Saturday would come. At 7:00 he would get up, rush to get ready and, with a cup of his own perfect blend of coffee in hand, hurry out the door and down to the market. When he got there, he would linger a few moments around the other stands, steeling himself in the event of some unexpected last minute agricultural disaster. At this point, he would be totally in the power of the idea of the tomatoes; the concept of the tomatoes. After a short time, his will power would wane and he’d rush across the parking lot to Dan’s Valley Farms stand and sure enough, there they would be. Beautiful, plump and deep red, with the tiniest bit of early morning dew still clinging to their skin. Here were tomatoes he could love. They would look utterly pampered, utterly perfect. Hell, they were perfect. His fears, of course, were groundless. It was far too early for insects and, besides, Dan Hockley was nothing if not an obsessive fanatic, screening the vines and bordering the plots with galvanized edging sprayed with his own super secret formula of cayenne, garlic and God only knew what else. As was his custom with special customers, Hockley kept a plate of freshly cut wedges under the counter which he would bring out for Matthew to sample. At a perfect 65ºF, the taste would explode in his mouth, bringing back the memories of every great tomato he had eaten since childhood, of every emotion and friendship related to those moments. The breathtaking, acidic, powerful bite of sunlight and love and the earth reaffirmed everything right about being a human, everything he loved about being alive. It was as if, upon sampling the perfection from Dan’s vines, his entire life made sense. All of the indignities, struggles, pain, embarrassment and sorrow were somehow not only justified, but rewarded. His eyes would meet Dan’s as this unspoken acknowledgement passed between them. This, after all, was what life was all about.
He would next look through all the baskets, searching each until he had the one ultimate basket, with each fruit a perfect representative to all others of what a truly magnificent and marvelous tomato should be. Around the world, millions of other tomatoes could only be something less.
Clutching his basket gingerly, lovingly, he would walk back to his house savoring the heady aroma of the fruit as it rose with the morning temperature. The skins smelled different up close, revealing a slightly sharp overtone beneath which the sweetness within was barely discernible. Lunch would consist of sliced tomatoes and the tiniest bit of Fleur de Sel and cracked Malabar peppercorns. Later, a drizzle of the finest, most virginal olive oil he could lay hands on and a few carefully cut fresh basil leaves would be added. For suppers, the thinnest slices of Bufala Mozzarella might join the mixture to create the consummate Caprese salad, but only if the mozzarella was absolutely fresh and came from one of only two suppliers whose cheese was a match for Dan’s tomatoes. This salad would be followed by a simple garlic olio pasta topped with still more of Dan’s exquisite tomatoes, each as rewarding as that which went before it, one zenith following the next until the day came when one particular tomato wasn’t quite as exquisite as the one that preceded it. At first, he would wonder if it was him. Maybe his taste buds were not quite right. Maybe it was his allergies acting up again. They did that sometimes, making it almost impossible to taste anything correctly. Once it got so bad he could hardly taste at all. He was totally freaked out for the better part of a week, researching rare nose cancers and making vows to a God he hardly believed in until one morning he caught a huge whiff of his daily coffee and knew it had returned, his taste and smell were back. But now he would worry and, finally, take another out of the basket only to discover half of it tasted fabulous, but the other half was…well, not quite the same level of fabulous as the first half. When this occurred, he would inevitably dedicate himself to the rest, trying to savor as much of the remaining fruit as he could; feverishly making pastas or fresh salsas or (his favorite) a warm green bean, potato and pesto salad topped with fresh chopped tomatoes. The salad was a small vanity, accidentally created, that would normally shame and overwhelm all other tastes around it; even rare, blackened, prime New York strips could barely contend with its powerful taste.
Then, predictably, he would begin to go to the basket less frequently. A dinner out with friends or a quick omelet for lunch because he was too busy or really…just somehow slightly avoiding the tomatoes that remained. Finally, he would resort to simply getting as much serviceable product as possible out of the remains of the basket, making vast quantities of ragu and freezing it until only a half dozen or so were left on the window sill. By then, he would have simply run out of any ideas or the energy to save what was already becoming a far lesser thing than that which he had originally fallen so deeply in love with. More quickly than he could imagine, the day would come when, lifting one up to slice for a sandwich, he would discover, to his revulsion and disgust, a dark, seeping moldy underside staring him in the face. He would notice how it had stained his window sill and oozed a gooey trail down to the counter, spreading its ugliness to all around it. Those close by were equally suspect, only moments away from erupting into vile, bacteria-ridden sacks of waste. And so he would toss them all out, scrub the stain off of his counter and sill and, with a sense of resignation and betrayal, acknowledge that it was over. There would be nothing as exotic and pleasurable again for a long, long time. He would know, from vast experience, that no equal would be available, certainly none as perfect and fine until next year, and then, only if he were lucky. Should he die soon, his last supreme experience of life might well have begun and ended with the nasty bundle which he finally discarded outside to avoid the lingering smell which would only further depress him.
Having just recently tossed out a similarly disappointing nasty bundle by the name of Susan Weller, he was in no mental state to be searching for another opportunity to feel like a loser. Right now, he would be lucky enough to simply find a decent cantaloupe. The woman whose approach had started his disturbing chain of thoughts now materialized on the opposite side of the bin as if beamed there from the Starship Enterprise. There was a faint smile before her eyes drifted to the cantaloupes he held lovingly in each hand. Immediately, his face flushed and he dropped the melons as if they were on fire, a security camera picture of himself slack jawed, deep in thought while gently squeezing the melons flashed through his mind. “Pervert” or “Manager!!” were the next words he expected to hear. He glanced up to see how bad it was going to be, an apology ready on his lips. Instead, her face revealed a genuine smile. With a tease dancing in her eyes she asked, “Have you found two you like?”. Disarmed, relieved, charmed; Matthew studied her perfect teeth, felt the warmth radiating from her flawless skin, sensed the intelligence and humor in her guileless expression and suddenly remembered: it was the first week of Spring.