Feast without count

There was an opportunity to get strawberries. I realized this at 8:30, after I had already committed to exercising. The backyard was still syrupy with morning fragrance. All the smells that beg one to relax and be present in this brief window when the New Orleans heat hasn’t yet come to shrink life into bookend hours.

But strawberries. The yoga could wait. I’d last attempted a store four days ago, going in an hour after the governor had made the first big closure announcement and leaving without buying anything. No bother. The pasta and toilet paper and beans were already gone.

In ten minutes I was headed towards the river, agitated and excited. Stopping by an ATM somehow seemed a gross expenditure of time. Instead I’d run upstairs and grabbed a stack of emergency money – something I’m both ashamed of keeping (it recalls the origins of the habit, secrecy in an abusive relationship) and finding incredibly practical (hello, pandemic). Just after nine I arrived in the shadow of the Lambeth House.

The line to enter the market might have taken twenty minutes. People were being staggered, keeping their six feet and good humors in a 200 meter line in the parking lot. I saw a work colleague, and a parent. A friend, the clerk of our church, nervously stood by the gatekeepers, wondering if his family would get back from their walk or if he should just take the opportunity to go in and get things while he could.

When my turn came I shelled out bills with abandon. Bought everything that seemed reasonable and delicious and wise, eggs and potted herbs and carrots. And strawberries. Half a flat. I didn’t even think about the fact that I would need pectin and probably more sugar than I had at home. I was going to make jam. As I was about to leave I spun around. The hoarding impulse so many people have fallen prey to kicked in. Would there be a market next week? Should I buy more?

In a light daze I wandered back through the stalls until I found myself in front of the flowers. I didn’t even see the human vendor. The flowers, with their soft and bold colors, their delicate splendor, triggered a kind of shame. It was all I could do not to stand there and weep at knowing so few of their names. Just an hour earlier, I’d been bathed in the scent of what might be gardenias, or jasmine, or maybe even wisteria, if it has a smell. Criminal, our place in this world. Overgrown. How often we have failed in our caretaking. Of the planet. Our children. Ourselves. We wake up alone during a quarantine, the poetry and bleakness of our situation mash up until suddenly it’s 10:30 and we’re still standing in front of the toaster, calculating how much butter is sensible to smear on the bread today.

“Steph, I’ll buy you flowers if you want flowers.” The voice of my friend was sunlight beside me.

“No, no thanks,” I demurred, embarrassed and unfrozen. I stepped up and gave the vendor a ten. I walked away clutching a handful of dark, delicate stems capped by bulbous petals, rosé and ivory and burgundy and custard.

The strawberries cost the most, but the feast is priceless. I don’t know how much of the emergency money I spent, because I don’t know how much there was to begin with. And I like it that way. The numbers worry our days and nights now. The numbers used to be so reasonable in my inability to leave a bad situation. But today there is a tease of rain and warmth. Today there is no need to quantify the mistakes or cares, the smells or tastes. There is a crush of colors that I’m quite sure if I could open my heart, I would see. Rosé and ivory and burgundy and custard.

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