By: Ann Yuan
Twenty years later, when Jodi saw Venessa walk into her Café at Hampton plaza, she swore that a trace of bittersweetness, the taste of almond or walnut, welled up in her mouth.
“Hi, congratulations on your grand opening!” Venessa said. She wore a cute black wool coat, immaculate make-ups, honey hue hair in delicate waves flew down to her shoulders. She took an inspecting glance over the dining area, then came up with an approving grin on the corner of her lips.
High-spirited, amiable yet fastidious, trying to be perfect in every subject, which she succeeded at most of the time; she hadn’t changed a bit. Except, she didn’t recognize me. Jodi relived. That was for the best. Never expecting to see her again in this lifetime, Jodi faltered, forgetting to greet her customer with a warm welcome. Did she work in the nearby office complex? She must be. Companies over there ought to provide consistent flow; that was the reason Jodi chose the location for her first business adventure. Now she was not sure it was a wise decision.
“Excuse me, do you have any salad?” Venessa asked. The idle was awkward. The owner looked new to this business. She must need some time to fit in her role.
Waken up to her customer’s inquiry, Jodi pulled herself together. “Yes! We do. What would you like? We have Chicken Caesar, Kale with roasted steak, Chef’s Special Vegan…”
“What do you recommend?” Venessa asked again, slightly tilting her head to one side.
Jodi looked at her. Is this a test? After so many years, she had to make a choice, and hopefully, a solution as well. One idea, emerging from the sea of distant days, came to her mind.
“I will fix you a salad.” Jodi smiled. “Please take a seat.”
Back in the kitchen, Jodi started working. Her hands flew between cabinet and shelf, grabbing, dicing, and tossing. This was her kingdom, she could do what she wanted to do, and enjoyed what she was good for. She would rather stay the whole day inside the kitchen instead of standing in the back of the counter. And today, she was going to create a new recipe, or better yet, a reconciliation between herself and eleven-year-old Jodi.
When Jodi hold the bowl with two hands and lay it on the table, she felt her face flushed, both armpits cold with sweat. She took a step back and waited.
It was a wooden salad bowl piled high with bloody heirloom tomato, crescent moons of avocado, fresh baby vegetables, crispy toasted pita, and drizzled with yellow nutty chickpea. All were sided with a huge glob of creamy homemade dressing.
Venessa raised her folk, picked up a little bit of everything, and dipped in the dressing — typical Venessa, only testing a small amount first, Jodi nodded undetectably.
She chewed, tongue swirling and churning. The zippy taste came from yogurt, no doubt about that. The tastes of the sour sweat tomato and butter-like avocado were all distinct and scrumptious. There was somehow a strange fragrance, something she couldn’t identify, penetrating all other flavors and permeating into her head. It made magic.
Eyes widening, she asked eagerly, “What is it?”
“Sesame oil,” Jodi blurted out.
That single word astonished Venessa. Born with food allergies, she had never tasted nuts, peanuts, and many seeds, including sesame. As if God opened up a window in a locked room, she could tolerate sesame oil — the pure golden fluid without any ominous protein. Only a handful of people knew this secret, her parents, allergy specialist, her best friends in college, high school, and…
“Jodi!” She shouted, hand covering her mouth.
It was Jodi from her sixth grade. She almost doubled her height and weight. Her face was round and smooth. Her hair was styled nicely. She was not wearing reading glasses now. For the first time, Venessa now noticed that her eyes were like gleaming blue gems.
They were each other’s shallow in school, doing homework, hanging out at weekend, giggling over silly jokes inside their bedrooms. One day, Jodi just became distanced. Avoiding her friends and refusing to go to any after-school activities, she’d built a shell around herself and withdrawn into it. In the middle of seventh grade, her family sold their house and moved. Then she was gone, not a word from her in twenty years.
“How have you been?”
“My mom…found a job in Philadelphia, we moved there and…” Jodi stuttered.
“Oh, Jodi, you just disappeared,” Venessa went up to hold Jodi’s hands and pull her to the chair across the table. “Please tell me everything, fill me up. Why do you…and I …?”
Venessa hesitated, not knowing how to explain. In fact, She’d been waiting for Jodi’s explanation. There came a time when she thought that she might have offended Jodi. But how? Her aggressiveness was well compensated by Jodi’s forbearance and reticence. She didn’t like to ask for permission, and Jodi was prone to forget and forgive.
She glimpsed the sky through the glass wall. Black clouds hung low; the air was heavy and gloomy. Just two of them occupied the otherwise empty Café — It was not a perfect day for a grand opening.
Jodi took a deep breath, “Do you remember that incidence in the cafeteria?”
“Of course I remember. It was a close call,” Venessa gasped. It was an ordinary day. Her regular lunch, a green salad, safely sealed in a plastic box, suddenly became a poison to her. A few seconds after the first bite, she felt the tingling, itching sensation in her throat. Hives as large as quarters start showing on her arms. She walked to the security standing in one corner of the room, in her already changed high pitch voice, hissed “Call 911.”
As she lay on the floor, she could hear the radio announcement —school in lockdown. The ambulance is entering campus — remote and rippling through the ceiling. Her heart was pudding violently, racing in her chest trying to pump up more blood to maintain normal blood pressure. Then she felt a punch in her thigh, not much pain, just like somebody played a prank on her. She knew that EpiPen had worked before she slowly dozed off.
No one knew what went wrong. It remained a mystery.
“And you brought my backpack to my mom. Thanks!” Venessa was grateful.
Jodi shook her head. “You really don’t know it, do you?” she choked, eyes red and swollen.
She had imagined this scene thousands of times in the last twenty years. She could have left a note in her backpack, or walked to her house to tell her face to face. After moving out of the town, she could always write a letter, which was probably the easiest way. Yet, she did nothing.She let it buried in her heart, slide into oblivion, along with the seventh-grade boy who had no idea that his recklessness almost cost a young lady’s life.
Now Jodi spoke: how she watched silently, that the seventh-grade boy walked to Venessa; they talked, and they laughed; they were both buoyant and lovely, like winners of the world. She also spoke: she scrawled pages and pages in her journal; sketched a silhouette of a straight nose and bony chin. Let’s not forget, how quick he was to snap her glasses off, examine them, and suggest her use it as a microscope in Science, all happened while he leaned on the locker and sneered like a movie star.
So she crashed, under the table, the oat&almond snack bar between her palms, over and over, as if milling and pulverizing her non-significant self into tiny particles. When Venessa went up to refill for the water bottle, she got up too, gingerly sprinkling a pinch of the crumble onto Venessa’s salad as she swiped by her chair.
She’ll see it. She’ll see it and dump the whole thing. Jodi told to herself, repeatedly. It never meant to harm anyone. It was a prank, wasn’t it? A foolish, perilous method to express her feeling to the ignorant world.
After Jodi finished, it was silent. The air seemed frozen. Jodi wouldn’t look up. She was convicted of a felony and stripped of any right to ask for anything.
“Well,” Venessa exhaled. She bit her lips. The taste of the sesame oil was still there, soothing and healing.
“What is the name of this salad?” She asked, softly.
“What?” Jodi was puzzled.
“Let’s call it, forgiveness.” Venessa stared at Jodi, confirming her decision.