There is always a kitchen.
When I remember them — him, her, her, him — there is dough, flour, water, heat. Light, both too much and not enough. Refuse. Blood. Vegetable love, and already, just this far in, we’re at the unfortunate problem of the English word love, with its many meanings. I use it in every one of the possible ways.
The first kitchen was not The First Kitchen, but a pizza kitchen with a wooden bar embedded with copper and silver. Twenty years before, someone had gathered the spare change (or maybe the first change from the first day’s business), carefully drilled it in and lacquered it over. Above it hung glass and light and cheap, rough wood, and underneath it hummed with refrigeration that my dad occasionally walked across the street to repair. The far side of the L-shaped bar, over by the bathrooms, was the only cool place besides the dining room because the whole of the kitchen was baked by the Vulcan oven, always set at 500 degrees, and the outside doors that led to the blacktop lot that sweltered for eight months each year under the mid-south sun.
My job was to prep mountains of iceberg lettuce, white onions, green bell peppers and then to drain and press gallon cans of mushrooms and black olives. Sometimes it was just me doing the first, raw prep while others tore leaves and chopped the things that needed chopping. The set-up meant everyone else worked on my deaf side, usually with a dough roller running in the background above the hum of the refrigeration, and it was weeks before I figured out that there was a constant conversation that went on all morning until we opened.
Sometimes we all huddled around a 25 pound box of produce and worked our way through it, banging heads of lettuce against the bar to loosen the cores and punching the tops out of peppers before tossing them into a sink full of water. Then we started to talk and I learned that these were complicated people who came from places I had known fairly little about in my small, Southern Baptist world. All the lettuce was the same. All the peppers were the same. I thought every day of my life was the same, and it was a desperately unhappy sameness.
Sometime in the second summer, my night-shift crush appeared on the day shift. He was tall and gangly, brown hair and brown eyes. Gay and smart and more cultured than I, and free with recommendations for Almodovar films and hair dye. One day, we banged our way through 50 pounds of peppers. He pulled one out of the waxed cardboard box, twisted and streaked with red, and set it on the bar next to the cash register. Odd. But then, he was odd. When we reached the end of the box I grabbed it to rip it apart and he snatched it back.
“No, wait. You have to look at it.”
“Why? It’s a darn pepper.” (Despite a year in kitchens, I had still not learned to properly cuss.)
“Look,” he said, frustrated. “It’s beautiful. Can’t you see that?”
The edge in his voice stopped me and I looked. Suddenly all the peppers were different from one another. This one was, in that moment, made beautiful and strange, and the longer I looked the more it twisted and blushed.
It lived on the counter for the rest of the day as we cooked and baked and served. Every time the door opened a slightly different light hit it. After eight hours close to the heat of the oven it began to wrinkle, to decompose ever so slightly, and I reached over to touch its new texture. Then, I didn’t have the words to consider it as a meditation object, but looking back on this single pepper from the vantage point of twenty years on, that’s exactly what it was. It was a point upon which the unrelenting sameness of the days shattered and suddenly I was able to see — at first, wonderfully individual objects and then, eventually, people as unique creatures that wanted to be seen and known.