Susan, who choked to death, prepared her neighbors chicken Marbella, a dish made with olive oil, capers, oregano, brown sugar, prunes, white wine, garlic. Her neighbors were moving away because the wife was sick. The wife had put a sign in her kitchen that read, “If You’re Gonna Cry, Do It Somewhere Else.” Susan saw this sign when the husband invited her in for coffee. Susan who choked to death loved the husband, loved his neighborliness. She loved him from her driveway and windows, front and back yards, day and night dreams. The husband was tall like the tree he had pruned for Susan who choked to death. The tree grew in the front flower bed, and perhaps anticipating her need, her own inability, the neighbor’s husband had come over with his pruning shears, trimmed the tree into a pleasant pear shape. His head was bald and radiant in the sun, like the glass globe she bought to decorate the lily garden. She, who would later choke to death, wanted to lick his thick mustache, feel the coarse hairs on her tongue, tasting, she imagined, like strawberries, or almonds.
Susan who choked to death assembled the Marbella from memory. Would the neighbor’s husband read the ingredients of the pan that spelled out her great affection for him, her neighbor, who had to move now because his wife was sick? Susan who choked to death imagined the neighbor’s husband had all kinds of private talents: cricket, glass blowing, the flute, gardening, baking, Sudoku. Susan who would choke to death wondered how his mustache would feel between her thighs.
Susan who choked to death popped a glove of garlic into her mouth, a remedy for sore throat, sore heart. Susan who choked to death remembered the lilt of her father’s Hungarian words, the way he closed down behind his eyes when Susan’s mother died, how he kept little brother Michael in the house only long enough to bury their mother like a spring bulb that would never bloom, how he moved Michael to a hospital – they called it a home but they all knew it wasn’t – only for him to die, too. Michael who wasn’t right in the head, his tiny mustache looking like a costume, a young man who could form only a few words, who made odd noises, who sometimes wet his pants. The neighbor’s husband would never have sent little brother Michael to a home.
Susan who choked to death decorated her kitchen with copper gelatin molds shaped like farm animals. Susan who choked to death imagined the neighbor’s husband in his own kitchen with the sign, “If You’re Gonna Cry, Do it Somewhere Else.” Susan wanted Somewhere Else to be her house, her arms, her mouth. She who would choke to death would welcome his tears into her throat.
Susan who choked to death spit out the garlic clove. It left a salty taste, spicy and bitter. The wife had cancer, or at least she was pretty sure; the wife was “sick.” This being the only information the husband had given Susan when she’d wandered over (had she looked casual?) to his/their yard to ask why, oh why was there a For Sale sign out front of their house?
It pained him to say it, “sick”, like poison on his teeth. “My,” she said, “what very terrible news,” and touched his arm, which was extremely hairy, which was her favorite, because it reminded her he was a man and so different than she. Did they have to sell the house to pay for the wife’s treatments? Had they not – as Susan had – planned ahead? Susan who choked to death imagined how happy the neighbor’s husband would be if they – the husband and Susan – were married, and so cradled together in her careful insurance policies, her cozy retirement package from the school, her ability to take care of him, make him comfortable in their twilight years. “My dearest most darling Susan,” he would say, “what on the good earth would I do without you?”
If Susan who choked to death wanted to cry, she would do it right then and there, not Somewhere Else, and he would do the same. A more ridiculous kitchen sign she had never seen and this in a town full of church billboards: God Answers Knee-mail, Choose the Bread of Life or You are Toast.
Susan who choked to death added oregano to the chicken, a bit more red wine vinegar. Her mother had never made this dish; Susan who choked to death learned it from a friend who was reluctant to give up the recipe, but now the smell felt like home and she wanted the neighbor’s husband to eat this feeling, to take it into him. Let the chicken sit in the oil, the vinegar, the oregano, the garlic, the green olives, the capers (briny and small between her back teeth), the prunes. Some people were shy of prunes, but they made the dish, a bite of sweet.
Little brother Michael’s favorite food was toast. Plain, butter, apple butter, marmalade, with cheese, with peanut butter, with cream cheese. “Toast,” he would say, “toast?” She who would choke to death made it for him every morning and every day after school when she got home, and he was starving because their mother had died and she had always been the one to stay home with him and feed him and clean him and now no one was there to do those things. She made him cinnamon toast, too, mixed the cinnamon and sugar ahead of time in a little bowl, which was important.
Susan who choked to death brought over the dish to the neighbor’s house. The friendly doorbell sang. A geranium in a pot, no dead heads to be seen. A small rug: “Welcome! Come as You Are.” How was Susan, who choked to death? Nervous, lusty, aching, hungry. No one answered the door, not after four rings and a little spill of juice from the dish, which fell onto the little rug, marked it with a stain.
Later that evening, when Susan choked to death on a grape – a reprieve that she had not choked on food she assembled, cooked, baked herself; not, sweet Jesus, the Marbella – she did not think of her brother, or her father, or her neighbor’s husband who knew just where to cut the branch to promote optimal growth, who carried her groceries in that one time, maybe he had carried in this very grape, the culprit itself, its silky skin, its firm center. It was a wholly physical experience, maybe the first in Susan’s life: her hands on her face and chest, mouth open, desire and shame in her throat, a gift stopped just short of delivery, falling to the cold tile, words came to mind like suspension, oh to be Somewhere Else, wasn’t there a move she could do, fall hard onto her chest or against a chair, but no, the grape was steadfast and unforgiving, like a hard winter, or a cancer, not right in the head, a song ringing in an empty house, and on and on. Susan who choked to death would never know the long list of others who choked to death: Sophocles (also grape, or losing breath reciting lines from Antigone, or ecstatic drama), the French philosopher Denis Diderot (apricot), Tennessee Williams (bottle cap), the Irish poet Christopher Nolan (salmon). Mama Cass (heart attack) did not choke on a ham sandwich after all, but the very unfamous Thomas G. Simpson did, on a Sunday in 1937, in the small room behind his vacuum repair shop where he ate lunch by the small, whirring fan, listening to the Red Sox game on the radio about how Jimmie Foxx, the one who would choke to death (bone), hit the ball into the left-field nosebleeds at Yankee Stadium, and Thomas thought to himself this might be a fine way to go, maybe, or at least better than others he had imagined, and in the end was found by his grown daughter, who wept.
A fragile thing, Susan thought to herself, her heart also somehow in her throat, this business of longing.