"Still Life with Onions" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Cutting Onions In Half

Once, I was trying to reach some sort of comfort in a rush, so I took a shortcut through a city dump but was struck helpless when confronted by hunger. And I must confess that among those landscapes of trash, I secretly wished that hunger were loud and contagious, like some disease that we are not allowed to ignore.

What are your relationships with food and hunger like?

I hadn’t cooked in weeks. At this point, I was still able to feel sorry for myself because imaginary boundaries had been realistically closed. I was alone in a foreign land and condemned to a small apartment-hotel with a tiny fridge. Delivered food no longer provided fulfillment, but I hoped that some home cooking would alleviate the homesickness. 

                I sweated and I sweated and I cursed the coronas of the sun. It was forty-five minutes walking from my lodging to the grocery store in a hundred and seven degree sun during a police enforced lockdown in a country of one point three-five billion souls. Outside, more cows than cars roamed the roads. The wind drove heat and red dust about. This city of so many decibels had never sounded so hollow. Finally, I encountered some life at a police roadblock with baton-wielding officers. I flashed my blue passport and explained that I was going to the supermarket. They looked at me suspiciously, ‘the disease was brought and carried by foreigners.’ They told me to hurry.            

                 My legs were my sole vehicle. Public transportation had been temporarily banned. (Also, all offices, factories, construction projects, parks, and even farms were shut down. Later that day, I discovered that an estimated 122 million people lost their jobs and livelihoods because of this lockdown. I learned that millions of migrant workers were walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes. But at that time, enduring the weight of such petty and privileged loads for forty-five minutes under the spotlight of my own selfish sun was shamefully enough for self-pity.)

                So, on the way back to the hotel my shadow and I took a shortcut, behind the supermarket, past an empty lot and through a landfill. My being was encumbered by bags brimming with packaged viands and processed snacks. The heat persisted and the stench from the heaps of waste tugged at my nose hairs, so that for the first time, I was grateful for my face mask.

                An unloaded garbage truck oozed over my loaded shadow as I lumbered across the dusty road and through the landscapes of trash. Then, the laughter of children was wafted to my shadow and I by the wind. Remnant frequencies from yesterday’s swarms of locusts made background noise, wanting to be recognized as a rightful biblical plague but largely ignored as they were eclipsed by the virus named after the sun. I noticed the black birds too; they landed and took off in satiated silence. Also, there were two young women in colorful saris, quiet and diligent, as they scavenged and mined the hills of trash for scraps of hope.

                The rag-clad children climbed and slipped and laughed. The women dug. The women sorted.

“Beggar” by Theo van Doesburg

                One woman noticed me and my shadow and briskly grabbed a child by the wrist and dragged him to intercept us at the path. She stood atop my shadow and proffered the empty cup of her hands; she looked up at me and bared the hollow in her eyes. I dug through my groceries and gave the child the bananas and my chocolate bar. The baby’s eyes were filled by a smile but the woman was unsatisfied; the void in her eyes and the bareness of her hands implored for more. I gave her the potatoes.

                She wanted more. I felt my shadow’s urge to run but my shoes were concrete upon the dirt path and all I could do was sweat. I looked at her naked feet in her tattered sandals but it was I who felt exposed. We wanted to explain but I didn’t know what, there was more than a language barrier between my shadow and myself. The other child ran up to us and the woman gave him the potatoes and then both children ran off to conquer yet another hill of waste.

                She wanted currency. I gave her potato chips and dehydrated mangoes and some change. Stench evaporated in a visible haze and rose with the temperature and it all suddenly seemed like a mirage. The city was too quiet for stomachs to be unheard.

                Just beyond the woman, bananas turned into toy pistols and one child pushed another, face first, down a mound of trash. The children were laughing again and somehow the purity of laughter was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time; all that joy and innocence misplaced. I allowed myself a melancholy smile at the proof that food can both heal and kill. There, among all that trash, I saw that joy wasn’t exclusive to tasteful pleasures, even when suffering accompanies necessity. Moreover, I had to question why it is not tolerable to play with food but it’s socially acceptable to let it go to waste, to toss it half-eaten into bins, just so that it can be forgotten and we can move on without remorse, to thinking about our next meal.

                Suddenly, from the hollows of her throat, the woman’s voice cut through the quietude of the quarantined city and I felt her wrenching hunger as she pleaded. My stomach wrapped itself around my spine and pulled my features, and my own voice, down into the vacuum of my belly. Emptiness occupied everything around me. I remained choked and silent, like everyone else in the world, and the woman persisted, extending her unfulfilled hands.

                The laughter of the children continued to echo among the oasis of spoiled fruits and discarded dreams. The black birds were quiet still, the flies buzzed, some left-behind locusts chirped. Meanwhile, I secretly wished that hunger was loud and contagious, so that we may all experience it for the plague that it truly is.             

                I’ve never felt so undeserving, so helpless; so, I gave the woman half of my onions and the entirety of my eyes. She held them until I had to close them, and only when I turned myself blind did I finally manage to walk and follow my shadow away from the sun. But those onions were so bitter and so cutting that they still make my eyes water.

David Rojas was born among the Andes and grew up in the Sunshine State. His poetry, prose, and essays have been published in a handful of journals and magazines. He enjoys writing poetry, prose, and creative non-fiction but finds it difficult to write biographies, especially in the third person about himself. He currently does not have a permanent residence and this has helped him learn how to reside in the moment. Recently, he managed to escape the world’s largest lock down in India, since the Covid-19 pandemic cut his tour of Southeast Asia short after a year and a half of wandering those lands and seas. He is currently back in the Sunshine State, spending time with family and old friends, soaking in the all the warmth and all the love. He has managed to stay healthy but realized upon his return that he had been homesick all along. Before all that, he spent a year falling in love with the people of a small rural village in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where he acted as a youth development volunteer for the US Peace Corps. In a previous incarnations, he has worn many hats, most of them hard hats and as he spent a lot of time in power plants acting as an engineer and project manager. You can find him on Instagram @sweetfriedplantain.

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