It was the summer I stopped eating cheese. All dairy, in fact. And eggs. Beef, pork, chicken, the entirety of it. The starving spring had overturned into a sweaty June. I’d wake up to the smell of black coffee, hot. Then a 40-minute run along the Maryland and DC border. Swamp season. The humidity of the suburbs melted the trash cans and choked all the flowers. Two miles in and I was a mess of muscles and blood, threatening to burst under a blazing sun. Afterward, I would be greeted by the privilege of air-conditioning—the cool, dry air allowing millions of dew droplets to form on my skin. I’d lay there, roadkill skeleton, on the floor of my living room. And to fill my empty mind, I’d turn to the ravages of internet discussion boards. You know how it is—that diet of discourse, diatribes.
Cue Craigslist: the neighborhood’s anonymous discussion forum. I’d scroll through rants&raves, gigs, services. People searched for caretakers to attend to their bedridden grandmothers, while others sought last-minute lovers to do them dirty behind a truck stop. The website was a glimpse into the unexpected mind of the city dweller. And Missed Connections was the dessert of the experience. These posts featured lonely strangers shouting into cyberspace about hair color and height, hoping for a whisper back. Girl at Breakheart Reservation. We should get together. Holiday Stress Release. Be Mine Forever and Ever and Ever. These were people hungry for affection.
A professor advised me in storytelling: a person’s desire can become their character. In that sense, we are all writing ourselves with want. It’s something that human beings can recognize about one another. We are all so familiar. The quirk of an eyebrow, the upturn of a lip. Reaching hands. Remember me? I’m the smell of your favorite boy’s cologne. I’m the eyes of your high school best friend. I’m your perfect stranger. We can have each other, but we will not. It would haunt me all week—on the floor, on my runs, on the metro. All the people that I would never know, that I would never talk to, never touch. How every space was so full of sparks waiting to be ignited.
It was actually through Craigslist that I found my part-time gig for the summer: a market position for Three Springs Fruit Farm. Around four hours, twice a week for $80 a shift. Free groceries, and apples by the bushel. It was a good deal. The farmer’s market was to be in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood that required both a bus ride and later line transfer on the metro. I liked the rides. The transportation time glided past me, softened by the glances of university students and the napping service workers around me. Everything that summer was so public.
The fruit stand in question was set up at the squeaky corner of Park Road and 14th Street, where it jutted out onto a busy intersection. A fountain crowned its head, attracting both children and diseased birds to play in its waters. The sky sat heavy with rain. Homeless men speckled the benches and mumbled to themselves, wary of the overcast season, the dirty benches, the policemen at the end of the sidewalk. They were always looking to start trouble. As the first raindrops dotted the pavement, the mothers of the park swaddled their little ones in their own sweet-smelling sweaters. Under the clouds of the afternoon, the families lined up on the corner for their supplemental food checks. The chatter of the shoppers melded with the oncoming thunder.
My job was to fill the holes in the display and to man the register, rounding each purchase down to the nearest quarter. Fairytale eggplants, okra to be pickled, and dewy apples glistened in their arrangements. The peaches and penumbras waited by the cashier. All the things to eat laid out like jewels at a bazaar. All the things to pick, to pluck, to bite. My working partners circled around the stand, weighing down its legs with bags of sand. The wind was picking up. The raindrops had gathered on the roof of the tent, and rivers of water descended on the produce, melting all the green containers of raspberries and wild blueberries. I let a man with dirty fingernails steal a handful of gooseberries. The air’s weight refused to dissipate, weighing down upon the shoulders of my employees and the people waiting in line. I continued to shovel paper checks into the cash register. The stomach of the sky grumbled.
And like lightning, I did not notice the body until it was right in front of me. Like a flash of something horrible. A small halo of stewed tomato red adorned his head, and his hands splayed out around him like a tarot card illustration. In a few movements, he crumpled up like a newborn baby. There was a woman on the phone, waving her hand around and exclaiming curt curses in Spanish. Another man called him a drunkard. All the eyes in the world lay upon the man, but the bodies to which they belonged stayed put, lest the check line would move forward. And I took check after check after check. They say that what is saving you from hurt is also blinding you. The rain cascaded down in wide, wet footsteps. I could see him in the corner of my eye. Yes, in the corner of my eye—I could see him sleeping with no breath. He will never eat again. That is what I thought. When the EMT cleaned him later, they took him away and left no trace.
The man still dances around, clumsy drunk he is, in the park of my mind. I’d sit in the coffee darkness of my room, licking over my teeth. I wondered what he planned to buy at the market. The cherries and crabapples, all of them sweet to tongue and sound to eye. The hungriest hands and the overwhelming lots of food. It was a scene of depravity and abundance. And there was that gurgling void in my story of that afternoon—I only had what I saw and heard and consumed: Latino Man in his 40s to 50s. Mustached. Plaid vest and raggedy jeans. Slipped and hit his head on the ground near my farmer’s market tent. My missing connection. This was the post I had drafted and saved for many fruitless months. I never sent it. The lighter would not have sparked, for the rain.