And I can’t remember how it ended. Was it her or was it me? So much time has passed but I still find myself thinking about those days. I remember thinking that everything was fine, but then Florida happened. That trip changed it all for us. We were young and after dating for five months, we spent every waking hour together when we could. We were sophomores at St. John’s University in Queens; I studied Electrical Engineering and she pursued Liberal Arts. But it wasn’t enough just being around her all the time. I needed more. She felt it too. Spring break was coming up and I asked her if she wanted to drive down to Florida before the weekend.
Trista said yes.
So I made plans and by Thursday we were on our way down to Siesta Key. During the whole drive, she wouldn’t stop talking and I loved that about her. She talked about lying on the beach, playing in the ocean, sipping piña coladas, and dancing with her silhouette on the sand under a moon-lit night.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“We can go snorkeling or even deep sea diving,” she said. “Or maybe windsurfing or kayaking or wakeboarding. I’ve never tried kitesurfing. We have to do that.”
“And then? Anything after all that?”
With her lips curling into a smirk, she looked at me with her deep brown eyes, eyes like a brown ocean that pulled you deeper into her with each wave, eyes you could sink or swim in.
“I’m saving the best for last.”
“I wouldn’t mind if the best came first.”
The world outside the car whizzed by in a blur and I reached outside the window to grab a hold of it. The force of the wind pushed against my palm like a warm hand. In the south, the warmth radiated not just from the sun, but from the people too, a friendly bunch who look at you right in the face and smile and say hello, as if these people were given all the time in the world or know how to use the little time that God gave them. You don’t get that up north. Not all the time at least. Outside the window, my fingers fluttered in the wind like feathers on the wings of a seagull. I looked over and Trista flew with me in her seat.
I was glad to take a break. I had a part time job at Melvin’s Sandwich Hut and it might seem at first that Melvin’s was just like any other New York City deli, but the owner was different. He prided himself on his sandwiches. He was a short stout man who wore a 5 o’clock shadow even at 7am and always smelled of deli meat. If John Montagu invented sandwiches, then Melvin was the man who canonized it. He believed sandwich-making was an art and was always surprised by the number of people who didn’t know exactly what was in their sandwich meat. A great sandwich started with great ingredients and Melvin didn’t cut corners. He even went to the point of making some of the sandwich meat in his kitchen. He cured and smoked his own pastrami and served it on fresh baked rye. His prices were a bit more than your average deli, but well worth it when you took your first bite. I loved that place. Work was so busy that it became tough to hold down a job and do school at the same time, but I needed the money to pay for classes. Not all of us could be like Trista. She was lucky. Her parents were rich and lived in Tel Aviv and before Trista came to the states four years ago, she spent a year traveling overseas, visiting other countries. I spent that year and the year before that and all the years of high school in Queens. Her parents made sure that she was not burdened by any worry by covering all her expenses when she lived with her uncle near the university. I paid for the trip and she got one of her friends to cover for her. Her uncle seemed nice and caring, but I felt it unnecessary to let him know what went on.
“You sure he’s not going to find out?”
“Who?” she said.
“Your uncle,” I said.
“I’m sure. And even if he does, he’s not like that. He’s always been good to me.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The blue sky hung flat in layers and stretched as far as we drove. The bright southern sun felt warm on our faces. Trista waved her arm out the window and her long black hair whipped up with every rush of wind then rested on her white milky shoulders.
“Thanks,” she said.
“For this. I really wanted to spend some time with you. Alone.” Her eyes were closed and the sunlight lit her face into a glow.
I don’t know what it was. When I stared at her face, my stomach quivered and ached, not a bad thing, but something just bubbled up inside and kept growing until I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. That’s how I felt. I guess it was love.
We drove most of the day and we made a pit stop in Savannah, Georgia for the night. After we grabbed something to eat, I parked the car in the lot of a Motel 6. We were going to sleep in the back seat. No need to spend money for a short night. Earlier, I had tucked a cooler under the seat and I didn’t want her to see it so I climbed into the back first. When Trista jumped into the back, it became cramped but I was thrilled to hold her in my arms. I couldn’t resist. Our bodies pressed together and every movement she made, aroused a feeling I couldn’t force back. But then she grabbed my face and told me to save it. Save it for tomorrow. Save it for when it’s right. Save it till it couldn’t get any more perfect, and then when we do it, it does. She pulled my face closer and we kissed ourselves to sleep.
The next day, we reached Jacksonville and there were only four more hours to go. I had booked this nice rental along the beach in Siesta Key. The rental was small, but it was all I could afford. I had so many memories of my parents taking me to Siesta Key when I was a child. They would escape the busy life of New York to enter this paradise if only for the weekend. The white sand at the beach felt so soft that it seemed as if you were walking on white powdery sheets of silk and even on those hot sweltering days when the sand should burn the bottom of your feet, it felt cool to the touch. I found it interesting that after a good romp on the beach, most people would jump in the showers and would wash off all the sand and salt that clung to their bodies. The refreshing smell of the beach substituted with the unnatural smell of chlorinated water. I always left the beach without showering. I wanted to take that beach fragrance back to the rental with me.
We were almost there. Trista talked for hours, but I wasn’t paying attention. She laid her head in my lap and I felt her warm breath against me. I felt every word she spoke. The wind blew in from the open windows and fluttered her black skirt up and down, inch by inch, along her long slender legs. I smiled and interrupted her with a few vague suggestions. She smiled and her eyes implied a treat.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“I guess, where do you want to stop?” she said.
She sat up and picked up the map on the seat. “The next exit is about fifteen miles and there’s no real town there. I don’t think there’s a place to eat.”
“There’s a small cooler tucked away in the back. See if you can grab it.”
Trista looked and found the small red and white cooler tucked tight under the backseat. She pulled it to the front and placed it next to me.
“It’s still cold,” she said. “It was dark last night and I was wondering what that was. How long were you going to save this?”
“Only for emergencies. This was just in case we couldn’t find food on the road. Go ahead.”
She opened the cooler.
“Ham sandwiches!” I said.
Melvin was nice enough to let me make some sandwiches for the road. I wanted to make sure that the ingredients were the best for Trista. Melvin was right. It was an art. The sandwiches were sculpted using a couple of strips of romaine lettuce, thinly sliced beefsteak tomatoes, grilled red onions, three slices of Swiss cheese, seven slices of the finest honey ham, a pinch of black pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar and ranch dressing, which were all compressed between two slices of toasted tomato basil bread. Tasty as that sounds, it wasn’t enough. Melvin taught me his layering technique which maximized on the taste of all the ingredients. Instead of lumping the lettuce on one side and cramming the meat into the other, they were layered into the sandwich. A layer of veggies, then a layer of cheese, then a layer of meat. This pattern continued so that all the main ingredients were evenly distributed. When you bit into the sandwich, you experienced the whole taste in your mouth. It was in the layers. It was how the sandwich was meant to be eaten.
“These smell great,” she said and took a bite. “How did you prevent it from getting all soggy?”
“I wrapped it in cheese cloth to prevent moisture then wrapped it in wax paper.”
“Wow. You are a professional and I’m impressed. I thought you did something to them like those vending machine sandwiches.”
“I would never do that. They probably spray them with something to preserve them that long.” I removed the wrapping and took a bite of my sandwich.
“I can’t believe the taste. It’s amazing.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m glad you’re not one of those picky eaters. It’s so hard to make anything for them.”
“As long it’s not made from pork, I can eat anything.” Trista was halfway through her sandwich.
“What?” I asked. She took another bite.
“I’ll eat anything.”
“Oh, I don’t like pork.”
“What?” I rolled up the windows to make sure I heard correctly and the wind stopped playing with her hair and black skirt.
“I said, I don’t like pork.” She was almost finished with her sandwich. “I just can’t stand anything that’s made from those ugly, dirty pigs. They’re just unclean animals. It’s just gross.”
“What do mean you don’t like pork?”
“Are you deaf?” She looked at me. “I said I don’t like—”
“Okay, okay. Then why are you eating ham sandwiches?”
“Pay attention. I don’t like pork. Ham is fine. Just not pork.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Ham is pork. It’s from pigs.”
“No it’s not! Ham is different. It’s not pork.”
“Yes it is! Ham is cured pork. The meat is pork. Ham. Pork. Pig! What animal did you think ham was from?”
“I don’t know. Are you sure it’s not from cows? It’s not pork.” Her voice cracked on the last word.
“Why would I lie to you about this? For God’s sake, I work in a sandwich shop and it’s my job to know the difference. Who told you it wasn’t?”
Trista looked at what was left of her sandwich. “My uncle said it wasn’t pork.”
“Why would he say that?”
She didn’t answer. Her body swayed back and forth in the seat. She closed her eyes and then opened them as if she was startled by an explosion. She pressed her mouth closed with her hands then opened her mouth gasping for air.
“Pull the car over! Pull the car over!” she yelled.
I slammed on the brakes, swerved to the side, and stopped the car. She swung the door open and before she could get out, chunks of sandwich projected from her mouth. Globs of undigested meat mixed with bile and saliva poured out of her until all I could hear was a rough cough. She dragged herself back in the car and sat down.
I slammed the gas pedal and we took off. Trista lowered her head and started to cry. My body tensed up and all I could do was drive. I pushed down harder on the pedal, wanting to go right through the floor. The world outside whizzed by in a blur and I leaned forward, pressing myself toward the dashboard, longing to fly right out of the car, wanting to be part of the blur. I looked over at Trista and slowed down. She sat up. I saw tears falling from her red eyes, mixing with her mascara, and drawing lines down her now pale face. Sections of crust clung to the sides of her mouth and chin where vomit dried up. Pieces of sandwich and small gobs of puke were caked all over her black skirt.
“Trista, your uncle lied to you, so what. People lie. It’s not a big deal.”
“What?” she yelled. “You don’t get it do you? You just don’t understand. He was my uncle. He was there when my dad wasn’t. I trusted him and he lied!”
I kept silent and continued to drive. My stomach quivered and ached when I stared at her face, but this time it was different. Something else bubbled up. It felt hot and it burned in me. Maybe it was my sandwich.
That weekend that I spent with Trista in Siesta Key was rough. It rained most of the time and we just stayed inside that small rental while she talked about her uncle without ceasing. I had never seen her like this. The questions she fired off were more rhetorical and I wasn’t sure how to jump into this one person conversation.
“Was that the only lie or were there more?”
Melvin had told me there would be times like these. He was married for twelve years. Back in the sandwich shop, I would run into him as he argued over the phone with his wife. And afterwards, he’d be silent for the rest of the day until the next day when he’d be back to his own loud self again.
“Was he pocketing some of the money my parents sent me?”
He always shouted advice now and then even if no one asked for it. Waving a block of Pepper Jack cheese in the air, he once told me that sometimes they get all crazy, real crazy, and become someone else. Someone you would never in your life ask on a date. A real ugly woman, he said.
“That time he walked in on me, was that an accident?”
He said it was at that time and at that moment that you had to swallow your pride and lay it all down. You had to love them back to their beauty. He said young folks didn’t get it. It wasn’t love that we had. Strange old man. His sandwiches made more sense than his advice.
The rental felt smaller today and a burning sensation crept up inside that I couldn’t shake off. Outside, the rain pummeled the rental’s roof and it sounded like muffled banging of hands above us.
“It’s funny if you think about it,” I interrupted.
“What?” She said. She turned to look me straight in the eyes. Her eyes seemed different now. They were brown but oceanless.
“I mean if you think about it, it’s actually funny. You know, I mean the whole pork thing. You’re a grown woman and you actually believed that pork and ham were two separate things for all this time. It’s funny.”
Trista didn’t smile. She just stared at me. My mouth slowly bent downward and my smile melted away into a worried display of teeth like one would show a dentist before root canal. She looked away and rattled off more about her uncle. She wouldn’t stop talking.
“Come on, Trista,” I said. “Can we get past this? It was probably one stupid lie and you’re blowing it out of proportion. I mean come on!”
She kept silent.
“We are on vacation in paradise and there are so many things we can do to take our minds off of this and all you can do is go on and on about what may or may not have been lies that your uncle told you. Who cares, so what. Let’s move on.” I moved closer and ran my finger through a lock of her hair.
“You’re disgusting,” she replied and moved back. “I’m going through a crisis here. The one man in my life that meant anything to me has been lying to me all these years. I trusted him and I’m slowly realizing that he wasn’t the good uncle I thought he was. He’s some greedy lying pervert and as I come to grips with the reality of this, all you can do is think of one thing. Is that all you think about? Well, you know what, why don’t you get past it, because it’s not happening on this trip. So forget about it.”
Trista walked to the other corner of the rental and started blabbering again. I wanted her to stop talking but I was still stuck on what she said. The one man that meant anything to her was her uncle. It became hot and I felt something burning again. It rose out through me, engulfed my body, and blurred my thoughts. I walked over to Trista, grabbed her, and held her firm. I looked hard in her face and her eyes went soft when she saw the burning in mine. From where I stood, I looked past her toward the fogged window and outside I saw blurred images of trees thrashing back and forth by the force of the wind, growing darker and darker, with wave after blurry wave of ocean crashing into the beach. For a moment, it looked beautiful even if it rained hard. Water droplets hit the rental’s tin roof like hands banging and beating against a chest, drowning out all the noise. And then the noise turned to silence when Trista stopped struggling.
The next day, Trista didn’t move from where she lay. It was the last day of our vacation and tomorrow morning we would leave. She kept her eyes focused on one wall and only closed them when tears came down. She lay so quiet and the soundless room spoke with deafening echoes into my ear. The burning sensation ceased, but I couldn’t take the noise anymore. The rental’s size had seemed smaller and smaller with each passing hour and I felt compressed with all the space around me. I couldn’t breathe. I ran out of the rental and onto the beach. I felt the cool sand slide under my feet and I ran against the rush of warm air. I took deep long breaths and I ran harder. The sound of the wind rustling the palm trees and the ocean’s roar drowned out the noise in my head. I dove into the ocean, plunging into its warmth, crashing my body into each wave, and the water embraced me, pulling me closer to the deep. I wanted it to erode every last memory and cleanse me. I held my breath and stretched out my arms.
Love was too hard.
I stayed underwater until my lungs felt like bursting. I wanted to open my mouth and let the ocean rush in to take me beyond the dark waters, beyond my pain, beyond my mistake, but instincts took over and I pushed upward, breaking through the water, taking what felt like my first breath. I swam back to shore and stayed outside till morning. At dawn, Trista came outside the rental with her bags packed. I got up and headed for the showers. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get all of the sand off my body. I still smelled of the beach.
We drove back home to New York. We didn’t talk much on the way back and there was no need to stop anywhere for food. We weren’t hungry. When we finally reached home, I dropped Trista off at the university and I drove off. I never wanted to see her again.
I stayed in my apartment for three days. I didn’t want to be around anyone. The answering machine took all the calls. I was dead to the world.
She never called me. I didn’t expect her to anyway.
After the third day, Melvin called in the morning and threatened me. He said that if I didn’t get my butt back to work, he would fire me. I didn’t want to lose my job. It would mean an end to my classes, my degree, this apartment, and any chance of getting a real job. An end to this portion of my life. But I struggled with that thought. Why not let it all end? Why not end it all? After hiding in my apartment for three days, it was time for me to get back to what was left of my life.
When I got there that afternoon for my shift, Melvin sat behind the front counter smiling and staring at me. Then he motioned with his eyes toward a booth on the right. I think Trista was there. She sat in the booth with a sandwich on the table and I believe she stretched out her hand toward me. I stood there looking at her and the sandwich. I saw that the taste of sweetness, the sharp bitterness, the delicate yet hard crust, the softness inside, the delight, the saltiness, the intense look, the cool crispness, the peppery heat, the joy, the tears, the heartburns, and the heartbreaks were all in the layers. It was all in the layers.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) in 1993 and has been working in the Information Technology field ever since. Inspired to explore his artistic side, he has earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida and is currently in the process of working toward an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. His works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Apalachee Review, Rose Red Review, and other literary journals.