In Jeremy Pointer’s 75 metre square apartment there was no salt or pepper; there were no condiments, no sauces, herbs or garlic or any form of flavour enhancer. In fact, he rarely kept any food in the house at all. Mealtimes were always a rushed affair and, unless some social commitment demanded it, he almost never ate out; there was simply no point. Everything Jeremy ate had no taste; he never had any reason to eat other than to fill his stomach and, when he did, like an impatient driver having to refuel during a long road trip, he found the whole enterprise simply bothersome.
So on that warm Sunday afternoon, after having arrived home from an international translation conference in Munich, Jeremy was disappointed to discover that he was hungry, and therefore had to leave the apartment again in search of sustenance. He walked to the convenience store, where he planned to purchase milk and potatoes, and pushed on the door. It didn’t yield. A sign in crooked, hand-written letters announced:
Wegen familienfeier geschlossen
Danke für Ihre Verständis
How disgusting! he thought. That the shop was closed did not offend him so much as the appalling grammar. As he made a mental note to write about it in his journal, somewhere at the pit of his stomach, a voice growled and squeaked. He wondered where he might obtain something reasonably cheap and filling on a Sunday evening; there were options – local restaurants and bars – but he had naturally never eaten in any of them. Across the street, a group of youths in torn jeans and ragged t-shirts were sitting on benches outside a pizza restaurant. A sign above them indicated that one could receive a small pizza for only three Euros. One of the youths shouted something at the other in a garbled, regional accent and they chinked their beer glasses, congratulating each other on some point. The dozen or so empty bottles rolling about their feet told Jeremy that the youths were intoxicated; consequently he cast his gaze to the footpath and walked on. He could not stand loud people; especially loud, young people with drinking problems and speech impediments.
After walking a block further, he came across a one-story, brick building that he had never noticed before. Outside stood a plastic camping table covered in menus for a Tapas restaurant: El Botellon. Jeremy stepped back to look at the building; there was nothing about its exterior that suggested that there was any food for sale; no invitation to treat or ‘Just opened!‘ banner or phone number or signs of any description at all. However through the door he could see a dimly lit dining room lined with mauve wallpaper. There were four rows of wooden benches and a small bar in the corner, and on every surface stood a burning tea candle; the flames seemed to hum to a crooning Spanish love song floating from two tinny speakers in each of the rear corners of the ceiling. Straightening his posture, Jeremy walked over to a table facing the street and sat down. He was brushing a few grains of salt from the table when a bulging frame, capped with mopped black hair, burst into the room. His tiny frame jolted in his seat.
“Oh! Lo siento. I’m sorry, I didn’t know it that you are here. Table for one today, sir?”
“Ye-, yes, I, I wanted to order straight away. I’m in a bit of a rush, you see.”
With a click of her tongue the woman shrugged and blinked her doey eyes. “It is embarrassing to me. The place is still a mess. We opened a week ago and you wouldn’t believe the paperwork in this country.” Jeremy stared at her, menu in his hand, his eyebrows raised in an expectant sigh. “We bought them from the flea market, the tables. Used to be in an Indian restaurant. Can you believe it?”
“I’d like a plate of bread and some patatas bravas with no tomato sauce please. To drink, a glass of mineral water, no gas.”
“Turning on the gas and internet was a nightmare. Naturally, the women have to do it all, don’t we?” She placed a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder as if to impress this conspiracy upon him. “Ay perdona, I forgot what you wanted. Bread and… what?”
“Patatas bravas, no sauce, and a glass of still mineral water.”
“Hmm…” The tip of the woman’s tongue poked through her red lips as she wrote the instructions down on her pad, her eyebrows furrowed. After regarding the order she looked up and an expression of disappointment stretched across her face. “Can I offer a suggestion to you?”
Jeremy response was to sigh, but the woman failed to notice the rejection.
“Vito, the chef, is making the best empanadas in the whole of Europe. You have to try them.”
“No, really. It’s ok-”
“I give you a small piece and you are going to see if it pleases you. We are a tapas bar! And maybe if you’re lucky, I will let you taste his crema catalana too. Dios mio! You have never tasted something that you would sell your own mother for!’ The woman’s eyes bunched up and her face exploded into laughter. The enormous gap between her front teeth made Jeremy feel nervous.
“Sure,” Jeremy didn’t like the sound of what she was saying but he was at least glad that the woman was leaving his table. A few minutes later he heard some blustering in the kitchen and then the woman returned with his water and some bread. Jeremy promptly dispatched all three slices of bread and half the bottle of water. This calmed his stomach but he knew that he had not yet eaten his daily requirement of calories; therefore when the potatoes came out soon after, he devoured them with equal efficiency. He gargled what was left of the water and retrieved his wallet. He extracted a 20 Euro note and placed it on the corner of the table.
The woman came from the kitchen again; this time with a small plate. “Ahh, I promised you empanada and I won’t let you go before you try it. Venga, go on, free for you.” She placed the plate in front of Jeremy.On it was a rectangular parcel: a dark stew encased in two layers of thick, egg yolk-coloured pastry.
“Thanks,” he said. “But it’s really not necessary. I-”
“Just try a little bit, un poquito. Vito spent the weekend making it. The recipe is a secret in his family since one hundred years. A big restaurant man from New York has eaten it once in our bar in Barcelona and wanted to give us 20,000 pesatas for the recipe! And you know what Vito, did? He refused! He gave to the man an extra slice for free and told him he would never sell it because it would be like selling his family. And you cannot sell your family, verdad?”
Jeremy looked at the food before him. When he was thirteen, he had tried to appease the affections of his mother by forcing down one of her tasteless concoctions, such as poached salmon and honey-baked figs, or date pudding with fresh custard and other loathesome creations. He felt now as he did then: anxious, embarrassed. He cut a pea-sized piece from the corner of the empanda and balanced it on the back of his fork. The woman’s eyes dilated in expectation as Jeremy closed his eyes and slide the fork into his mouth.
His first instinct was to swallow and then feign mastication, but a curious sensation held him back: although he was attuned to temperature, the warmth he now felt in his mouth was different, as if it was melting around his tongue and relaxing his jaw. And then there it was: a spark, like the snap of a Zippo lighter and it shone brightly in his brain. Was it …? Could it be…? Propelled by its own will, the phenomenon oozed from his mouth, down his throat and into his stomach. He inspected the mixture and recognised onions and steak, but there was a new element that he’d not yet experienced and, therefore, could not describe. Jeremy’s eyes rolled back; he brushed his hand over his head and leant back into his chair.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Bueno? It is pleasing to you?”
Jeremy gave a slight nod and heard the lady chuckle something in agreement. He took another piece and he flattened it to the top of his mouth, rolling over it several times, attempting to maximise the surface area. When that piece had dissolved, he sliced off another portion and ate it every which way he could: sucking, slowly chewing with his incisors, shifting the food to and fro in his mouth, and allowing small parcels of it to slide down the back of his throat one at a time. “Yes,” he finally said. “I think I do like it. Is there any more? I’d like to buy some to take home.”
“Sure, I wrap some for you for taking to home.”
He almost ran back to his apartment. Along the way he thought of how he could savour this most precious of all things. Should he eat it while reading? Or in front of the television? No, he decided. Too much distraction. He would take a shower and take the empanada to bed with him. “To hell with crumbs!” he cried and leapt up the stairs two at a time.
He devoured the empanada with his hands. And crumbs did fly all over the sheets and even onto the floor; but Jeremy was in such a state of euphoria, he didn’t care. When he was finished with that which was on his plate, he unpacked the vacuum cleaner and began retrieving every last crumb by means of holding a tissue over the end of the pipe. When he was satisfied that he’d sucked up every single crumb, he ate them and then wrapped himself in his bed covers and fell into a deep sleep. That night he dreamt; he was standing on an escalator. Stacked high on either side of him were empty plates stained with brown sauce and flakely crumbs. He saw passing tables stacked with more plates: these were overflowing with huge slices of the delicious pie. Jeremy tried to climb over the escalator’s railing, but he was moving too fast and each time he slipped and fell crashing back into the empty plates. In the distance, Jeremy saw a large shape that resembled a building, or a hanger, into which the escalator fed. On closer inspection, he realised that the shape was a colossal dishwashing machine and, as he neared it, the throbbing whir became louder, like a helicopter in a permanant state of take off. Jeremy crouched down, shielded his face and waited to be consumed. Hot frothy water blasted from above, filling his nostrils and ears. He entered the cave and everything went black. And then it was over.
Jeremy woke up feeling refreshed. All day he thought about returning to El Botellon and, in preparation, denied himself even the smallest morsel of food; he wanted to save his body and mind for the empanada. At five o’clock he left work. He was midway through a translation of an article on the geology of Chile from English to German; it had supposed to be finished that day, but he found that he could no longer concentrate. On the way home he couldn’t sit, thinking that, if he did, the bus would slow down and he’d never get there. He hopped off one stop before the restaurant and walked at a brisk pace towards the little brick building, only slowing his step as he approached. Today there was no table out front. Approaching the door he saw a sign: ‘Closed Mondays’. Jeremy felt his inners sink into his thighs and noticed a sharp stab in his left temple. He was angry at himself. Why didn’t he check whether the restaurant was open before he left? With his ear to the door, he heard the movement of feet and hushed voices talking in Spanish. He pushed the door gently with the stub of his shoe and stole a look inside. The room was dark save for a television on the bar, behind which the woman from yesterday sat hunched over cleaning cultery. She raised her head and looked directly at Jeremy.
“Hola,” she said. There was no sign of the previous day’s jocundity.
“Oh, sorry. I see you’re closed.”
“Mondays closed,” she said and pointed at the sign on the window with a polished teaspoon. “You back for more empanda?”
“Yes, well, if there’s any left. I know you’re closed but I was in the area you see…”
“I’m sorry, hombre. Today we restock. Vito brought the rest of the empanada to the house of his cousin Fernando last night. But we are open again tomorrow. Come back tomorrow night.”
“Very well.” Jeremy turned and began to walk out. “I couldn’t meet the chef, could I? Just to compliment him.”
“Vito? He’s out. But you come back tomorrow, okay? Hasta luego!” With that the woman scooped up a fist full of forks and went into the kitchen.
Whether the crushing pain in his abdomen was hunger or betrayal, he could not tell. On the walk back to his apartment, Jeremy bought a litre of water at the convenience store. He thought about chastising the owner for the error in Sunday’s sign but decided it wasn’t worth it. In front of the wide-eyed man behind the counter, he drained the entire bottle in one giant gulp. After collecting the 25 cents for the recycling deposit he left.
Tuesday passed in a similar fashion: Jeremy worked on the unfinished geology translations, even more hungry and full of anticipation. During a rare episode of absent mindedness, he skipped two sentences of his translation and even forgot to insert a comma. His boss was perplexed: “I don’t believe it, Jeremy. Have you got a girlfriend?” he asked. It was a strange sensation indeed. He had never had a girlfriend, let alone been on a date before; but he supposed that the two feelings could be analogous. Did lovers feell the same spasms of anticipation that twitched in his own gut? The ceaseless questions spurred on by desire? The strange blend of excitement and fear? That evening, instead of going straight to El Botellon, he stopped by his apartment to change; he put on a clean white shirt, striped yellow tie and new black pants.
He could already hear the rabble of people and the chinking of glasses from the street. Jeremy had forgotten to imagine the possibility that other diners might be there; now, as he peered through the front window, he saw that at every place of every bench sat a smiling patron, who was either quaffing wine or stabbing at tapas. Jeremy spun around helplessly; he’d starved himself for two days and yet the chance to be reunited with the only food that had ever made him feel alive had been stolen by throngs of guffawing socialites. He stamped inside and scanned the room. A small, dark girl, who looked no older than sixteen, was struggling with a bottle of Cava.
“I’d like to eat please,” he said to her.
“Qué?” The girl had to shout over the roars of the diners.
“I said, a table for one, please.”
“Sorry, is not possible, sir. We are fully booked. Come back tomorrow night, okay?”
“No. No! Can I speak to the other woman? The owner?”
“Anna? She take night off. You come tomorrow, okay?” The girl attempted a smile and then turned away as the cork popped out of the bottle.
The restaurant walls seemed to collapse down on him. Dazed, Jeremy swayed through the narrow path between the benches. There were mounds of tortilla and meatballs, fresh bread, smalls plates of fried seafood and countless bottles; but no empanada. Anna had promised him! He was so entirely focussed he didn’t see the handbag on the floor. As his foot came down upon it, he stumbled to the right. To keep himself upright, he clutched at a nearby seat.
“Hey! Watch it!” A man pushed him away.
Jeremy regained his balance and made for the kitchen door. His shirt had become untucked and his tie was loose around his neck. The door opened, narrowly missing his face. Coming towards him was the girl and five plates of steaming mushrooms.
“You cannnot stand here, sir,” the girl shouted.
“I just want to eat,” David stammered. “Can I not order some take away?”
“No take away. There is no room. I’m sorry, we are very busy!”
“What about Vito? Let me talk to Vito. I will explain to him.”
“I’m starving!” He called back to her. “I’ll pay extra!” But his pleas were lost. Some of the guests were looking over to him now. He returned their glares and they quickly returned to the business of eating.
Then he smelled it: it came to him and filled every cavity of his body. His lungs gulped in his chest and his eyelids flittered. Jeremy darted back through the tables, ignoring the protests of those whose chairs he battered and bumped on the way. His head swung left and right, his eyes narrowed as he searched for the source of the magic fragrance.
The couple were sitting at the end of the long table in the front corner. They were looking intently at each other, their hands snapping in the air as they talked; in between them, untouched on a white plate lay the empanada. Suddenly everything melted: the noise, the lights were swept away and all that was left was that one plate. Squeezing between the chairs, Jeremy lunged forwards; his eyes locked on the prize. However, whe the man and the woman both turned to face him, he stopped short. The restaurant rematerialised.
“Excuse me, sorry to bother you,” he said. “This is a strange request, but I wondering if I could perhaps buy that slice of empandada from you. You see, it’s my birthday and the chef promised me a slice, but unfortunately…” Surprised at his own creativity, David reached for his wallet. “Unfortunately I forgot to book a table and-”
“No, I am sorry, but we want to eat it,” said the woman and returned to the conversation.
“If I could just purchase a quarter from you, I can pay you ten Euros.”
“No,” said the man. “Now, would you mind?”
“You see, I haven’t eaten for three days now. I’ve been waiting for this evening. For that dish. You might not believe me, but I have to have that pie.”
The man stood up . “Please leave us in peace. Can’t you see we are trying to enjoy our dinner?”
“‘Enjoy your dinner’,” Jeremy said and his shoulders fell forward. “You are not enjoying your dinner. What’s the difference between what you’re doing and anything else? You eat because you have to – you could eat anything else on the menu and it would achieve precisely the same end. You sit there drinking and eating whatever you like and never wonder about what it is you’re doing.”
The waitress appeared. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes,” said the man. “This gentleman won’t leave us alone. We are trying to enjoy our meal.”
“Sir, I’ve already told you-” She motioned to guide Jeremy away but he was too quick. He lunged at the pie, scooped it up with both hands. As he tried to weave around the chair to escape, the man caught him from behind and clamped a firm hand around his neck.
“Let me go!” Jeremy’s wail echoed through the restaurant. The talking stopped. Some people at the back of the room stood up to get a better view. The man forced Jeremy towards to the door and thrust him onto the street. Jeremy toppled towards the pavement with both hands splayed out.
“Piss off, you jerk!” the man spat. He pointed to the mushy goo and called over to the waitress: “I’m not paying for that!”
Jeremy examined the palms of his hands. He licked the still warm sauce from his fingers, but was now mixed with dry gravel and dust. He dragged himself to his feet. He was so hungry and fatigued beyond anything he’d ever known. Moving away from the light of the restaurant he walked a few paces into the street, sobbing and cursing the passing cars and bikes under his breath. He could still remember it: how the empanada felt in his mouth, how it spoke to him, set fire to his passion. He could taste again and it was the most horrible thing of all.