What I want more than anything is to find words to do justice to the taste of sweetness: honey, syrup, caramel, fruit, the nectar I tried to collect as a girl from the honeysuckle vines that grew along the chain-link fence bordering the yard of our Bronx apartment.
“It might take a little time,” my mother would say, finding me out on the deck again, a mason jar between my legs. I pulled the stamen out of the yellowed flower to study the bead of nectar resting on the tiny ball. I want to collect the juice. I want it to drop like rain and fill the jar.
Instead I felt the stamen like a soft thread on the tongue as the flavor filled my mouth. How many lives were altered in the moment between the first time I tasted honeysuckle and swallowed? How much life can fit in the moment it takes for the palate to register sweetness? Someone has given birth, teenagers are falling in love, strangers are fornicating in dark alleys, a child is cutting herself, another jumps from a ledge.
Not long ago, a friend called to tell me that the fruit stand on Houston Street is gone, and for a whole day all I could think about was a boy I once loved. We would stop to share a peach after a movie at the Angelika, wrinkle our noses at the prunes, give names to the kumquats, and see who could keep a date on our tongues the longest before biting and swallowing. All the while he told me stories about the fruit trees in Romania, which is where he was born. Somewhere, a man reaches into his pocket and slips a lemon drop between his granddaughter’s lips, tells her it cures thirst in the desert and keeps the mind sharp. Somewhere else, another traces his wife’s lips with ice cubes as she takes her last breath while the flowers by her bedside pulse, [End Page 53] trying to sustain them just a short while longer. And I imagine somewhere a jar is filling with all of the luster she has known.
Can we preserve the sense of taste? If these were canopic jars used during Egyptian rituals, perhaps it would be the tongue I might cut, wrap diligently in gauze, and place inside the jar so I could look at it through the raised glass berries and the Ball name insignia. Add it to the specimens of eye, ear, nose, the rough pads of the fingers, and orient them each in a different direction. These specimens should be gathered in a capsule built sometime in the 1980s, when I stepped fully into my skin and began scavenging through the sharp-edged city for its soft corners and sweetness, most of which I found in my mother’s garden because “When you have a garden, you have a kingdom,” which is something I might have read somewhere on the cover of House and Home while standing in line at the grocery store or on a bumper sticker somewhere in New England, but nonetheless it feels true.
If I had a kingdom, I would trade it for a light-filled house. If I had a house, I would trade it for a cozy apartment. And vice versa, and again—as long as there’s a table set for two, a jar full of honey. I would make dinner and invite Michel de Montaigne, shower him with bonbons and toffee, saccharine bourbon, a demi-glace, and see if he still claims “that we taste nothing pure.” And then I might digress into memory, tell him about my first lesson in indulgence: one part Ouzo, which I stole from the neighbor’s pantry, one part Kahlúa, which my father kept beneath the kitchen sink—all floral anise and vanilla, syrupy coffee, and sugarcane—how it made my body shake, made me swear off sweetness for years.
What I want more than anything is to find words to describe the scent of Sundays: wood polish, lemon juice, sunlight. The smell of Murphy’s Oil after my mother wiped down...