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I ate a bad tomato for the first time that summer. The summer when childhood was that houseguest that lingers long after you say goodbye, standing in the driveway chatting until you push them to the car, and they chug down the street waving with one hand and laying on the horn with the other. The tomato exploded in my mouth and I could not spit it out fast enough.
I ran across the gravel driveway barefoot to my grandmother, trying to get the evil taste off my tongue. I begged for a glass of lemonade and she got up to get it for me, too slowly. I bolted ahead of her, though the cottage door to the refrigerator (still covered in my watercolor paintings from years before) and grabbed the old-fashioned pitcher for myself.
Until it slipped from my sweaty fingers and crashed to the floor.
The tomato taste was still lingering. I jumped through the sea of shattered glass as if it were a minefield and I were a soldier, trying desperately to get to the one safe thing, the thing that would save me. I stuck my face under the tap and drank bitter, iron-laced water until my grandmother finally limped through the door, sighing at the mess on the floor.
I stuttered hasty excuses and apologies, standing behind a protective wooden chair. My grandmother just looked at me, smiled, and sat down in a different chair, a story in her eyes.
She disappeared to this place I didn't know, to a time long before I was born. I had wondered in my younger years if she saw memories of her childhood in black and white, like all the slide shows I had seen from that time. (I understand now that color is timeless, but not ageless.) She didn't speak. She just sat there, staring out the window, now a portal to some mysterious place. I slowly moved from behind my bodyguard chair and sat on its lap, curling into a ball, just watching the silent tale in front of me.
Her eyes used to be celery green, a long time ago. the only way I remember them is watery and bloodshot, the color dulled to a soft gray from years of crinkled smiles and tears, of love and heartbreak. That day the wrinkles turned in at the corners of those transparent eyes, pulled into some sort of elderly laugh. Her mouth did the same, and still, I watched.
Slowly the scent of lemonade reached her nose and brought her back, and she stood arthritically to clean up my mess. She bent slowly, picking up the jagged glass, but when I made a move to help her, she motioned for me to stay. "Too dangerous," is all she said. So I just observed.
Soon the glass was gone, and the lemonade, and the only memory of the spill was the sticky spot on the tile that lingered for a day or two, no matter how long she scrubbed at it. It was forgotten until years later, when childhood was long gone and adolescence was saying goodbye with tears in its eyes. She lay in the hospital bed and stared out the window, me holding her fragile hand in mine.
"Grandma," I said. "Do you remember that day at the cabin a long time ago, when I ate a rotten tomato and spilt the lemonade?"
"Vaguely," she whispered, her voice cracking and crinkling like a paper yellowed from time. "what of it?"
"What were you thinking about, sitting there for that long?"
She smiled her sagging, wrinkly-eyed smile and looked out the window.
"The first time I ate a bad tomato."