Gabriel cried at the bottom of the front stairs leading up to his grandmother’s house. His sweat mixed with his tears, and he licked it from his upper lip with a bit of clear bugger.
“Hey, you, let’s go,” the figure emerged from behind an old pick-up truck parked on the side of the street.
“I’m not alone,” Gabriel said, standing up in a hurry pushing back towards the security gate.
“Of course you’re not, Gabriel, it’s me, Jose,” the portly man with his signature bushy beard became visible as he approached the two-story house.
Gabriel relaxed, cleaned his tears, and walked to hug Jose. He couldn’t help it, a repressed sob escaped him as Jose embraced him.
“When did you get here? Where’s tia, Maria?” Gabriel didn’t let his uncle see the tears still flowing down his face.
“I got here tonight, kid,” Jose’s voice reminded him of a teacher he once had in middle school with an authoritative, but high-pitched and nasally. They didn’t see each other very often, because they lived in different states.
“Don’t you have any bags? How did you get here?” Gabriel didn’t really care about any of that; he just didn’t know what to say.
“It’s Puerto Rico, it’s home, I don’t need bags,” he said with a grin and a gesture a circus presenter would make when a show is about to start. “Also, they’re in the car over there, that I used to get here. Any more questions, Nancy Drew?”
“Who is Nancy Drew? The lady from CNN or something?”
“I’ll find the book somewhere, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but you might like it,” he gently pushed Gabriel towards the security door and opened up the gate. It made a loud, rusty noise that startled a nearby coqui.
As they both go up the stairs, they find the family, dressed in black, gathered in the living room eating quesitos and drinking a coffee so strong Gabriel could smell it from the door. Jose wrapped his arm around Gabriel and gave him a little push to make it past the gathering towards the kitchen. Of course, they didn’t pass without a few “hola, mijo, it’s been so long,” and “you’re so big,” (the comment about being big was launched at both, but Gabriel could tell when they said it to Jose it wasn’t a compliment).
“Here we are, where the magic happens,” said Jose with such glee that it brought a smile to Gabriel.
The kitchen changed a few times over the years. A new fridge here, a new stove there, a countertop change, and a few new knobs, but to Jose, it felt exactly the same. The big man had to always be pulling his shirt down to avoid his belly being exposed as he surveyed every inch.
“You know, our grandma never left the island, but she was the most worldly person I’ve ever met,” Jose searched drawers, cabinets, and cupboards trying to find something that was missing. Then at the edge of a small laundry nook, he saw them, the cookbooks. “Mind you, I’ve met Anthony Bourdain. Actually, I bet he would agree.”
Gabriel didn’t care much for cookbooks or know anything about Anthony Bourdain. So, he sat in a corner, hoping nobody would see him, and sank into his phone. He browsed for videos, random things, and played some games, but never really settled. He finally decided to look at the pictures he had with his abuela, actually really his great-grandma.
“Why are we here?” Gabriel asked, not really expecting an answer.
“Would you rather be over there,” he pointed towards the crowd with a frying pan.
“I guess not.”
“Straight to the point, are we even related?” he laughed, a bit maniacal, and tussled Gabriel’s hair as he handed him a cookbook. Gabriel didn’t pay attention and just dumped the worn-out mustard-colored hardcover book on his lap. Jose tapped at the book, and with comically bad miming, he asked Gabriel to read it.
“What is Les Halles?”
“I don’t know, it’s French, isn’t it the place he used to cook for? Bourdain?”
Gabriel gently threw the book on the table and went back to his phone. Jose, once again, handed him another one. An even more worn out, puke green tome, with a weird outline of fruits.
“Cocina Criolla?” this book had so many scraps of paper shoved inside it was practically its own special edition. It had more words scribbled in post-it notes than in the actual pages of the original.
“Yep, grandma used to fight with it all the time, he had scraps of paper for everything. She used to say, ‘esa Valldejuli, a veces es más sosa’.”
“Bland, but that’s just because your grandma also really really liked salted butter instead of oil,” Jose said that expecting Gabriel to react. When he didn’t, Jose took the book away from him and threw him a binder of printed recipes from the web.
“Ok, I didn’t know grandma knew how to read English, and a bunch of these are in English,” he said as he browsed the heavily redacted printed pages.
“She used a dictionary. English to Spanish, French to Spanish, Chinese to Spanish, whatever she needed to decode the recipes.”
“I only knew her for the rice and beans with those crispy pork chops. Oh, and for the tostones,” he said, savoring the salty goodness of the double-fried plantains.
“Mijo, like she would say, ‘yo puedo cosinar mas que arroz con salchicha y arañitas nene’,” he said, opening the page in a bookmarked recipe from Les Halles Cookbook. A small notecard fell, and Gabriel picked it up. On the top right, he could read in scribbled Spanish, “La sopa esa de cebolla francesa.”
“French onion soup?”
“Good, that’s a good one! Give me that,” Jose grabbed the notecard and started to list the ingredients while looking for them around the kitchen.
“So, we’re making soup?”
“We’re making French Onion Soup, la sopa esa!” Jose was more enthusiastic than Gabriel thought appropriate, considering they were praying a rosary in the living room.
“Uncle, I don’t know what are we doing here?”
“We’re cooking, we’re going somewhere new, we’re going to France,” he said, taking out a block of swiss cheese from the fridge. “This will do.”
Jose moved quickly in the kitchen. He shooshed a cousin or two a few times before he could even finish putting all the ingredients in the pot.
“Jerez oloroso? What is that?” said Gabriel as he read the directions out loud to Jose.
“Jerezz oloroso!” said Jose with an exaggerated lisp trying to imitate a stereotypical Spaniard. “It’s the adult, juice, juice, that gives this soup a kick.” He opened a cabinet above the refrigerator, and dozens of wine bottles covered in dust were neatly arranged like a pyramid. He carefully pulled a middle bottle and dusted off the label, “Don Benigno, amontillado sherry. Good enough.”
Jose popped the cork, and Gabriel could smell the strong nutty aroma coming out of the bottle. He closed the lid and let the soup simmer.
“I’m not even hungry, Jose.”
“Yeah, well, you’re all skin and bones, they don’t feed you in LA?”
Jose sat across from him on the tiny table, drinking the sherry straight from the bottle. A neighbor wandered into the kitchen and scolded Jose, quietly. The older man with a guayabera wagged his finger at Jose like a disapproving elementary school principal. Jose didn’t say a word. He sipped the sherry, looked straight, and nodded in agreement.
“What was that all about?” asked Gabriel, engrossed again with his phone scrolling pictures on Instagram.
“Let’s see if the soup is done,” Jose took the sherry bottle with him and checked on the soup. “Perfect, we’re ready to go.”
He grabbed a couple of small brown handled crocks, put a generous heap of cheese, and threw it in the oven on broil. After it was done, he took them out with some old oven mittens. He paraded the soup around the kitchen, making sure the smell permeated every inch.
“Are we going to eat?” Gabriel put his phone down and couldn’t hold his excitement any longer. The smell was intoxicating, and his uncle’s glee made him feel like taking a sip of that soup was going to make him happy again – at least for a bit.
“Let’s hope it’s not cold in Paris,” Jose said, putting the bubbling cheesy mess of soup in front of him and handing him a gently used silver spoon.
Gabriel stabbed the crunchy edge and pushed some of that cheese into the soup. He dug a big spoonful, with enough cheese and bread to be more like a French dip sandwich, and closed his eyes to savor it. He could only smell the soup, but he felt a breeze behind him as he tried to slurp the melted bits of cheese dripping from his chin.
“I haven’t been here before, but it’s Paris for sure,” Jose’s voice sounded far away. When Gabriel opened his eyes, he wasn’t in his grandmother’s kitchen anymore. “I think that’s the Sacred Heart Basilica.”
The soup, still bubbling, now sat on a smooth-surfaced semicircle table in a modern-looking black and white kitchen. Jose held his soup with the same old oven-mittens while looking out a big glass sliding door. As Gabriel approached it, he could see flowers hanging from a black balcony and, on the other side, a cream-color building with graffiti near the roof of the adjacent lower building. After opening the sliding door, he stepped out into the balcony, and at a distance, he saw three domes poking out of a hill behind a bunch of trees.
“Uncle Jose, what happened?”
“We traveled to Paris, someone here made this same recipe before, and here we are,” Jose slurped more of the soup, and some of the melted cheese got stuck in his beard with a bit of bread.
“I don’t get it? How?”
“I told you, the kitchen is where the Rodriguez achieve feats of magic greatness.”
Gabriel felt the colder air of the French city hit his face and heard the busy sounds of motorcycles racing down the road in his heart. He didn’t think this was possible, yet here he was, teleported by eating soup with his uncle to a stranger’s house in Paris.
“Neat trick, right?”
“Shit,” Gabriel couldn’t wrap his head around what was happening, he went back inside and checked the kitchen. He checked the entire Parisian apartment and found nothing connecting them to this place.
“Are you done?” Jose finished his soup and placed the empty crock on the table. “The clock is ticking. Eat your soup, or we’re not gonna have a lot of time here.”
Gabriel refused to eat; he sat in the uncomfortable modern couch in the living room, closing his eyes and opening them back, hoping to wake up. Jose sat next to him and hugged him.
“It’s ok, this is probably not the best time to find out about this, but you did it first without knowing. I should have told you years ago. You know, but tia could have told you too,” he said, taking out his phone and dialing the number for his aunt.
“Not your tia, my tia. This whole thing runs in the family, but it’s recessive. Abuela had it, tia had it, I had it, and now you,” he said, pacing up and down the living room waiting for an answer. “She would know what to do.”
Gabriel felt a pain in his stomach, and a strong gust of air pushed him further back into the oddly wide sofa.
“Mijo, that’s the return train. I don’t know where you’re going, but I guess we’ll see. I ate the whole soup, so I’ll be here for a bit.”
“What are you talking about?” Gabriel felt the pain again, a push back, and he could hear the murmurs of the rosary on her grandma’s house. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was back in his grandmother’s kitchen.
An older woman, he recognized from family gatherings, walked towards him as she talked to someone on the phone. She nodded a few times and sat across from Gabriel.
“Gabrielito, do you remember me?” she said with a soft voice, but a thick accent.
“Yes,” Gabriel didn’t want to be rude, so he lied. She lifted her upper lip in disbelief but smiled nonetheless.
“Mira, this is the deal, do you remember coming here?” she asked him holding his hands tightly with a worried expression.
“Yes,” she didn’t believe him this time either, and this time she shook her head. “Ok, I don’t, mom told me we weren’t going to be able to travel for abuela’s funeral, but then we could.”
“Did you get on a plane? From California?”
He didn’t respond this time, he felt the same pain in the stomach as before, and she could tell he was in distress. She wrote down two phone numbers in a scrap of paper, one for Jose, another one for Victoria “Vity.”
“How is this happening?” he felt the pain again, more intense than before, and he could hear the sound of Animal Crossing and reality TV in the background.
“I love you; we love you; we understand you; call us if you need to,” her kind eyes watered as she got up and served herself a cup of sherry.
The pain hit him once again, and it forced him to close his eyes. When he opened them, he was in LA. The frying pot still had bubbling oil from the tostones he made. Gabriel felt disoriented, his phone had several messages from his uncle Jose.
“Gabrielito, it’s tio on the phone, pick it up. Remember to say your condolences for abuela,” said his mom handing him a cordless phone.
“Gabriel, don’t panic –“ but he didn’t let his uncle finish. He hung up the phone and called his mom to the kitchen.
“Mom, have some of these, I made them in honor of abuela,” he said as he handed her a plate full of tostones.
She grabbed one and took a tiny bite. After that initial bite, she devoured the rest as if she didn’t expect it to be that good. She said, “mmm,” and gave him a hug.
“This is good, just like she would make them,” she said, walking away back to the living room to watch another reality TV show.
“Nothing?” he said in a demanding tone that caught his mother off guard. “Why couldn’t we go to the funeral?”
“Honey, nobody can, we’re all stuck. What happened? Are you ok?” she turned back and got really close to him.
“Yeah, yeah,” he backed away from her, and she grabbed another toston.
“I mean, we talked about this, you’re in high school, you know what’s going on out there. I know she meant a lot to you, and she did to me as well, but she would understand,” his mother sat on the edge of the kitchen table, taking tiny bites of the food as if to make it last longer.
“Do you ever feel like this food takes you back to Puerto Rico?”
“Do you ever actually go back?”
“We went last summer, but our life is here for now.”
He didn’t get the feeling she understood. She gave her a hug, grabbed his phone, his Nintendo Switch, and locked himself in his room. After a few minutes, he called his uncle back.
“Ok, tio, tell me everything.”