Monday 3 June 2024

HeLen of Troy by Chris Pais, cafe latte

 My friend Helen of Troy, NY has a personality that could launch a flotilla of tugboats.  She is industrious and has a heart of gold, which she humbly claims is 10-carat, the minimum amount for an item to be legally classified as gold. She wears this heart on her sleeve for the world to see, but for her own sake, I often wished that she didn’t.

On a lazy Saturday a few months ago, my shopping list consisted of dirt-coated carrots, exorbitantly priced free-trade coffee, unwashed mixed greens and peaches with blemishes, dings and wormholes. It had also been ages since I heard live music by old men dressed in checkered shirts, red suspenders and straw hats playing in a band that included a washtub bass. I decided that the Farmer’s Market would be the perfect way of doing groceries and getting my music fix.  Helen lived a few blocks away from the market and I asked her if she would like to join me. 

‘Would I like a javelin in the eye? Sure, I’ll join you,’ she said.

I was surprised she said yes. I was looking forward to seeing Helen and had a spring in my step as I approached her house. I knocked on her door but there was no response. I knocked again and waited several minutes. As I turned around to leave, I saw her approach me from behind. It had been a while since I saw her but she looked exactly the same. It turned out that she had left her house through the back door and walked around to surprise me. Even though I’ve known Helen for a long time, I’m not always prepared for her antics.

‘So what do you think you’re doing here?’ she said. ‘Were you going to ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal savior?’ We laughed and walked towards the Farmer’s Market.  We knew we were getting close when we started hearing strains of folksy music in the distance and saw people in sandals and sunglasses returning to their cars with their loot of fresh produce bursting out of their jute shopping bags.

I’ve known Helen for many years; we have been through relationships, job woes, health scares, money problems and have shared the ups and downs of our lives, often over long hikes and tall drinks. We were in a few classes together in college and I was instantly attracted to her, but quickly realized to my disappointment that I was not her type. I was reliable and uninteresting, soft-spoken and well-groomed and she fell for unkempt, boisterous, self-important bad boys who are the envy of people like me. I never quite had the courage to tell her my true feelings and chose to suppress them over the years in the interests of keeping our friendship. I hadn’t seen her since her last relationship ended. This relationship was particularly unpleasant and left her in a sorry heap. I kept checking up on her and asked to meet for coffee or drinks, or a hike, but she refused. I was so glad she finally agreed to go to the Farmer’s Market with me.

‘So, what are you going to get at the Farmer’s Market?’ I asked.

‘I’m gonna get me a man. Organic. Non-GMO. USDA Choice. The Lord knows I haven’t had one in a while,’ she said.

‘Really? The last one you had was trouble and you swore off them,’ I reminded her, hoping that she would see the lapses in her past judgements and contrast the qualities I possessed.

The Farmer’s Market in our town is on a street in the business district, cordoned off on the weekend to host the market. Against the backdrop of pretentious glass-walled office buildings, hawkers ply their wares from makeshift tents and rickety tables with their dusty pickup trucks and colourful Volkswagen buses parked on the sidewalk.  There are stalls for wild-caught fish, mushrooms of every variety, cheese made from sheep and goat, heirloom tomatoes of every shape and hue, rotisserie free-range chicken, organic scented candles, massage services, tarot card readers, seasonal fruits, vegetables and freshly cooked food. Helen and I browsed through the stalls and we did not complain about the high prices of the merchandise. We were both firm believers in the ‘eat local’ movement and wanted to support our farmers.

Helen’s most recent relationship lasted many years, and longer than I thought it would.   They seemed happy on the surface but something was amiss. He said he was laid off soon after they met and he moved in with Helen. Looking back, I don’t think he had a job even when they met. I remember telling Helen that but she dismissed it. Soon the kids came. After working at a few odd jobs, he decided to quit and go to law school. He had Helen’s full support. While he attended classes and did his assignments, Helen worked and took care of the household. It was a struggle for her, but she was so much in love with him and was proud of what he was doing with his life.

After what seemed to Helen like many years of drudgery, he graduated from law school, found a job at a small law firm doing clerical work and Helen got a break when he started earning a paycheck. He took the bar exam and failed. After a few unsuccessful attempts at the exam, he convinced Helen that he should quit his job and study for the exam full time. Although she was tired and welcomed the wages he brought in, she agreed.

He finally passed the bar after several attempts and found a job with a prestigious law firm in the city. Two weeks later, he left her without warning, taking with him all his belongings and her prized coin collection. He hasn’t contacted her regarding the kids. Helen was devastated and it took her a while to feel whole again.

We picked up the things I wanted from the market and stopped at a stall selling lemons.  Helen wanted to try out a Moroccan recipe for preserving them using just one ingredient: kosher salt. ‘Minimalism, honey,’ she told me. She bought a bag of them and we sat on the sidewalk drinking our coffee and listening to the bluegrass band. I turned and looked at her a few times as she was moving to the beat of the music, and I was tempted to brush away the soft hair falling on her eyes.

The band stopped playing when it was time for the market to close. Vendors pulled down their awnings, folded their tables and loaded their produce into their vehicles. As we left the market and walked back towards Helen’s house, she said, ‘I set out today looking for a man, and all I got was some lemons.’

When we reached her house, she gave me a hug and said, ‘Let’s do this again’. She did not invite me in. As I walked away with my bag of groceries, the spring had decidedly left my step and I realised things will never change between Helen and me.

About the author

Chris Pais grew up in India and came to the US to pursue graduate studies in engineering. His work appears in Poetry India, Wild Roof Journal, Defunct Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in the SF Bay Area where he works on clean energy and tinkers with bikes, guitars and recipes. 

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  1. A really good read, I was hoping he’d “get the girl” but realistically it couldn’t happen. When you go looking for lemons that’s often all you find.

  2. Thus was a great read- I wanted him to “get the girl” but given she was more into lemons - she’d evidently proven that over the years.- he hadn’t a chance. Maybe it was better that way.