Alexa, years later, is making an art of chopping tomatoes and I am watching her. She pierces the flesh in a smooth circle and pries apart two halves. It does not spurt blood, but seeds dribble out in gooey clumps. The muscle in her wrist pulses. She flips the halves upside-down and there is a green bruise on one of them. I am dizzy. She slides her knife through the bruise, once, twice. The half is no longer a half. Her knife makes dull sounds on the cutting board, and she scratches the back of her neck with her thumb. There is now a tomato seed near the place where her ponytail begins.
I try to remember that I am in love with her and she is in love with me and seeds cannot grow from skin alone.
If I were ever called to court, I would begin my testimony by explaining how tomatoes grow because most people don’t think about that. Tomatoes don’t droop from branches like Los Angeles oranges, or burrow like potatoes. They grow upwards, blooming red and bursting, or else orange and tough-skinned. The closest thing to a tomato is in fact a rose.
Growing good tomatoes comes down to the spaces between the seeds. Too close, and they will strangle each other with their roots. The size of two fists is enough space. I know this, I would tell the judge, because I used to grow tomatoes. Not only tomatoes, but also jicama and corn and sometimes flowers in the boxes behind my home, which is no longer mine.
And then the judge would ask me why, and I would have to tell the long story because any shorter version would simply prompt another why.
Your Honor, I wore red because we all did.
I went to the barracks in June because we all did, sweat dripping off of our faces into the sand and some of us crying, though I was not one of them.
I knelt and prayed because we all did, a red sea in the sand mumbling Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Amen.
I stood because we all did as the sun melted and the wind began and the flag over the barracks whipped back and forth, back and forth.
What I did not know, though I have read it in newspapers since, is that only ten miles away, there was a green tide of people in the sand, also bowed in prayer though not to Jesus. The newspapers said that they also raised their eyes and sang, to the same flag.
This was how it came to be that we were at war with ourselves, which is how it came to be that I no longer farmed tomatoes or jicama or flowers. I watched from across the street as fire ate my house two weeks later.
Alexa knows all this.
She cried when she saw pictures of the earthquake in Haiti. She cried when our neighbor’s dog died. She cries often. So when I wake up shivering in the August heat and I can’t tell if I have been crying or sweating, she cries too, and I tell her that I was just having the dream, and she cries more.
I describe it to her, again, as I always do late at night. It is easy to lie to her this way because I am making nothing up. I could have been inside, I say, every time. Just five minutes earlier and my flesh would have crackled, on fireI had been at my neighbor’s house instead, looking for bread. I smelled smoke, but I had smelled smoke every day since the fighting had begun and so it wasn’t until I looked up that I knew. My door was ablaze. I could see the flames ricocheting off the windowpanes, white-hot light dripping off the glass. The wood screamed as it began to tumble, spraying sparks and soot. I stood there.
Alexa cries most when I tell the part about the boys dressed in green, who may have thrown the match or perhaps were just passing by, clapping as the doorframe collapsed on itself. For them, this was fireworks.
For a year I manned a checkpoint 87 kilometers outside of Beirut and I decided if the driver of every vehicle would live or die. That was my job. The math is simple at first. About a hundred cars a day, multiplied by 365 days. But then of course you must subtract the trucks that were already filled with bodies, stinking in the August heat. Add the people hidden in the trunks of cars, their hands stuffed in their own mouths so they wouldn’t scream when they heard the sound of my boots as I walked towards them.
It becomes complicated then. I wouldn’t be able to tell the judge how many choices I made. But I suppose that he would ask me how I did the choosing, and then he would ask me why.
The process was simple. The General had devised it in the shower. The car came to the checkpoint, attached to the barracks, where I was standing. I had a gun on my hip. The car slowed, and the driver rolled the window down.
I did not ask to see the driver’s papers, or identity card. Instead I held a tomato close to their face. “What is the name of this?” I would ask, in the Arabic that is taught in textbooks.
There is no word for tomato in classical Arabic. There are two different words in the two Lebanese dialects, though. Explaining the difference to an American judge would be difficult. Binatu or banatu, perhaps. Hiding your dialect, which bubbles from a place deeper than your throat, is the hardest lie.
If the driver said binatu, they were Christian, and I stepped back, waving them on.
If the driver said banatu, they were Muslim, and I motioned for them to turn left, into the barracks behind the checkpoint. I put my hand on my hip, close to my gun. The driver and any passengers were then most likely shot against a wall in the barracks, probably three times in the face, after being asked their names. Their blood splattered in all directions, the color of ripe banatu.
I volunteered for this because we all did, for something, and I knew nothing about firing guns or turning houses into kindling or much of anything except a little bit about tomatoes. That is why, Your Honor.
It was not hard work because few people traveled in those days. Gas was expensive and mostly we were pouring it on each others’ fields and homes and corpses before lighting matches. And unlike most, I was never hungry. While I waited for cars to sputter down the highway that sliced the bone-dry desert, I ate tomatoes raw.
The dream did not being until years later, perhaps two years after I married my empathetic American wife in a quiet church near Tarrytown, ten years after the war ended for me in the hull of an oil rig bound for New York city. It hasn’t stopped since. Some nights it is clearer than others, but it is always the same.
It is the end of the day at the barracks, and I walk inside. I smell blood, as usual, and laughter is ringing out because the soldiers are tired and they are going home to their wives. On the floor is one of the drivers who said banatu earlier this afternoon. I step over him.
A tall man wearing a mask enters, just then, holding some kind of knife. He walks over the man on floor, stepping in a pool of blood. He leans over and, in one quick motion, scoops the dead man’s heart out with his knife. Only it isn’t a heart, but half of a tomato, the seeds dripping out.
“Binatu,” the faceless man says, and throws it on the ground.
The masked man then scoops my heart out, though it doesn’t hurt. It is the same as the dead man’s. “What is this?” he asks, and all of a sudden I can’t remember which word is right and I can’t say anything at all and he is throwing my heart on the ground and I am screaming but saying nothing and I wake up.
I always find myself in a small house near White Plains, and my heart is always beating, beating, beating.
Alexa is almost done with the tomatoes and her hands are wet with them. She picks up the slices and throws them in a large bowl, which must be salad for both of us to eat later while we talk about our days. They make slapping noises as they hit the sides of the bowl.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” she says, seeing me looking at her.
“Okay,” I say.
She begins to clean her knife, running her fingers along the blade to scrape tomato seeds onto the cutting board. Her knife scrapes the wood and I can’t swallow. I imagine that I am holding it. I would plunge it into her flesh in one quick motion and scoop out her heart. It would be half a tomato. Then I would scoop out mine, which would be the other half. I would fit them together so that it would be one tomato, the soft red kind that grows in late July.
Then I would hold it up to her face and say, what is this?
And she would not understand.