Portrait of Home as an Onion

By Ellie Laabs

I want to tell you about the onions I bought. How I cried clutching them, full, in the bag in some Pavlovian preemption of their cutting. Or maybe I cried for you, the man who called himself an onion far too long before realizing it has become cliché to admit to having layers like that. Or maybe it was for the woman who let me take the bag, even though I was ten cents short, for her unexpected kindness that did not deliberate.

The sun was struggling to shine through clouds thick like batter. I had nowhere particular to go. You were nowhere particular enough to be found. I slipped through cobblestoned alleys, canopied with last season’s Christmas lights, trying to convince my shadow I was worth following. Tourists flocked in fanny-packed groupings down the pier. The onions rustled in their bag as it brushed up against my side, their crisp paper coatings flaking off and falling to the ground in a trail behind me as I walked. I recalled Hansel & Gretel and indulged, briefly, in a yearning for somewhere to go ____ to. If I were to follow these crumbs, I would only end up lost, backward. I would only return to the produce stand on the corner, stupefied, deceived to find it not ____. Not wherever I’ve dropped my heart down the manhole cover with the last spare key to our apartment. No place of respite.

The sun continued to play hide and seek among the clouds as I traveled aimlessly down to the water. Neither was this water ____, but at least I knew it well. Sometimes habit can be ____, if it remains itself. The water was patchy, rough, unsure of whether to follow light or cloud in its ebbing and flowing. I thought of Grushenka, of the dastardly woman who had an opportunity to be saved from damnation if only she grabbed hold of an onion as she drowned. But her selfishness, denying others concomitant salvation, broke the poor vegetable and sent her back to purgation (read: not ____).

We cannot say we do not want things for ourselves. I do not like to admit this to you, but I didn’t think of us when I used to think of _____. It had always been for myself, first—too personal, as I felt it was, to truly be shared as a dream. This silly bag of peeling onions, too, though I’d never eat them (they’re for your dinner, after all), the act of buying them was for me, the few tears I shed, for me. In attempts to feel at ____ in this world, we become more insular. Donne would say this is a mistake. Perhaps he is right about our nature, but did he know anything of the desperate yearning for ____? How we are so often mistaken about what it might be?

The netting of the bag began to make lines in my fingers, turning their tips a more human shade of purple. Stepping on a discarded newspaper, I noted the date—your birthday. You can’t remember your birthdays at all anymore. You can barely remember how you died—a moment so trivial, it may have just been a grammatical error.  Of course, you made your share of mistakes, as I do now in my aimlessness. Alcohol, or something like it, was involved. Not to mention the running, the dancing, the pills passed under bathroom stalls. You thought all friends, families were like yours—the bitterness, the expectation. Your mother would send you to the market, but whatever you brought home always proved incorrect; red onions instead of white, you told me. Like you had picked out the right ones, but they bled out with something inside you on the walk ____.

You were alone on the bus that night. Nobody with a badge around when you needed them, nobody brave. You wonder who found out first, how they might have been told about what happened, the precise euphemisms chosen by the doctor or officer, the rippling out through progressively more distant acquaintances and relatives. One of your friends said he had walked through the park with you for hours after the bars closed, and even though he couldn’t recall any of your words, it provided some comfort. At the time, I was ____, cooking your dinner. Things spat and sizzled in the pan. Tiny drops of oil left microscopic burn marks on my skin. I cried then too, making your food in the unkept kitchen, but without reason.

I imagine you still take walks to the market, trying to do the impossible. Trying to keep your blood in its pale white skin so as not to soil the onions before you get ____. Turning the corner from the pier, I fail just as I imagine you failed, time and again. Fingers numb from the netting, I try to reach for you, to tell you I understand. Returning ____, I tear a hole in the bag and let the papery roundnesses spill out onto the counter. I begin to make you a meal, hoping sense memory might be powerful enough that you will smell it still: the salt dripping into the pan, slow, methodical, uninhibited…

About the author

Ellie Laabs is a Boston-born poet, currently residing in Mount Vernon, NY. She received her B.A. from St. John's College in Liberal Arts through their Great Books Program and is a current MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. In her writing, she enjoys inhabiting--and toying with--the intersection between the ordinary and the philosophical. She is drawn to the vivid, the unexpected, and the oxford comma. When she (frequently) is not writing, she spends most of her time listening to Simon & Garfunkel, solving "crimes," and winning board games.

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