Once upon a time, there was a city. It was not the largest city, or the smallest. It was not the richest or the poorest. But this city had a reputation, nonetheless. It was known throughout the land as dry and inhospitable -- heated to unimaginable temperatures for several months of the year, ruled by a witch of a governor and a cruel sheriff, a cultural wasteland. The people of this city knew the truth. Yes, upper management could be rough, and at first the landscape wasn't easy on the eyes, but past the strip malls and the cookie cutter subdivisions, a wonderful metropolis burgeoned: bartenders poured the craftiest of cocktails, world-class chefs cooked, there were sports teams to cheer for, boutiques to shop at, and clubs where you could dance the night away.
Once a year, the kind-hearted souls at the city's alternative newsweekly gathered the finest of what the place had to offer, presenting it in the hallowed pages of a book called the "Best of Phoenix." This year's edition features "Tales of the City" -- true stories told and legends explained.
Our chapter on food begins with an essay by Tempe-based writer Kim Porter.
See also: Best of Phoenix 2014
Once upon a time in Phoenix, they were out of chips. Three hours earlier, when we arrived at the salsa festival, the chips had been plentiful, overflowing the bowls, littering the ground, getting trodden into confetti.
But now they were gone, making salsa-tasting impossible.
My husband, Ben, and I decided to divide and conquer. I took the kids to the play area to lurch around in the bounce house and glue yarn onto paper plates, while he and Tim -- a good-natured friend who loved showing newcomers around Arizona -- roamed the festival eating salsa. Then Ben was supposed to rescue me in the nick of time so I could get a taste of freedom and, presumably, salsa.
That's the balancing act of co-parenting. You enjoy life in shifts. One of you is eating while one of you is chasing a toddler and starving. One of you is conversing with grownups while the other is changing a dirty diaper and muttering obscenities. One of you is reading celebrity gossip blogs while the other is reading The Little Engine That Could and trying to skip pages without the kids noticing. One of you is enjoying short-lived, soul-replenishing liberty while the other is entertaining escape fantasies and building up hostility.
Don't get me wrong, I love my kids, but I love them the most after I've missed them, after some of my needs have been fulfilled.
But on this day, I was in a critical state of calcifying resentment when I thrust the diaper bag at Ben -- "What took you so long!?" -- and sprinted off with Tim toward civilization.
Only all the chips were gone.
We wandered from booth to booth, confronted by salsa samples and not a damn thing to eat them with. I cursed at my absent husband. "Fuck him! I didn't want to move to Arizona in the first place!" This was the default accusation I'd been lashing him with for almost a year since our move from San Francisco to Tempe.
I'd left behind my life -- my career, my friends, my long pants -- so that Ben could follow a job. And, yes, I'd come willingly, but I wasn't loving Arizona yet. I was chasing kids around play places all day cultivating a rash under my breasts while Ben was eating lunches in restaurants with adults. I was in a constant state of unmet needs, whereas Ben was more satisfied than ever. We were critically out of balance, and as far as I was concerned, he would owe me in perpetuity -- or until something big tipped the scales and made us even again.
I'd lost all hope that I would get to taste salsa when Tim and I came upon a stand that still had chips. The dude manning the booth said, "Be warned. It's hot." I'm not afraid of heat. I grew up in Texas. We ate jalapeños for sport.
I turned to Tim, "Did you and Ben try this one?" I pronounced my husband's name like it had two syllables and both were loathsome to me.
"No," Tim said, remaining cheerful.
Tim and I took bites. My earwax liquefied and poured out. The contents of my sinuses emptied out my nostrils. My vision went blue -- as if I'd been punched in the face, as if I'd stared directly at the sun -- and my periphery went black. I was looking down a long tunnel at the end of which were fireworks. "Tim!" I cried and swung my arm blindly. He was where I'd left him, only now he was doubled over, clutching his heart. My brain crowded into the top of my cranium looking for an emergency exit. I had to put my hands on the top of my head to apply counter-pressure so my skull wouldn't split. "It hurts!" I screamed, choking on the liquid that poured out every hole in my head, as if the water from all the cells of my body had decided to quit me. I clutched Tim's arm. I was afraid we'd be separated as we stumbled blindly, circling like drunken dancers, the crowd sweeping us out to sea. "Drink!" I cried. I wanted to say more, but I couldn't draw breath -- apparently, my lungs had been removed.
Tim and I careened across the field toward the beer tent. "I'm dying! I'm dying!" I shouted at passersby. I meant it not in the hyperbolic sense but in the organ-failure sense. When I got to the tent, I cut to the front of the line and swiped a beer off the counter, saying only, "Sorry!" before pouring it down my throat. It didn't help.
There was nothing left but to throw myself on the ground and thrash around planning my funeral. I had no sense of Tim's being during this epoch.
After about 20 minutes, the endorphins kicked in and the pain subsided. I realized I was going to live. Tim, who appeared shaking and pale before me, also had made it through. All that remained was to say "whoa" and "phew" and "holy shit" again and again. I felt I'd survived a near-death experience, one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
"We should bring some back for Ben," I said, smiling for the first time.
Tim looked at me aghast. "That's cruel!"
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SHOW ME HOW
"No. I'll tell him exactly how awful it is. I'll warn him not to." But I knew my husband. I knew that despite my earnest admonitions, he would eat it.
To say that I found the sight of Ben writhing in pain restorative would be an understatement. Yes, I cackled like a villain as he begged for water, but I also felt genuinely bad for him because I understood exactly what he was enduring. His suffering softened me. And for the first time in almost a year, I felt balance restored. We were even again.
See also: Legend City: Best of Phoenix 2014