by Beverly Donofrio
I grew up getting lost in the woods at the top of my road and hopping across the stream in the cow pasture at the bottom of it, but ever since the fifth grade, I longed to live in New York City. When I finally graduated college at twenty–eight, I packed my ten–year–old son along with everything I owned into a VW van and moved there. Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” had just come out and I played it on every jukebox in every bar I sat in, dreaming dreams so big they needed a city of nine million to fit into. There seemed no place more glamorous, filled with art and artists; or more edgy, alive, dangerous, and therefore adventurous. In New York I would meet the greatest and the lowliest, the most accomplished and the most failed—many of whom would appear in the great literature I would write: the mark I would leave on the world. I might, oops, I would die one day, but what I had to say would live on forever between the covers my books.
All the eleven years I lived in New York were hard, but the first, while the most exciting—because of the newness of everything and my conviction that I was finally living my dreams—was probably the hardest. I had grown up in a midsized Connecticut town and gone to college in a smaller midsized Connecticut town. There were fields and trees, grazing cows, bunnies, and back then even a few deer. In the springtime, choruses of peepers kept me awake. For me, the seasons were their smells: the fresh–mown lawns, damp earth and moss of summer; the burning leaves, chrysanthemums and marigolds in fall; the sharp cold snow in winter; and a different budding tree or bush sweetening the air every week of spring. In New York there was car exhaust, and sometimes cooking smells. That first year, I awoke in the night with such a homesickness for the earth I couldn’t smell, I would hug my own heart and weep.
I didn’t believe in God back then and would not have thought of how in the country everything I missed had been made by God, while in the city most of what surrounded me had been made by man. When I closed my eyes at night I saw racks of goods, like barrettes, spinning. In the alley outside the kitchen window of my first tenement apartment was a weedy looking tree, whose name I forget, but it was the same tree as appears in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It grew out of a little square of earth in the concrete, which was littered with trash. I used to gaze out the window from my third floor apartment down into the alley and see a stray cat eating something out of a piece of tinfoil, pigeons pecking around. One night at the end of the alley, two cops caught a man, turned him so that he faced a parked car in order to handcuff him. When the man struggled to free himself, one of the cops clubbed him on the head, and the man slumped to the ground. From a window in the floor above a woman called, “It’s Johnny. They got Johnny.” I wrote it down in my journal.
I worked at part–time jobs, and I wrote. When I didn’t write, I thought of all I should be writing. There was a woman named April who lived on my street. April was as prolific as the month she was named after, and whenever I saw her coming down the street I had to fight an urge to cross to the other side. Because, for some reason, April felt she must validate herself by reporting to me her every new success, of which there were always many. “I have an essay appearing this month in…. I’m reading with Alice Munro at…. I thought I might see you at … Magazine party.” I could hardly write for reading all the good writing everyone else was doing. Mine did not measure up. Nor did I measure up to my own values. Scrupulosity was not a word in my vocabulary, but I was guilty of it. I could hardly take a step without examining my motives and being suspicious of even the most innocent. Really, really, I wasn’t avoiding work by leaving the apartment; I just needed a carton of milk.
I did not become a contemporary Balzac. I only published a few pieces in magazines while I lived in New York. I was, however, awarded a contract to write a book, and with the small advance I was paid, I thought I would spend the summer near a friend in New Hampshire, making some good headway on my writing. It was a risk. I didn’t know if I could stand being away from the New York Times every morning at the Greek coffee shop on my corner, the art openings, movies, parties, my great friends. But within a month of picking wild raspberries to put on my pancakes, blueberries to make pies with, wildflowers to grace my desk, cutting through the woods to walk to town, smelling all of the earth’s offerings again, gazing at stars, finding myself bewitched and energized by the mounting moon—filled to happiness with God’s beauty everywhere—wild horses couldn’t have forced me back to that city. I never did return—except for visits.
But I had been primed for the departure. The summer before I got my book contract, the summer before I left New York, I did something I had never done before. I went to the hardware store, bought a large flower pot and a sack of dirt, and then at the Wednesday farmers’ market in Union Square, I bought a six–inch–tall beefsteak tomato plant. I buried the plant’s roots in the potted soil then sat the pot on the fire escape, which was five flights up on Avenue A. Above the roaring buses, the occasional street fights, the endless traffic, I watered the tomato with my pasta pot. I sat next to the tomato on summer nights and smelled its incomparable tomato smell. I rubbed my finger along its fuzzy stem. Little yellow flowers came and then they withered. But out of the center of one flower grew a tiny green tomato, which I watched closely. It never grew any larger than a ping–pong ball, perfectly round and brilliantly red. Then it was September and apparent that the tomato was not going to grow any larger or redder.
One Sunday afternoon I picked it. It was warm from the sun and I held it against my cheek before I smelled it. I debated whether or not to slice it and eat it with a fork, or to just take a big bite like out of an apple. I decided on the bite, sprinkled it with salt, and bit into it. Its skin was almost as tough as leather, but inside it was the sweetest, juiciest tomato I had ever and still have ever to taste. It was as though the flavor that would have been spread throughout a baseball–sized beefsteak had been concentrated into the three bites it would take me to eat this little tomato. After the first bite, when I realized that its skin had grown so thick, I sat down on the kitchen floor and wept. It had had to protect itself from the pollution, the noise, the angry energy that throbbed on the avenue in the heat of summer. And then I cried harder when I thought how that little tomato was sort of like me. How tough had my skin become, how many scary and painful scenes had followed that first one when Johnny had been clubbed by the law? I didn’t want to count them, but I knew I hadn’t enough fingers or toes. I only hoped that like the tomato, I had preserved some sweetness inside.
And then something mysterious and wonderful happened. When Eve took the bite of the apple in the Garden, she became aware of right and wrong, and was then capable of watching her every step, measuring her goodness or badness. But after I took the bite of that little tomato that summer, the opposite happened. Perhaps the same impetus to plant that tomato had planted something in me, too. I began ever so slightly to relax my self–vigilance. Sometimes for a whole day, I just was. It was in this state that I wrote the essay that won me the book contract. I wrote simply, honestly, in my own voice, about my own life. It was good and it became my ticket out of the hell I’d made for myself.
That tiny stunted tomato was a messenger from God, a metaphor for me—but also a harbinger of what can be. A tree did grow in Brooklyn, a tomato grew in Alphabet City, the spirit does not die, and can grow again in me and you—and it can grow again in our tired mother earth, too. Sometimes it even seems to happen all on its own, like the birth of a planet or a star. But it really only ever happens thanks to God.
Originally published in “Desert Call”