Defeated: that’s what it had looked like, although it’s possible I’d been projecting my own emotions. Yesterday afternoon on the train home from work, the temperature had hovered at 95 and the air conditioning had been broken.
Shirts that had been crisp and white on the morning commute clung to armpits, shoulders, stomachs, backs—places that should never have so much attention drawn to them. Men and women who had gone confidently into work in the morning were, in the afternoon, avoiding eye contact, aware of every drip of sweat coming off their reddened foreheads. Buttons were undone as far as propriety allowed. Suit jackets were shed and would’ve been thrown from the train windows, if they opened, which of course they don’t, and we were all thinking dramatically of what it would feel like to grab that emergency fire axe and take out our overheated aggression on the windows.
Some tried to read the paper or play a game on their phone, but no distraction could scale that wall of heat. I watched one woman wipe down her iPhone screen several times; her sweaty finger as she played Candy Crush kept leaving trails, and she eventually gave up, thinking, like everyone else on the train, “Oh, what’s the use?”
I’d made it home to the air conditioning yesterday afternoon and stepped out on the balcony to check on my plants. And there was my sad little basil plant, looking every bit like every commuter on the westbound 4:15 train. “Oh, what’s the use?” its deflated leaves asked. “If I can’t make it through a June day, how will I ever survive July?”
Filling the watering can at the kitchen sink, I thought again of what I could make with the basil, if only I could keep it alive.
Caprese salad with those grape tomatoes that taste nothing like the big, tough, bland supermarket tomatoes we all now think of as a tomato.
Zucchini crostini with burrata. I’d chiffonade the basil, slicing it into very thin strips I could sprinkle over the sautéed zucchini and that creamy, mild but memorable cheese.
Wouldn’t it be delicious, a just-right summer taste, with grilled peaches and vanilla ice cream?
And there must be a cocktail I could make, one to call my signature summer 2016 drink—perhaps a gimlet?
Later in the morning, around 10 or so, the aisles of the market are always packed with strollers and people trawling for free samples of just-shelled sweet peas. Inevitably, there is a girl pushing her cruiser bike—the kind with wide handlebars and brakes that you use by pedaling backwards, as if it were a child’s bike—next to the stand selling microgreens. She always pauses, considering if she really would like to spend $10 for very tiny scraps of arugula, just enough to make a salad for a fairy or a woodland creature. While she imagines the very small dinner party she could build around these microgreens, traffic stops behind her, unable to get past her handlebars. Deciding against the microgreens, she slowly moves onto the raw honey stand, and by the time she leaves the market, she will have nothing in her basket but a single sunflower and an iced latte. Which she bought at Starbucks on her way to the market.
Every summer, just once, I make the mistake of agreeing to meet a friend, someone who is not a natural early bird, at the market later in the day. And every summer, as I watch the bicycle girl examine honeycomb as if she’s actually going to buy it, I am filled, all the way down to my toenails, with an urge to tell her to get over herself, something I wish someone had told me when I was 22—and at the very least, to get out of the way of the eggplant I’m trying to reach.
But at 8 in the morning, the aisles are always clear, the eggplant easily accessible, and last Saturday, I’d smiled at every vendor and every other early bird: We were going to get the proverbial worm.
I’d come away from the farmers’ market with:
- Rhubarb that would become a crumble to celebrate the first day of summer
- Shelled sweet peas that would be sautéed in a little butter and a lot of garlic, then tossed on top of pasta carbonara
- Pain au chocolat, made by a French nun whose life I always wonder about. How did you end up here, in middle America? Do you speak French in your convent? Do you ever go home to Auvers-sur-Oise or Castelnaudary or wherever you’re from? But I have yet to work up the courage to ask. The most I have done is to throw a “Merci et bonne journee” to her in a small, timid voice, hoping she’ll hear my accent and lead us into conversation.
- And the little basil plant.
On the way home from the market, I’d stopped at the Pet Supplies Plus. Even in just the few minutes it took to buy dog food, the inside of my car began to boil, the sun already so hot at 8:30 that when I opened the car door, waves of sticky heat emerged, practically tangible. And there, just as strong as the heat, had been the smell of basil.
In the heat of the car, the basil had preened. Feeling the sun on its leaves, it had burst forth with the smell of summer, of evenings in the garden, of southern France or southern Italy or some other sun-soaked world where people eat dinner on terraces overlooking vineyards. That smell of basil was a day spent reading in a hammock, fresh-pressed olive oil, a bike ride along the sea, a morning where you don’t have to wake up to an alarm, and dangling your feet in the teal coolness of a pool.
Standing in the asphalt parking lot of Pet Supplies Plus, suburban traffic of SUVs and minivans crawling past on their way to some soccer game, I wanted everything that little basil plant was offering. I wanted to drink up the world, which I was certain would taste of basil and gin.
And then yesterday the humidity got the best of it, as it does to so many of us. Last night, I sprinkled water from above so it was like a cool rain shower. I told it not to worry, that it could still recover, but inside I was thinking: What a waste of a farmers’ market purchase.
And I was thinking: Why can’t I keep anything alive?
And I was thinking: I probably shouldn’t have imbued this little basil plant with all my hopes for the summer, which are defeated and shriveled now, too.
And I was thinking: That’s kind of a dramatic turn to take; it’s just a plant.
The first thing I did this morning was check on it—and it has sprung back to life. I’m once again ready to drink up the world, which will definitely, certainly taste of basil.