Diego tried not to look at himself in the mirror as he vigorously shook the can of shaving foam. There wasn’t much left but he was determined to make it last until he and Maria could head to Costco next weekend for their Christmas shopping. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that an artist is one who can hold two opposing views at the same time? Diego thought of himself as an artist and he felt the tension of two opposing views as he applied the razor to his throat. The static sound of the blade cutting through the stubble failed to keep him present. His mind was lost in questions. Yesterday he phoned his family back in Huelva to see what was happening for Christmas. It all began well. His mother relayed how his sisters and brothers were all coming home from Barcelona, Madrid and Brussels. He was the only one whose whereabouts and plans were unknown. His mother didn’t say anything but his father didn’t come to the phone. It was the end of the month. Last night he and Maria had sat around the table and worked out the expenses and the bills that needed paying. It was clear something needed to be done. His face was shaved clean. Two patches of foam hung from his ear lobes. He wiped one away and then looked at himself. He was a Spanish conquistador with a single precious pearl to mark his adventures.
Its funny how something can mean nothing to everyone and something to someone. For Diego the sound of a pot hitting the sink sounded like a key turning in the door of a prison cell. He barely had time to tie his apron when the first one arrived. What are you doing Diego? He heard his mother’s voice pronounce very word even though she had never asked that question. What am I doing? He reached for the liquid soap to wash the large black pot. Pupo. He could smell the sea of his childhood as he scrubbed the inside of that pot. His earliest memory of octopus was when Uncle Alessandro pulled one into the fishing boat during that summer when he first went out with the villagers. Diego watched the lost creature crawl around the boat looking to escape. Its reaching, stretching ambitious tentacles pointed to him. Then there was that cosy smell of charcoal and the white suckers looking at him from his grandmother’s yellow platter. It tasted so good and in his mind’s memory that whole summer tasted good. The translucent lines of so many fishing nets like elfish gossamer pulling magic from the warm sea. He rinsed the pot.
Today was a special day in the restaurant. Maria knew. For several years, Chef, the renown José Andrés, had been lobbying the United States government to allow the importation of jamón ibérico. Today the first package was due to arrive. It was going to be a very grand affair. The Spanish ambassador was slated to appear that evening with a host of other dignitaries to celebrate the occasion. The press and the critics were all going to be there. Diego ran his finger along the skin by the back of his jaw bone and felt a patch of unshaven stubble. How many times has Maria teased him about missing that spot? He prayed that Chef would not notice. He thought of that late night several weeks ago when he and Chef had sat at the only illuminated table in the dark empty restaurant. “It’s done,” Chef said. The Americans had agreed to lift the ban and Chef had just placed the first order with Embutidos y Jamones Fermín. Together they raised their ruby red glasses of Rioja, to Spain, and to dreams. For Chef, the bureaucratic decision was loaded with emotion and significance and that evening he let Diego see an exhausted peace that no one had ever seen before. Diego felt he should say something, but instead he just wanted to close his eyes and imagine the taste of the translucent jamón laid across his tongue. He saw the olive groves around his grandmother’s farmhouse, his sister’s yellow boots and multiple annotated copies of Cervantes stacked high in the stable. He saw the laughing smiles of aunts and uncles and felt the earth breathing in summer like a sleeping baby. Moments later he returned. Chef was staring at the floor through half-opened eyes, his hand resting half-dead on his apron. Diego reached for the delicate stem of the glass. Chef awoke, looked at him and smiled.
Diego recognized the voices of the investors approaching the kitchen. As he rinsed the pot they entered in their pinstripe suits. A beautiful tall blond haired woman stood among them as Chef arrived with the first box of jamón ibérico legally imported into the United States. “Congratulations Jose,” the woman said. Chef raised his hand in the air like a successful matador in the corrida. They all smiled and laughed. Deigo quietly placed a small knife next to the box on the table and Chef reached for it, knowing it should be there, and used it to open the seal on the box. It was 7:20 pm. The Ambassador was arriving at 7:30. Chef reached for the best platter and started to plate the ham, delicately laying each individual slice like memories in a eulogy. Diego reached for another pot and started scrubbing intently. The sous chefs were busy chopping. One of the investors glanced sideways and then whispered urgently to Chef – “he’s here – you should be the first to welcome him.” Chef went to the sink to wash his hands, grabbed a towel, dropped it and left. The platter lay there. Diego couldn’t help staring. How silly that we should all get excited by a plate of ham he thought, and then, at the same time, it looked like the most beautiful thing in the world. “Diego, Diego!” “Si Papa.” His father lay crouched beside him, his finger pointing through the tall grass. About five feet ahead, among the oak trees stood a family of black Iberian pigs eating acorns. “You see Diego – this is why it tastes so good – do you see now?” “Yes Papa.” At that time the wild pigs seemed like magical creatures moving through the evening forest as the first leaves began to fall. He was close to his father then. He could smell pipe tobacco and the cold steel of the shotgun.
“Jose wants everyone to come out front,” the head chef bellowed to the line and sous. They all smiled, moved various dishes off the heat, and quick-paced out to the front. Diego rinsed the pot and reached for a colander. The kitchen was empty, white and cold. Chef burst in and reached for the platter. His foot had just returned to the saddle of the kitchen door when he stopped and turned. “Diego!” “Si Chef!” Chef stopped, walked towards Diego and reached for a fresh plate. He grabbed a baguette, broke it, split it, and laid a slice of jamón across the white soft center and handed it to Diego. “A aquellos que pagan el precio mas alto por sognar, debe de ir la primar prueba del cielo.” Diego felt the hard crustiness of the bread, the soft whiteness like clouds viewed from an airplane, and then the velvet, fruity softness of the jamón ibérico and home. He felt his father beside him and the aroma of sweet tobacco. La primar prueba del cielo.