North to You
All of life’s tricky situations can be tackled by a Nonnaism.
Effort in every bite.
Let your senses tell you how to season.
Your food reflects how you feel.
With her nimble, delicate fingers and her hair in luscious thick braids, my nonna taught me everything, from tying my shoes to lacing up a hunk of meat for roasting. Though she’s been gone for two years, her words still rule my actions in business, in relationships, in life.
And right now, all I hear is: Camille Lucianna Marino! Hair and food do not mix!
The thought roars above the generators of the food trucks at the San Francisco Bay to Breakers Festival, and stills my fingers on the paper plate of food in my right hand and the clear plastic cup of wine in my left. Despite my growling stomach, having saved my appetite to sample and check out the local food vendors, I can’t ignore the incessant feeling that the wig on my head, a blond bob of artificial stringy strands, is skewed out of place. Worse, the swoop that’s supposed to end below my cheek is on my nose. All I want to do is fix it, dammit.
“Remind me never to do this again with you. Ever.” I spear Jasmine Patel with a glare. She’s inhaling what looks like silver dollar–sized meat pancakes, open-faced on a bed of arugula and French bread, and she’s barely able to answer under a similar horrific wig because her mouth is full. Over full. My stomach dips at Jaz’s obvious lustful reaction to the dish. Eyes hooded, her mouth rounds in a quiet moan. “It’s that good,” I say rather than ask.
Her face switches from pleasure to guilt, and with one swallow, she chokes out, “Oh no. Not at all. Your meatballs are hella better. This had too much pepper. And salt. It sucked, actually.”
“It sucked so bad you demolished it. I see how you are.” I laugh. Jaz has loyalty down to a science, even if she is lying through her teeth. Piatta’s food truck serves smashed meatballs that have been featured by every food blogger in San Francisco, famous for being as delicious as they are unattractive, and they’re currently my main competitor.
“Okay, so the meatballs are good. But this bread?” She lifts the soggy rectangle of dough off her plate with a finger. “Stale, from some warehouse grocer. No one can beat your homemade bread, Camille. You can taste the love in it.”
“Thanks. But you have to say that.” I press my lips into a wry smile. Not only is she my best friend, but she is the one and only employee of Lucianna, my panini and dessert food truck. My competitive brain speeds into overdrive. Survival in the food truck business requires consistent, standout food, and my own has yet to be noticed. Which means I haven’t found my niche, my product, the wow factor. I hand her my plate, no longer hungry. “I could relook at the combination of meat for Lucianna’s meatballs. More sausage maybe? With a sriracha mayo?” Visions of measuring cups and ground meats take over my brain, and I throw my head back for another swig of my third cup of Pinot. My throat warms as it descends into my belly. I nod when I make my decision. “On focaccia. Decided.”
“Cheers!” Jasmine tips up her wine in response, her artificial tresses secure, hiding her blue-black hair. Admittedly, the wig looks amazing on her, the blond appearing platinum against her olive skin. With her costume, a pair of bell-bottoms and a sequined top, she looks straight out of a disco stage set, complete with glittery eyelids and bloodred lipstick. “As long as I get to taste test.”
“You got it. But only if we get to burn these first.” I twirl a section of the slick strands, knowing full well they haven’t been washed, ever. “I don’t know how I let you talk me into renting a wig. Rent. Like, someone’s worn it before.” Shaking my head, my gaze travels to the influx of people disembarking from buses. Tourists, obviously, with the way they gawk at us locals, most of us in costume, many half naked, some fully naked save some paint and a few choice articles of clothing. The cameras and phones appear, and they pose for each other on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, historically known as the birthplace of hippie counterculture, and slyly take selfies with the quirky chaos and diversity of the city. The fog rolls in and swirls of white pool under our feet along with the gentle sting of the cool night air. With the twinkle lights of the food trucks lining the sidewalk against the old-world Victorian façades of the buildings on Haight Street, it’s a picture-perfect night in all respects. I take out my phone and center the trucks, lights, and fog in the camera’s view screen.
“The Bay to Breakers Festival is only the biggest party in the city, and the only way to do it is in costume. You’re lucky I didn’t make you run the actual race. Besides, it’s good cover to scope out the competition.”
“I hate to break it to you, Jaz. No one recognizes me. The truck’s not famous, yet.” My fingers work quickly to apply a photo filter to the picture I took, and I upload it to Lucianna’s social media accounts for my daily post.
@Lucianna: A dress-up SF night with my food truck friends. Be back at lunch tomorrow! Eighth and Market, 11–3.
“Lucianna will have its day,” Jaz says.
“Yeah, I know. Just wish it would happen sooner rather than later.” My words come out like a whine instead of a declaration. Entrance to this festival was only offered to the top sellers in the city and Lucianna didn’t make the cut. While the truck is a success in my eyes—we celebrated our one-year anniversary last April—compared to the talent, food, and marketing power on this street, Lucianna is a lemonade stand.
“Less doubt. More wine.” Jaz scoops my hand into hers and I’m swept to the center of the action, in the middle of the street itself. The festival, which immediately follows the Bay to Breakers—the world-famous twelve-kilometer race whose participants range from professional athletes to the quilt-club ladies down the street wearing lingerie—has attracted both tourists and locals alike. From the gamut of people wearing red, white, and blue, to the Marin Spartans—a North Bay Single-A baseball team—and soldiers in their U.S. Army shirts, to drag queens and executives in suits and ties, Jasmine and I don’t turn any heads. The crowd lulls me with the smell of fried foods and garlic, and with the fourth cup of wine Jaz shoves into my hand, my body relaxes slightly. “Down it,” she yells.
“What?” I shout back above the rising voices of the crowd. Bodies meet and dance between us, and as I’m rocked into the wave of people, a giggle rises from my lips.
“Down it!” Jaz swigs the last of her wine, then raises the cup in the air. “Be crazy, just this once!”
I groan. This is a standard Jasmine lecture. We’re opposite sides of a coin, and I am undoubtedly the head, the walking, talking, goody-goody subconscious. Proud of it, usually. But to be like my best friend and for a moment shrug everything off my shoulders . . . it sounds heavenly.
After a pause, I do exactly what Jaz says before my conscience objects.
She takes the cup from my hand. “You work too damn hard. Not that it’s a bad thing, but sometimes you’ve got to be Camille, not Lucianna. Be silly, do something you normally wouldn’t. Like dance in the middle of the street.” She raises her arms and moves with the crowd. “Try it.”
My eyes shut against the brisk wind, the kind that tickled my face playing on foggy Ocean Beach as a child. My body, awkwardly out of practice, shuffles as if my joints need a dose of WD-40. Then I hear it: the quick bass to my right. Daft Punk on the Weeknd’s “Starboy,” with the mishmash of hip-hop and rap, is laced with a melody that draws me to Jaz. Whether it’s her words or the wine working through my bloodstream, I’m compelled to sway with the beat. With it, seeds of my usual optimistic nature bloom.
It doesn’t matter that Piatta’s cornered the market on panini truck fare in the city. And sure it’s stressful not knowing if I’ll have a spot to park in tomorrow. I’m still living my dream. It’s going to be okay.
Yeah, letting go does feel good.
I should really go out more often.
“Holy shit. Um . . . Cam?” The tone of Jasmine’s words crashes down on my mantra and my eyes fly open. I follow where her gaze has landed: a girl with curly dark brown hair dyed white at the tips, with ruby-red lips and my same alabaster skin tone, her wrists studded with malas. The girl is among the Spartans, who, besides their notorious reputation for drunkenness and general crappy attitude toward restaurants and food trucks, are way too old for her.
I shut my eyes, count to three, and open them again. And she’s still there.
Oh no, this is not happening right now.
I click on an app on my phone that tracks the only other line on my plan and bite my lip as the big blue dot on the map of the world narrows to the United States, to California, to San Francisco, to Haight Street.
“Alissa Isabella Marino,” I hiss as I approach the crowd, maybe a little too loudly. My sister looks to the left and right, a signal that what I’m doing is neither smooth nor cool. I’m channeling Nonna, driven by the same compulsion to protect, as I am Ally’s guardian and someone who is supposed to know better. When her face contorts into the familiar look of vehemence and shock, I’m stunned at how it sucks being on the receiving end of it.
“Ow,” Ally whines when I grab her by her upper arm, though she gives in to my pull. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
She reeks of alcohol, and her eyes are bloodshot.
“Nothing my butt. Where’s Astrid?” My eyes sweep the crowd for Ally’s best friend. I should have known this event would draw out the two of them. Astrid lives just beyond the Panhandle, and Ally’s love for food and festivals rivals mine. Coupled with Astrid’s thing for athletes and soldiers . . .
Clamping my eyes shut, the regret of the woulds and shoulds nag at me. This is exactly why I don’t go out, why I keep my eyes forward on the narrow road. Everything falls apart when I’m not looking.
“I’ll go find the other one,” Jasmine announces before striding away.
“I can’t believe you, Ally. You promised me Netflix in pajamas, not traipsing through this city looking for trouble. You have an interview tomorrow. Doesn’t it matter to you?”
She wiggles her arm out of my grasp. “God, Camille. I’m an adult.”
Grabbing her by the shoulders, I force her to look at me. But it only works for a second because she is eyeball-deep in what I guess, when I get close enough to smell her breath, were rum and Cokes. “Like hell you’re an adult. I don’t care if you’re eighteen. You just graduated high school. Hear that?” My voice takes on a mama-bear volume that surprises even me. “Underage!”
Backs turn and bodies scamper at my declaration. “Yeah. Like you all couldn’t tell.” I am out of my shell with this anger, frantic, unsteady on my feet. But the anger isn’t just for Ally. It’s also for me. Ally’s interview with the Art Institute of Austin was almost impossible to score, and I should have listened to my conscience and stayed home. I shouldn’t have had too much wine. Now my hold is weak.
Much like she did when she was a toddler, Ally belts out, “It’s not fair.” To top it off, she stomps her foot once, completing the fiasco that is my life.
“That’s incredibly mature and adult,” I warn.
“Whoa, nice wig. That’s hot.” I realize a guy easily twice my girth, dressed as a Spartan in his green and white team jersey, was creeping and eavesdropping. With glassy eyes and a fiendish smirk, he blocks our way.
“Let’s go.” Annoyance zings through me like the tang of lemon zest, and I tighten my hold on Ally’s wrist. If we leave now, I can still do some prep for our shift tomorrow. I can tuck Ally into bed before the most important day of her post–high school career.
“Naw, don’t go yet.” The Spartan’s hand lands on my shoulder, and the dead weight renders me unsteady. He smiles, baring his teeth, just as someone calls his name. His attention zips away from me and I scan the crowd again. No Jasmine or Astrid. We can’t leave without them.
But I catch the profile of a guy with his arms crossed. He’s in line at the Makin’ Bacon truck. Golden brown skin, with a lean build, broad shoulders, medium height, his close-cropped hair tapered at the sides and sporting a short but deliberate fringe to one side. He’s wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a checkered long-sleeve shirt over an Army shirt, and he holds a water bottle in his hand. He has a relaxed and confident smile on his face. His familiarity sparks a memory. And more, a bodily reaction. My nerve endings fire, the foggy edges of my vision clear for a beat, and I’m drawn to him. I swear my body leans a little toward the guy’s direction.
I know him.
I must know him, because my double take has turned into a triple and quadruple take. The cogs in my brain squeak in an attempt to remember when and where I’ve seen him, and a scene emerges. It’s of his presence next to me while I cook. Of me feeling giddy and strange. And as if conjured by a wizard’s spell, a name starts to form on my tongue. That is, until the recognition dissipates when the Spartan takes one step closer and the awkwardness I feel flips to discomfort.
This time, my tone is serious. “Excuse us.”
“Aw, but why so quickly? We’re staying at the Hilton down the street. Party with us.”
“Um . . . no thanks.”
But the Spartan wraps his arms around my shoulders and they slip down so he’s got me by the waist.
Shit. My stomach gurgles with nausea. I have to get us out of here. I wiggle from his grasp, but he opens his arms, spread eagle, and his legs take a wide stance. “C’mon, don’t be such a prude.”
Oh, he thinks this is a joke.
Little does he know I am all out of laughs.
I plow through him. At full speed, head down, my shoulder leading the way, I envision myself as a 49er linebacker. I pull Ally by the hand and shimmy my way through bodies. I’m stopped with an oomph and arms that enclose me. My hands splay against what I slowly realize are rock-hard abs. I allow my fingers to linger as my gaze drifts upward to the word Army written across a broad chest, then higher to muscled shoulders and a sharp jawline. It’s the guy. The one with the glasses. And while my body settles into him like a key in a lock, my brain catalogues his face among the many I see on a daily basis.
When his eyes meet mine, his arms fly outward in surrender. “Oh, my bad. I didn’t mean to—”
“Help us?” I plead. I give up on figuring out who he is. This guy has to be way more harmless than the Spartan who’s cursing behind us. I mean, Army soldiers swear to protect our nation’s citizens, right?
“Uh . . . okay?” His tone is dubious, though his lips quirk up.
I’ve kissed those lips. The thought rings clear, and I wonder if I say the words aloud, because he’s staring at me. I am like warm butter as he scans my face, but with the last bit of my logic, I pull my sister behind us. I position him so we shield her from the lumbering shadow coming toward us. “Kiss me.”
I’ve never said those words to a stranger, but it’s liberating. Much like this night is. Was, until I was reminded that my responsibilities come before fun. My thoughts jumble and churn, until I realize that the glasses guy is doing my bidding. As he leans down, his hand exerts a slight pressure on the curve of my back, and I angle myself upward, my eyes shutting in response. Mixed with my buzz and the weirdness of this night, I give in to this loss of control.
My lips find his. They’re soft and taste of chocolate. Probably from the Chocoholism truck, I think. His tongue touches against mine, a shy gesture, and his hands move to my hips, pulling me flush against his body.
Yep. I have no control whatsoever. I melt into him, pressing hot chest to chest. Sounds evaporate. My brain jumps ship from my rogue behavior. That is, until Nonna’s words tickle the edges of my conscience: touch it, and you’ll know.
Baking bread was Nonna’s expertise. Knowing when the dough was ready, she said, was an estimation, a judgment. She claimed it was all about feeling one’s way.
I inherited this trait, and I know then. This kiss isn’t new. It’s nostalgic, wistful.
With our bodies pressed tight, my mind wanders, deepens to visions of him and me beyond this party on Haight Street. It flashes to foggy beach mornings, of hands groping over clothed skin, of sand found in my pockets days later.
I hear Ally gasp.
I’m dizzy when the guy disengages, out of breath.
It’s déjà vu.