A decade filled with drought followed by rain found us in a super bloom. Wild Canterbury bells, fields of poppies, hillsides sprayed with weightless mustard. These hills, soft colorful mounds, housed us – the hungry, the greedy, the jealous, the idolaters. We were like water collecting in a gutter, flowing down an irrigation ditch to our home: the freeway.
Months before, on the cusp of my new life, I’d been on my way home from my nine-to-five, weaving through pockets of traffic. Bearing through the syrupy stop-and-go, I saw a sedan lose control. The man in the white sedan slammed his brakes and swerved. He hadn’t seen the wall of traffic in front of him. I felt my grip instinctively tighten on my wheel, my heartbeat picked up, and I felt that thrilling lurch of my stomach, like it had dropped out of my body.
I caught myself grinning in my rearview mirror as he screeched from behind. I cranked my head around to watch the sedan swerve and fishtail and skip up onto the hillside. The tires cut through the tall grass and weeds, leaving deep scars as the sedan man tried to get more out of his locking brakes.
At the top of his arch on the hillside, as the white sedan made a sinister turn back toward the onlookers, rubberneckers, well-wishers and malevolent gawkers, I could just make out the features of the man behind the wheel. He had a small tuft of curly hair atop his balding head. His beady eyes stared out, almost expressionlessly. Only his brow, slightly furrowed, as if he was just concentrating on the day’s next challenge. Another email, another spreadsheet, a final report. His pinstriped oxford shirt was buttoned all the way up, tie knotted tight like a choker. His neck wanted to burst from his collar.
The white sedan careened, needle-point, through the menagerie of cars, trucks and motorcycles, perfectly missing each one (mine by mere feet). It slammed into the cement center divider of the freeway. It was the single loudest sound I’d ever heard.
The explosion shook me as the metal gave way to the pure physics of it all, crunching and contorting. The sedan man disappeared in a cloud of shattered glass and a puff of smoke. I rolled down my window and inhaled, at which point I was struck by the acrid mixture of burnt rubber, gasoline and smoke. As I inhaled further, taking in the aromatics of the crash, my nose was filled with something more. It was a sultry aroma of some crustacean broth. Strained crab, shrimp, or maybe langoustine?
While the dust settled, I exited my car and found the wreck of the white sedan replaced by a large bowl of lobster bisque. The sedan had become a perfect giant bowl. The man had become the soup. I peered over the edge of the bowl. The savory crustacean smell filled my nose. The pastel pink broth steamed, a single lobster claw floated in the center. A bright green garnish lay sprinkled on the surface. Traffic began moving again as people lost interest in the scene.
I dunked my hands in the sedan man’s soup, and I felt his indifference for his job. He’d been entrusted as the general manager of an office supply distributor. It was a stagnant, gelatinous blob of a company, so violently plateaued in the cut-throat ecommerce landscape that the sedan man wished he could just walk away from it. But alas, his mortgage. I scooped the soup and it pooled thick in my hands. Chunks of lobster lay under the surface. I tasted it. It was seasoned to perfection, the lobster fresh as any.
Along with the lobster, I tasted the sedan man’s resentment for his wife and his longing for their youth. Each sip of the thick broth, each chunk of crustacean, held unique flavors and textures associated with the man’s life.
I scooped the lobster claw from the middle of the bowl, my shirt and tie dunking in the soup. I cracked it open and extracted the meat. It tasted of the exact lobster bisque served at the sedan man’s wedding. I devoured that memory, though I wasn’t able to relate to the distinct aftertaste. Something between nostalgia and despair. I tossed the hard outer layer of claw shell into the fast lane.
Before the sedan man, long before that lobster bisque, when we were still in a drought, I’d been sitting with my fiancé, Nadine, having a bowl of clam chowder. It was a Friday.
I’d been in love with Nadine for five years. We’d been in a relationship for three. It was that Friday, with the chunky chowder sprawling between us that she’d told me it was over. We’d cancel the wedding, find separate places, tell our family and friends over the ensuing weeks.
Nadine was a thin, regal egret of a lady. Her delicate neck craned to the side, turning her face away from me, as I had no response other than tucking into my clam chowder.
“I can’t even look at you,” Nadine said.
I filled my wide-mouth spoon with more chowder, bits of clam and potato. The soup warmed me.
“This is typical you. Eating your soup and pretending everything is fine instead of dealing with it,” she said to the wall.
I loved her too much to stop eating my clam chowder. How was I supposed to deal with her stomach pain? Her unpredictable blood sugar? Her over-active kidneys? I couldn’t keep up with each diagnosis, each prognosis. I’d always wished I could take each ailing piece of her in my hands, whisper it some soothing song and give it back to her new.
All I could muster in real life was, “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” and “Don’t worry, they will be able to treat it and it will go away.”
Her eyes stayed on that wall. I continued eating the clam chowder.
“You know, I’ve always given everything a real shot. Not just with us. But everything. I really commit myself to,” said Nadine.
It was this strange insecurity of hers that she needed to try everything. She didn’t just have one hobby, she had fifty. She always claimed to give her all to those hobbies and interests, which resulted in a novice-level skill or understanding at best. She wasn’t really good at anything, and I loved her for that. I never understood why she felt the need to foreground her unyielding drive and effort with everything. In times when I’d pointed that out, it would spiral into a huge argument. I’d grown to know better, for the most part.
Nadine looked at me out of the corner of her eye as she continued, “But you, I have no idea what you love. What you are passionate about. And you have nothing to say. Name one thing that I haven’t given a real shot to?”
“Trumpet,” I said through a mouthful of chowder.
I felt her gaze slowly turn to me like the headlights of a runaway truck. “I can’t fucking believe you would say that.” Her voice rose. People turned our way in the café.
Nadine had always been a fan of jazz. Or at least she wanted to appear to be a fan of jazz. It fit with some vintage image she wanted for herself. Some impossibly cool, earthy persona she’d crafted on her social media. She liked Miles Davis, which in truth was not very unique. Who didn’t like Miles Davis? But Nadine thought it was very cool of her. She wanted to play the trumpet like Miles. She’d picked it up for several months and really committed to it in signature Nadine fashion.
When she’d invited me in the room to hear her practice (as if I couldn’t hear it from any room in the house), I listened to her labor through a basic B-flat blues scale. When she asked me how it honestly sounded, I responded, “Less bugle, more bray.” She’d thrown her trumpet, mouthpiece and all, javelin-style from the balcony. It landed in the neighbor’s yard. When they knocked later, trying to return it, we didn’t answer the door.
After I’d mentioned the trumpet in that café, she spiked her engagement ring in her untouched clam chowder, swept up her coat and stormed out. I imagined the waitstaff finding the ring in the soup later. I imagined they would make up a whole narrative for the poor cuss that meant a surprise proposal with that ring in the soup. Maybe he was too nervous to ask, they’d say. Maybe he found out she doesn’t like clam chowder and he’d come back for the ring. Maybe they weren’t meant to be.
After the lobster bisque, I knew I couldn’t return to work. I couldn’t sit there and tap away at my keyboard when there was so much soup to be eaten. The rain would come and go day to day, and the super bloom was just starting to renew the earth around us. People rediscovered that nature was just on the other side of their windshield. They went to the hills and trampled flowers and snapped photos. I avoided those popular hills and made my home on the spots where weeds and blooms flourished alike. Between the spectacle of flowers, the wet roads, the smartphones and the increased number of people on the roads, there was plenty of soup.
At first, I was alone, sitting atop a hill overlooking the freeway. The breeze sent wildflowers atremble across my shins. The sun sat high in the sky, and I made a mental note to remember sunscreen the next day. I ignored the calls from work. I silenced my phone. Migrating butterflies dizzied past me.
I heard screeching tires. These were different than the sedan man’s. Each screech was a shorter, higher-pitched punctuation to a small pickup truck rocking like a boat from side to side. It had been clipped by another car at just the right angle. It flipped. Other cars swerved and braked. Mild fender benders all around. In the center of the mess was the flipped truck, transformed into fatty pork ramen.
I’d run down the hill and hopped the barrier onto the freeway. I’d been lucky to be on the side of the wreck. When I arrived at the edge of the large ramen bowl, I regretted not seeing the driver pre-soup. I made another mental note to get binoculars. The driver had made a beautiful ramen.
I inhaled the deep smell of the tonkotsu broth. My mouth watered. Sliced bamboo shoots and seaweed floated on the surface. They were distant memories, happy ones. The driver with family. I submerged my hands in the steaming broth and filled them with the thick noodles. They were a complex tangle of the driver’s most forlorn memories. There was a distinct inability to interact socially with people; in school, at work, during social gatherings. I nibbled on those lonely ramen noodles, unable to fully undo their tangled depth.
People from the small crashes gathered around and watched me feast. I submerged a large egg under the noodles hoping its interior would firm up a little in the heat. After a minute, I almost went headlong into the bowl trying to recover that egg. It was hard to tell just by its outer texture what part of the driver it was. As I bit into it and the still-loose yolk poured forth, I realized two things: I hadn’t let it sit long enough, and that the driver had a nagging case of conjunctivitis. The egg was the driver’s sick eye. No help, I’m sure, to his or her social status. The yolk stained my shirt and dripped down my forearms.
I rounded to the bowl to access the fatty pork. It became clear very quickly how ill the driver had been. The hunk of pork was a severely-ailed gallbladder. It had been full of gallstones at the time of death. As I bit into the rubbery pork, I chewed through phantom pockets that contained leftover impressions of the stones. That gallbladder must have been like an overfilled bag of marbles.
Stomachs turned, mouths watered, interests piqued under the midday sun. I ate until I felt a gluttonous bloat in my midsection.
I went home intermittently, to shower and change every few days. Soon the electricity would be turned off. Same with the water. I’d be evicted after a month or two of missed rent. I didn’t care. All that mattered was the hunt for soup. At night, I slept out under the cold spring sky. I’d listen for crashes, but I didn’t have as much luck during the night. Something about the fresh air and the cool grass and earth lulled me right to sleep.
The days when there were no crashes were the worst. I’d be left shaking in hunger. I had a taste for nothing other than soup. I wasn’t the only one. I’d noticed others gathering on the hillsides, patrolling for signs of edible fatalities. At first, I thought they’d come to see the flowers. But as soon as another massive accident occurred, I wasn’t the only one who raced through the tall blooms to receive my post-mortem communion.
I’d arrived at a giant bowl of phở. A basic rare steak with onions and cilantro. The driver had been distracted by her phone. Her erratic driving caught my eye. I watched her from a distance with my binoculars. Her head bobbed up and down from her phone screen to the lane in front of her. The crash was only a hundred yards or so up the freeway from my spot on the hillside before I made my way down.
I noticed a woman across the giant soup bowl from me in a white linen dress. She wore her golden brown hair like a halo. The simplest hunger spread across her face. She bit the corner of her lower lip as she eyed the lean raw meat splayed across the surface of the soup.
We met eyes and both knew we’d have to flip the noodles and sink the raw meat slices in order for them to cook in the beef broth. We readied our hands just above the steaming surface. My palms grew clammy from the heat. We nodded simultaneously, never losing eye contact. On that nod, we submerged our hands in the hot broth. We gripped the web of thin rice noodles.
The noodles were slippery, each one hard to hold on to. They were the driver’s lost thoughts—the important memories that had seemingly come and gone, but really lived somewhere in the back of her mind. She’d meant to call her mother after her aunt passed away. She’d forgotten to make that call after her shift at work. She’d meant to write to her brother, who was in prison, but it had been almost three years since she had remembered. That noodle slipped in and out of my fingers several times. Another strand slipped through my grip, it was her grandmother’s gravesite. Each year, she’d meant to visit and leave flowers, but that anniversary just wouldn’t stick in her mind.
The woman in the white dress and I flipped the noodles with a single enormous heave. The beef broth sloshed over the rim soaking my socks.
After a minute or two, the rare steak slices were fully cooked. We fished them out, one by one. The first I got hold of was the driver’s varsity tennis game that she’d competed in almost a decade ago. It was a state championship. She had an early match point at 40-love and ended up blowing that lead. She lost the match. The next slice of beef was her tennis racket rapping hard against her own knee as she approached center court to shake her opponent’s hand after the match. The ensuing slices of beef were her father’s reaction after that game. I consumed her father’s screaming in her ear and the racket slamming against her shoulder blades and back of her legs. I looked across the bowl again to see the woman in the white dress eating other parts of the driver’s failed tennis career and raging father-coach.
After we’d finished eating, the woman in the white dress followed me up the hillside. We sat amongst the tall grass, weeds and flowers. We relaxed under the setting sun. She didn’t speak, and I certainly wasn’t interested in any conversation. It was nice to have some company, though, after so long. We quietly watched the cars along the freeway. Headlights came on as the sun disappeared. The brake lights glowed red in each direction as evening traffic slowed to a trickle.
That night, she lay with her head on my chest. She casually moved over and laid her head right in the middle of my chest. I silently accepted this. I liked the weight on my chest and the way her head rose and fell with my breath. It reminded me of Nadine. There was a time that we lay like that after having made love. Etta James or her latest fancy would play on her record player. I would look at Nadine during those times, really look at her, and she was unlike anyone else. I’d feel like the luckiest person around. She’d lie there listening to my heartbeat.
The first sign that Nadine and I were not going to make it came a couple years into the relationship. She was sick and had stayed home from the office. I decided to take a sick day along with her, to help her feel better. She insisted that I go to work, but I told her that I’d rather be home sick with her. She thanked me and told me how good I was to her. That was the thing about Nadine. One minute she’d be great at telling me about what a spineless fish I was, and the next she would be grateful for how I treated her.
I went to the market down the street and picked up everything I needed to make chicken noodle soup. Later that afternoon, we sat down and ate together.
“This is the best chicken noodle soup,” Nadine said, “I love how many vegetables you put in here. And I love—”
“Angel hair noodles. I know; I always remember you saying that your mom made it this way. The angel hair soaks all the way through and gets soft with the broth. You love that,” I said. I loved knowing the things that she loved.
“I slept with someone from work.” Nadine took a big mouthful of soup.
“Why does it matter who?”
“It matters,” I responded. I’d been to her work functions. Karaoke nights and Christmas parties.
“Can we please not be so petty here? Are you seriously asking me this?” Nadine replied. She’d put down her spoon, leaning it on the side of the bowl. She raised her eyebrows at me, arms crossed.
“I’m seriously asking you. Who was it?”
“Tony? Isn’t that one of the warehouse guys?” I knew who Tony was. He was a big guy, frame like a refrigerator. He drove a forklift in the warehouse. Nadine worked in the offices upstairs. I wanted her to say his name again, to describe him in some way. I wanted to hear some affection in her tone, so I could bathe myself in it and feel even worse.
“I’m sorry. I actually am. The last time it happened, Tony and I agreed that it should be the last. It wasn’t fair to you. To his wife,” Nadine explained.
I swirled my spoon around, wrapping the soft angel hair in a lump. I thought about Nadine and Tony making a decision together and it made me sick.
“The last time? How many times was it?”
“You slept with Tony from the warehouse six times. You slept with Tony the forklift guy six times? How do you even find time to do that?” I asked.
Nadine rounded the table, stopping at the back of my chair. She leaned over me and put her arms around my neck. She whispered for me not to be upset. It was over she said. Tears fell from my cheeks into the bowl of chicken noodle, and she made some joke about extra salt in my soup. I always liked to remember her crying in that moment too but she didn’t. She held me, and I gripped her arm with one hand and ran my other hand through her soft hair.
When the woman in the white dress and I woke up, there was a small group who emerged from the various patches of tall grass on the hill. We were all waiting for the same thing. I felt the warm sore spot on my chest where her head had lain. I motioned for my new friend to follow me to my car parked on the nearest freeway off ramp. She joined me on the hike down. We exchanged nothing more than our names; hers was Lucille.
I drove us to my apartment. I offered her the shower. There was still some of Nadine’s old body wash, shampoo and conditioner in there. I dug through an old drawer and found a few pieces of Nadine’s leftover clothing. Lucille’s white dress had become terribly filthy after her days out on the hills coupled with whatever broth she had encountered before we met. I left her some options on the bed. After her shower, she came in the room only wearing a towel.
When I returned from my shower, I found Lucille in Nadine’s grey cable-knit sweater and old light-wash Levi’s. I remember going to the record store with Nadine when she wore the exact same pairing of top and bottoms. She’d asked one of the guys at the store for a rare Gábor Szabó vinyl. When he said that they hadn’t come across that album in years, her day was ruined. She insisted on asking another employee, to no avail.
The pants, in truth, fit Lucille much better, but there was still something strange about seeing someone else in Nadine’s clothing, someone else in our place. Lucille threw her hair up in the same loose bun she’d worn the day before as I tried to shake the image of Nadine in those clothes.
I dressed and we headed back to the hills. It wasn’t long before another accident occurred below us. A large lumber truck’s load fell off its flatbed and crushed a small hybrid car. A group of ten or so, including Lucille and I, descended upon the wreck. Some combination of fresh lumber and sawdust filled the air, mixed with the distinct aroma of onion soup.
We cleared the wood beams off the wreck and found a steaming bowl of French onion soup. The truck driver screamed to us, asking if the man in the hybrid car was alive. Lucille shook her head. I told him he could gather his lumber and be on his way, or join us in making the most of the situation. The truck driver sobbed and collected the smaller, salvageable wood beams.
The rest of us gathered around the bowl and each received a burn from the soggy baguette slices floating atop the soup. We’d experienced hot soup before, but never this hot. The man in the hybrid car had clearly gone through some trauma. We waited a couple minutes until it cooled down to a manageable temperature. We pulled pieces of the soggy baguette and stringy melted Gruyère. The bread was the heavily-burnt roof of the man in the hybrid car’s home. He and his family had lost their home in the hill fires back when we were still in a drought. The melted cheese was the countless photo albums they lost in the attic. I chewed through baby photos of his children, tee-ball games, birthdays and anniversaries.
We all wanted more broth, so we counted to three and lifted the bread from all sides. We were all flooded with the memory of the hybrid car man’s flaming roof collapsing upon the rest of the house, the devastation and destruction. The middle of the baguette sagged and crumbled back into the soup. The broth was sullied by the fallen roof of bread. I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the onion, garlic, bay leaves and thyme in the broth. I couldn’t tell what other parts of the hybrid car man’s life was in the soup. The fire and the destruction of his house overshadowed it all.
By the second week, too many people had come to take communion with the various freeway soups. The crowds had become overwhelming. We’d barely had room around the bowl to take in a cold, smooth gazpacho of a woman with sickle cell anemia. When we saw a queue form in the slow lane to get to a bowl of borscht leftover from yet another overturned truck, we knew it was time to head farther down the freeway.
Lucille and I headed for the coast. We stopped along the hills when we could see the ocean close on the horizon. We breathed the salty beach air and waited amongst the tall wispy reeds for the next sign of soup. It wasn’t long before we saw two cars collide. One car slammed into the back of another at the point where the traffic had just slowed down. We ran down and hopped the cement barrier alongside the slow lane. The people had pulled off to the shoulder. They were exchanging phone numbers and insurance information. They turned and stared in confusion at Lucille and me. No soup.
I asked if they were okay. They nodded. Lucille smiled. We slowly backed away and hopped back over the barrier onto the hillside. We laughed about our mishap, but we went to sleep with no dinner. By midday the following day, we were feeling the effects of hunger. Lucille said she was dizzy. My stomach and head hurt and the sun didn’t help. I suggested that we find a café or some local diner. Lucille shook her head. She said we’d still be hungry for soup. There wasn’t anything like it. I knew she was right.
As the sun set on the horizon, turning the sky and sea alike to fiery orange, we heard a godsend of twisted metal below. We held hands and skipped down the hillside like children on Easter. In the dead center of the five-lane freeway, we found a large bowl of albondigas. The beef broth made our mouths water as we surveyed the brilliant colors across the soup. Carrots, potatoes and cilantro floated on the surface. Meatballs bobbed here and there.
As we ravenously tucked into the soup, we found a legacy of the driver’s family illness in the vegetables. The carrots, thick and firm, were his father’s liver disease. Each bite sent a wave of abdominal pain or fatigue or nausea through us. The potatoes were the mother’s diabetes. Each bite a starchy pinprick of blood glucose testing or brief blindness in our right eyes. The cilantro was the brother’s depression. Scattered bits of helplessness and hopelessness. A citrusy self-loathing and malaise. The driver didn’t know of his brother’s mental illness until shortly before the crash. He longed to help but didn’t know how.
We scooped up the meatballs and were overwhelmed by the wonder of how a single family could be filled with such a variety of illnesses. The meatballs, tightly packed with rice, were a series of spinal tumors that the driver had recently been diagnosed with. Each bite was filled with the meaty weight of finding out that they were inoperable, their positioning too sensitive, too crucial. Each granule of rice was a fleeting feeling. Disbelief. Denial. Despondency.
The next day, we decided to move farther down the freeway to where it ended. We moved along the side of Pacific Coast Highway. We wanted to see the ocean and take in the salty breeze. We wanted to find more soup. PCH was known to be the host of many fatal crashes.
We watched surfers and swimmers dot the shallow tide. Children and parents were muddled along the shoreline. The beach scene wasn’t so different from the hills we had come from, with their colorful blooms blurring at a distance, as if whisked there by a paint knife.
We watched a head on collision occur under the early evening sun. One of the cars careened through a guardrail after the initial impact and fell off the cliff side of a narrow portion of the highway. The car had become a soup bowl mid-fall, its contents spilling, wasted on the rocks and sand below.
The other car sat in the middle of PCH, a large bowl of chicken noodle soup. I was overwhelmed by the smell and appearance of the soup as it resembled the exact soup I’d made Nadine. Chopped celery and zucchini. Chunks of chicken breast. Angel hair.
The soup was warm in contrast to the coastal chill. The broth revealed that the driver had a rare case of phenylketonuria. Maple syrup piss, is what people called it. The body wasn’t able to break down certain proteins making the driver’s urine take on a sweet smell. Though the broth was as savory as any that I’d made for Nadine, there was a hint of that maple syrup, if only in our minds.
Well after the clam chowder, while we were still in a drought, as she was leaving, Nadine ignored my pleas to sit down and talk it out. She packed her things and told me that it was her final decision. There wasn’t anything I could do. In that moment, I was left with the taste of chicken noodle soup in my mouth. The thoughts of Nadine and Tony from the warehouse sat at the forefront of my mind. I winged her jazz records out the window. Shattered vinyl shards littered the sidewalk.
At the bowl, I watch Lucille fill her fists with soft celery and broth-soaked zucchini. The simple pleasure it brought her to sustain herself with soup was a gift. It was some base-level happiness I wished I could feel again. I watched her scoop handfuls of noodles. She feasted on the unspooled spaghetti of amino acids. They were proteins left by the driver, finally broken down into gossamer strands after a lifetime of suffering.
That evening, Lucille and I sat on the beach watching the waves as the light all but disappeared. A nearby bonfire burned, sending the smell of cedar across our noses. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder. Two girls, maybe in their late teens, sat on a beach blanket a few yards away from us. One laid across the other’s lap, her friend running her fingers through her stringy beach hair. We dozed there on the sand, listening for the sound of soup.
John Abbasi is a fiction writer from Southern California. He holds an MFA from The Rainier Writing Workshop where he completed, Darling, his first collection of short stories. He values invention over convention in his writing, focusing his craft in magical realism, fabulism, and surrealism. His work has appeared in Prism Review and Hoot Review. As he builds his writing portfolio, he teaches Intro to Prose Writing at the University of La Verne and works in marketing as a creative copywriter.