In this beautifully descriptive creative non-fiction piece, Connie Pertuz Meza describes an innocent childhood caper to steal a treat from the kitchen with a favorite cousin. The piece uses the juxtaposition of their realities to create a sense of communion between the two and a memory that is forever etched into her heart. In lush scene setting and diction, Pertuz Meza reminds us all that our childhood memories can often lead to the deepest reflections.
Connie Pertuz Meza is a Colombian-American writer and two decades long NYC public school educator, mother of two teenagers, and wife. Connie’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Kweli Literary Journal, and elsewhere, as well as several anthologies. Connie is a three-time VONA alum, board member and secretary, a three time Tin House participant, 2021 Aspen Words Ricardo Salinas Latinx recipient, a 2022 Pen America Emerging Fellow, and a 2023 We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Finalist. Connie's writing can be found on her website.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Prompt: In Connie Pertuz Meza's piece, "Stealing Torticas and Joy," an innocent prank leads to something a lot deeper for the protagonist. Think of a moment in your life that started small and sparked a larger significance for you. Write about the growing of the moment in your preferred genre. This does not have to be food related.
Stealing Torticas and Joy
By Connie Pertuz Meza
Torticas were the first thing about Colombia to capture my heart. That’s a lie. It was Francisco. Then came the torticas. The two became intertwined in my heart long before it swelled at the sound of vallenato, the cool breeze of palmeras, or heard endless dichos, which colored every Colombians’ words.
Cheesy and shimmering with oil, torticas exploded in my mouth with a savoriness that tasted like belonging. Washed down with a cold apple flavored Postobon soda, I came to believe that everything was better in Colombia. Tía Delia, Papi’s older sister, fried the flour cakes filled with cheese as a side for all the meals she served. Known for her long gossipy tongue and mean-spirited take on life, cooking gave her a purpose. Torticas could be found alongside a heap of huevos pericos at breakfast or beside a fried mojarra, arroz de coco, and ensalada de aguacate at lunch or next to a bowl of sopa de cabeza de pescado for dinner.
Despite the relentless humidity of La Costa, Tía Delia rooted herself in front of the stove dropping the pale discs de harina in piping hot oil. Unphased by the grease popping in the air, Tía Delia hummed to the sad voice accompanied by the accordion playing off a sticky radio near the stove. I sniffed the air with anticipation, my mouth watered and my stomach growled. Delighted, I gobbled as many as I wanted and for a moment the savory circles filled the pangs in the center of my body, lower than my heart and higher than my stomach. Though the ache always returned, it didn’t stop me from trying to push it down with torticas.
I could count on one of my hands how old I turned the summer I foolishly thought one day I’d marry Francisco.
Five was also the number of reasons why I loved spending my summers in Colombia. One, the way time swayed with no effort in Barranquilla, like the breeze between las palmas. Two, Joann and I were allowed to play outside like everybody else. Mami didn’t worry about los marihuaneros on the street corners or the old men sipping Budweiser in brown paper bags, and las malas costumbres de los demás. Three, we were no longer just us, the three of us, Mami, Joann and I, holding our breath in the absence of Papi, who stumbled home when the sky turned from black to navy, exhaling he had made it home alive. Four, Mami was less angry in Colombia, as if las brisas de la Costa cast a spell upon her, she yelled less and as I ran in front of Abuelo’s house I caught glimpses of a smile.
Five were las torticas, though I had already developed a deep love for arepas, torticas could only be found at home, not sold in stands or resturants, and both Francisco and I could not get enough. We snatched them from the dish near the stove before they were ready to serve. Filed one behind each other, the torticas cooled off on a sheet of old newspaper pooled with grease, making the air smell of fried oil and hot queso Costeno. We were the Colombian versions of the McDonald’s Hamburglar.
Ready for an adventure, Francisco asked me to sneak into the kitchen many evenings during those summers in Colombia. The heavy air was made sweet by the smell of fried dough.
“Tía is making torticas.” Francisco rubbed his hands and pointed at the kitchen.
I wiggled my eyebrows to match the happy gusano feeling sliding up and down inside of me.
“Let’s go,” Francisco said. He pointed to the kitchen. Then pressed his finger to his lips, and waved me to follow.
I cocked my right eyebrow high up, like Francisco taught me. I thought about how I practiced over the cracked mirror above the bathroom sink endlessly.
He turned towards me again, his own eyebrow up in question. I nodded. Of course I trusted him. I followed.
He smiled and waved me closer to him. Once in the kitchen, Francisco busied himself by distracting Tía Delia. He snuck up behind her and grabbed at her waist, and with his free hand reached for the torticas.
Startled, Tía Delia screamed.
Excited by our caper I howled with delight, all while my fingers clutched onto a tortica of my own.
Tía swatted a rag at us, “Parece un niño chiquito,” she said.
Francisco, my cousin through Papi’s side, was twelve years my senior, but his love for cartoons and coloring made him the perfect playmate. Every summer I planted myself at his feet ready to be his sidekick.
“¿Qué vamos a jugar?” I smiled.
Unlike a typical teenager, Francisco did not shoo me away like a pesky fly or as his tag along primita. Instead, I was called hermana. As a child, I did not question Francisco’s request to be brother and sister, to make us more family than we already were. I beamed, happy to have him as a brother. Only as an adult, I understood Francisco’s need for a family all his own. A family where he was the eldest and the protector, and not the youngest being picked on.
The story goes, Francisco was dropped on Abuelo and Abuela’s doorstep by his mother, he was the product of a love affair by my Tío and a servant girl from the neighborhood. Love at first sight, Abuela scooped him up in her arms, and along with Abuelo vowed to raise him as their own. Though he was months old, like a lonely night, Franciso’s eyes were endless with sadness, and in them Abuela saw some of her own pain. For many years, Francisco was Abuela’s son, and bore Abuelo’s name. Jose was Francisco’s middle name. A name passed down like the deep set eyes we all shared or the flat feet we almost all walked on. Jose was passed down the same. Jose Angel, Jose Santo, Jose Antonio, Francisco Jose, Armando Jose, Alberto Jose, like a chain, the name linked every Pertuz male descendant as far back as when we became la Nueva Granada.
I too longed for a family. I watched cozy moments on television between parents who sat on the sofa holding hands and felt a pang. When I saw sisters playing in the street and whispering secrets I gawked with envy. When my mind skipped to the long list of fears circling over my head like a flock of birds, sure I couldn’t share them with anyone, I stopped longing for what I knew was impossible.
I watched Tia Delia scream at Francisco for misbehaving. The words: malparido, hijueputa, y bastardo, used to beat Francisco into submission. Yet, it only awakened Abuelo’s rage. He cursed his life, and then everyone’s life for being born. Mami would stare at both Joann and I, as if it were our fault we were part of this family. All the while, I wondered if this was Papi’s family, why did he not come to Colombia with us? And if this was not her family, why would Mami rather stay here than with her own? Unable to ask these questions, the fear of doing the wrong thing or asking the wrong thing, already gripped my five –year- old self. I remained silent. Desperate to feel anything other than what twisted inside of me, I looked outside of myself.
Never angry for long or sad. Francisco found ways to keep the ache at arms length. He dressed in the Barranquilla’s team uniform, Los Juniors, and jogged around the living room and the sitting room, pretending to be one of the players. I watched him, rocking in the mecedora, until I too kept the sadness at arms length. Francisco scored imaginary goals and told me how my father was more of a father to him than his own. I bit my lip, perplexed, since Papi couldn’t even be a father to Joann and I. Maybe it had to do with Francisco being a boy. Decades later, I understood how people hang onto the strands of illusion in the absence of joy. We all did. Mami. Papi. Joann. Francisco. Abuelo. Abuela. Tia Delia. And me.
But, they were these moments where joy glimmered like a rainbow after a long rainstorm. A stack of torticas awaited at the end.
Francisco and I ran out of the kitchen leaving a trail of giggles behind us. Crossed through the back yard, which was just a small rectangle of cement. A stone basin pedestal attached to a thin hose, which ran a small stream of water, where we scrubbed our clothes. Towards the far back behind the clothes lines, where Francisco’s tortoises had buried themselves earlier in the summer. The torticas still in our hands, we pushed ourselves between the narrow alley, which separated Abuelo’s house and the blue house, the color of the morning sky. Francisco flat at one side, I pressed myself against the opposite wall. This was Francisco’s hiding spot, the Colombian version of a tree house. It was en el callejón Francisco dreamt of being a professional jugador de futbol, being part of a family, and coming to the United States.
On that day, days before I turned six, before my hands could not contain all the years of my life, Francisco ate fast and with a far look in his eyes. I ate my torticas fast too, but unlike Francisco I didn’t look away. I watched the shadows we created as the evening sun cast a spotlight on the pain, which shrouded us both. In that small bit of ground in Colombia, I realized how incredibly sad we both were, our lips greasy, and hearts heavy. Joy proved to be elusive.
Like we reached for the torticas, we reached to steal joy.
Torticas (Sin Queso)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup water
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon achiote or color
Oil for frying
To make the batter: Place the batter ingredients in a medium bowl and mix with fork until the mixture is smooth. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Pour oil to a depth of about 1 inch into a large, heavy frying pan, and heat over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers.
Cook each fritter on both sides until golden brown, approximately 4 minutes per side.
Remove the fritters to a wire rack set in a half sheet pan and place in the oven to keep them warm until ready to serve.