Guido had eaten camel in Uzbekistan, scorpions in Mexico, bear in Russia. He’d even once eaten live baby eels right out of a boa’s belly, just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of fucking Doom.
When it came to food, Guido was no gastronome, although he’d eaten his fair share of gastropods. He had a tough palate, not a refined one.
But looking down at this plate, he felt nothing but despair. This meal, Guido knew, would kill him.
How had he wound up eating here in this dive bar in a narrow street of a 3rd rate town in Taiwan? He hadn’t registered the red-check tablecloths until he’d already sat down but by then, of course, it was too late. He had ordered the special with a sense of doom not lightened by the waiter’s small talk.
“But you are Italian!” the waiter had said.
“Maybe we are cousins,” Guido said wryly.
“In Taiwan, all Italians are cousins,” the waiter said with a wisdom Guido didn’t expect from his broad flat peasant face. A Southerner. No cousin of his.
And now the waiter had delivered the special of the house to his table, where it sat steaming.
Of course, Guido thought, he must have smelled it in the street; that’s what had drawn him in. He hadn’t realised. It had been such a long time. And now it was the end.
Guido sighed and then signalled to the waiter. “May I pay my compliments to the chef,” he said.
The waiter looked at Guido’s plate. “But you haven’t yet tried your meal!”
“Please,” Guido said. The waiter shrugged and disappeared into the kitchen. The door swung open again moments later and out came a woman, wide and tall, brimming with strength. She untied her apron as she slowly approached Guido’s table, pulled the strings over her head, and flung it on to a chair.
“Giovanni,” she said, her voice low and powerful. It was just for him.
“Not anymore,” he said.
“Psh. You think that Guido nonsense means anything? It’s time to come home.”
Guido looked at his plate again. She had told him, on the day that he’d left, that she knew how to bring him back. “No, nonna, it’s forever,” he had said. She had made that psh sound then, too. “There’s one thing that will always bring my Gio-gio back from his adventures. He cannot resist his nonna’s lasagna.”
And there it was, in all its glory. The sheets of pasta formed by her own strong hands. The ragu that she stewed for hours. The cheese sauce that had a secret ingredient that she promised never to reveal, but which she had told each of her grandchildren in turn, each believing they were the sole guardian of the precious information.
It signified the end. The end of scorpions and spiders, of bear and boar, of pickled eyeballs, insects, roasted chicken feet, intestines, slugs, and bitter gourd. Durian and balut, worms and snakes and amphibians.
“Come home, Giovanni,” his nonna said. And he heard her voice from across the table, from across the years, from across the courtyard, when he used to have adventures in the old garden shed and she would stand at the kitchen door calling out to him, telling him playtime was over, telling him to come home.
Guido gripped his fork and held it over the lasagna.