We All Grow Eyes

In the early 90s on Sundays my Dad and I drive into Manhattan from south shore Long Island to do the one thing we can always do happily together — eat. Lunch, always at Teresa’s Polish Restaurant, is a veal cutlet sandwich on buttered homemade pumpernickel bread with a big piece of romaine, a tomato that we only eat if it’s in season, and an order of pierogi, half boiled and half fried, with caramelized onions and sour cream. We share it all, making smaller sandwiches from the cutlet with extra bread we request. The pierogi are homemade, unbelievably fresh, hot, and beyond delicious as only the simplest food can be. A dough of flour, salt, water, and oil. My favorite are filled with gently spiced potatoes. We cherish our quiet lunch and the food feels holy.

* * *

Our ritual happens less frequently as I get older and I start to see the neighborhood I used to go with my Dad with my friends, when we take the train in to see music, go record shopping, and eat pizza, usually just a few blocks from Teresa’s. I don’t intentionally ignore the Polish restaurant or my old rituals, I just don’t have the eyes to see them. I don’t stop craving pierogi, I just don’t know where to get them.

* * *

When I’m 18 I go to college in Manhattan and meet up with my parents on weekends for brunch, usually at a health foody kind of place on Ave A which no one likes but my brother. My Dad and I would rather go to Teresa’s just a few blocks away but we’re doing the best we can, given who we’re up against.

* * *

On a night of terrible decisions I end up feeling nostalgic and try to drag a crew to Teresa’s, which being a regular restaurant, isn’t open at 12AM. We should have gone somewhere else for pierogi but instead we end up deciding french fries are the only cure. We go to the Pomme Frittes restaurant, and I eat a large amount of fried potatoes with a ton of salt and a garlic dip that makes me feel dessicated for three days, a pile of bones moaning in my bed.

On the way out I get caught staring at the piles of bags of potatoes in the back. The sheer number impresses me, but I am really enraptured by staring and imagining eyes growing. Thinking about what potatoes can grow and what the dead can grow. Eyes, or limbs or — what?

* * *

Sophomore year I get assigned to a dorm room that is about 20 blocks due north from Teresa’s, in no man’s land. By this point I’m vegan. I smell bad, am generally grumpy, and I eat mostly rice, beans, and potatoes. Where I’m living makes me grumpier so so on a whim I look and find that the school recently opened a campus in Prague. I ask my advisor if I can go, and he says they’re looking for students.

While it’s actually a few months, I feel like I’m there three days later.

* * *

I grow strange quickly in Europe, decide to wear the same pants every day, keep a small bottle of Slivovitz and a pack of filterless cigarettes in my Father’s old coat, and smoke Moroccan hash mixed with tobacco from a Marlboro light out of a homemade water bottle bong with my Israeli roommate who acts like he’s on exile, counting the moments until he can return back to New York.

For cultural education, we travel every few weeks to prominent cities in Eastern Europe and I start to feel a sense of cultural grounding in this part of the world that my family originates. People start to speak to me in Czech before realizing I’m American.

We go to Krakow, not great for a Vegan in Europe, and I almost say fuck it and eat a hot dog until while wandering I find pierogi at a kiosk. I order some filled with fruit for the curiosity but relish so much the potato. The filled pillows of my dreams. A dream needs a pillow. I’m in Teresa’s in my mind.

* * *

From Krakow we take the train to Oswiecim. I sweat the whole way and I can’t stop thinking about how different Auschwitz, in German, as I always heard it pronounced, sounds from Oswiecim, the name in Polish. Oswiecim feels more familiar even though I don’t know the word as well. The gentle poetry.

That day we take a tour of the concentration camp. I see where the trains arrived full of bodies. I see where the trains departed, empty of souls. I feel nauseous the entire time.

We lose one of our friends in the midst of wandering around and figure he’ll catch up with us later. On the way out I stop and spend a full ten minutes staring at the fence that separates the camp from the outside.

Here’s the camp and there’s Poland.

Two different worlds.

I buy a glossy hardcover book from the education center for my parents. It depicts a sunset behind the camp in a beautiful way. It’s sharp corners dig into my waist as I carry it to the train in a daze.

* * *

Back at the hostel, “How do you make vodka from potatoes?” We’re standing in a circle in the open barracks style room with old and dirty wooden floors, passing around a bottle of potato vodka and a bottle of warm orange Fanta, trying not to pass out as we try to finish it all and get up the courage to do something stupid.

The night crescendoes as our potato fueled idiocy causes us to provoke some also drunken older revelers to chase us and scream profanities and threats as us. We evade danger by diving into some bushes and cover our faces with our jackets as they run by. Potatoes in sacks with mud in our eyes.

* * *

I learn how to make pierogi on the occasion of my parents coming to visit us in Maryland for the first time since the COVID-19 Pandemic started. It’s been 18 months since they last visited. 25 years since Teresa’s. I want to make something special.

We get busy, my car breaks down. The kids want to go out to eat. We have leftovers. We get tired. Mom’s eating special food.

They leave and I feel contented but something bothers me. I can’t put my finger on it until I realize, I didn’t make the pierogi. I fret, catastrophize, wonder about when I’ll have another chance. I had the Teresa’s story all lined up. I hate fucking up a plan. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes.

I remember that I made chicken soup that made them smile.

I made some kreplach on a whim, and everyone ate them, the kids and the grandparents too.

What matters? We all shared a meal. It was good to see them again. To feel families coming together again.

After my heart calmed down, so did my mind. I felt like a potato. Eventually, we all grow eyes.

Join the list and get new writing in your inbox as it is published.