No one knew how La Tomatina began, Elliott lectured me on cue. Already my husband brandished his archeology doctorate and tenure. Add a glass of Rioja and apparently he became supreme arbiter of fact and fiction. Well, we pretty little biostatisticians could read, too. I understood in my soul why one August a Spanish mob first pelted each other with crushed tomatoes. A protest, same reason they’d turned the pelting into an annual free-for-all, one precious hour a year to coat what vexed you in tomato paste.
Years ago, this was even before we had our Gabriela, Elliott and I happened on the Tomatina during one of his summer digs. I’d believed the whole idea of a mass tomato fight was nonsense—until Elliott made me try it and my stray tomato connected on his jutted chin. Every August since we had returned, faithfully. And every August since, somewhere between Chapel Hill and Buñol, Elliott broke out his same tired spiel on the Tomatina’s obscure origins. This year he chose the Renfe train in from Valencia.
“A feast for the Virgin Mary, perhaps,” Elliott supposed. Again. He’d also brought along a perfectly awful gaucho hat that made him look like an overripe Zorro. “Gotten mightily out of hand,” Elliott said, between the dots and dashes to his Morse Code giggle. “Franco was so confounded that he banned it. Did I mention that?”
Twice this year alone. A gaze out at the sierras and olive groves hid my evil smile. Tomorrow, I’d plop a fat tomato square on Elliott’s kisser, and he would plop one on mine, with a gusto that shattered his academic’s cool.
At Buñol, the taxi ride should’ve been a short hop to our little four-star off the Plaza del Pueblo, but the trainloads and coach tours gathering clogged the narrow streets. Grungesters in their thousands drank beer and primed themselves for the metric-ton food fight ahead.
In the hotel lobby, Javier greeted us with his usual warmth and, of course, his Tio Pepe. “Señora!” he said. “You are ready to make the grand combat?”
Ready? I’d been target practicing behind the garage since March. “Viva La Tomatina!”
“Sí, sí! Many people this year. Much sunshine.”
“Monica, darling,” Elliott said, “we’re getting rather old for the mosh pit. Let’s just watch tomorrow, shall we?”
“Watch?” I said, and too on the rise of suspect motives. Once a year we mosh-pitted, and when the hour ended, he and I would stumble red-splattered and sticky to the four-star and make ferocious love ‘til long past dark. Our aftershocks spiced up the bedroom for weeks. The same method polished our marriage as washed grit from Buñol’s paving stones: tomato acid bath.
I said, “But we’ve bought the tickets.”
“You’re being silly. We’ll give them away and head on to Barcelona after lunch.”
“Tell him,” I said to Javier. “Tell him he’ll regret missing out.”
Javier shrugged. “I never go near it. So crowded and such mess.”
Traitor. Damned traitors, both of them.
“I can’t believe you’re giving up on the Tomatina,” I said over tapas, not sparing Elliott any drama either. Accusations might be all I would get to hurl. “Aren’t you always saying how delightfully mysterious the festival is? How it does wonders for my skin?”
“Go alone if it matters that much to you.”
“Alone? But we share the Tomatina.”
Elliott rolled his eyes. He actually rolled his eyes. “Don’t sulk, dear. Can’t I once enjoy Spain without rinsing dried gunk from my sinuses?”
Sulking ate at him, did it? I sulked through the lamb and potatoes and on through the cod. Tempranillo and Spanish guitar roiled my pent-up grudges. Elliott had that tomato coming, one lousy tomato to purge his coffee pot hogging and toilet seat neglect and clockwork droning-on. Without Tomatina therapy, I might devolve into chucking crab cakes at his endless university parties.
Eventually, he stopped banging on about this or that local myth he’d banged on about already. “Fine,” he said, “since you’re going to be this way. We’ll go tomorrow. If. If if if you promise this is our last Tomatina.”
“Absolutely,” I lied.
To battle I wore a doomed cotton blouse and army surplus boots specially picked for wet-weather traction. Elliott chose a bull runner’s outfit and scarf, not the Day-Glo orange I’d sworn made him the most dashing man in Spain. In white, he could’ve slipped olé into the Plaza jumble, except astronauts in orbit probably cracked up spotting his ridiculous Zorro hat. That monster was worth whatever small fortune he’d spent on it.
I herded Elliott into the Plaza early and staked out a spot where tomato trucks would dump fresh ammo reliably. All morning, grungesters filled in around us while I listened to him carp about our hurried breakfast, about the heat and loud music, about the festival crush, and every child there who surely, surely must be a world-class pickpocket. Let the buggers pick away—for La Tomatina I never brought anything more valuable than pride and prescription goggles.
By eleven, the crowd had swelled to cattle pen close-quarters that bulged out every crooked lane. Tradition went the first tomatoes weren’t thrown until someone fetched the Serrano ham from atop a soaped pole. Grungester after grungester failed to shimmy high enough before skidding down to the paving stones. I was near abandoning post and snatching that ham myself, but finally a girl on break from any pickpocketing climbed that pole with the ease of a lemur. A cannon boomed, and the melee began.
Success luring Elliott into so many repeat pastings was simple strategy: each year’s tomato had to come on a delay and seemingly on accident. Blab about my protest theories, about my target practice, and how I found us sexual renewal, and he would analyze it to its grave. He wouldn’t set foot in Buñol again. No, only when the stucco ran red and we’d each given and taken serious hits could I stealth-bomb Elliott.
Such as now. I shoved myself a bit of elbow room and crouched beneath the whizz of tomatoes. Elliott stood an easy throw away, cackling and peppering handfuls scattershot. I squished a particularly large bastard, felt its flesh and juice run through my fingers. Felt my blood boil, felt every don’t-be-silly and watch-your-LDLs seep into that wad of fruit. I drew dead bead and let fly.
Somehow I missed. The tomato flew wide and caught a Scandinavian grungester in his chest. He and his crew returned vigorous fire—whap whap whap—and when I’d scraped my goggles clean, and spat pulp from my mouth, Elliott had fallen lost into the Plaza.
My hour was half-gone. Around me, grungesters and locals and pickpocket children slithered pinkish together. If life had any justice, Elliott’s hat would still loom atop his head even as ruined ball caps and tee shirts sloughed off to the gutter. Justice, though, had joined my list of traitors. No Elliott, no moment of release, no telling what heap of festering grievances my life would become.
I did the unthinkable. What no sober, drunk, or stoned mind dared at the Tomatina. I clambered up a Plaza gate and, there in plain view; I shouted Elliott’s name until my throat went raw. They battered me, those grungesters. Tomato after tomato after tomato, long range and point blank.
A Zorro hat! Stained in pink camouflage and flopping woundedly, Elliott and his stupid, wonderful hat were only meters away. He and the Scandinavians slipped over themselves to shower tomatoes anywhere at anybody. Laughing, laughing, everyone laughing like freed souls, and despite the shouts and horns, I heard that giggle of Elliott’s loudest of all.
I froze, my tomato locked and loaded. How did this need in me begin? How did any myth ever start, the Tomatina, the insides of a marriage, me rooting army surplus shoes firmly in Day-Glo childishness? Look at us now: graying hair, statins for cholesterol, grandparents, if our Gabriela’s fertility treatments ever took. Maybe I protested not Elliot but Father Time. Father Time tapping his watch and sending me into shudders over how many more Augusts Elliott and I had left.
Elliott grinned like a schoolboy and zipped a tomato that splattered my blouse from collar to tails. God help me, I loved that man, and that was why I had no choice at all but to launch right back at him.
Someone bumped me as I let loose. Still, I thought on my crash landing, my aim had felt true. Later, at the hotel, Elliott would top off our cava, and I would tickle him and ask so-casually if today any expert tomato had hit home. While in the glow, I would plant my seeds about returning next year. However this thing had gotten started, La Tomatina was how we stayed shiny and young.