Banana Flavor

By Ani Raya-Flores

Analisa Raya-Flores lives and works in Los Angeles. As a child she snacked on cookies. Now, she prefers slightly larger cookies.

He’d nearly jogged his way back to the car, grateful he’d chosen the larger gas station, the one with wall-to-wall refrigerators and two aisles of healthy snacks. Roasted nuts, dehydrated vegetables, and dried fruits; rabbit food, his mother would have called it. He knew his sister was waiting, but didn’t care. She was happy with her drive-thru frozen coffee, anyway, and was no doubt taking his absence as an opportunity to blast the radio and the air-conditioning. After minutes of surveying, picking up more than he could carry, and putting most of it back, he settled on a singular item: banana chips. He was proud of his restraint.

You look excited, she said, having to shout over the music.

He held the bag over his head, grinning and pumping it up and down as if it were a trophy. He enjoyed walking the line of sincerity and self-parody.

They drove for a while in near silence, her slurping and his crunching serving as accompaniment. There was a brief intermission when his jaw became tired and she feared hers might atrophy, so they traded for a minute—her crunching now, him slurping.

The safest time to start a conversation on a road trip is when you are nearly home, and his sister was nothing if not safe. They were blocks away from her apartment when she took a breath and said, I thought that lady was flirting with you.

What lady?, he asked.

Whatsherface at our table, she said. Cousin Jessica’s friend.

I didn’t notice, he said. It was a lie. He had noticed.

Well she thought you were cute, anyway.

Thanks, he said. I’ll keep that in mind at the next family funeral. Maybe we can build up a rapport.

You never know, she said. That could be your future wife!

They spent the last few blocks laughing, which felt good. It took her a few minutes to collect all her purse, empty cups, and loose shoes. Eventually, she walked around to the driver’s side with her hands full, stuck her head in, and kissed him on the head.

Take care, big brother, she said, before running barefoot up the walkway, doubling back when she dropped a pump, scooping it back up amidst lots of fucks and shits and goddamnits, eventually making it to the threshold and getting buzzed in by the doorman.

He started the car, reached for the glove compartment, and pulled out what was left of the banana chips. Not having to share now, he nestled the bag between his legs. He lived on the other side of town and was preparing for what might be an hour’s drive.

The traffic moved slowly from west to east, and after a while, stopped altogether. He reached into the bag, pulled out a few canary yellow chips, and nearly inhaled them. As it turned out, he didn’t actually like the way they tasted, so he had to chew quickly. He thought about the woman at the funeral, Cousin Jessica’s friend, who would have been attractive had she been from the city, like he was. If he hadn’t seen her high heels sink into the cemetery grass; if he hadn’t seen her tiptoe to a stranger’s headstone and remain there for the rest of the burial; if he hadn’t laughed silently at her, which she mistook for a knowing smile; if she hadn’t laughed so hard at his jokes, piping in with a few less funny quips of her own, then he wouldn’t have had to turn and smile generously, leading her on; because even though a funeral wasn’t a place to pick someone up, it was even less of a place to shut someone down.

The car crawled along the freeway, making him desperate to get home and put any other flavor into his mouth. He wanted to stop eating, but felt compelled to finish the bag. I could be sitting in a diner in Bakersfield right now, he thought, drinking mild coffee and playing footsie with Cousin Jessica’s friend. But deep down he was glad he wasn’t. While he was more alone than he’d ever been, he was too old for a one-night stand and too tired to deal with the morning after—waking up to her grass-stained stilettos and angular haircut that made her seem edgy to her friends, but ordinary to him, simple even. And knowing the way he would have felt hypothetically made him feel ungenerous and cruel in reality. Which was maybe why he’d bought the banana chips in the first place, because he deserved to be stuck with something.

The traffic was completely stopped now, allowing him to shift into park and flip the overhead light. He turned the bag over in his palms, looking for the nutrition facts. There wasn’t even a calorie count or carbohydrate breakdown. Just four ingredients: dehydrated bananas, palm oil, salt, banana flavor.

Banana flavor?, he asked the empty car. But these are bananas.

There were moments, in the last few years, when the sound of his voice had surprised him. It wasn’t the texture or the tone that caught him off guard, but the fact that he’d made any sound at all. Talking to himself would have been one thing, but this was different. He was talking to no one. And it suddenly occurred to him that his father would be doing this for the rest of his life, now that his mother was gone. And not wanting to break down in the middle of rush hour, he ate faster and faster. If he was chewing, he couldn’t be sobbing. That’s just science, he said, aloud again. This time, the sound of his voice made him laugh, so much so that he hoped someone in another car had seen it all and was laughing, too. Because eating and laughing alone might be sadder than eating and crying alone. Without looking at the drivers around him, he shut off the overhead light, assuming he had their attention.

For the rest of the drive, he ate for his audience—diligently, theatrically. And when the bag was empty, he excavated the crumbs that had slipped between his legs and under his crotch. The last few into his mouth were already warm.