“At the temple there is a poem called “Loss” carved into the stone. It has three words, but the poet has scratched them out. You cannot read loss, only feel it.”
― Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
I woke up with a swollen cheek. My tooth was throbbing. As I had plans to have it pulled at 19:30, I resisted sending a text message to my dentist for fear of taking advantage of his sympathy, or making him regret sharing his personal phone number. Going to the dentist always makes me anxious, and despite my dentist being very handsome, and the relief he was offering for my aching tooth, I was dreading it.
I made my bed and realized that after I have my tooth pulled, I won’t be able to have any mate until I heal. When you have a tooth pulled you can’t use straws, because the suction can create a dry socket. And you can’t drink mate without a bombilla.
“That’s ok”, my concerned roommate consoled me, “You can still have mate cocido”, the tea-bag version of mate. I pretended to be more comforted than I was, as a return gesture for her kindness.
Mate cocido is not mate. Mate cocido seeps in hot water in a tea bag like any ordinary tea. There is no ritual of preparing the loose-leaf yerba, making sure that the dusty polvo doesn’t clog the bombilla. Mate cocido offers no soothing feeling of the warm heavy mate gourd in your hand, nor the ritual of refilling the gourd with more hot water. Mate cocido is just regular tea. Mate is so much more than just a tea. Mate is magic.
I got out of the shower and as I came back into my room and hastily reached for my lotion on my desk, I knocked over my wooden mate gourd. It fell to the ground, spilling wet yerba all over the floor. My jaw clenched in annoyance and my tooth throbbed.
My wooden mate gourd has a big crack down the middle that swells and contracts with the heat of the hot water that seeps my tea. Sometimes it leaks and I wish that it would split apart completely so that I could move on and procure a new gourd. Sometimes I fantasize about smashing it, or throwing it out the window and watching with pleasure as it would shatter on the cement street and I would be set free. Then maybe I’d get a beautiful leather-covered gourd with silver embellishments, or a colorful silicon gourd, which wouldn’t break.
I refrained from smashing it, and set it back on my desk and went for the broom. As I swept I thought about the mate I would prepare for myself when I arrived to the office.
Every morning when I arrive at work, I set water to boil in the electric kettle and pour myself a glass of cold water from the filtered tap faucet. As the water heats I fill my metal gourd with yerba. At work I drink Esquina De Los Flores – Palo Fuerte. It is an organic yerba, with a bitter, grassy taste. It isn’t the smoothest or the most delicious tea. It is an acquired taste, one I had to work to appreciate, and one that I consistently depend on to sustain me through the work day.
At home I drink Rosamonte. It is smoky and not as dense as my Esquina, and sometimes it burns my tongue. On the weekends I drink Canarias Especial, an imported, finely ground yerba with no palitos. It comes in a shiny green bag, and after several pours, when the mate is lavado, it becomes sweet and floral like honeysuckle.
Since I knew this I wouldn’t have any mate for maybe a week, I wanted some Playadito yerba, the kind that comes in a yellow bag. Playdito reminds me of weekends away in the campo last summer, where we drank mate and cans of Quilmes in the stables with polo players after a match. Playadito is smooth and mild and easy to drink.
I put on my jacket and went to the market downstairs to buy some to bring to the office. “Buen dia”, the shopkeeper greeted me. I asked if he had Playdito and he shook his head and made a clucking noise. “No, Playadito no.” I continued down the street to the next supermarket and recalled one day last year when I wanted an avocado. I really had my heart set on guacamole. I went to six different verdulerias before finally finding an avocado. It was hard and not quite ripened, but I ate it anyway, without enjoying it.
I went to Disco, the large chain supermarket a block away. I usually avoid this store because the checkout lines are outrageous and the cashiers conduct business so slowly that I wonder if they are not half dead. It was early so I knew it wouldn’t be crowded, and they have a large yerba selection. I stared at the long aisle filled with numerous brands of yerba, waiting for my eye to be caught by the pretty yellow bag of my Playadito.
I didn’t see it. I asked the stocker, who was arranging the display, if there was any Playadito. He started rummaging behind the densely packed paper bags of yerba for a hidden bag of Playadito, but didn’t find any. He seemed empathetic to my targeted search, and tried to recommend another brand that I might like. I entertained his suggestions, but left empty-handed because La Tanqueria was not going to suffice and I am too much of a snob to drink Union Suave.
I asked three kiosks on the way to the bus stop if they had it, but I had no luck. When I got on the bus I sent my mother a text message to tell her I was going to have my tooth pulled. I thought of all the times she has comforted me and I had a flashback of a toga party that I went to my sophomore year, where I had lost my favorite bracelet. It was a gold chain bracelet, with a small heart charm with my name engraved on it. I would always shake my wrist when I walked because I loved the clinking sound and the way the warm metal felt on my skin.
When I discovered it had fallen off my wrist and was lost, I cried and searched for it around campus. My efforts were futile; it never resurfaced. Over Christmas my mother noticed I wasn’t wearing it, and asked me where it was. I lied and said I left it at school because it was too painful to admit that I had lost it.
A year later, during another visit home, I found my gold bracelet sitting on top of my bureau in a glass dish. I couldn’t believe this strange luck and I asked my mother where she had found it. She didn’t recall seeing it and I told her the story of how I had lost it a year before while I was at school, only to find it at home. I was baffled, but so joyful to have been reunited with the bracelet that I didn’t question it. You never really lose anything; at most you are separated from it, temporarily.
I got off the bus and went to the Chino neighborhood supermarket. It was 9:30 am and they were blasting Chinese techno music. It smelled like chicken and their mate selection consisted of three brands, so I left in a hurry. My last chance was the large kiosk a block away from the office. “Yerba tenes?” I asked “Siiiii”, the man answered me, “Rosamonte, CBSE y,” he paused and my hopes rose, “Taraqui”.
“Playadito?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
I arrived to the office and went to the cabinet for my dependable bag of Esquina De Los Flores mate. I set the water to boil, and angled my metal gourd as I poured in the yerba. The sweet, dry herby smell was comforting and I supposed that this is the mate I was meant to have this morning. To search for something means never to find it, so what choice did I have?