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The Corn Vendor

I trekked down cobblestones, my plastic flip flops conforming to the shape of each rock while a hot wind bathed my sweaty skin in layers of grit. A dog dozed on the sidewalk, the slow rhythm of his breath the only sound competing with the hot silence of the afternoon.

Suddenly a man pushing a rattling wheelbarrow appeared from around the corner and bumped his heavy load into the middle of the empty intersection and yelled. A kid ducked out the door of a nearby pink house and raced over. He looked to be about four years old.

“What's going on?” Lauren asked me. I smiled, remembering the first time my parents took me to Mexico when I was about her age.

"He's a corn-on-a-stick guy," Gary told her. I could feel the sun burning my white arms and the back of my legs. Brilliant orange nasturtiums dripped off a vine against the boy’s stucco house, and through an open window I caught a glimpse of a shrine to Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I was happy my husband booked this last minute trip.

The man with the wheelbarrow wrapped his hand in a cotton towel and removed the lid of a huge metal pot. Steam lifted into the humid air like a scene from a Halloween funhouse and he dipped his tongs in and pulled out an ear of corn.

Then, quick as a magician, he pealed back its saturated husks. Green leaves formed a ponytail at the base of the cob, and drops of moisture fell into the dust near our feet. With a sickle-shaped blade, the vendor lobbed off the husks with a single clean swoop and stabbed the soft cob with a pointed stick, making it a corn popsicle.

The kid watched the process the same way I’ve seen Lauren gaze through the glass at ice cream shops. Readying the treat is all part of the experience, the waiting, the sweet agony, the anticipation mixing with impatience.

The corn guy selected a wedge of lime, dredged it in salt, and smeared it over rows of shiny kernels, green against yellow in colorful swirls. I smelled citrus mingling with the sweetness of the corn and the dust clinging to my skin.

“Mayonaisa? Crema?" The salesman asked the boy.

“No, gracias.” The kid handed over coins. Cob in hand, he scrambled away, licking salty lime residue from his fingers before settling down on the curb, his bare feet blending with the earth-colored road. I watched the boy take a bite, corn and pleasure all over his face, and I was struck by the beauty of the moment.

Six months ago, at my twice-a-year agonizing breast cancer check up, a doctor spotted something unusual. “We’re going to need another image,” the technician told me, pulling me back into the exam room at a point in the process when they normally say I can go. She smashed my breast again and asked me to wait. Other patients came and went. Something’s wrong, I thought.

Then she called me in for more – and another agonizing wait.

Finally the tech led me down a hallway to a back door. Some poor sap drew the short straw and has to deliver bad news, I thought. But we landed in the sonogram room, and my tech positioned me and some pillows awkwardly so they could get a better look at whatever they needed to see.

That’s my good one, I thought as two new doctors squirted juice on my left breast. Doctors don’t usually do this, I thought, techs do. It’s bad. In the dimness of that room, they stared at a screen, and one of them swirled a little wand over my skin just like the vendor swirled his lime over that ear of corn.

I know my cancer risk is higher than normal, and I know what it will mean if it’s back. I squashed an impulse to panic. “We’ll keep an eye on it,” the doctor in charge said. I threw my top back on, sticky fluid soaking the cotton fabric and clinging to my hair. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Cancer stinks, but the perspective it brings is undeniable.

It helped me say yes when my husband spotted a bargain trip to Mexico. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”

That morning, on that dusty cobblestone street, I shared a moment with two strangers whose lives are far different from mine. I experienced the very essence of it – the smells, the textures, the colors, the flavor.

This disease takes chunks out of our lives. But sometimes, it gives a little of it back. And when it happens, it’s beautiful.

This post was originally published on

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