Hope you’re all happily getting ready for the holiday and that you will have just enough time (but not too much!) with your loved ones, and that you enjoy your 4,000 calorie meal on Thursday!
In celebration of the holiday, I thought I would give you a little treat… (if by “treat” I mean something along the lines of that candy your weird elderly Aunt would offer you; you know, the weird dish of unwrapped bumpy candies of various shapes and sizes that were always stuck together and all of which tasted like dust and cough syrup? Yeah, THAT kind of treat.) Though, there is a method to this madness. This holiday is all about being thankful, and after reading this you’ll be SO FREAKING THANKFUL that I chose not to write my book as fiction that no matter what you’ll have at least one thing to be glad about this year. It’s the gift that keeps on giving – you’re welcome. #pretentious #makeitstop
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
written in 2011
She walks out of her empty kitchen and into the next room, looking around the vacant space for a moment before her eyes focus on her long, dark dining room table. She puts the plate she is carrying on one end and sags into a straight-backed wooden chair. The table’s glossy surface reflects the image of a gaunt woman with dark circles under her dark eyes. She sits motionless for a long time, staring down into her reflection, a million thoughts trying to crowd their way into her mind. Forcing herself to tear her gaze away from the sight of her own haunted face, her eyes latch instead onto the plate she’s brought from the kitchen.
When she declined to join them for dinner, her neighbors insisted on bringing her a bag of leftovers. In past years, she had always been the one wrapping foil bundles of sweet potatoes and cornbread and pumpkin pie to be distributed to those less blessed than she was by a large and loving family. Today she hasn’t even turned on the stove. The cold sandwich in front of her is all she has.
When she finally picks the sandwich up, the skin between each of her fingers pulls taunt in her struggle to hold the contents contained and controlled. It’s a strange sandwich, not the kind of thing she would ever normally make. It’s filled with things you expect to find on a sandwich, but also things that do not belong. It’s a sandwich from her past. Her father used to make sandwiches like this. She closes her eyes for a moment and struggles to picture him, to remember his voice telling her what they were called as she stood knee-high to him in the goldenrod and olive kitchen. A Dagger? A Beechwood? It was so long ago that it’s lost to her now.
The bread is soft and white, the kind of bread her mother fed her when she was a small girl. It had come in long monotonous loaves, but as a child she’d only noticed the packaging, covered in spots of bright color. She’d thought of it as “circus bread,” and had played lion tamer or trapeze artist with her dolls for hours after lunches of bologna and cheese or peanut butter and grape jelly. She hadn’t eaten bread like this in years. Childhood’s white ring-top joy had long since been replaced by adulthood’s fibery brown practicality. Her fingertips bite into the spongy surface, marring it. She shifts her fingers and watches as the divots in the bread try to restore themselves to their former fluffy perfection. They aren’t able to bounce back, remaining somewhat deflated. She can’t help but think about how things come into your life and make impressions on you, and you never quite recover when they are gone.
The bread’s apparent softness is a deception, though. She can feel the roughness of hundreds of little peaks and valleys on the surface of the slices. She brings the sandwich closer to scrutinize it. What appeared so uniform and pillowy from afar reveals a harsh, cratered terrain on closer examination. The mayonnaise she slathered on the top slice has starting to seep up through the porous surface. She’d always thought mayonnaise was white, but against the unforgiving whiteness of the bread, it’s a pallid yellow. She reflects on how things tend to be much different, much worse, if you look at them closely. It is better, perhaps, to keep everything at arm’s length.
She closes her eyes and sighs into the silent room. “Stop being ridiculous, Melanie. It’s just a sandwich, for heaven sakes.”
Color flushes up her neck and into her cheeks. It’s only been two weeks since Jackson moved out, and here she is, already talking to herself. On instinct she glances around the room, worried what people will think, but then remembers there is no one to see her faux pas. She can do anything she wants now.
She raises her chin a little, her eyes making an attempt at defiance, and asks the china cabinet, “What do you think? Should we just sit around in our dressing gown and sip Chardonnay all day from this point on?” Her voice is louder than she intends, and it rattles the leaded-glass cabinet doors, bouncing back and pushing against her chest. She feels scolded. Then her cheeks burn even brighter. Only two weeks, and she’s already hallucinating that she’s being chastised by a piece of furniture.
Flustered, she turns back to the sandwich in her hands, opens her mouth until her jaw creaks under the strain, and takes a huge bite. It’s like the subway at rush hour. Meat clamoring over vegetables, which are trampling cheese, who is pushing condiments, which are elbowing the weirder contents that they feel don’t belong. She swallows after just a moment of chewing and a large lump of unchewed sandwich sticks in her throat. Her head whips around scanning the table, but she realizes she hasn’t brought herself anything to drink. Her mind fills with rapid fire images of her solitary demise. Before she can become too attached to her imaginary tragedy, the sandwich clears past her windpipe. Her throat bulges and contorts as she continues to swallow hard, over and over, reassuring herself that all is well. There’s nothing there; not even a phantom of pressure remains. She wonders if what she’d thought was there had been a figment of her imagination.
With more caution, she takes a second smaller bite. She makes a conscious decision to concentrate on the turkey, which has always been a favorite of hers. Other people may place higher value on the flashier elements of the holiday meal, but she knows the meat of a thing is what gives strength and body to the whole. This turkey is white meat, dry, and cut much thicker than she would have carved. She can feel the fibers of it pulling apart in her mouth, like a piece of old yarn unraveling. Her shoulders slump as disappointment weighs on her. The turkey she makes is so much better than this. She’d spent years perfecting the art of her golden birds, piling platters full of thin, juicy slices that people clamor for. It was the first thing her mother-in-law had ever praised her for.
It was right after Melanie and Jackson were married, the first time she’d cooked for his huge family. She’d never cooked a meal for such a large group. Even before her parents had passed away, it had only been the two or three of them that she’d needed to cook for. Her mother-in-law had sat down at their shiny mahogany table that Thanksgiving with the air of someone who expected to be disappointed. The woman did that a lot. Melanie’s heart had kicked and bucked as she watched the matriarch place a bite in her mouth. The older woman’s eyes had grown large as she chewed.
“Oh!” A few more chews. “It’s quite delightful, dear.”
Melanie had swelled with pride, almost bursting. In that perfect moment, she knew she’d been accepted.
She catches herself staring down the chair where her mother-in-law had sat, challenging it to contest her memory of that day. She turns back to the sandwich in front of her, searching for something different to dwell on instead. Cheese overwhelms everything else as she chews the next bite. It’s American cheese; not the good kind she gets sliced to order at the deli, but the kind that comes in individual plastic straight-jackets. Directly out of the refrigerator, it’s waxy and bland. She muses as she chews about how even this cheap concoction of human science can be turned into something wonderful if it’s treated right. Apply enough warmth and care, and it’s changed from something rigid and ordinary into something smooth and wonderful. She remembers breakfasts in the large four-poster bed upstairs. The morning sun pours into the east-facing windows so that the fresh smell of warm linens mingles with the rich scent wafting from mounds of steaming scrambled eggs covered in velvety slices of melted cheese. Propped up against a feathery mountain of pillows, two mouths and one fork share the bounty.
Her head jerks up. There is no point in thinking about that now. She swallows with purpose, clearing all of the remnants out of her mouth. She glares at the sandwich. Her eyes accuse it of being responsible for her mental state. She takes another bite and puts the sandwich down, continuing to scowl at it while she chews. A large chunk of iceberg lettuce crunches, echoing through her head and filling her ears. In the quiet house, all she can hear is the sound of her own chewing. She prefers fancier greens; endive, arugula, baby spinach, yet she notices this lettuce has more to it than she’d ever given it credit for. It tastes of fresh water and damp soil warmed in the sunshine. It tastes like growing. She sees herself standing by her large garden in the backyard. The sun is low in the sky and it’s hot and humid and still. The mist reflected off of rows and rows of plants dots her legs below her shorts. It feels so amazing; such a cool, refreshing relief. She tries to dwell in that place, to hold onto that feeling of reprieve, but once she swallows, it starts to fade and is gone within moments. Her tired sigh resounds again through the room.
She looks out the window of the dining room into the vanishing light of the backyard, and she can just make out her garden, tilled under and ready for winter hibernation. Turning the soil had been one of the last things Jackson had done for her before he gave her the news that he was going. She wanted to believe it had been a gift from him, something to soften the blow. He used to tease about her oversized floral gloves, enormous floppy hat, and baggy denim overalls, all covered in dirt. He would sit on the veranda, keeping her company as she puttered around with her plants, a glass of lemonade and a newspaper at his side. Sitting in his khaki pants and polo shirt, looking light and fresh, his golden skin gleaming against the white chaise, he would ask her if she was rehearsing for the role as the “crazy old southern lady.” It had bothered her at first because she didn’t believe he’d failed to notice that the garden had taken root only after she’d found out they would not be having children. Then she realized that the glint in his eyes when he teased her wasn’t mischief, but understanding, and maybe even sympathy. His mocking tone was simply his way of coping with feelings he could not voice in any other way.
Her gaze recedes from the past back into the house, and wanders from the dining room, into the foyer, and across into the family room. Keeping the house was supposed to be some kind of recompense for her, but in truth, the place scares her now. There are gaping holes where furniture recently sat or art recently hung; things Jackson had taken when he left. The French console table in the hallway is a stark contrast to these voids; it’s surface completely overtaken by tall stacks of papers. There are so many things she needs to do in the next few days. Those papers must be gone through, legal documents must be signed. There are calls she needs to make. She needs to figure out what she is going to do tomorrow and the day after. Never mind that, what is she going to do with the rest of her life? How is she going to face that she can’t go back and she has no idea how to go forward? She needs to make a list. She moves to rise, to get paper and pen, but finds she doesn’t have the strength to get out of the chair. She knows it must be done, but she isn’t ready yet. She has a sandwich to finish.
She forces all the energy she has into concentrating on the sandwich, her brow furrowed. She decides that the lettuce is too earthy and practical. It’s turning her thoughts likewise, and she can’t handle that right now. She needs something outrageous to distract her. She looks at the half sandwich left, surveying for the best option. She finds the perfect section and takes a large bite. Her mouth floods with tart sweetness. She rolls the homemade cranberry relish about in her mouth, teasing out all the individual elements that went into making it. She can taste the cranberries, coated in thick red sugary goo, but still sour and crisp underneath the surface of that cloying stickiness. She can taste the oily nuttiness of walnuts, made slightly soft from their soak in the jellied cranberries. It’s almost as good as her own.
Every summer, Jackson’s family had looked forward to receiving jars of Melanie’s preserves. She’d even contemplated starting her own business.
“I think my cooking is rather good. I really think it could be successful.”
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a success. Your stuff is amazing, of course. I just don’t understand why you want to do it. All that work for what? Do you feel like I don’t provide well enough for us? Do you feel like you need to peddle jars of jam on the side of the road?”
“I never said anything about the side of the road! I’m talking about a real business, Jackson, something of my own to be proud of. It isn’t about money.” Confusion etched lines around Jackson’s eyes, and the hurt projecting from their summer-sky depths pinned her heart to the floor.
“Oh, don’t mind me. It was just some silly little idea I’d cooked up. It’s nothing important, certainly not something for us to us get all upset over. Would you like another pork chop?” She smiled at Jackson while busying herself with putting more dinner on his plate. Melanie never mentioned it again.
As she chews, she bites into a rather large piece of orange zest that is lurking in the cranberry relish. The bitter taste overwhelms everything else for a moment, and she is enveloped in the smell of oranges. Her face drains of blood and she sits like a ghost at the deserted table. She’s trapped in the moment when she first smelled a hint perfume profuse with orange oil, strange and unfamiliar, on Jackson. Her foolishness in having accepted his denials cuts through her as a physical pain. Swallowing right away, she takes another bite, desperate for something else, anything else, to focus on.
She finds sage and onion and seasoned bread bits. The stuffing is so reassuring, achingly different from the alien sourness she’s running from. It’s so traditional and normal. She can pretend for a little while that everything is as it’s always been. Her shoulders which had been hunched and tight begin to open and relax. She leans back in the chair, her spine no longer tense and rigid. The tips of her mouth curve upwards just a little as she takes another bite, and then another. She almost looks happy.
Her reverie is broken when she realizes there is only one bite left sitting on the plate. Her spine snaps straight. The cords on her neck jump and twitch. She looks at the little piece of sandwich for a long time. What does she want out of it? What does she hope for from this final taste?
She closes her eyes for the last bite, and allows all the little scraps of all the flavors and textures to mix together again. Now that she’s become acquainted with each of them, they’re more like a choreographed dance than a traffic jam. Memories play out in her mind like a montage from those sappy movies she and Jackson would watch from the loveseat when the weather was bad. She chews slowly, pausing for up to ten or fifteen seconds between each movement of her jaw. Soon, she can’t delay any longer. She swallows the last bite, opening her eyes to as it disappears.
She isn’t hungry anymore, but she wishes she had enough leftovers remaining to make another sandwich. She looks at the disposable plate, which had come in the bag with the leftovers. Drops of cranberry sauce are splattered here and there, and tiny crumbs are scattered across it. A bright cartoon caricature of turkey, with a placard that says “Happy Thanksgiving!” clasped in his oversized wing, stares up at her. The cartoon looks evil to her, with its open-beaked smile like a shriek and its craggy yellow legs ending in taloned feet. She is riveted by the turkey’s eyes, drawn only as solid black dots with no whites. Her shoulders begin to tremble, and then her whole body starts to shake. She shoves the plate away from her with both hands, hard enough that it flies across the table and onto the floor. Her head collapses down onto her arms splayed in front of her, her ragged breath fogging her reflection as her tears blot the table’s perfect polished surface.