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I Hear She's a Real Bitch
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CHAPTER 4: KID STUFF
 
The first time I could’ve gotten drunk but didn’t, I was eleven. We were at Greg Harper’s* house playing a make-believe game of Star Wars. Greg was a lanky ginger into sci-fi and British comedy and he was mildly funny so he coasted on that. He played the comedian so well that you almost forgot his nerdish leanings. The premise of our game was flimsy: Greg and Alan were Han and Luke, and Kristy was Leia because she had sprouted boobs and was really pretty, which of course meant all the girls whispered about what a slut she was while maintaining phony friendships with her.
     There was nothing to suggest at that time that Kristy had ever even kissed a boy, though even if she had, it wouldn’t have made our slut-shaming any less awful. The way we interacted as eleven-year-old girls was a good introduction to female group dynamics, and I was definitely not just a casual observer. As an adult, I’ve noticed these childish patterns on a loop and can still shock myself with how callously dismissive I can be of women—men too, but I tend to be more generous with men’s shortcomings. I’m an admittedly bad feminist; I know that I have this horrendous, learned double standard. It’s just that I have a strong negative reaction to what I see as a wishy-washy need to please and I find that trait more often in women than in men. I wish I could be more patient, as a woman is expected to be. If I allowed myself to clearly and fully remem­ber the awful things I whispered and gleefully took in back then about “Titsy” Edmunds (not our best work—it didn’t even rhyme) I know I would be horrified. What I do remember well is the feeling of belonging and the power of gossip: alliances constantly shifting, hopping back and forth between the two most popular girls, the hypocrisy of these relation­ships a baseline for how women exist in group friendships, especially as children. Two “friends” are always finding com­fort in talking shit about their other “friend,” who may be prettier, or better dressed, or more popular with the boys, or none of those things. (But a judgment that a girl is “prettier” is often at the heart of it. The patriarchy’s culturally agreed-on baseline for prettiness in those days defaulted to skinny-yet-curvy white girls—thank christ that’s starting to change.) Kristy’s social status was confusing, both relying on and hin­dered by the power of new breasts, but it didn’t matter—she always got to play Leia, and I always got stuck with C-3PO.
     After our game ended (once the Death Star had been destroyed, presumably) Greg casually sauntered into the base­ment with a six-pack of beer, like it was something he did all the time, and my first reaction was, “No! Drinking is bad and we aren’t supposed to do it!” My rebellious nature was still a couple years from maturation, but my fight-y nature wasn’t, and I argued with and shamed the boys, going so far as to dump at least one lukewarm beer down the toilet. It was Miller High Life, and it was 1987, when Miller High Life was pre-ironic, yet even with its third-banana (behind Pabst and Labatt 50) iconic hipster status just a decade away, the toilet still seems like an appropriate place for it. It got me thinking, though. If Greg and Alan were refusing to speak to me for weeks over this small thing, dumping a beer down the toilet, they must’ve been pretty mad about it. And if they were so mad, drinking had to be awesome. It was a primitive logic.
     As girls of eleven or twelve-ish, we were at the age where our parents could leave us alone for an evening and didn’t have to worry about boys rapping on windows with cans of warm beer looking to “be boys”—that was still a couple of years off, despite Greg’s early adopting. In grade 7, I would shoot up a fast few inches, becoming very Skinny Legs and All, the book by Tom Robbins that I eventually read for its title and loved for its everything. When I see eleven-year-old girls today, sashaying around in crop tops and jean shorts cut so high that I’m discomfited, I wonder if I’m remembering “eleven” wrong. But I think it’s a pretty different “not-quite-a-girl-not-quite-a-woman” world now—something about the Internet.
     I mean, obviously the unattainable beauty standards for women are rooted in the patriarchy, but now that most west­ern kids can fall through Google’s looking glass and have total access to everything, girls are too quickly, within a pack mentality, making themselves into miniature versions of their sexy popstar heroes. I don’t want to be all old-man-shakes-fist-at-cloud, but though we still learned our roles—to be the prettiest, the sexiest, yet somehow demure—it just wasn’t as fast a slide into clothing as sexual display when I was a kid. We didn’t even grasp what was happening, even if, biologi­cally, the approving looks from boys were a jolt we knew we liked. We are raised to compete with other women, but within a societal expectation of “sisterhood”—a challenging para­dox that ends up supporting the patriarchal status quo.
     Perhaps it was because I intuitively rejected the social cues I was picking up as a girl, but for whatever reason I had more fun playing with boys. They wanted to build forts and climb trees and play Capture the Flag. They were my people—a friendship preference I haven’t been able to shake. I’ve been on a constant search for equality-based female friendship, but it’s eluded me, especially as I age and my requirements become ever more specific. Where are the forty-something stepmoms who are fundamentally it-getty and can afford occasional elaborate dinners? Are they at bars? Is there a Tinder for cool stepmoms? Not that I don’t have close female friends, but I’ve always felt more at ease with boy-besties. And yes, I realize how “not like other girls” garbage this sounds.
     Dwayne, my first boy-pal, lived at 10 Scarbelle Lane, the cul-de-sac that sprouted off the top of Scarboro Avenue (Scarboro, no “u-g-h”—how many times did I say that as a kid?). We bonded immediately. Not in a crush sort of way—I had no special feelings for him “down there.” (“Down there” was something I had discovered at nine or ten thanks to my love of shimmying up and then sliding down the poles that supported the swings in the school playground—a precursor to my mother’s as yet undiscovered “shoulder massager.”) Dwayne had a ramp for jumping his BMX bike. Either my parents wouldn’t buy me a BMX or I decided it veered too strongly into representing myself as not a girl (for all my tomboy leanings, I definitely wanted to be the kind of girl that boys liked). But that didn’t stop me from racing Dwayne’s bike up and down the street and sometimes finding the cour­age to go up the ramp, though never committing quite enough to really catch any air. One afternoon, I’d gotten up a lot of speed and was screeching toward him when, out of nowhere, he jammed a stick in the front wheel spokes. I flew over the handlebars and scraped myself up pretty badly. I was so upset and shocked, I grabbed my non-BMX bike, which I’d lazily dropped on Dwayne’s lawn, and limped home so he wouldn’t see me cry. I was so embarrassed and pissed off. Was this what boys did to each other? Stood there while you hobbled off muf­fling your tears? Laughed at skinned knees with little stones and pits of asphalt buried so deep it would take my mother hours to clean?
     This was a first peek into a lifelong struggle with my joy at the company of men and my occasional wish for just a little more compassion (a quality so often attributed to women) from them. This is partly why I’m so happy to see gender lines starting to blur: for starters, women not being afraid of their confidence or assertiveness, and men embracing, well, other men in a non-sexual way. Men are trained not to cry. Women are trained not to demand things. These are ridiculous standards. I hardly ever cry, and I am constantly demanding things, yet I still catch myself falling prey to a standard societal expectation of what it means to “be a man.” I am always trying to upend gender roles, even deeply ingrained ones, like the ludicrous idea that “having balls” means being tough. To paraphrase come­dian Sheng Wang (who apparently came up with this despite the Internet insisting it was Betty White, much to her chagrin): “It makes no sense. Balls are delicate little sacks that can’t take a hit. But vaginas? Vaginas can take a pounding.”
     Eventually Dwayne apologized, after, I suspect, his mother made him, but it was never the same between us. I didn’t trust him any more and I just stopped going around to his house and his BMX ramp. Two years later, by the time we were taking the bus to different high schools, it was like we’d never met.
     That awful bike spill was around the time I started crush­ing on Greg—Star Wars, beer-toting Greg—who somehow, between grades 7 and 8, became (to me) the most handsome thing ever, even more handsome than crowd favourites Rob and Julius. But Greg liked Christine (they all liked Christine), a cute-as-a-button fashionista (seriously, this kid knew what was up) who was the unofficial group leader at school, and was constantly rich with choice re: boys to like. Mine was an awful, all-consuming crush—a theme for crushes all my life. I’d find any excuse to be around him, and his likes were suddenly my likes. We did legitimately have one thing in common, though: Inspector Gadget. Despite the torture of not having my feelings for him reciprocated, I was grateful to have someone to discuss that morning’s episode with. There was no fake-liking the brilliance of Penny always cleaning up after the bungling Inspector. I thought it was gold, and I’d wake up extra early to eat breakfast before it was on, because there was no eating in front of the TV in my house—ever. For some reason my parents never counted this morning cartoon indulgence against my half hour of evening television (an hour on Sundays).
     Every morning my dad would make orange juice from fro­zen concentrate, and every morning I’d want to drink it right away, before all the ice crystals had melted. He’d butter toast, slice grapefruit, and my mom would stir up some instant oat­meal, while my much younger brother, Jonathan, would ride around the kitchen on a plastic cow on wheels with an air pump that made it moo—the only place in the house, aside from the bathroom, that wasn’t carpeted—getting underfoot. If I could manage to scarf all that breakfast down, only then could I watch Inspector Gadget.
     My parents’ parenting of me always felt like a combina­tion of the tight grip of paranoia and an irresistible urge to just let me do as I pleased, so they seemed incredibly grateful my brother was so much less defiant. Although, once I cut off the air pump on that awful cow in a fit of annoyance, with the intention of rendering it silent forever, he figured out he could just blow into the hole to make it moo, so that was pretty defiant.

I very clearly remember the first time I did get drunk, at thirteen, just as the school year was kicking off my final year before high school, as trees were turning from bright green to deep gold and red, a visual ode to Boy George and Jamaican flags. We’d planned the night for weeks, knowing that eventually my parents would be out some Friday night to attend the ballet or the symphony. That night finally came, and I huddled in the living room with my three closest friends, Kathleen, Christine, and Caroline. My parents didn’t even ask why we seemed giddier than usual, though I doubt they even noticed—the four of us together always ended up in fits of giggles and whispers.
     The moment we heard the garage door shut behind my parents, we raced to the liquor cabinet, which was, because of the lack of reverence my parents had for liquor, more like an ordinary cupboard beside the fridge than a cabinet. (Naturally, I’d prefer a more dedicated display if I were to keep liquor in the house. I don’t—with three spots all with great cocktails mere steps away, there’s simply no need.) My parents didn’t drink much while I was growing up, although I eventually learned my dad kept a bottle of sherry in his desk drawer, which sparked in me a lifelong love of the stuff. I imagine he’d sit there punching numbers into his adding machine—a pre-computer, large-scale calculator whose gears you could hear grinding away even from the kitchen, a floor away—and sip­ping sherry, just a little bit.
     I dragged a plush chair from the kitchen table to reach the cupboard. Everything inside looked weird and foreign, and as I gingerly pulled out bottles and passed them down, antic­ipation grew. I hopped off the chair and we struggled to open the stuck-on caps. Eventually, through sheer force of will, we twisted them off, immediately noticing that what was inside the bottles smelled even more foreign than they looked. Up until that point, while I’d had a thousand sips of my dad’s beer foam, I’d never smelled anything like gin. I put it to my nose, and was almost immediately knocked back by its aggressive astringency. It smelled like something I imagined would be better suited for polishing silverware than sipping in cocktails. At thirteen I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to drink something that smelled like it would tear a hole in your gut. Now, of course, I can’t imagine a more mundane life than one without gin-and-tonics.
     After sniffing a few of the spirits and not really knowing the differences between them—they all smelled like they’d kill you—we narrowed it down to the options with “chocolate” or “fruit” on the labels, eventually settling on crème de menthe and some Swiss chocolate almond liqueur. Both smelled sweet and delicious, so I bravely sipped them. But the flavours were distracting to my mouth, the tweaks of alcohol off. Still, that didn’t stop me—or Kathleen, Christine, and Caroline—from gulping directly from the bottles. In that moment, we were convinced that if we used glasses my parents would know we’d been using them for liquor. It never occurred to us that we could wash and put them away before my mother and father got home.
     We passed the bottles around for a while, getting louder and more giggly as the night went on. On first pass we couldn’t have had much more than the equivalent of one proper adult drink. But man, either we were wasted, or we just believed we should be so hard that we became so. We spent the evening stair-diving—a not entirely smart thing to do sober, let alone drunk, but then we weren’t entirely smart. We scurried to the top of a carpeted stairwell (which, at that time, in the suburbs, meant any staircase) and I positioned myself, banana-style—an arched missile perched on the top step—legs flailing behind with my pals gamely holding on to them. I was face first, splayed out on a pathetic-looking towel I’d plucked from the linen closet, posi­tive that if I used a fluffy white one my mother, a woman with “display” tea towels, would surely know what we’d been up to. We counted down—“Three! Two! One! Geronimo!”—they released my legs, and I zoomed down the stairs at lightning speed, somehow not chipping a tooth. Screaming with laugh­ter, we took turns, and as experience and liqueur emboldened us, simply releasing legs was exaggerated to the point of actively shoving each other down the fourteen steps, rewarding our survival with sips of crème de menthe between rounds.
     We drank enough sickly sweet liqueur that, in conjunction with the stair-diving, it was all just too much for my stomach, and at some point during the night it rejected its contents. Somehow I managed to puke into my metal garbage can in the middle of the night and sneak it to the toilet in the morning without my mom noticing anything was amiss. And no one else was busted—everyone’s parents had picked up their daughters around 10:30 and either didn’t smell the booze or didn’t bring it up. The perfect crime.
     After that night I don’t think I touched alcohol much until high school. I went to a huge school with a great academic program, which is why my mother insisted I go there instead of the high school my elementary school streamed into, and where all of my friends, except for Greg, were going. Like me, he was going to Woburn Collegiate, a 2,000-student school a bus ride away from my house, and while I was excited that we’d be going to the same school, once we arrived there, I real­ized that something had happened—rather, something hadn’t happened to him—during that strange summer full of para­lyzing fears of the unknown between primary and high school. By the time I noticed what hadn’t happened to Greg, our lock­ers were in the same corridor and I towered over him, skinny legs and all. Surrounded by new boys, most of them tall and unknown, Miller High Life–drinking Greg Harper no longer had my attention.

* Name changed

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The Measure of My Powers

The Measure of My Powers

A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao-Tzu
These were the two moments in my day I dreaded—no, I think “feared” is a better word—most: the moment just before sleep and the precise moment I woke up. The unnerving silence of those times. There were no busy sounds to distract me, and nothing to occupy my mind. They were the moments I would be forced to face my own tangled and disfigured mind, even though I wanted desperately to look away.

At night I would lie awake sometimes until the dark sky lightened into paler shades of dawn. My insides crawled and vibrated, panic hijacking hours that, for others, were filled with easy rest. Even when I did find sleep, usually on the couch with the artificial noises of late-night TV lulling me, it was never for very long.

In the morning my chest would clench and yearn for uncon­sciousness. I kept my eyes closed and my body still, like a corpse, in hopes that my fragile sleep wouldn’t leave me completely. I tried to remember the last lingering image, any residue of a dream, wanting it to pull me back for another moment or two, but I was always out of luck and would quickly realize the effort was in vain. I hadn’t dreamt in months. In the past, my dreams had been wild and vivid: full of colors, conversations, places, the feel of fabric between my fingertips, or even the faces of people I had long forgotten. I would dream of a friend’s hazel eyes speckled with rust, or of the fine hairs at the back of their neck that formed a V. But these dreams had stopped, and so had sleep, with rest­lessness replacing both almost entirely. I was abandoned and forced to be alive for another day, so I would relent and slowly open my eyes to my dark, damp bedroom.

Inhale. Exhale.

“I can do this. Just get through today . . . and then after today . . .” I paused to imagine what came next. There was only a repeating image of a lifeless routine that made me feel nauseated.

“Tomorrow it starts all over again.” Dread filled me. I closed my eyes again, sinking into myself, wishing I could cry, but mostly, that ability had abandoned me too. “I have to do this over and over again, and again, and again,” I thought to myself, G sprawled to my left, the sheets, humid from his sweat, covering me like thick, cold skin.

“When does this end?” Inhale. Exhale.

Light was so unbearable to G that he had dark blinds installed on every window in our two-bedroom apartment. Greater than his dislike for light, though, was his loathing of materialism and superfluous “things.” So there was no artwork on the walls of our room, there weren’t any family photos or night tables for them to sit on, only a bed and a generic Swedish floor lamp in the corner. And every single morning, I awoke in this beige room, with bare beige walls and carpets that were an ever-so-slightly lighter shade of beige. I opened my eyes to nothing but emptiness in an empty room, numb with only the feeling of moist blankets cradling me.

I pleaded silently to God, to anything that might help me. “All I need is one thing, one thing to focus on, one thing that will help me get through today. Anything. Please.”

I scanned through my day for something that might give me relief. Waking up. Showering. Getting dressed. Driving to work. Saying good morning to coworkers. Starting a new design account. Meetings. Lunch . . . maybe.

I decided on one of the few things that still made me smile: “I’ll eat a chocolate chip cookie.”

I sat up and headed to the shower. I dressed myself in opaque black tights and a baggy tweed skirt suit I bought from a store I frequented that catered to affluent seniors. I tied my black hair in a tight bun at the nape of my neck and put on my wire-framed glasses and a pair of pearl earrings I had received as a wedding gift from an uncle. I was careful to look polished so no one would suspect that I was actually breaking apart, but I was also purpose­fully unobtrusive so as not to draw too much attention. I drove to work in my reliable silver sedan, and after lunch, I sat at a café table while I savored each sweet bite of my chocolate chip cookie, taking time to sip black coffee between each morsel. For those minutes, there was nothing else, no one to please, nothing to prove, just a cookie and me.
 
I
In the months that followed, I felt myself become more numb. There were muffled sounds of laughter and life bus­tling all around me, and yet it felt like I was submerged deep underwater, separated and hearing only the sound of my own breath and my heart slowly beating. I lived in this isolated world, sometimes comforted by the imaginary cocoon that solitude cre­ated, but mostly feeling anxious and restless for anything but the stillness. I was desperate to escape the feeling, and the longer it continued, the more I fantasized about a world where not only did I not exist, but where I had never existed at all.

The first time this thought had crossed my mind was about seven years earlier. I was lying in bed on a sunny afternoon, having come home during summer break from art college across the country with an overwhelming sense of pressure closing in on me. I didn’t understand it completely—I didn’t know why I felt it at all. Perhaps I could sense that I had disappointed my parents with the career I had chosen, but I also knew that I hadn’t been something that I was told I was supposed to be. I simply didn’t know how. Feeling like a helpless failure, I toyed with the idea of death. But I didn’t want to disappoint my family even more than I felt I had already, and I imagined that suicide would be shame­ful and burdensome for them. I wanted to be eliminated from their memories entirely.

I pulled and straightened the blanket over my head, hiding and imagining myself disappearing.
“How perfect would it be if I never existed? I could escape all of this,” I whispered, the sheets resting lightly on my face. They smelled musty and comforting, like my parents’ home.

Years later, these seemingly innocent daydreams were replaced with invasive, surprising, flickering images. Every time I crossed the street, changed lanes, or drove through an intersection, I would see Mack trucks demolishing me. As I soaked in the tub, the image of my dead body in a bath of blood would appear in my mind, along with scenes of G discovering it and then having to making agonizing calls to my family.

When I was a young adult, my younger cousin C killed her­self. I overheard that when her parents had found her, in a base­ment room, there was blood everywhere. I caught a glimpse of the room later. The white linoleum floor was spotless, and I won­dered who had cleaned it. Over the years following, I continued to see the devastating impact on the entire family. I saw the light die in my uncle’s eyes, never to return. I understood that C didn’t foresee the pain she would cause in her family’s life by ending her own, but the memory of that time and the knowledge that I would hurt those I loved if I chose to leave it were the only things holding me to life, like a leash.

But still, when the sadness was too paralyzing and all I could see and feel was my own incessant pain, I just wanted relief. “I think the best way is to take pills, painless and peaceful,” I jour­naled one evening. “But there is always the fear of waking up and things being worse, like brain damage, paralysis. Slitting my wrists is also an option, only because I hate the idea of suffocation. But that is messy (the blood, G would have to clean it up). Hanging: not pretty; they will have too much to regret when pulling me down. I heard C took painkillers. I heard there was blood, but she did it. She was decisive, resolute and spent time saying goodbye. I could too. I could write letters.”

I resolved to make a better plan, one where my family wouldn’t have to find my dead body or clean up some morbid mess. My plan also needed to be foolproof; they couldn’t be burdened by the consequences of the plan backfiring. And, though I figured it wouldn’t be more than the pain I already felt, I didn’t want it to hurt a lot.

I began my research there and Googled “painless ways to kill yourself.” Diagrams, including medieval, gothic imagery flooded my screen. I clicked on a link for a forum topic: “Carbon monox­ide is often not as effective as commonly believed.” I educated myself on how catalytic converters decreased the levels of poison in exhaust and the increasingly popular “death by hibachi.” But then I read a comment that made my body go cold.

“Don’t do it, it’s not worth it.”

It wasn’t the truth of the statement that caught me off-guard; it was the unexpectedly banal stereotype that snapped me into a different consciousness. It reminded me of all those movies where someone is trying to talk an unstable person off a building’s ledge. Then it dawned on me that, in this scenario, I was the one on the edge of the cliché, and it all seemed laughable and then incredibly frightening when contrasted to the reality of how close I was to killing myself. I had to tell G.

“I looked up ways to kill myself today. I don’t think that’s normal.”

“No. Maybe you should go talk to someone. I’m not sure I can help you.”

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Apron Strings

Apron Strings

Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China
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also available: Paperback
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Eaten Back to Life

Eaten Back to Life

Essays
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tagged : essays, culinary
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The Perfect Keg

The Perfect Keg

Sowing, Scything, Malting and Brewing My Way to the Best Ever Pint of Beer
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also available: eBook
tagged : beer, essays, culinary
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