Eat this, but please, eat this slowly.
Sarah thinks this, but doesn’t say this.
Eat this meal, this savory concoction, chew each piece and enjoy it. The salmon simmered with coriander, the slow preheat of the oven, the hours spent coaxing each herb in the garden to a height, to a size, to a fullness fit for the minor harvest, all of these things, the money spent on each pan, pot, spatula, the mix of meager sauce over low heat, the pinch of mint, salt, freckles of pepper and paprika.
At your age, Ginni, you wouldn’t believe the needs we have, and the confluence of events which bring them to our table.
Sarah blinks, she fingers a fork amidst the place setting, austere and deliberate on the distressed wood of the table. It’s funny what we pay for something new and intentionally well-worn.
Sarah too tells herself to eat slowly. To chew food, to pause, to taste and swill a wine glass filled with a leggy merlot.
Milk for you, though, Ginny.
Ginny sits in her height chair, a blond tuft of hair passes back and forth like a long, weak pendulum, an uncertain feather on a string. Meanwhile, Sarah can see through the window, the way the day outside gives up, the bloom of colors sinking and ceding to black.
Last night brought the storm which kept them both from sleep, and morning brought the aftermath of limbs on the lawn from the ancient oak towering over the house, and day carried Ginny off to school, and all that time, with her first five years behind her already, it never seemed she’d reach these new days discovering kindergarten and classmates and so much time spent in the absence of her mother.
Sarah cooks through it. She bakes and strains and mixes, with flour dusted over countertops in strange shapes like blossoms of alien flowers. While she cooks, she remembers the chalk mountains, even in this spate of Northeastern rain, she remembers the desiccated natural monuments bleached to the color of a femur. Plateaus and buttes made of stacks of minerals compressed and waiting out in sun for something else, waiting forever. Blanched, worn down with wind, cut through many millennia ago with rushing rivers, until the sun had finally made a ghost of it all, a ghost of everything.
You were there once, Ginny. As was your father, your brother and I. But I’ll tell you that story when you’re older, when the truth of it has dimmed for me, and my belief in the pure facts of who we once were is escapable. Your history will be so much better in my telling of it. I’m tirelessly working and reworking it, so even the less honest ideas will feel real when I give them to you.
Sarah rotates Ginny’s plate placing the salmon closest to her so that it is made unavoidable and will be next in line for the fork, then the teeth, then the tongue. Ginny moves faster than Sarah with her silverware clinking and drawing food into her mouth with a smaller spoon with minimal pause for a moment to breathe.
This isn’t something Sarah mistakes for appetite, but rather a chore Ginni needs to complete before she can creak open her evening toy box and spread her toys like body-bagged casualties of a forgotten war in lines and columns as if to assess the wealth of her collection. A trove of children’s games, stuffed animals, and Tonka trucks of made of plastics in bold colors, toys with trick buttons that trigger voices carrying sentiments as trite as “love”. A plush frog, when squeezed, spits out a red rope tongue and tells Ginny it loves her. And why wouldn’t it?
Sarah used the word “love” before, and she will again.
When Sarah’s husband left his family, he did so by staying behind. Sarah took her 22 year-old son, Kris, and her newborn Ginni and moved east, and that’s how Sarah’s husband left her.
With the U-Haul half-empty and blazing in the driveway under Albuquerque’s storied summer sun, Sarah’s husband spit words at her like “responsibility” and “incapable” and “unfit”, and over his shoulder Sarah watched as every scrub brush in New Mexico held completely still as if the desert itself was holding its breath. Shadows that hung on at the base of the cacti and Joshua trees claimed their distorted shapes on the cracked earth and in the dust. The land, radiant with heat, froze.
“If you don’t finish your spinach, you can’t open your toy box tonight.” Sarah says because she knows the power of the toy box, of its contents, the calming categorizing of each toy that Ginny methodically lifts out.
Ginny nods without looking, chews without tasting, swallows without chewing, eats without eating. The spinach inevitably remains, a picked through pile of swamp green, boiled just shy of emitting a rotting vegetable smell.
Sarah watches Ginny survey the pile of spinach for the least offensive plan of consumption, poking slowly with a fork, trailing strings of it across her plate like wet tinsel.
Sarah remembered the few times that Kris bothered to try eating between shooting up and sleeping. He ate only apples on those days. He crunched down on each one as if testing the will of his own teeth, the strength of his jaw.
You won’t remember, Ginny, but one day when it matters, I’ll tell you about the sound his mouth made, the bulb of muscle flexing in his cheek, the sometimes spittle of sandy apple flesh we were easy to forgive if he was mid-story and collapsing into the embrace of the heroin in his blood. But of course, in my recollection, the spittle would only come from an enthusiastic recounting of one of his latest adventures in business or overseas.
When Sarah finally tells it, Kris will have lived a life that Ginni could learn to love, even emulate.
After turning 18 and finding the needle, Kris lived the rest of his life as a phantom, but that was no fault of Sarah’s. Hell, it’s what the southwest did to all of them. Dry heat, scarce rain, drifting sand from the drier wastelands, even now Sarah most readily remembers New Mexico as the places that movies seem so fond to capture when framing desolation and despair.
“You eat your fishy, Ginny.” Sarah says in a tone, tired and flat from overuse.
“The storm knocked out our eccentricity last night” Ginny says.
Without correcting her or even smiling, Sarah reminds her daughter not to focus on the powered down television but rather the mushy, uneaten spinach.
Eat this and you will eat the work that I invested in creating it, you will eat the time it took to prepare, you will eat the earth that grew these flavors. And in the act of the eating, there will be no room left for you to dwell on the family you’ll soon forget, and what’s become of those others.
It’s only ever been us. You won’t know now about the brother who slinked in and out of the house, lying often on the couch some mornings like a wastrel, who had nowhere else to shower but was still unwilling to do so even in our home. I’d imagined for at least your first few years that he would protect you as older brothers must. I’d imagined this of Kris who couldn’t complete the simplest of tasks like leaving a note or locking a door or properly hiding his needles and spoons and lighters and rubber tourniquets.
Ginni, you must get used to me saying that “you were too young to remember, but”, because the day will come when our every conversation, our every recollection will begin like this, and end in a fantasy so much healthier than our shared past.
To share is a funny thing. Ginny takes time to come around to sharing, as all kids do, so that makes her normal. That makes her just another kid with a single mother and no others to call family.
After her husband had left them (an act he excused with some obtuse accusation which held Sarah responsible for their son’s habit), and after the three that were left had made a home in Pennsylvania, Kris’ drug became indistinguishable from him. During the months of Kris’ evaporation, Sarah unfolded a terse note tucked inside her lawncare bill: “If you can keep your dogs from digging up the yard, it will be easier to keep the grass growing.”
And they had no dogs.
What little Sarah was able to abscond with from her marriage, aside, of course, from the junkie son and the newborn, included mismatched utensils, two suitcases with broken zippers, a box of men’s razors, Stetson cologne in a limited edition bottle, two cigarettes and no lighter. Sarah left with their daughter, with the unfortunate name Gertrude which Sarah had shortened to Ginny as the lesser of two evils. The name was a concession Sarah had made anticipating the many years of compromises laid out in front of them. Those imagined years would have been laced with reminders of Sarah’s acquiescence to naming her daughter Gertrude at her husband’s insistence. “Gertrude” was supposed to have been Sarah’s leverage in the greater disagreements the future years of their marriage would germinate, but with the move, those oncoming years simply dissolved like sugar in warm water.
It was a year into Ginni’s life when Kris first found what he’d lost. Sarah was changing her daughter, who had been laid out on the table like a squirming project of wet spots, dry cloth, powder, and diapers, and Kris quietly slipped into the room and stepped up behind her, grabbing the back of her neck, rough, like you would a punished puppy, and demanded his “things”. His fingers wrapped through her hair and pulled tight to her scalp, Sarah gave in to the sudden tug and backed away from the helpless, sprawled Ginny, who was still cooing and trying to find a thumb to suck.
Kris’ needles, heroin, and spoon, were all wrapped in plastic, and had been buried in the back yard during Ginni’s nap. Sarah knew what enabling was, and she knew that hiding his “kit” was the opposite of it. She was saving her son from the drug. She was a hero, she just knew it.
Upturned soil amidst the overgrown crab grass led Kris to his kit. Sarah’s digging through errant backpacks left at the stairs and satchels tossed in closets, her digging through old gym shoes and extracting baggies of powders, quickly turned to months of earth turned over, lifted up, filled in. Ziploc baggies, saran wrap sometimes, to protect what Kris would eventually dig back up and stick in his arm. He’d sink into a couch, leaning precariously over something built to spill like soup or a Coke, fighting gravity in slow motion, and Sarah could never quite get over how much what they called “the nod” looked like an awful lot of work from the outside.
Ginni, you will finish your applesauce, and then to your toys, to your favorite television show with those children overtaken with the glee of their first acting gigs. Songs, cloying, worming their way into your ears then your dreams. If this is the worst of it for you, and it will be, then you’ll have been lucky, you’ll have been spared.
Ginni would have no memory of Kris with dirt under his nails from digging up the freshly buried drugs , and since the rain was oblivious, it was sometimes mud on his knees and in his hands, and dried in a clump from a straggle of his hair.
Kris left then, after the hassle of digging had worn thin, and he embarked “business trip”, from which he’d never returned.
Sarah has stories for this. She does. In them, Kris’ business was an international printing company with minimal employees, exhorbitant expenses, and in this telling, Sarah and Ginni would soon fault his careless girlfriend for taking Kris away from them. She lured him to California, all the way across the country, so that he could fatally succumb to the twisted metal of an anonymous accident on the California Freeway. Oh, this was just one the multitude of histories Sarah was compiling for future use with Ginni. She was creating a new life for them, one that Sarah hoped Ginni could one day take for granted.
Either that or she grow up broken. Sarah imagined that her sacrifices were heroic. She was a survivor and would teach Ginni to do the same. But, of course, this would all have to come after Ginni had cleaned her plate. It would all have to follow Ginni’s bath and story time and tucking in. It would have to follow Sarah’s own tending to herself with the needle, tying her arm with the string from Ginni’s 3rd birthday balloon, taking her own heroin in a commendable and responsible way, only after Ginni had finished fussing and gave herself to sleep.
This gave her things to look forward to, like the next dose that Sarah could take to relax, after putting her daughter safely to rest, and only after dinner.
Sarah thought about Kris and his dirty habit, his indiscretion, how he battled his demons with such frivolity, and she watched Ginni whose head was down and frowning at the final bite of fish.
Eat this, and eat it slowly. You will never know the amount of work that went into this.