MY MOST MEMORABLE MEAL
Thanksgiving 2000 was spent eating Burger King in a crummy dorm TV lounge, and watching Battlebots on Comedy Central. Thanksgiving 2001 was spent eating Boston Market in a crummy dorm TV lounge, and watching such lighthearted fare as American History X. No plans have been made as yet for Thanksgiving 2002, but it’s not looking good. In short, I’ve always had trouble putting meals and fellowship on equal ground.
Thus, the assignment prompt has really put me in a bind. I considered dreaming up some wonderfully quirky family meal – I had Home for the Holidays in mind, I think – but you deserve better than a lie. That said, I am happy to provide you with a series of meal vignettes. Perhaps they will only serve to make this paper unbalanced, but this is a risk the author takes when she invites the reader to take the pieces and form his own picture.
I. I dated a perfectly amiable young gentleman – we’ll call him Neil – for three years. During that time, I developed what could best be described as a “social loathing” towards him. It didn’t have to do with his hygiene, his manners in movie theaters, or his dancing (though his dancing was, yes, awful). Instead, I was sickened at every mealtime. Neil had a way of stretching his mouth over whatever he was eating. He looked like a goldfish trying to swallow a grouper. I threw out most of my photographs of Neil long ago, but there was one picture in particular I chose to keep; on the frame’s left, in the foreground, Neil seems to be trying to finish a Shrimp Po’boy in one disgusting bite. On the frame’s right, in the background, I am wearing an expression somewhere on the spectrum between amusement and horror. On cloudy days, when I wonder what became of Neil, I look at that picture.
And then I don’t bother wondering anymore.
II. When I was eleven or so, I went to Thanksgiving dinner with several family members. During the meal, I started poking at my face, the way uncomfortable preadolescents do. Suddenly, I found a lump on my jaw, which I caught and rolled between my index and middle fingers. Its mobility frightened me. So I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Oh my gosh, I think I have a lump on my jaw. I must have jaw cancer!” The conversation stopped, cutlery clacked against the dishes, and everyone looked at me.
Finally, somebody said, “No, you don’t.”
Much later, a family member had the decency to inform me that my Aunt Margaret, who had been sitting across from me, had been diagnosed with, and nearly died of, jaw cancer.
III. As a child, I lived with my birth parents. My father was both an excellent chef and an alcoholic, which made for some interesting meals. He often would begin cooking some grand feast, but then he would fall asleep with the stove on before he had finished.
At 3 or 4 years of age, I walked into the bathroom and was surprised to find my dad having dinner there. And my dad, embarrassed to be caught lounging in the bathtub with a bowl of chili teetering on his hollow chest, had said:
“Just having some chili.”
IV. My happiest mealtime memory was with my last boyfriend. I’m not sure where this memory took place, or which meal it was. The specifics are hazy. But whatever, wherever, and whenever this memory was, it was blissful and it was with him. I am tempted to say this memory was the aforementioned Thanksgiving 2001 meal, but he tells me this cannot be, because that meal was terrible, and because we fought the whole time.
So perhaps it wasn’t the Thanksgiving 2001 meal.
He’d had to write an essay on his own most memorable meal, as well, and I’d wondered if it indeed had been the Thanksgiving 2001 meal. So I asked. He informed me by telephone that his most memorable meal had occurred with his ex-girlfriend.
“Who, me?” I asked.
“No, the girl before you.”
V. I did most of my growing-up under the care of my aunt and uncle, and I suppose I missed most of our mealtimes because I was always reading a book instead of eating. It was late, in high school I think, when I finally discovered my own mealtime pet peeve: smacking.
We were eating beef stroganoff when I first heard it. It was coming from each side of me, in stereo. I began to quiver with disgust. I put down my fork; it was a thunderous smacking sound. I couldn’t eat. I began to wretch. Suddenly, I leapt from my chair and ran from the room.
After I had regained my composure, I returned with a nice Frank Sinatra CD. I cranked the volume up loud enough to disguise the smacking sounds.
“What’s going on?” my aunt asked, dumbfounded.
VI. I always irritated my former boyfriend during meals, because when I eat, I inadvertently scrape the metal fork against the backs of my front teeth, producing a sound not unlike the screech of fingernails-on-chalkboard. I tried for a long time to correct this, but now I think there’s really no fixing it.
By the way, I hate Thanksgiving.
VII. I also hate eating around people. In elementary school, I was an especially paranoid child. I would take a bite, then chew with one hand cupped over my mouth. Then I would swallow, uncover my mouth long enough to take another bite, and then cup my right hand over my mouth again.
Also, I was the only child whose parent sent her to school with, of all beverages for a brown paper sack lunch, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke.
I’m pretty sure I freaked the other kids out.
VIII. Please refer to vignette IV. I’ve finally remembered my happiest mealtime.
It was with my former boyfriend.
In a small house in Indiana, a boy and a girl deeply in love are making tacos together. He is grating the cheese. Her assigned job is to cube the tomatoes.
She hates working with people. She hates eating with people. She hates job assignments. She hates Thanksgiving. She hates everything. So this must be love, because she hasn’t thrown a single cube of tomato at him.
IX. I never made it to my potential most memorable meal.
In June of this year, my Uncle Jim died. Aunt Margaret and my cousins – everyone from the “jaw cancer” Thanksgiving meal (meal II)– were having a really bad time of it. So I decided to be a supportive family member, miss a class, and drive to Indiana for the funeral.
My good friend Cara agreed to accompany me to the funeral. Early into the trip, we traded positions as driver because I began to feel unwell. On the highway out of Chicago, I couldn’t contain it anymore. I opened my mouth and cried out as I unleashed all of hell’s fury, and things I hadn’t remembered eating, into a plastic bag.
This continued for several hours.
Things weren’t all bad. My former boyfriend called several times to comfort me, mostly because he was guilty to have given me this sickness (when he’d had it, he’d insisted it was food poisoning and nothing more). And once every twenty minutes, Cara pulled over to gather each and every variation on every possible medication. I couldn’t keep any of them down, of course; we presently realized the only thing I could keep swallowed was Gatorade, and even that was a chore.
By this time, we had already missed the funeral. My most humiliating, desperate moment in all of Life was at a gas station in Indiana. Cara had gone inside, and I was outside at a pay phone, trying to reach someone, anyone, who might be able to pass along the information that I was still on my way. I was dialing when the next wave of vomiting hit. I dropped to my knees there in the gas station parking lot, the phone swinging above me. I couldn’t reach the buttons. I tried to cry out for someone to help, but I couldn’t manage anything. I crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain and puke.
There have only been maybe three times in my life where I had the awful, sickening feeling of being homeless. This was one of them.
By the grace of God, I suppose, we did eventually get to the parking lot of some sort of waffle house where all my family members were having a post-funeral celebration. I never went inside.
My aunt came out to the parking lot where I was still vomiting.
“All your relatives want to meet you!” she said.
I convulsed with a new wave of nausea. “No, no, please, no,” I said. “Don’t tell them I’m here. I don’t want to see anyone like this.”
Ha! Ha! Too late. My younger cousins, Erin and Cara #2 (my friend Cara, henceforth, is Cara #1), were right behind her.
“Hi, Jenn,” Erin said. I’m not completely sure Cara #2 remembered me.
“Hey, there,” I said. “Not feelin’ too hot.”
I should have said, “I’m sorry.” I should have asked, “How are you girls feeling?” Instead I told them the obvious.
Now their mother had arrived. “Hey, Jenny,” she said. “Look at this! Today, Cara’s in a dress!”
“First and last time,” the ten-year old grumbled.
More relatives were headed my way. “I’m sick!” I called out, ducking behind the car, hoping this exclamation could ward them away like garlic.
X. I saw my father for the last time when I was nine, when he came to visit me in Texas. Somehow he’d lost his two front teeth, making him look even more like a vagrant than he already actually was.
We went to lunch, and I clearly remember sitting across the booth from him, staring at the spaces in his smile, unable to eat. I was embarrassed, ashamed, to be seen with him.
But later, I felt ashamed of myself.
Last night, my aunt offered to send me a plane ticket for Thanksgiving 2002. It would be my first Thanksgiving home since college started. To be quite honest, I’m not sure what my answer will be. I’m certainly tempted – a holiday meal away from this scholarly institution is likely just the thing I need – but, hell, the truth: Loneliness has its charm.