Like Water for Macaroni

by Mary Jane

My earliest memory from my childhood is of eating.  I was four, in a high chair in Hank’s dining room, eating mac and cheese out of the sauce pan with a wooden spoon.  I felt safe and comfortable in that dining room, at home in a deeper, more real sense than any other place can touch.  I’m told that if my parents ever attempted to take me from the dining room to my crib, I would cry and cry and cry for hours until I was returned to be among the salt and pepper shakers, the napkins, the butter dish.

Hank was not only our cook, but also my father’s brother.  He moved in with us when his wife left him, a few months before I was born.  His pride would not allow him to simply be the recipient of charity, so my parents bestowed on him the title of cook, a job he took extremely seriously.  His dedication never carried itself to the extreme of actually learning how to cook, however. Hank had last cooked during his bachelor days, and like a bachelor he continued to practice the culinary arts.  My brothers Francis and Hobart complained bitterly throughout our adolescence about Hank’s refusal to delve into the realm of fine cuisine.  It would be no exaggeration to state that Hank’s cooking became the cornerstone of their formative years, or more precisely complaining about his cooking did.  Just as many focus on how square or un-understanding their parents are, so did my brothers internalize and bemoan the injustices done their palates.  Luckily, their analysts feel that a majority of this anger and bitterness will be resolved within the year, two at the outside.

Oh hunger, that earliest and most socially accepted of all appetites, you’ve been the driving force in my life from dawn till dusk.  To my brothers’ complaining I always had a deaf ear, for Hank instilled in me the love of eating which I carry to this day.  Nothing brought greater pleasure to my uncle than dinner, that reward for the working man after a long day at his labours.  Unfortunately, like bachelors through the ages, when they’ve arrived home it is time to eat, not cook.  This necessitates certain sacrifices in menu; only those items preparable within 15 minutes ever walked out of the kitchen into Hank’s dining room.  When it’s eating you’re interested in, menu definitely takes a back seat to speed of service. As a babe, of course, this wasn’t a problem, milk being on tap on my mother’s chest whenever I yelled loudly enough to get it.  Once I found myself on solid food, however, Hank’s reheating and defrosting became my mother’s milk.

My father still likes to tell the story of my second birthday.  Hank got home late from his work at the distillery, and therefore didn’t have time to combine eggs, milk and cake mix for my birthday extravaganza.  Did he panic? No, though my mother certainly did.  Her fears (and indeed ranting to include raving) that the party would be ruined and the dozen invited tots would go home cake-less proved unfounded.  Hank not only whipped up his chili-ravioli surprise, he also de-cellophaned a dozen Twinkies and garnished each with two flaming candles, signifying the years since my trip from the womb.

To make chili-ravioli surprise, mix three cans of chili (with beans, preferably) with three cans of ravioli.  Add pepper, Tabasco and crushed red pepper to taste.  Onion can also be added, if you’re feeling fancy.  Microwave for eight minutes or until warmed through.  Add garlic powder and microwave for another minute. Serve immediately.  Feeds 5-6.

Whenever I choose to look back, I recollect a very happy home during my childhood.  In point of fact, I can’t remember a truly unhappy day until the August of my 15th year, when my parents held their annual Christmas party. I had spent the better part of twenty minutes helping Hank prepare the Cheez-Whiz on Crackers appetizers, an unprecedented dedication to cooking on par to “You Light Up My Life” in Debbie Boone’s singing career.  My lazy, ungracious older brothers refused to lend a hand in the backbreaking task; they always felt they were somehow above doing manual labour.  But I yearned to learn everything Hank knew about feeding a family, and he was happy to have a pupil, having no children of his own to instruct.  It was as I took the safety seal off the last can of Cheez-Whiz that my mother came into the room for another Diet Coke and changed my life forever.

“I see you are learning household skills, my son,” she said to me, popping the top on her beverage. “That’s good, George, very good.”

“Thank you, Mama.”  I felt euphoric, as I’m sure my mother had never praised me this completely before.  In point of fact, I don’t think she’d ever said that many words to me previously, good or bad.

“These skills will prove to be important to you.”  I began to feel an inexplicable nervousness as she took a slug from her Diet Coke.

“Well, I like eating,” I said, in case she misunderstood my time spent in the kitchen.

She smiled, with the slightest hint of malice.  “It is a tradition in our family that the youngest son shall cook for his family all his days, forsaking the pleasures of life.”

I was stunned; take care, of them, forever?  I think not.  Then I relaxed. Surely my mother, the one who loves me above all others, who carried me with the small of her back for 9 months, was joking.  I tried a boyish giggle, but received only a stony stare in response.  I said, “No way.”  Still no response, just a cold, cold glaze from my mother’s well-caffinated eyes. “Surely you’re shitting me, mother.”

She slapped my face with lightning quick efficiency.  “I shit you not, son. Accept your fate, and we’ll all carry on.”

And she marched right out of the kitchen.  I sat down on the floor and cried and cried, but my tears we’re not just natural saline, they also contained brighteners and cleaners.  The floor in the kitchen shines brightly to this day.  Hank eventually persuaded me to buck up and carry on, especially as the guests were starting to arrive and he needed someone to carry the crackers and to shake the martinis without bruising the gin.

So I was standing in the dining room, in My Room, with a stainless steel shaker of martinis freezing my hands when I met Her.  Sally was the daughter of my father’s doubles partner, and the last time I’d seen her (years ago, at a tennis club picnic featuring wonderfully fried chicken) she’d been a skinny little girl in Garanimals.  Let me suffice it to say, dear reader, time had been kind to her on her trek from girlhood to sexy, slinky, leggy, well-rounded young womanly-ness.  My jaw dropped; unfortunately so did the shaker of drinks, spraying three parts gin and one of vermouth all over the table, walls, carpet (non-scotch guarded) and Cheez-Whiz Crackers.

My mother, standing in the hall nearby, was not pleased.  “Will you look at this mess?” she asked, which was not actually a rhetorical question as I had been unable to disengage my eyes from Sally’s, and frankly hadn’t noticed the shaker was no longer in my hands.  But Sally had noticed, and her eyes shone with the brilliance of many suns as she laughed with me over the accident. Mother, of course, also noticed, and forced me to the kitchen for cleaning supplies and to get the crock pot of little smokies which would now be asked to feed the masses.

I never got a chance to see Sally again that evening.  Mother saw to it I was kept fully occupied in menial tasks.  I heard from Hank, later, as we ate Oreos in the disaster area that had become of our dining room, that both Francis and Hobart had chatted her up to no avail during the proceedings. Even my father questioned her at length about her riding crop collection until my mother elbowed him in the ribs for the third time.  Hank and I shared a true moment that evening.  He sensed my hopeless and deep love for the beautiful Sally, and mourned with me it’s inevitable unrequitedness.  I admired his milk mustache.

I attempted to forget the fair Sally, with little success.  I occupied my empty days perfecting Hank’s recipe for Pasta in One Pan.  The noodles (usually elbow macaroni), frozen corn, and polish sausages are all boiled together in a large pan until the water boils over three times.  Remove from the heat, drain through a metallic strainer, and separate the contents onto as many plates as you have diners.  Then return the pan to the heat and add plenty of Prego spaghetti sauce, alone or with black pepper and garlic powder.  When this has simmered appropriately, pour over the plates and serve.  All that was fine, I just kept forgetting to use pot holders when straining the pan, and my screams of pain could be heard ten blocks away.

I was recovering from one particularly painful attempt on a Thursday evening, my family watching NBC as they ate from TV trays, leaving me alone at my beloved table.  The burns made it difficult to use fork and knife, so I eventually abandoned eating and wrapped both hands around my can of Mountain Dew to soothe them.  As if from a great distance, I heard the door bell ring. My family called to me to get it, as Sam and Diane were having a particularly rough romantic week and they dared not miss a moment of it. I opened the door, and there she stood: Sally, resplendent in a black leather mini and a black tank top.  I opened my mouth to exclaim glad tidings of surprise and joy, but she covered my mouth with her strong yet supple right hand to keep me from sounding the alarm.  She lead me down the hall quickly and quietly, the only noise in the apartment being my father’s contra-alto giggle joining harmoniously with the show’s laugh track.  We entered my room, and she closed the door as I turned on the lights.

“Why, Sally,” I said nervously.  “It’s so nice to see you again.”

Without a word, she threw me on the bed and ripped open my 100% polyester  shirt, spraying buttons about the room.  My pants were rapidly slid down my legs, causing me to think she’d forgotten about my shoes and socks.  But, apparently, time was of the essence. Equally apparently, my new friend had forgotten her underwear when she left the house that morning.  She quickly joined me on the bed and... mother opened the door.

“Oh, there you are, dear, I was worried about you!”  Sally stood, folding down her skirt, leaving me laying on the bed in a rather embarrassing configuration.  My mother looked away from me and addressed Sally.  “Sally, dear, I know you’re new to this household and therefore do not know all our rules, so I shall explain them to you.  George here is our youngest, and as such is responsible for taking care of the rest of the family as long as we all shall live.  The normal, um, pleasures of life are not available to him now, nor will they be for a very long time.”

Sally glanced back at me, smiling.  “That, Ma’am, is a crying shame.”

“Yes, perhaps, but tradition is tradition, and therefore I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to not seduce my,” and she glanced at me contemptuously, “little Georgie Porgie, now or forever. Or, at least till the rest of us are dead and buried.”  My dear Sally stood there in the middle of the room, dumbfounded, suffering the agony of the ages.  It was as if the gulf between us was stretching to infinity, our love was ripped asunder, and we were forever destined to be apart.  It was tragedy at its worst, tragedy at its best.  Where to turn, what to do?

Hope was offered, ironically enough, by my mother.  “You know, I do have two other sons...”

I watched Sally’s engaging blue eyes, and I could tell her heart was breaking as she said, “Oh, OK.  Where are they?”

“In the living room, just finishing up dessert.”  Mother led Sally to the door.

“May I have them, uh, at the same time?” Sally asked, closing my door.

“Of course, dear, they won’t mind sharing.”  They walked on down the hall.

And so from that day on, Sally could almost always be found in our apartment.  The sounds that emanated from my brothers’ rooms were primal, guttural, and very, very loud.  It was torture for me, and I turned more and more to food for solace. Bagged salad was often the only thing that could convince me to get out of bed in the mornings.

Many think that one’s cooking technique has no effect on the flavour of bagged salad; this is far from true.  As my Uncle Hank taught me, there are at least three steps that are essential to put a respectable bagged salad on your dining room table.  First, a brave volunteer must smell the salad in its natural environs, to ensure the lettuce, carrots and cabbage are not past their prime.  Second, the contents of the bag must be emptied into serving bowls without being dumped on the floor through over-zealousness, or at least not allowed to stay on the floor beyond the 10 second grace period.  Thirdly, closing up the bag to seal out the air and seal in the freshness must be accomplished within three days of taking servings out of the bag and chucking it into a corner of the kitchen counter.  I practiced these steps religiously, under Hank’s watchful eye, maintaining a good pouring rhythm with the salad dressings by listening to the metronomic cadence of my brothers’ bedsprings.

Occasionally, I’d meet Sally as she walked to or from the bathroom.  These moments are the ones I lived for.  Her hair was always both matted and frantic, the result of her recent bedridden activities.  She wore either Hobart’s tattered robe or Francis’ flannel shirt, erotically fluttering in the breeze.  Her scent was sweet and warm, musky and dusky and wonderful.

“Hello,” I invariably said.  “How are you?”

And she’d smile at me, letting me know nothing my mother could ever do would changed the feelings we share.  “I feel,” she’d say with great warmth and slight drowsiness, “like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”

And so we continued on, playing the roles cruel fate chose for us.  Months passed, I fluxional from agony up to despair.  Once, on a Thursday morning, Sally brushed against me as we passed in the hall.  My heart rate rushed off the scale and in my lightheaded stupor I stammered, “Sally, may I ask you something, personal?”

“Sure, Grant.”

Obviously, my presence was having an unnerving affect on her as well, she couldn’t even remember my name!  It didn’t matter, I continued on undeterred: “You are, like, just sleeping with my brothers so you can spend more time in our home, near me, to keep our tragically unrequited love alive. Right?”

She chewed her gum like she meant it.  “Sure.”

A wave of feelings rushed over me, nearly drowning me and messing up my hair.  I leaned towards her perfect, angelic face meaning to kiss her full lips when I heard my mother’s bedroom door open!  I immediately unpuckered and dove into the laundry chute to avoid swift and merciless retribution.  I fell joyously; my assumptions had been proved, and I barely noticed when I landed headfirst on the hard, unforgiving concrete floor.

I never did ask Sally what horrors she endured behind those doors with my brothers.  I know they touched her face, and her neck, and her shoulders, and... well, and worked their way down, but I also know they could never touch her heart or spirit.  The day would come when her sacrifices would be amply rewarded in my arms, of that I never doubted.  But I am a human being, cursed with the same frailties and shortcomings as any other man, and on occasion my patience could no longer contain my desire and I desperately urged to touch her, hold her, lick her.

During one of these moods, when my testosterone level was off the scale, I decided to do something special for my love.  Hank and I spent a full twenty minutes making Rice-a-Roni meatballs with Artificial Essence of Rose Petals. To make, mix the raw hamburger with the Rice-a-Roni flavour packet.  Stir in the rice.  Form into balls, not bite size but not huge either; perhaps approximately the size of a Titleist or Max-Fli.  Add one drop of Artificial Essence of Rose Petals to each ball.  Bake on a greased cookie sheet until a brownish-black.  Serve warm.

To this meal the family sat down, each with a bowl of bagged salad and a Diet Coke.  The chit-chat that usually carried us along was not there; everyone was hormonally preoccupied.  I could not take my eyes off of Sally; with each bite, she slipped a little further into a private ecstasy, gasping for her sustaining breaths, sweat beading on her forehead.  And the rest of the family was undergoing the same transformation, passion brewing like a fine beer, the pressure building with each bite.  Hank broke ranks first, excusing himself rapidly to visit the restroom.  He nearly tripped on Sally’s chair on the way, startling her enough to look up into my staring eyes. In that instance I felt her love like a lightning bolt, and knew I could never be happy until I possessed her for minutes on end.  She licked her lips slowly, counter-clockwise, closing her eyes involuntarily.

Unfortunately, the vessel of our desire proved to be my father, who kicked over his chair while rising with a wild gleam in his eyes.  He took my equally excited mother’s hand and led her off to his bedroom, locking the door and (in all likelihood) unlocking hers.  They emerged three weeks later, exhausted and smiling.

And so time dragged on.  After their epiphany in the bedroom, my mother became much more difficult to live with.  I’ve always assumed she felt the high point of her life had now passed, and therefore she had a difficult time finding reasons to carry on.  My father started spending more hours at work. My brothers fled in fear and for their sanity; Francis settled down with a mime in Poughkeepsie, Hobart became a roadie for the East Street Band.  Sally, therefore, had to be more creative in devising reasons to hang around the house, and she came up with a good one.

“I’m pregnant,” she told my mother one morning.  Now, you might think my mother would be upset with Sally, but that was never the case.  When Sally made her announcement at the breakfast table, it was with open arms that my mother welcomed Sally and my nephew to the family.  The prospect of being a grandmother actually brought some colour back to her face.  Sally immediately moved into Hobart’s now vacated room, emerging only for nourishment and entertainment.

I asked Hank what would be healthy to serve for a pregnant woman, but he did not answer. He was also a casualty of that evening of unbridled passion, never again being able to accept living with us as cook and friend. His passion for food, even, seemed to wane and all I could persuade him to eat was the occasional Ho-Ho or Ding-Dong.  With a few weeks, he moved out and quickly found, courted and married a woman who looked like Leona Helmsley without the compassionate side or bank account.

So it fell squarely on my shoulders to tend to Sally and her child’s nutritional needs.  Some of my experiments proved successful, such as the peanut butter, Bologna and dill pickle sandwiches Sally put away by the plateful. Others, such as Chick-Pea Kiev and Spam Surprise, where served only once, to great criticism and some violence. But, I didn’t mind. It was enough to be able to spend this quality time with Sally, who glowed more radiantly with each passing day.

We had wonderful, probing conversations practically everyday, while my mother was napping and Sally was watching Wheel of Fortune.  They were extremely personal, but I’ll include one here so you’ll understand the impact they had on me:

“Sally, you look beautiful pregnant.”

“Not an ‘R’, you dipshit!  An ‘S’!  That third word is ‘is’!”

“So radiant, so feminine, so warm...”

“A ‘T’?  That third idiot already tried a ‘T’!  Are you mental?”

“Would you mind if I put my hand on your belly?”

“If you buy a vowel, bitch, I’m coming through that screen and stomping your skinny little ass and perfect abs!”

I touched her enormous belly and winced in pain.  I was told later Sally had backhanded me with the remote control, causing a concussion and nearly poking out my left eye.  I’m sure it was an accident, though, and I suspect my mother and Sally will come to visit me any day now.  At least with pizza and Chinese food delivery, I don’t have to worry about them starving to death in the lonely confines of the apartment.

I spend my time in the hospital chatting with the orderlies and dreaming of the day my Sally and I will be free to live together without the presence of my mother.  The hospital food is acceptable, but I miss my hash, my chili-ravioli, my cold breakfast cereal.  I hope my tale of a love denied will help you appreciate the love you have, or understand how important a significant other can be.  As Hank one told me, “We all have a certain number of watts in our human microwaves.  Most people find out very quickly what defrosts them, and can keep a warm, humming sensation within them for years before the final bell rings.  Others, however, stumble upon an emotion so strong it turns on them on to full power, and their baked potato is done forever in just 15 minutes.”

It makes you think, doesn’t it?

© 2001 by the author. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission. Mary Jane is a pen-name. If you'd like to contact the author, send an email and we'll try to put you in touch. Last updated 15-JAN-2001.