I feel like shit. I think about that and almost grin because I realize that I’ve never used that word before. My mother wouldn’t let me swear. Said it was low class and I wasn’t allowed to be anything but first class as anything lower reflected badly on her. She was first class all the way, so I needed to be, too.
But that word is perfect for me. This guy, Daniel, is being very nice to me, but I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, and he’s telling me I have to decide what to make of my life and how the fuck can I do that?
Okay, there’s another first-time word. But my mother isn’t around, and maybe, hopefully, I’ll never have to see her again. But Daniel’s saying that’s my choice to make. He has no idea. My life? Nothing’s ever left up to me. I don’t make decisions. Other people make them for me, and I just have to accept whatever they are.
He says I have to take control of my life, and then he makes the decision for me that we’re going shopping. So even he’s the same. Except that really isn’t fair, and I know it. But I feel like shit and don’t feel like being fair. When has life ever been fair?
But I’m going shopping. I’ve never been grocery shopping before. Really? That’s crazy! I can hear that from whoever’s listening to my thoughts. But it’s true. I’ve never been the one to choose what we’re having for dinner, either. Oh, I’ve decided that for myself. When no one is around to fix dinner, I’ve poured cereal in a bowl and added milk; that was my dinner. When we had cereal. When we had milk.
But choosing dinner that we’d cook? Yeah, we. Daniel and me. I don’t know how to do that; I’ve never chosen dinner before, and I certainly have never cooked it. Maybe he’s going to show me. He did that with pancakes. That had been pretty cool, actually. So maybe I should just get with the program. What do I have to lose, anyway?
I know I’ve been moping around ever since I was told I’d be getting on a plane when Mom decided she was through with me. I think I should try to buck up a little. Things are going to be pretty bad soon, but right now, I seem to be okay with Daniel. He seems nice. He seems to care what I think, which is something I don’t quite understand. No one else ever has. Why him? But whatever the reason, he seems genuine. Maybe I should make the best of it while I can.
I wonder what it’s like, a supermarket. I’ve seen them on TV but don’t know if those were real or fake. Guess I’ll find out pretty quick.
He looks at me like I’m from another planet. “You’ve never been in a large, modern supermarket? That’s… that’s unreal. They have these all over now. Huge stores where they sell everything. Some of them even have clothing and garden tools. Where did you live, on the moon?”
I could get defensive or crawl back into my shell. Somehow, though, this doesn’t sound like teasing or ridicule or criticism. He makes it sound like it isn’t my fault. I’ll have to figure out how he does that. I do know that I want to answer him, though, so he’ll understand.
“We lived in a small town an hour or so north of Boston. They did have a large grocery store in the next town over, a bigger town than ours, but my stepdad did all the food shopping, and he did it on the way home from work. My mom felt grocery shopping was beneath someone of her high class. She also wanted me to get all A’s in school to show what a smart mom she was. I had to spend most of my time during the school year at home studying. In the summer, I spent most of it at summer camp; when home, I had to keep the house looking perfect. So no, I was never in a store like this one. This is wonderful. Beautiful, even.”
We were walking down the aisles. Daniel was picking out things and putting them in the cart. I was pushing the cart. My choice. He asked if I wanted to, and I said yes. My mom never asked me if I wanted to do anything. She told me what to do and I did it.
“Have you decided what you want for dinner?” he asked as we were nearing the meat section of the store.
“I’ve never picked out what to eat before.”
“You must have things you like and things you don’t, Robin. So what are your favorites, and what don’t you care for all that much?”
If my mom had asked me that… well, in the first place, she never would have. But if she had, I’d be expected to answer with what she’d want me to say.
I know, it sounds like I just have no will of my own. But with her, I didn’t. She could make my life intolerable if I didn’t please her. She knew no limits, and to her, I was just another object around the house to do with as she liked. She wanted total control, and I was her guinea pig. For example, even at 13, she still had no sense that I should have any personal privacy. She’d come into the bathroom when I was showering and talk to me. She’ll tell me to come out of the shower to answer her, that it was rude of me to answer her standing behind a shower curtain. I didn’t like her seeing me nude, but she had to have what she wanted. My feelings didn’t matter a whit. As a person I was nothing to her. She’d come into my bedroom anytime she wanted without knocking or asking permission. I didn’t have a lock on my door. She wouldn’t permit one. She forced the issue that I was under her thumb. That was what I meant about her knowing no limits. Just like humiliating me in front of others. I never brought anyone I knew home from school. The first couple of times I did, I lived to regret it—the things she told them about me.
I need to get my mind off her and back on the store with Daniel. He’s just asked me something, and in my head I was back home with my mother instead of with him.
I look up at him. “I’m sorry. I guess I was daydreaming. What did you ask me?”
“Don’t look so worried, Robin. Please. It’s okay if you drifted off for a moment. You have a lot on your mind. I asked you what your favorite dinner is.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, one thing we never had but I like is meatloaf. Meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. We never had either of those because mom said that was peasant food. We were way above that, she said, and we didn’t eat like those people did. What we did eat was mostly food ordered from restaurants that my stepdad had to go and pick up.”
Daniel smiles at me and winks. “Macaroni and cheese. That’s what we’ll have! Now, what vegetables do you like?”
“I don’t like asparagus or squash or lima beans. Most of the rest are okay. Mom said asparagus was a food the high-class people ate. But if she ever cooked—which was rare—and made asparagus, she boiled it for ten or twenty minutes. It was mush; green mush; it was bitter and tasted awful. Even smelled terrible while it was cooking. I hated it. She made me eat it, though.”
“You shouldn’t boil asparagus! But we won’t get into that. How about cauliflower in a cheese sauce?”
“I don’t know. Never had it. But I don’t mind trying it.”
“Great! Okay, that’s our shopping list, then. Now, how about dessert?”
“No, no, no!” he says, acting shocked. Someone reacting to me like that used to make me go into my shell. With Daniel, I already can tell when he’s acting and when he’s serious. This is pretend, this is him being funny, something he does a lot, and so I don’t get upset. He is watching me, and I see him relax when I show I’m okay with what he’d said and how he’d said it.
“We have to make something,” he says. “How about a pie? Do you like pie?”
“Well, sure,” I say. “But we always bought them. I don’t know how to make one. I’ve never seen anyone make one.”
“Well, then, that’s another thing you’re going to learn how to do today. Pancakes and pie. Two of the essential foods everyone should know how to make.”
I am starting to think Daniel might have a loose screw in his head. He is always so upbeat about things. I am a downbeat sort of person. But I find him attractive. Almost seductive. Not sexually! Ugh. He may only be in his twenties, but to me, that’s old! But personally seductive. Like you couldn’t help but like him. That kind of seductive.
“What kind are you going to make?” I ask. Maybe he’s not serious about making a pie. Or teaching me how. He talks to me in such a joking manner, I don’t really know what’s real and what isn’t.
Maybe he’s just happy. I’m not used to happy, not used to being around it. I do like how he sounds, though. Right now, like he’s happy to be thinking about showing me how to make a pie. Why would that make him happy? I don’t know, but if I’m reading him correctly, it does.
“We can make any kind you want,” he says, answering me. “I specialize in banana-coconut cream, pecan and lemon. Key lime, too. But any kind is okay as well. Choose anything. Apple, maybe. Everyone loves apple pie.”
“I’ve never had pecan. Is that any good?”
He laughs. Why is that funny? Daniel is strange! But he laughs before answering me. “You’re going to find out. I think you’ll love it! But now we have to add something to the shopping list: pecans and dark Karo syrup and whipping cream.”
We continue shopping, and he continues talking to me about why he’s selecting what he is. Like in the meat department, I expect him to buy some of the hamburger from the display case, and he shakes his head at me. “See the sign on it? The one that says 80-percent? That means it’s 20-percent fat. When we cook it, the loaf would shrivel up, the pan would be full of liquid grease, and the loaf would be about three-quarters the size it was raw. If they had 92-percent beef, that would be better, but still not as good as I like. Robin, one thing about me you should know—and I’m dead serious here—when it comes to food, it’s just like they say about wine: life’s too short to drink cheap wine. Same with food. Everyone has to eat, but most people seem to eat just to fill their stomachs. I want to eat so I enjoy the experience: the taste, the texture, the aroma. I want to enjoy the entire event to the fullest. You won’t really enjoy your meatloaf to the extent possible with inferior beef. So we won’t get that.”
He tells me that like it’s the most important thing he’s said to me that day, then talks to the guy behind the counter. I see the guy take a ribeye roast from the case and grind that up. The roast is two and a half pounds. I don’t know how big a meatloaf is. Is this enough? Too much? I feel really stupid, but I’m used to feeling that. I’ve been watching Daniel, though, and am learning things I hadn’t known before.
Daniel looks at me and must see what I’m feeling, the dumbness I mean. He asks me about why I’ve suddenly gone glum, and I tell him how dumb I am. He explains that not knowing something isn’t being dumb. Dumb is not learning what you can when you have the chance. He asks if I’ve had any experience buying meat, making a meatloaf, planning a meal, and when I shake my head, he asks whether I know something about it now, more than I did before, and I say yeah, a little. He says ‘great’ and gets a big smile on his face! He’s happy again! He says I’m learning, I’m not dumb, and I should feel good about myself!
I’ve never been around anyone like Daniel before.
I doubt I’ll ever forget the dinner we had that night. I helped! What I was used to was someone sorta telling me how to do something and then stepping in when I was taking too long or not doing it right, taking over and doing it themselves. Not with Daniel! He tells me what to do, how to do it and gives such great instructions that I end up doing it myself and doing it okay! Sure, I’m not much good at most of it, but he says that’s how it usually is the first few times you try something new and that you get better with repetition. He says with what we’re making that night, we don’t need to be perfect.
He says meatloaf is fun to make because we can get messy. He’s right, too; it is fun, and it is messy.
“Meatloaf is basically ground beef, tomatoes in one form or another, bread crumbs to give it some body and texture, an egg or two to help hold it together, onion to give the flavor some depth and complexity, and then seasoning for spark,” he says.
He shows me how to mince onion but doesn’t have me try. He says he’ll do it himself as it’s dangerous and he doesn‘t want me to get cut. He cuts an onion in half and says that’s about the right amount.
“Aren’t you going to measure how much to use?” I ask. He doesn’t have a recipe he’s following. Mom didn’t cook much, but when she did, she always used a recipe and measured every ingredient precisely, no matter what she made.
“No,” he says. “Not for meatloaf. It’s sort of an anything-goes sort of dish, and besides, being creative is half the fun. Maybe three-fourths. You can be prouder of yourself if it’s your own doing and it’s good.”
He shows me his food processor and asks me to make some breadcrumbs. Of course I don’t know how. He doesn’t show me: he tells me how. “If you have stale bread, you can use that as it is, but fresh bread is too soft; it doesn’t cut into small crumbs well. Gee, let’s see. How can we make it stiffer, less moist?”
He’s asking me? Well, yeah, he is, and he’s grinning at me, too. I get the idea he wants me to think and figure this out.
There isn’t much I like about myself that I can feel good about, but there’s one thing I am okay with. I think I’m okay when it comes to smart. Even if sometimes I feel dumb, that’s just when I’m sad. Usually, I realize I’m not dumb at all. So, thinking isn’t something I worry about. I can do that. So, I can do this. I only need a moment to come up with an answer.
“Toast!” I say. I might even have yelled it. Something of his happy mood has infected me, I think. I never yell!
“Exactly!” he says and high-fives me! I’ve never done that before. This is a day of new experiences for me.
“How many slices?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says but doesn’t look fretful about it like I’d be. “Just make two. If we need more, we’ll make more. If we don’t need that much, we’ll dump the extra. No biggie.”
So I put two slices of bread in the toaster, and while that’s happening, he explains how to use the food processor. It’s easy, and when the toast is done, I make crumbs!
“You having fun yet?” he asks me, grinning as I scoop the crumbs into a bowl. My mom would have used a rubber spatula for that. He told me to use my hands!
I laugh. Me! Laughing! “I am.”
“And we haven’t even got to the really fun part. First, though, make me up some tomato sauce.”
“You know, everything I’ve seen from you tells me you’re a smart kid, really smart, who just hasn’t had much experience doing things. But you’re picking things up now really quickly. Hence my ‘smart’ label. So, that being the case, tell me how we should go about making tomato sauce if we don’t have any tomatoes.”
He’s grinning at me again. I take that to mean he’s challenging me, but with something he’s sure I can figure out. Okay, I think, how would we do that.
I decide to work the problem out loud. Somehow, I have the confidence to do that! I’m quite surprised at that and will think about it later.
“Well, if we don’t have any tomatoes, and we’re supposed to make a tomato sauce, we obviously must have some tomatoes or stuff made out of tomatoes available. So, what would that be? Ketchup, for one, and, uh, maybe, hey: canned tomatoes?”
“And we just happen to have both. Which would you like?”
He laughs. I liked hearing that, not only because it means he’s not angry with me, like my mom always was, but because I must have said something that pleased him.
“Gotcha. Both. We’ll use both. You have no way of knowing this, but I find it better to use mostly canned tomatoes, the kind that aren’t flavored with anything. That’s because ketchup already has a bunch of spices in it and I’d rather add my own. Then the meatloaf will be my creation rather than the ketchup company’s. And lookee here: I do have a couple of cans of tomatoes!” He takes two cans from his cabinet where he keeps his packaged, canned and bottled food and hands them to me. “Like these. They both are diced tomatoes. Are these okay?”
“You’re asking me?” I was feeling loose enough to add some sarcasm to my voice.
“Yeah. You’re making the meatloaf. I’m here in an advisory capacity, just to be sure you don’t poison me. Like, if you wanted to add bleach, I’d be here to suggest that might not enhance the flavor and getting one’s stomach pumped isn’t the best way to celebrate a meal. Now, remember what I asked you to make?”
“Sure. Tomato sauce.”
“And are these cans filled with tomato sauce?”
“So . . . ?”
More thought, but it only takes a moment. “The food processor!” I exclaim. I don’t even make it a question.
“Right. And you know how to do that now.”
I nod. There are still some crumbs in the processor bowl and I go to the sink to wash them out. He stops me. “Think about what you’re doing,” he says.
I do, and then feel embarrassed. “Don’t need to wash it out, do I?”
“Nope. Just wasting time.” He laughs. He thinks it’s funny, me screwing up like that. And I realize there are degrees of screwing up. This one is basically no screw up at all. I don’t have to be perfect. He’s been showing me that all along.
I open the first can and dump it in and then ask him, “Both cans?”
“I’ll tell you what. I always do this by looks and feel, and one can might be enough. So why not just do one? If we need the other, we can do it then.”
So I pulse the diced tomatoes. It takes very little time before they’re a liquid sauce.
He has me add spices to the sauce, telling me they’d mix into the loaf more evenly this way. He takes several different ones from the cabinet, dried oregano, basil, garlic powder and dill weed, then salt and pepper, too, and tells me to watch how much he’s adding so I’d have an idea how much to use when he isn’t around. “The spices will flavor the finished loaf. I’m just making a more or less traditional one. When you do the next one, remember what this tasted like and add more or less of what you want.”
He surprises me by not using a measuring spoon. He dumps a little salt into his hand. “See this?” he asks. When I nod, he says, “That’s about a teaspoon full. Here, try this.” He takes a measuring spoon out and has me measure one teaspoon of salt, then dump it into my cupped hand. “See how much that is? It’s about what I had in my hand. All you have to do now is remember what that looks like and you won’t have to bother with using a measuring teaspoon again. Easy!”
He has me dump my handful of salt into the food processor, then asks, “Now, do you like food spicy?”
“Uh, I haven’t had much spicy food.”
“No Mexican food?”
“No, Mom thought that was low-class food.”
“She’s nuts. I shouldn’t say that about your mom, but Mexican food is wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t love Mexican food. Anyway, I always add a little cayenne to my meatloaf, but let’s leave it out tonight.”
I don’t know how to respond to that, so I stay silent, my default position. I think I’ve spoken more today with him than I usually do in a week.
“Now,” he says, “it’s time for the fun part. “First, we have to get an idea of how much meat to use. How should we determine that?”
I think again—I hadn’t known cooking required so much thinking—and this time I’m stumped. “I don’t know,” I say.
“Yeah, this is a little harder to figure out. The way I do it is, I want the loaf to fit in the pan I’m going to use. So let’s get one out and see what’s what.”
He gets out a loaf pan from where it’s stored and has me dig into the meat we bought with my hands. I’d thought I’d use a utensil, but nope, my hands. “Wash them first. Just to be genteel about it. Don’t want to upset your mom.” He grins at me.
I do that, then start digging out handfuls of ground beef and adding them to the pan. “How much?” I ask.
“About three-fifths full should be in the ballpark.”
I do that and stop. I’ve used a little less than half the beef we bought.
“I’d have you shape hamburger patties out of what’s left, but we need time for the pie, so just put the rest of the meat back in the refrigerator for now. Okay, now we need a large bowl to put the meat from the pan into. One that’s twice as large as we’d need to simply hold the meat.” He hands me one, and I scrape the meat from the pan into the bowl.
“From this point on, it’s mostly by feel and appearance. Let’s go a little at a time so you can see how it’s done. First, dump about half your sauce in and then half your crumbs, and all your onions.”
I do that, then look at him. He smiles. “Now stick your hands in and began working it all together.”
I finally find out why he calls this fun. It was sorta like a kid playing with soft clay. It took a little time, but I did enjoy squishing it all between my fingers.
He talks me through it. “We want it pretty goopy. Not a liquid, not pourable, but soft and wet. See what it looks like now? That’s too stiff, too dry. That means you need more sauce. Go ahead and add the rest.”
I do that and the mixture loosens up. “It can take the rest of the crumbs, too. And an egg.”
The egg was quite slimy as I mixed it in. The mixture now has a different feel to it. Kind of like he’d said—not liquid, but soft, wet, and easily formable. Along the way, he has me add a few squirts of ketchup. I work it all in.
“Just so you know, we used a little more than a pound of meat. So if you want a written recipe, it’s easy to find many on the internet, or you can just do what you did here, using a pound and a half of meat, a 14-ounce can of tomatoes, a half or three-quarters of an onion, a cup or more of crumbs, and then go by feel.”
I put the soggy mess into the pan. It was now just over three-quarters full. I smooth it out so it’s flat on top. I’m surprised how good I feel, looking at it. Like I’d accomplished something good.
“We’ll cook it later,” he says. “Now the pie! But you may want to wash your hands first.” He giggles.
My hands are a gooey mess all the way up to my wrists. Slippery with egg and meat and sauce, flecked with pieces of onion and toast crumbs. I can’t remember when they were last this messy. Or I was this happy.