July 2011


How I missed my sister and her bacon.

Well, not really.  But I did miss the days when my sister and her bacon were my biggest worries.  The days when we had our family dinner parties and I would bring my standard bag of chips and she would fry her bacon.  Naturally, her bacon was superior to my chips, but at least the chips went with the bacon.  They could co-exist in harmony on a cheap paper plate.

Now it was time for another one of our company potlucks and the theme this month was International Peace.  I went to check the sign-up sheet again.  You could pick one of six continents, but it was filling up rapidly and I was running out of continents.

I read the entries.  Fried miniature speckled duck eggs.  Special cheese from Iceland.  Grape-flavored hummus.  Chicken encrusted in dark chocolate and mushrooms.

What the hell was all this?  Where did people get this stuff?  With the food prices going up, I could barely afford my non-encrusted chicken and a bottle of discount cola.

“So, what are you making?”

I spun around to find Leah standing behind me.  She was wearing a very high ponytail which swung from side to side when she talked, like a whip.

“I was thinking barbecue potato chips,”  I faltered.

She wagged her ponytail at me.  “No, you probably shouldn’t bring those,”  she said.  “How do barbecue chips contribute to international peace?”

“Oh.  Well…”

“They don’t.  They’re clearly a vulgar American food.”

“I’ll grant you that.  But is it fair to ask the working class to buy exotic foods for this thing?”

She bristled.  “Our workers are just as capable of buying gourmet food products as they’ve ever been.  We’re going to prove this with the potluck.  And you’d better help us prove it, too.”

“Fine.  I will bring something…”  I bent down to peer at the sign-up list.  “Something, um….Australian with me.”

***

“Like what?  Kangaroo steaks?”  Julian wondered.

“I don’t know,”  I snapped.  I looked around, feeling lost in my own kitchen.  Unless a recipe involved the microwave, I did my best to avoid it.

“I have no idea how to cook a steak,”  I lamented.  “I don’t even like steaks.  Is there anything else Australians eat?”

“Why don’t you make something you like and know how to do?  Make a salad.  You love salads,”  Julian suggested.

“I can’t make my Caesar salad.  It’s too ordinary.  So is my spinach salad.  There is nothing unusual about it.”

“Seeing you cook is plenty unusual enough,”  Julian said and then, following the time-honored tradition of  boyfriends everywhere, slowly backed out of the kitchen.

I pulled out my shiny, hardly ever used cookbook, and leafed through it.  It was hopeless.  The book was called The Old Batchelor’s Kitchen and the recipes were all five-minute meals for non-cooks like me.  The potluck was no place for amateurs.

Then a tip on one of the pages caught my eye.  “It’s easy to turn a dish into a unique experience.  Simply add an extra ingredient which reflects your distinct personality.”

Maybe I could make a salad and add a unique ingredient.  I searched my mostly empty cupboards for something different.  Out of desperation, I finally opened up our stash of Apocalypse canned supplies.  We were keeping them in case of societal breakdown, but hey, this was urgent.

Pickled beets…herring in mustard sauce…peach halves.  Which would go best with a Caesar salad?

I dumped some lettuce into a plastic bowl.  Well…wasn’t cooking supposed to be an art?  Weren’t you supposed to be fearless, to throw clashing flavors together, like you would contrasting colors in an abstract painting?  I opened one can, then another, sprinkling the contents into the bowl.  As I went along, I added ingredients faster and faster, in a blur of panic, never tasting what I made because I was so scared of it.

When the time came for the potluck, I called what I brought the Grand Mixture, and for its ethnic origins, I wrote in “The International Waters of the Pacific.”

***

“It appears that Blue has made the least nationalistic dish of the potluck.  Hooray for her,”  said Cassie, one of my co-workers.  “A symbol of the perfectly blended mixture we may one day become upon this planet.”  Cassie got a little carried away by the poetry of the moment sometimes.

“It’s what I strive for,”  I said modestly.

She put a spoonful of it into her mouth and spent a few minutes working on maintaining a pleasant expression.

“What did you base your recipe on, Blue?”  Leah asked with suspicion.

I shifted my eyes away from her.  “It comes from an old tale about sailors in the Pacific…It is about several ships that all crashed around the same rock, and it was Christmastime….and the men from the ships had Christmas Eve dinner together on the rock, and they made this dish out of everything they had on board.  This is also why it’s made out of canned items.”

“Hmmmm,”  Leah said.

After a struggle, Cassie had managed to swallow down her mouthful.  “It’s not that I don’t appreciate daring food choices, but this just doesn’t…taste good.”

The co-worker to my left must have noticed my worried face, because she nudged me.  “See, someone very important is enjoying it.”

It was true.  The head manager of our floor, a big healthy man with red cheeks, was shoveling my Mixture into his mouth.

“Seconds, please!”  he roared.  “Just like my Nana used to make back in the fatherland, God bless her!”

He was quickly handed more.  In between bites, he inspected everyone else’s plates.  “It’s delicious!  Why aren’t you ladies having any?  What, are you afraid of real food?”

The ladies hesitated, then spooned out small portions of it for themselves, and ate along with the manager.  They faked smiles while they chewed, as difficult as that was.

“Mmmmm!”  one of them said in a strangled voice.

“This really is quite interesting,”  another one added.  She then had to put her head down on the table and her shoulders heaved a few times, but she got herself back under control and raised her face again, her forehead covered with droplets of sweat.

Leah made no move to try it.  “Why aren’t you having any of your own creation?”  she questioned me.

“I already had a full bowl at home,”  I explained.

“Believe me, some more padding won’t hurt you!”  the manager boomed and he ladled a sizeable chunk out onto my plate.

I hadn’t realized just how bad it was until I tasted it.  It was so bad it was existential.  It made me question the balance of the universe.  Every possible flavor was in there, and when all the flavors of the world were unified, they became a nauseating mush.  I leaned my head on my hand and closed my eyes, acting as if I was savoring the taste.  The women at the table watched me, and this time their smiles were genuine.

As I forced myself to keep eating and everything was swimming in front of my eyes, I heard the manager say that I was the winner for best dish of the potluck.  I passed out before I could find out what prize I’d won.

***

When I came to, weak and clammy, I was on the sofa in our apartment and Julian was standing over me, concerned.

“Don’t ever cook again, okay?”  he said.

“The…potluck?”

“You gave yourself some serious food poisoning.  You made everybody else at your office sick, too.  Except the manager guy, he was fine.  He said he’s inviting you to his house for dinner as a reward.”

“Oh, no.”  The nausea was back, stronger than before.

“I don’t know about some of those women you work with.  That Leah chick said she was happy you were in the upper management’s good graces.  She sounded kinda threatening.”

I stuffed my face into a pillow.  “She’s pissed off because the manager is her direct supervisor.”

“So you think she’ll be gunning for you?”

Gunning for me?  Even though she made a big deal of girl power and women having each other’s back, she was always gunning for me.  There was only one option for me:  I had to make myself look bad at the dinner.  It would put my job at risk, but getting promoted ahead of Leah would be much more dangerous.

I was going to do what I should have done in the first place—bring a bag of chips.

***

“Wow!  Just like the brand I used to eat in college!”  the manager yelled out.  “I love it!”  He tore open the bag of chips, and he and his two kids began devouring them.

Failure!  I thought not bringing his favorite Mixture would be the surefire way to irritate him, but my plan didn’t seem to be working.

“Well, I have to confess this isn’t a foodie type of food!”  I said.

“As you can see, I’m not a foodie!”  he replied, wiping the crumbs off his shirt.  He slapped a plate with a steak on it on the table in front of me.

There was a wilted piece of broccoli next to the beef.  “Gotta have your greens, it’s good for you!”  he lectured his children.

“Aw, Dad, do we have to eat that?”  the older boy complained.

I hung my head over the steak, unable to get started on it.

“The chips were excellent!  I’m going to promote you to senior complaint associate, the same pay level Leah is at,”  the manager said.  “Congratulations!  And don’t look so worried!  Keep making that salad and you’ll do great.”

“I will,”  I murmured.  “Thank you for the honor, sir.”

I bit into the steak, feeling as if it was my last meal.

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When I got home from work, Julian and Nova were building a giant replica of a teddy bear.  Nova thought that this childhood toy was the source of her obsession with bear costumes.  So she was working through that.  Also, it made for a good conceptual art project.

The bear was made out of recycled newspaper and was kind of unstable.  It loomed over me as I walked into the living room.

Nova was standing on a chair, applying extra texture to the ears.

“You poor thing!”  she cooed when she saw me.  “Did you get through your day at the office?  Would you like some tea?”

“I’m doing okay.  What have you guys been doing?”

“We’ve been gluing and painting all day!”  Nova said.  Julian emerged from the belly of the bear, covered in glitter.

Nova climbed down from the chair.  She gave me a hug and I got stuck to her.  “I wish you could have spent your time with us.  You would have had so much fun.”  She was right.

For a long time, I had a feeling of guilt over being employed.  I couldn’t see how my work was helping anyone.  In fact, more often than not, I made my customers’ lives worse, delaying or denying their requests for services.

Nova created art.  That at least sounded meaningful.  Julian worked for a co-op.  I was never quite sure what it was they produced, exactly, but it seemed important.

Maybe I should try doing something creative myself, I thought.  Something that would make me feel like I wasn’t just a machine for paying the bills.  I never had much of a talent for anything except ranting, but….

RedGirl no longer performed superhero deeds, so she had become involved in endless hobbies instead.  She was always doing something, making one thing after another, embroidering, scrapbooking, carving, baking.

It had been a long time since I’d been in her bedroom.  I didn’t recognize it.  It was overflowing with her projects.  They were stuffed on her shelves and piling up at my feet.

She sized up my confused face.  “Paper sculptures,”  she decided.  “They don’t last long, but they’re very easy.  You can make animals, or you can make folk art patterns—that would fit your political issues.”

She handed me a book titled Paper Miracles.  Apparently this was a volume for the remedial crafter, with an undertone of “even you can make something pretty!”

On my way out of the house, I stopped by the kitchen, where my parents were sitting at the table.

“Have you seen what’s happened to her bedroom?”  I asked.

“I don’t ever go there anymore,”  Mother replied.  Father hid his face behind a magazine.

I spent the next few evenings swearing loudly and gluing myself to multicolored strips of paper.  It was hard for me to imagine why people would choose to torture themselves like this in their spare time.

But I was determined to finish my project.  The book contained a menagerie of paper critters, and I wanted to make the complete set, so that I could display them in a neat row for everyone to admire.

Unfortunately, all my animals looked like they were dying or severely disabled.  They were lopsided, one eye larger than the other and one leg shorter than the other, collapsing and folding in on themselves, their tails broken.  When I arranged them on the shelf, they looked like a cross between a zoo and a psychiatric ward.

I sighed as I regarded my line of crippled children.  Still, this would prove that I was more than just a cubicle monkey.

***

As I was getting ready to go to work, I found Nova in front of my paper menagerie.  Her chest was heaving.

“I know they are not very…”  I said.

“Oh, those are perfect,”  she sighed.  “They take me right to that place…all the ugliness and the sadness…”

“Well, I’ve never crafted anything before, so…”

“I love them.  I don’t need my teddy bear anymore,”  she said.  “I feel so traumatized…in a good way.”

“Thank you.”  I supposed I should accept the compliment.

“Would you like to be in an art show?”

“With paper animals…?”

“We’re setting something up in my friend’s pizza restaurant.  It’s going to be lunchtime experimental art.  It will remind the businesspeople of how miserable they are.”

“I gotta run to work, or I’ll be late.”  I moved towards the door.

Nova stretched her arm out to me.  “Call in sick.  You’re an artist.”

***

My family mocked me when they found out I was in an art show.

“A pizza restaurant, huh?”  Mother asked.  “I guess all the starving artists have to start out somewhere. Haha.”

At the opening day of the show, the artists got free pizza.  When the customers entered the restaurant, the newspaper bear wobbled over their heads, and when they sat down to eat, they were confronted with a display of my misshapen animals.

Nova and I ate our pizza and tried to pretend we weren’t eavesdropping on the reactions to our work.

“Those are so cute!  They must have been made by kids.  Look, that one’s a giraffe!”

“Ha, have you seen these fucked up animals?  They’re hilarious!”

“Hmmm, this is not what I expected,”  Nova said.  “I was hoping for something more like, I didn’t realize my life is so futile.  It’s like they think this is entertaining.”

RedGirl came too.  “I don’t understand.  You did them wrong,”  she said.  “This is not how the book says to do it.”

“I think that if you want to be artistic, you have to do things differently from what the book says,”  I offered.  “That’s what it seems like, anyway.”

“But I thought you had to have skills.  So does this mean art doesn’t have to be good anymore?”

I was already slightly embarrassed, and this wasn’t helping.  I went out of the dining room and hid in the back, in between the empty pizza boxes.

Nova came searching for me.  “Why aren’t you out there?  The question and answer session is about to start.”

I shook my head.  “Nova, we both suck at this.  What are we doing here?”

She sat down next to me.  “The art reviewer from the weekly is here.  He thinks we’re refreshing in our simplicity.  What are you talking about?”  She put her hand on my shoulder.  “Stop worrying about unimportant crap.  You could get to spend the rest of your life doing this—you’d never have to have a stupid customer service job again.”

I leaned back against the boxes.  I would have loved to give up my soul-draining job.  When I thought about it that way, I had no problem picturing myself making ugly paper toys until the end of my days.

I got up.  “All right.  I better go talk to them about what inspires me.”

***

Leah was not pleased with my activities outside of the office.  She was at my desk the morning after the show.  “Silly bourgeois hobbies,”  she said.  “What a waste of your time…  We have serious problems to deal with.”

“The reviewers liked it, and they were all progressives…”

“Reviewers,”  Leah snorted.  “Yes, I heard you were a success.  Who knows, you might have a good chance of getting an arts grant from the city.  You probably don’t need this job anymore.”

“Hold on,”  I called out after her as she left.

I felt the cold sweat on my neck.  The experts at the restaurant had hailed my new and exciting perspective, but they had not paid me.  I couldn’t afford to lose my job.

All that I had been given was a positive review—words on paper.  I tore it to pieces in a bathroom stall.

***

“Nova, I’ve got it.  I know how we can pull this off.”

“Hrrrmmmf.”  Nova stirred underneath her blanket on the sofa.  “What…do you have an idea for your next project?  Is this that midnight inspiration thing?”

“No, I have an idea for how I can be an artist and still make it financially.”

“How’s that?”

“You should get a regular job.  Then I could quit mine and make my paper animals full-time.”

“Huh…no!  Where will I find a job that fast?  And what about my art?”

“You can get a job at a coffee shop like before.  I’ve worked for a couple of years—now it’s my turn for a break.  Besides, it sounds from the weekly article like I’m the one with the destiny, if you know what I mean.”

Nova stood up, shaking.  “I’m so sorry, Blue, but I can’t do this for you.  I’m going to have to leave.”

“But I need your help…”

“I’m sorry.”  She pulled on her shirt and jeans and shoved the blanket into her backpack.  “Bye.  Tell Julian I’ll call him.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I have places I can go,”  she said as she walked out.  She was going to knock on somebody’s door in the middle of the night, the way she had knocked on ours.

I sprawled out on the abandoned sofa and smiled.  I would never be an artist, and I didn’t want to fake being one.  I would stick to the familiar art of getting rid of people.

I wondered what I was going to do with the extra money I would have now that I was no longer helping support Nova.

Maybe I’d become a patron of the arts and buy myself a giant stuffed teddy bear.