Mary Kate McGrath
On the first day of senior year, I woke up to chanting. My mother sat cross-legged on a prayer rug in the kitchen.
“Hello morning child,” she said, eyes closed. She now spoke like an infomercial guru, and it made me squirm. “The dawn is blessing us with peace and immunity.”
I sighed and went to look in the cupboard for lunch. My footsteps echoed in the empty room. Furniture kept vanishing out of our house—first, the lumpy blue armchair my father had called “home base,” and now the dining table. Most of his beloved knickknacks had disappeared as well: the ice-cream-shaped salt and pepper shakers he’d bought at a theme park one summer, and the framed baseball cards that’d once hung from the walls. Now the room was almost bare—just a photo of Niagara Falls and a concrete buddha and a lot of empty space.
My mother cleared her throat. “Watch out for dioxins.”
I turned around. “Who?”
“The parabogenic chemicals in school lunch.”
“Oh.” I had been planning to buy from the cafeteria. One of those cheese-filled breadsticks or a cookie. The cabinet only had sprouted buckwheat and a jar of bee pollen.
“There’s crispbread on the counter.”
I was avoiding those, too. The crackers were flecked with oats and seeds and smelled like yeast. No gluten. Think cardboard. I wrapped up three to cover with the chocolate spread stashed in the bottom of my backpack.
Once, the beginning of the school year had merited a special breakfast. I’d wake up to the smell of cinnamon and butter, my father donning a pinafore apron. The table would be set with bacon or eggy bread. He’d called these the “house specials,” which meant the only dishes he could cook. All morning, my mother would tsk and make a show of eating non-fat yogurt. But it looked so wholesome, she often took a bite. “Too sweet,” she’d usually say. I couldn’t square those memories with the hollowed-out kitchen, my mother’s renewed devotion to fasting. I pocketed the crispbread. On the way out the door, I pointed at an onyx geode, the latest addition to our pseudo-spiritual décor, and asked: “Did you burgle the science museum?” But my mother was ten minutes into a meditation on Focused Attention, and it appeared to be working because she ignored me.
Our town required high school students to take home economics, a regressive concept, but at least now all genders were required to participate. The first-day assignment was a strawberry shortcake. Our teacher handed out recipes on index cards, instructed us to bake two biscuits and stack them with cream.
“Easy stuff, kids,” he said. “Don’t overthink it.” But he glanced toward the fire extinguisher, and with good reason. Flour got everywhere. Burnt dough filled the air with a toxic smell. Nobody understood how to slice fruit or even hold a knife. One slacker just poured cream into a bowl and submerged a biscuit. My station partner, Dean Bergen, kept asking, “Yo, can we eat this yet?”
By comparison, my shortcake infrastructure looked impressive: alpine swirls of cream, a neat crown of strawberries. The biscuits came out of the oven blonde and vanilla-scented. Dean descended with a fork.
“Oh wait,” he said. “This is actually good.” He scooped another mouthful. I chewed mine slow, counting the rotations of my jaw.
“Do you not like it?”
I swallowed. “What?”
“Why are you eating like that?”
My cheeks reddened. Blushing made me even more self-conscious—the thin fuzz of my hairline, soft creases under my armpits, bumps on the forehead. I pulled at the hem of my sweatshirt. This was how my mother taught me to eat—the petite bites. I rested the utensil on the plate. “I don’t know.”
Dean didn’t seem bothered. “Well, if you don’t want it.” He carried the leftover shortcake over to his friends, who gathered around. While stacking dishes for the sink, I watched the group finish the dessert. Each raced the others to the next bite, eyes wide and forks scraping for crumbs. Nobody had informed me, in all my years of mediocre report cards and demoralizing gym class mile times, that there might be other skills.
My mother was a chronic self-improver. Each day of the week had its own joyless activity. Juice-cleanse strategy meeting with a nutritionist. Yoga weekends with Nancy and Edna. Bi-weekly acupuncture and reiki. The three-day conference on the latent dangers of coffee, which she now called a “roasted conspiracy.” She never failed to find new pit stops on the road to physical enlightenment.
“I feel reborn,” she said after a CrossFit intensive. “I can feel my blood.”
She was always trying to con me into exercise, suggesting hikes or pretending to lose the car keys. Once I bought a muffin at a county bake sale, and she pried the cake from my hand.
“Not my daughter,” she said. “There’s muesli at home.”
She whittled herself into a pencil, lean and pointy in a way that made strangers say, “What’s your secret?” Meanwhile, I was soft around the edges, and the same people asked, “Wait, this is your daughter?”
I had never been allowed junk food. When I was younger, my father hid our snacks around the house. Donuts under car seats. Gas station pastries in his fleece pockets. Mallomars tucked in a duffel bag. Licorice in his desk drawers. On the ride home from softball practice, he would swing through a fast-food drive-thru. We sat outside in the minivan and split waffle fries.
“Our secret, Bones,” he said, dunking a thatched fry in honey-mustard. “Don’t tell your mother.”
For years my mom printed out articles on raw veganism and ketogenic power blasting and the diet where you pretend to be a gluten-intolerant caveman, tucking them into his briefcase at night. He humored her, leaving the house with a smoothie or buying running shoes. Nothing stuck. When the oncologist told us, as we sat in a row like a jury, that my father was sick, my mother got an unforgivable look on her face like: I told you so. When the cancer became pancreatic and the hospital got bleak, her smugness disappeared, and then he did too. I blamed my own bad luck. My mother blamed bread.
After the funeral, she wrapped casserole dishes in tinfoil and brought them back to confused neighbors.
“Cheese,” she explained, “will turn our intestines into rubber.”
I pictured my organs transforming into the plastic replicas you’d find in a classroom biology model. The science seemed iffy. I didn’t push the issue.
Soon, the shelves that had once stored dry pasta or chocolate chips were filled with probiotics, collagen powder, mushroom water. Books with titles like “Food Martyr” or “Self-Discipline Diva” appeared around the house. Then the remedial nutrition courses, a maniacal commitment to cardio, and the fecal bacteriotherapy, which we don’t discuss.
As my mother’s quest for self-actualization intensified, she cared less and less about the state of our home. Our rooms became messy and filled with mail-order supplements and ionic footbaths and chalk-colored infusions. Rinds of fruit rotted in the cupboard. Disemboweled juicers grew mold in the sink. One morning, a sweat-stained sports bra blindfolded the Buddha statue. Bills overtook the remaining counter space. Thick envelopes from Northwest Regional Hospital. Final insurance notices addressed to my father. New invoices from a crystal healer, another from a medical medium. Monthly subscriptions for a barre gym or designer vitamins or ointments that made your under-eye bags literally time travel. Occasionally I sprayed down the counters, gathered unused items in a laundry basket, and gently suggested a trip to the charity deposit box, desperate to restore some sort of order.
“Let’s go today,” I said. “Before we forget.”
“I’m busy,” she snapped, as she carried the latest wellness paraphernalia off to her bedroom.
Debt collectors called our landline at all hours. One morning the phone rang, and I tore the adapter from the wall. When my mother arrived home from yoga, pink mat under arm, I held up a fistful of envelopes.
“Should we maybe open these?”
She wiped her forehead. “No.”
Of course, I’d begun hoarding, too. Filling my backpack with worn editions of Joy of Cooking and The French Chef Cookbook from the bargain bin at the public library. Picking out pamphlets on culinary institutes at a college fair, printing applications off the internet. One had a dual program in business management and course listings that had me dreaming up menus for my own restaurant. These I slid between my mattress and box spring, telling myself it was all hypothetical, nobody would find out.
Then my mother spotted a gingham cover poking out of my backpack. She unzipped the bag and dumped out the contents. One cookbook flopped open, revealing a faded photo of a pecan pie. A spoon dipping into a bowl of oozy molasses. She turned around slowly like a character in a horror movie. “Oh my god,” she said. “There’s lard in this recipe.”
Not in the mood for a screed on trans fats, I clapped the book shut and returned it to the bag.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s just a book.”
“But why do you have it?”
“It’s nothing,” I insisted. “It’s for a class.”
When she sighed and went back to weighing almonds, I gathered the brochures before she could notice those as well.
Several months after my father died, an older woman pulled me from a statistics class. She worked as a guidance counselor, and “bereaved students” were required to meet with her. Everyone made healing feel so imperative those days. We sat across from each other in a cubby-like office. A wall clock ticked. Outside, a coffee pot gurgled, and two receptionists gossiped about the autumn formal. Teachers’ enclaves all smelled the same—stale Folgers, lavender hand lotion, reheated marinara. I plucked bobbles off the pilling plush seat. She checked the time and cleared her throat.
“I don’t want to talk about my dad,” I said. And honestly, I couldn’t. Not so soon after sitting in silence with an aunt in the oncology ward, my mother off jogging up and down the hospital stairs. His season tickets were still arriving in the mail. Breakfast strudel he’d purchased grew stale and moldy under my bed. If I told the counselor any of this, it would push the air out of my lungs, make my vision blur and tunnel.
“Well then, what are you up to these days,” the guidance counselor said, pulling a tissue from her turtleneck sleeve. “What do you do for fun?”
I picked my lip. She blew her nose.
“I don’t know.”
“What about on the weekends?”
I crossed my arms. “Not much.”
“Do you play a sport?”
“Oh, did your father like sports?”
It wasn’t a graceful pivot. On principle, I wouldn’t reply. Instead, I stared at the rubber tips of my sneakers and bit down on the inside of my cheek. When the bell rang, I hurried to gather my sweatshirt and backpack, saying, “I have a class.” She rustled the pages of a planner and began muttering about future appointments, but I was out the door before she looked up.
I’d lied to the guidance counselor about the weekend. One month earlier, I’d started picking up shifts at a catering company. The opportunity came about after the home economics teacher took note of my culinary competence. He’d give me a thumbs-up when a lava cake maintained its shape or would hold up a bowl of my macaroni and cheese as an example. “You really have a knack for this,” he told me at the end of one class. I was plating a batch of toffee cookies. The sugar on the top had caramelized and cracked like desert sediment. When I held back after the bell to scrub the baking sheets, he asked if I’d considered cooking school. I couldn’t fess up to the printed-off applications, the stacks of brochures: it suddenly seemed tacky. I’d never had talent. Or maybe, I couldn’t commit. I didn’t want to incense my mother. I shrugged and returned to the pans, watched the bloated crumbs swirl the drain.
Next class period, he left applications on my workspace. Fees were printed atop the pages—$75, $125—and the price tags diminished my enthusiasm.
“Thank you,” I said, returning the papers to his desk. “But I think what I might need is a job.”
Now he seemed excited. His sister needed weekend help. Julia owned a cafe and catered events. Mostly bat mitzvahs and under-attended bingo nights at the senior center. “Nothing fancy but good money,” he said.
Good money. Financial upheaval loomed over our grief, like aftershocks following the earthquake of my father’s death. I thought of the mailbox stuffed with credit card bills. Our weekly calls from the medical claims office. I accepted the business card.
Julia picked me up one week later in a canary yellow catering van. Most shifts, I dropped baskets of croquettes into a fryer, piped buttercream tulips onto tiered cakes. Prep days in the kitchen unleashed chaos. Sous chefs hollered instructions and assembled armies of canapes. The pans on the stove popped and hissed. Porters carried burlap sacks of flour or rice into the storage closet. Dishwashers dropped armfuls of plates and pots and ladles into the steel tub. Other workers teased each other without mercy. One morning an opening baker sang “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” under his breath. He had perfect pitch, but by afternoon the song drove everyone out of their skin.
“Marty wants to leave us for Idol,” a line chef joked. “He’s making us do the real work before the audition.”
I smiled and twisted icing down into a pastry bag.
“Be more like her,” he said, gesturing toward me with a cleaver. “Our cake assassin.”
Early on, the crew’s kindness made me feel uninitiated. But it didn’t last. One shift, I left two liters of seltzer in the freezer and the bottle detonated overnight. Julia gave me a bucket to clean up the ice. I made a silent promise to pay more attention in Physics. Afterward, the team started calling me “Mount Vesuvius,” ducking and covering every time I headed for the pantry.
Chefs cooked for the staff after hours. Julia stood over a wok, tossing in onions or garlic, drizzling oil. She added unfamiliar ingredients—bay leaves, coriander seeds, bulls-eyed ham hocks. Flames erupted from the pan after a splash of wine, making me startle. Julia didn’t react. She always moved with certainty, shifting pots between burners, julienning carrots, like it was all choreographed. When the table was set and everyone crammed onto the bench seats, I downed the meal with animal enthusiasm. This was the first time I could eat without the fear of clogged arteries, the specter of the body mass index. Only the heat and comfort of the spice, flavors deepening on my tongue like a sunset.
One of my mother’s beloved gurus started preaching minimalism. Everyone needed less. Energy flowed in open space. Buy her limited edition crystal set, but after that, be free! My mother had tried her birdfeed diet once before—seeds are packed with omegas!—and I thought she might be encouraged to tidy up. Look at this one, I sent in an email. She replied with a study on mortality rates among feta cheese eaters. The subject line read, Interesting stuff.
When I returned home from work one night, she was loading a CD into the stereo. “For the realignment of our aural plane,” she said, pressing play. The kitchen filled with trickling water and a psychedelic chorus of gongs. Mostly the recordings made me need to use the bathroom. I hung up the apron and sat for dinner. She eyed the stains on my jeans.
“Are you eating on the job?”
Our meal consisted of pre-packaged soup. A pitcher of celery juice. The liquid churned in my stomach, making me full but unsatiated. We ate on the floor. I missed the table in a wretched way, the grief acquiring a new home.
“No, I’m not,” I lied. And then, with a bitter slurp, “Yum.”
She poured another glass. “Doesn’t this make you feel purged?”
The celery juice tasted like salt and grass. I didn’t complain. This beat the power shake phase—four months of mail-ordered protein smoothies, my father slopping the gritty goop into a hydrangea bush outside. That summer, we both swore the bush bloomed extra bright. If he were here, he’d tease her. Maybe call the juice “pond water” or do a comic spit-take. Either way, she’d laugh. Only his jokes eased the tension. Now there was no balance, no joy, no equilibrium. I swallowed hard and nodded toward the door.
“Did you check the mail?”
She took a sip. “Did you go for a run today?”
Ironically, the catering shift had felt like a marathon. I’d glazed a hundred eclairs; assembled dozens of croque monsieurs. One whole hour was spent spooning chili sauce over the salmon on the pass. Then the sweeping and mopping and buffing the flat top. The satisfied end-of-shift exhaustion.
“No, I didn’t run.”
“Well, there you go.”
One moment later, the phone rang and the caller ID read OH Credit Union. She picked up and slammed the receiver.
The semester of home economics ended with a final baking project.
“Anything is fine,” our teacher said, lifting his hands in surrender. “Just open Joy of Cooking and practice at home.”
The cracked spine of my edition opened to a Dutch Baby, and the instructions appeared simple, but the recipe kept going wrong. Two tries in, and the dough wouldn’t puff, the pancake sighing and collapsing in the skillet as I pulled it from the oven. My mother smelled baking and wandered in, pinched a bag of confectioner’s sugar.
“Can you please, please, please,” she said. “Not bring this stuff into my kitchen?”
“Oh sorry,” I shot back. “I didn’t realize the flax had squatting rights.”
Going after a superfood crossed a line, and I knew it.
“Fine, eat this garbage,” she said, gesturing toward the baking supplies. “Do you know what this will do to you?”
“No, what will it do to you?”
She squinted at the nutrition facts on a box of butter. “Do you really want to know?”
“I have to make this for school,” I said, fluffing out two more cups of flour.
“Oh, you think the teachers aren’t in on it?” she said. “Big Dairy wrote the food pyramid.”
I bent down to check the number on the pastry scale. “One popover won’t kill me.”
All the peaceful yogi energy drained from her body. She started reciting statistics with the gusto of a high school debate champion: “One in five women will be diagnosed with heart disease—one in five!” “Women are just as likely as men—look at me, just as likely.” And then she said, “Your father didn’t listen.” Mentions of my father still cued total dissociation, giving me an odd sense of observing the argument from a distance, or on television. From the outside, I pitied both of us. I wanted to put both palms on the hot burner. Instead, I cracked eggs into a bowl.
“Did you hear me?”
No timeline existed in which my father would still be alive if he’d only eaten quinoa or gone for one more jog. She always teetered on the edge of such a conceit.
“I said, are you listening?”
I whisked the batter in quick, noisy strokes.
What did she want, a commitment to her whole grain tyranny? It was too late. I had no desire to spend my infinitesimal time doing calisthenics or eating like a plesiosaur, trying to stretch my luck just a bit farther, optimize every minute. Rather, I wanted this pancake to rise, to pool syrup in the craters of its dough. So I turned toward the stove. Then I poured the mixture into a cast iron pan.
She huffed and launched a stick of warm butter at the wall. It landed with a splat and did a cartoon slide down the wallpaper. We both stared at the slug trail. She slumped onto the prayer rug. I sat down also.
“I might go to culinary school.”
She looked at me like a traitor. Then she pressed her thumbs into her eyelids.
“Fine. I can’t stop that.”
Some mornings, Julia let me open the café. She’d tape an envelope with keys on the fridge and write no explosions on the front. The night after the argument, I offered to take the first shift. I woke up at four in the morning and walked to the shop in the dark. Once there, I leaned on the warm pastry case. The display smelled like shortening and sugar and vanilla. French macarons were lined up inside like colorful UFOs. Our staff had assembled them the evening before. For months, I’d wanted to bake some at home, but the recipe was unpredictable. You can only do so much to ensure a positive outcome: beat an egg-white meringue, drink nine glasses of water, fold twenty-five times to the left, go to hot yoga, fold twenty-five times to the right, eat swiss chard, measure the discs with a piping bag, take up spinning, bang the cookie sheet on the counter to get rid the bubbles. Put them in the oven. Hope for the best.
Mary Kate McGrath
is a writer, journalist, and disability advocate from Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has previously appeared in Tin House. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Boston University. Find her on Twitter @mkmcgraths.
Art by Christopher Paul Brown
“Untitled, Abandoned Factory, Nonlinear Dubuque, 2018, 06-02-2017FB”
Digital camera, Photoshop, archival inkjet pigment on Hahnemhule canvas
Christopher Paul Brown is known for his exploration of the unconscious through improvisation and the cultivation of serendipity and synchronicity via alchemy. Over the past three years, his art has been exhibited twice in Rome, in Italy and in Belgrade, Serbia. His series of ten photographs, titled “Obscure Reveal,” were exhibited at a Florida museum in 2017. In 2020, forty-one of his works appeared in fourteen different journals, magazines and catalogs. Brown earned a BA in Film from Columbia College Chicago in 1980. He was born in Dubuque, Iowa, and now resides in Buncombe County, North Carolina.