The refrigerator is an altar to Gloria’s condiment hoarding and I’m sure it has bottles from the year I was born. There’s horseradish, olives, onions, peppers, sauerkraut, anchovies, turnips, and the Ba-Tampte specialties of half-sours and cherry pepper pickles. French mustards so ancient the labels have curled off like old toenails. Those ones, I sense, are like the jars of preserved frogs, cow eyes, and animal embryos the student teacher brought to class last week for us to dissect. I don’t share this with Claudia, hoping I’m alone in this comparison. She’s frowning at my fridge but this is her first time to my house. While there are three kinds of martini olives, even if they were the last food on earth, biting into them looks and feels what it must be like eating a salty eyeball. Claudia is the first person from school, from the neighborhood, to set foot inside my house.
“You like pickles?” is all I can ask.
She takes out a jar, which in itself is dangerous. Before I confess the miserable truth of the fridge, as if it wasn’t obvious, she sticks a knife in an unmarked jar of the yellow sludge, spreads it on a cracker and spits it out after one bite. “It’s not jam at all. And it burns my tongue.”
I stick a spoon in and chirp, “Nope. Not jam.”
I forgot. From the 900 plums on the trees in the yard in August, my mom made me boil them down and when she added this root from the Chinese market, it wasn’t jam at all but cooked plum sweet and spicy.
“Chutney.” My mom announced.
She is obsessed with creepy food. The end result is that there’s usually nothing good to eat. If Claudia knew what my mom made for dinner she’d run out the door screaming. Which was exactly what I wanted to do last night when my mom set a plate down for me.
My mom smiled, full of triumph. “It’s French.”
One bite in is a mouthful of weirdness. Not meat, not gristle, not potato but another category altogether, because they sort of dissolve. “Thank you. What is this?” I asked.
“They’re braised in wine and butter,” she cooed. She’s sitting down, after having spent way too much time in the kitchen.
“Really? Interesting.” I asked, since the texture was both utterly different and utterly strange from what we usually had.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” She said.
“But what is this, really?”
My brother and I fight like cats but that night he’d battled his headgear that the kids across the street tease him about. I can never decide which is worse for him: buck teeth so bad he can’t close his mouth or wearing this metal brace that’s helmeted around his head? We fight but I feel sorry for him. Ever since we moved here he’s in his own orbit. He’s eleven but wears a blue and yellow striped tie, navy blue blazer and a blue shirt like he’s off to a law office downtown instead of the private school on Nob Hill.
Once he was able to finally liberate his mouth and take a spoonful, he nodded and yes, it was the texture. He spat out his mouthful as if he had a problem with the braces on his teeth.
My mom delivered the dinner verdict. “Calf brains.”
“As in cow?” I asked.
“Yes.”
I do a reverse barf into my mouth and put the napkin up to my mouth and whisper, “Wait. This is baby cow brains?”
“It’s a delicacy.”
She put down a platter of whitish things that looked like log fungus and digs in.
She hisses to me, “Eat the dinner I made. ”
I shut my eyes and in one swallow, a lump goes down that feels like I’ve swallowed gold fish. Living ones flicking their tails as they try to swim around in my stomach.
My mom must be looking at me because when I open my eyes again she announces, “This is cuisine. Moreover, young lady, we do not gulp. We chew.”
Meals are torture because of the book that’s ruined dinner forever, The Art of French Cooking. Next week, if Julia Child casts her spell again, there’s the threat of snails or cow gonads or Gloria’s favorite, beef stew for winos, beef bourgoine. Gloria, not mom.
She swears every time a bill comes: no money, not enough money, merde, merde, merde, that s.o.b., your father, who’s never paid a dime in child support, and Christ. Gloria and mom?
Yet here we are eating food with fancy names courtesy of the drunk lady who looks like Big Bird. She’s not on Sesame Street but has a cooking show Gloria watches every Saturday on public television like it’s a coronation. It’s as if we do not shop at the discount store on the alley off of Market Street for dented cans and bricks of hamburger meat slathered on white Styrofoam wafers.
Which is why the dilemma before me, after school snacks, is also torture. What I don’t say to Claudia, as we survey the shelves of condiments is: Would you like some leftovers from last night’s dinner for snack?
The calf’s brains that Gloria served look innocent enough in a glass dish with foil, almost like food, but it’s not because my refrigerator is a trap.
On the counter are some apples and I hand Claudia one, take the other and she bites in and says, “Kind of mealy.”
She’s right. They look juicy and ripe and like the apples in fairy tales, they are not poison, but not what they should be.
No one comes to my house after school. There’s nothing to eat.
Plus there’s Gloria. She’s usually home plunking away at her heavy typewriter, letting out a, merde, which is French for shit, which she says again and again because she types a line and makes a mistake but excuses herself by saying, “It’s not really swearing if it’s French.”
Or she’s in her bathrobe at noon and snorting on the phone in dramatic gasps of conversation. Plus she doesn’t like being called Mom. Just recently, she started mimicking me and Wills, Mommmm, Christ, can’t you do what the English do and say Mummy? Or Mother? Why is it always Mommmm with you and your brother?
So along with a normal dinner going away, so did my mom. My mom became Gloria.
So I lie to Claudia, “Well, my mom is out shopping right now. For food. So, she’ll, like, be home any minute.”
I find some crackers, labeled water crackers from England and an apple.
She takes one bite and makes a face.
“You come to my house and I make banana milkshakes and all I get here is dry apples with crackers?”
“I owe you three milkshakes,” I say, opening a bottom cupboard searching for the non-existent blender.
“You do.” But it’s an empty promise because she will probably never come to my house again.
Claudia lives up the hill and we both ride the bus out to Lawton elementary. She’s in 6th grade but everyone in her family is older. Her two brothers are grown ups are never there. Her sister goes to high school and she’s older too and when I was at her house looked in the closet, there they were, the big closed apartment building of Modess sanitary napkins, in the pastel box with flower decorations. As if getting your period, or menstruating, as Gloria calls it, means you become one of the Hindu neon pink posters of Indian gods: you have six arms but are sitting on a lotus pad and smiling, just like the design on the outside of the Modess box. Claudia once caught me staring at the box of sanitary napkins and shrugged, “It’s part of nature.”
I squinted at Claudia when she said that. It’s part of nature, like she’s in on the hoax of sex education. Still, she’s not as bad as Gloria who in July handed me a book with line drawings of women’s hairy gorilla mouth privates and captions in Latin. “You read this. I’ll give you a quiz,” she’d said.
I wondered whether to argue about this part of the nature business with Claudia but let it go.
Her brother Ramon has a moustache so big it is a shiny brown caterpillar moving around just above his lip so that when he talks or laughs, it inches along on his face. He has flared pants and has a job. It’s a grown-up house, clean and neat, everything in its place, no toys. Her mom has two-tone hair, black on the ends, but reddish up at the roots and when she talks her gold teeth catch the light. Her dad has one eye that looks at the wall even when you are talking to him but Claudia says that’s just the glass one.
“Wait. I have an idea,” and I run upstairs and steal money from mom’s dresser.
“See, we have two dollars so let’s go to the store and get some Pringles and whatever you want to drink,” I say. Cheerful.
“Really, I shouldn’t. My sister gets home soon.”
“We can get stuff. If we leave right now.”
From the basement comes a rumbling sound that can only be the garage door banging open. We both freeze. Clutching two bags of groceries to her chest like toothpaste tubes, Gloria clumps upstairs.
“Oh, hello. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Claudia. She goes to Lawton, too.”
Gloria nods, asks, “So who are your parents, Claudia?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez.”
“I see. And where does your family live?”
I answer for Claudia, “Up the hill. Same side, in the pinkish brown flat just down from Frederick.”
“I see, well, nice to meet you.”
Claudia looks down and talks to the crochet rug spread across the kitchen floor, “I have to help with dinner, so I should go.”
“You want to come over again, there’s good food. Really.”