5 Weeks – The Pocono Mountains, PA’s
I can’t explain why a Caesar salad with vanilla ice cream—not on the side but on the salad—sounds downright amazing, but it does. The salty, tangy Caesar dressing coating the crunchy croutons and crisp lettuce mixed with sweet soft-serve vanilla ice cream seems like it would taste divine. Without further thinking, I head toward the food court in search of a fast-food establishment that can provide me with the crazy cravings I’m having.
Standing in line, the smell of food is making my head pound and my stomach growl. By the time I make it to the register, my temples are throbbing. I didn’t realize I needed to eat so badly.
“Next,” says the teenage boy working behind the counter. His orange hair is spiked in the front, but he still has a baby face. “Hi, what would you like to order?”
I give him my order and reach into my purse for my wallet. When I look back up, his face is distorted. Startled, I jump back. His face almost looks censored. Like a beige blur. I blink, hoping that his face is back to normal. It is except for the confused look he’s giving me.
“Sorry, I thought I saw something.” I really need to eat. I think this headache is turning into a migraine. I swipe my card and grab my tray.
The food before me looks heavenly. The sweet vanilla ice cream and the savory Caesar dressing smells amazing. By the time I find a table, my head is pulsing. In the corner of my eye, I keep seeing blurred faces, but when I look, they are normal. I have only experienced a couple of migraines with auras; usually I see dots or zigzags, not weird faces.
None of this is normal.
Between the migraine and mixing two vastly different food groups and eat them as if they go together like peanut butter and jelly—which makes me dry-heave thinking about that combination—isn’t normal. But here I am, with a black takeout bowl containing a large Caesar salad and a Styrofoam cup of soft-serve vanilla ice cream. I salivate as I pour the frosty dessert onto the greens. A couple of people even turn to stare. Their eyes bug out as if asking if I’m really going to eat that extra creamy salad, but no one says a word. I giddily combine everything into one big blob and dig in.
The taste combination is euphoric. It needs more dressing and I happily add the spare packet. I dribble it on like it’s the last topping on an ice cream sundae. Croutons are the sprinkles, the dressing is chocolate sauce, and the parmesan cheese is candied nuts.
I eat it all. Every last crumb and scrape the bowl clean, devouring every ounce of dressing, and then sip on the pink lemonade I had bought to quench my thirst, getting rid of the copper taste that has been plaguing me for days. On and off through the last week, it’s tasted like I’ve stuffed a handful of pennies into my mouth. Doctor says it’s probably nothing but scheduled me to come in on Tuesday for a routine checkup and lab work.
The stink of spilled drinks, old cooked food, and human funk finds its way to my nose, triggering my stomach, threatening a second tasting. The filth is never purged from this establishment, mostly due to minimum wage cleaning and an idiotic decision. It surprised everyone two years ago when the mall chose to rip out the tile and replace it with carpet—the entire building, even the food court. It’s as if they wanted to show off the stains embedded into the fibers after every messy transaction. Across the floor, there are specks of red, brown blotches, black smudges, and cloud-shaped puddles. They are all dry, but remain haunting the ground. Foul memories plastered onto the carpet like a museum of accidents on permanent display.
I had come to the mall not for food, but for new bras. My current ones are feeling tight and uncomfortable. I woke up this morning and none of them fit. Each one felt like they were suffocating my tender breasts. They are all the same size and I’ve been a 34B since high school, but I don’t know why today they all felt snug.
Jim laughed while stretched out on the bed after getting out of the shower. The smell of citrus wafted off his damp brown hair. With a loving grin, he said we had both put on winter weight from our holiday takeout feasts. He added that I’d drop the pounds fast since we started running again, and by summer, when we go to the Bahamas, I will turn heads with my bikini on, then he pulled me onto the bed and gave me a tender kiss.
Picking up my food tray, I walk to the garbage cans and feel my stomach twist from the putrid stench emanating from the bins. I place my tray down and run off without depositing my trash in fear of vomiting. I have to vacate the area before the bile comes up and out. I gag as I force it back down, and luckily, I win the battle.
As I walk through the food court, my stomach settles and the euphoric aromas from the dessert counters make me forget I just ate—and almost tasted it twice. When I reach the Sweet Treats counter, I can’t take it anymore and buy two sugar cookies, a double chocolate fudge cookie, and a dozen big vanilla bean cupcakes with hundreds of teeny tiny, decadent vanilla Madagascar seeds. Each speck represents a sweet flavor I yearn to enjoy, again and again. I want to buy more, but decide against it since I was just buying bigger bras. Stupid winter weight. Plus, I just made a couple trays of chocolate chip cookies this morning.
Treats and purchase in hand, I make my way to my car, dodging the idiots who don’t look behind them while pulling out of their parking spots. There’s nothing I’d like to do more than go home, take a bath, put on pajamas, and eat dinner while watching a movie on the couch, but that’s not in the cards. The only thing I get to look forward to is eating Jim’s delicious pot roast and gravy. His mother is making roasted garlic whipped potatoes, which will go great with the gravy; it’s the only thing she can create besides Jim that isn’t bitter. She and Jim’s grandmother will outright ignore me; they live in misery together now that they are widows. Tonight, Jim’s sister and her husband, along with the pack of hyenas they call children, will be joining us too. The things we do for the people we love.
By the time I pull into our driveway, all the cookies are gone and I’ve been eyeing the two extra cupcakes. I only needed to buy ten for dessert tonight, but I resolve to save them for an after-dinner treat with Jim tomorrow night. I will not eat both in one sitting. At least that’s what I keep telling myself as I accidentally stick my finger in the frosting for the second time and lick the confectionary goodness off my pinky. Good thing I made a couple dozen cookies. No one will miss a few measly cookies if I snack on them before dinner.
I push the garage door button and limbo under it. Jim’s classic black Mustang sits immaculate, protected from the elements, but that was part of the deal. He gets to park his car inside, but he has to clean my car year round, inside and out, and shovel the sidewalk and driveway when it snows. I still think I got the better end of the bargain.
He treasures that car and spends his weekends fixing it up, carrying on his father’s legacy. When he’s working on the car, he swears there’s a presence, like his father is right alongside him. When he passed from cancer, Jim spent hours just sitting behind the wheel. Sometimes I would sit with him, but most of the time he wanted to be alone, and I gave him that space and time to heal. I married an extremely passionate, sentimental man and I’m happy about it. One of us has to be the loving, emotional type.
Before I can open the door into the kitchen, I can smell the roast cooking. “I’m home! When’s dinner? It smells amazing,” I say, taking off my shoes and hanging my purse on the rack with my coat.
The six-burner range is busy roasting dinner; it’s going to take two-and-a-half hours to cook. When his sister comes in another hour, she will have plenty of room to heat the vegetable sides and whatever her brood of kids will eat this month. I think the boys are getting less picky, since they are growing an inch a day and need a steady supply of calories. The girls refuse anything except mac and cheese or chicken nuggets and fries. Maybe they will be adventurous this month and eat pizza. I think the youngest girl said it was spicy once, referring to the tomato sauce.
I handpick ten perfect cupcakes and arrange them on the center of a serving platter, then take the Ziploc bag of cookies out and plate them around the cupcakes. Before I put the tray in the fridge, I eat two cookies. The other two cupcakes, the ones I keep accidentally sticking my fingers in, I stash in the back of the fridge for tomorrow. Out of sight, out of mind… not really.
“What are you up to?” I yell down the hall, taking one last swipe of frosting before shutting the fridge door. It’s too good to resist.
From the lack of noise, it sounds like Jim is in the game room. Most wives who hate sports would never agree to have green yardline carpet in one of the rooms, but that was another compromise. He got to design his fantasy sports room with all of his collectables and signed memorabilia, and I get to have my own quiet reading nook. We did some simple remodeling to soundproof the game room so I can’t hear him and his friends shouting at a game when I’m trying to fall asleep.
Jim is a simple man with only a few passions in life: me, his car (which might be number one), sports, and cooking. Watching sports and playing them keeps his glory days alive. He still has an athlete’s body, tall with broad shoulders, and he does his best to keep himself in shape by running, doing pull-ups, and his newest exercise: teeter ups, where he hangs upside down and does sit-ups, something I don’t think I will ever be able to do.
I crack open the door and find him lounging on the leather couch with his feet up, watching sports stats or something I don’t quite understand while thumbing his phone.
“Evie, I didn’t hear you come in,” he says, getting up to give me a kiss. “How was shopping?”
“A success. Got two new bras; damn, they were expensive. Hope that I won’t have to buy any more and can lose this weight soon. They hurt,” I say with a little whimper, rubbing my tender titties.
He cups both breasts gently and starts stroking them. “I’m sorry they’re sore. After everyone leaves, I’ll give them a nice, long, massage. You should take a hot shower. Freshen up before the chaos begins. I have dinner prep under control.”
“Why am I getting special treatment?” I ask, wrapping my arms around the crook of his neck, ruffling the bottom of his shaggy brown hair.
“Because you look extra cute,” he says before sneaking a kiss. “Karen just texted. She said she’s running ten minutes late.”
“Typical. Your mom and grandma are going to be ten minutes early.”
“Typical,” he mocks.
I step up onto my toes and narrow my eyes, giving him my don’t piss me off face, which he ignores and scoops me off my feet and blankets me with kisses as he sits back down on the couch. “Stop. I need to take a shower,” I whine, cradled in his arms, but he doesn’t stop so I begin to retaliate.
We’re interrupted by the vibration of Jim’s phone. Since it’s only an hour before his mother arrives, I can only guess that it’s her. Most likely making sure I made something for dessert since that was my job and she always thinks I’m going to fail at it. She doesn’t check on anyone else except for me, but at least she’s better than Grandma.
“Escape,” I proclaim while he’s distracted by his phone, crawling out from his lap and heading to the door. A shower right now sounds perfect. “What does Mom want?”
“She wants to know if you burnt the cookies,” he says while chuckling to himself, knowing how much his mother drives me insane.
“Tell her they look like charcoal and I expect her to eat them all.”
He rolls his eyes and types back a nicer response. She knows better than to text me with that passive aggressive shit, but her son will deal with it.
The shower felt great, but the aroma of the roast is agony. The screaming children outside the bedroom welcoming me made me want to hibernate, even if my stomach demanded food. It’s not that I don’t love my nephews and nieces; I love them from a distance, where their sticky fingers can’t gunk up my stuff. Two sets of twins; both sets are a boy and girl. The four of them don’t look alike, but they all act like rabid monkeys. They are only eleven months apart. We suspect the first pregnancy was planned, the second one, not so much.
“Aunt Evie, Aunt Evie,” they cry out as soon as I appear in the hallway with my hands behind my back.
“Hey. How’s it hanging, monkeys?”
They puff out their cheeks and scratch their armpits and heads, doing their best impressions, making me laugh. As much as I can’t stand children full-time, they bring an occasional smile to my face.
“What’s behind your back?” Suzy, the youngest girl, asks.
“What, this? Oh nothing,” I say with a sarcastic grin, holding my arms and their surprise where they can’t see.
“Let us see!” one of them squeals.
“Is it a present?” another asks.
“Is it for all of us?”
“What is it?”
They all giggle and shout over each other until I can’t tell which one is talking. “Alright, alright. Here you go, you crazy apes.”
I hand over the wrapped box. Kids like anything covered in cheap paper. They shred the paper in seconds, exposing the silly board game inside. It has a wacky trap and maze on the board and there’s clay and color pencils and other fun things involved. I’m sure they’ll play with it while they are here and maybe two other times before losing key pieces.
“Thank you, Aunt Evie,” they say with gleeful smiles as they rip off the plastic wrap and open the box, sending its contents everywhere. It doesn’t matter, as each child grabs a handful and scampers off to the living room to set it up.
“What did you get them?” Karen asks, standing in front of the oven. “You guys shouldn’t buy them something every time you see them.”
“Ah, it’s just a board game to play while they are here. Keep them entertained besides just watching cartoons,” I tell my sister-in-law.
I wouldn’t say we don’t get along. In order to disagree, we would need to talk, and no one in Jim’s family really talks to me, not unless it’s an emergency. I’d call us acquaintances at best.
“How’s work going?” I begin the old routine of small talk with the in-laws.
She reaches into the fridge and grabs two cold beers. “Same old shit, different day,” Karen says while popping the caps off. She and Roger both drink piss-poor beer that Jim refuses to buy. He offers them the finer qualities he drinks, but they don’t like the strong flavors. They prefer watered-down beer that tastes like dirty water. I reach for the fridge door and grab an open bottle of white wine.
Jim’s mother strolls out of the game room. Her white hair is cut shorter than last month; it’s barely two inches long. She’s still wearing her Sunday church outfit with her matching mother-of-pearl necklace. “Evie, did you gain weight?”
“We just started exercising again, I’ll lose it fast.”
She sighs. “Drinking already?”
It takes almost everything inside me not to crush the wine glass in my hand. What has it been, five seconds and I’m already at my breaking point? “Hi, Joan. I figure Karen and I would cheer.”
Joan looks at her daughter’s beer and shrugs with an oomph, making my blood boil. “Well, some people don’t get the chance to relax. She’s so busy with the kids. It’s her only break.”
“And I thought we would cheer to that.” I turn to Karen and we clink glasses. Karen knows her mother loves to fuck with me. Sometimes she teams up with me when her mother is acting extremely cruel. Sometimes.
Karen winks and says, “Cheers, sister.”
Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. Go, Karen.
Joan stalks out of the kitchen with a grimace, heading down the hallway to go find Jim and Roger, I’m sure.
“Where’s Grandma hiding?”
Karen flips a platinum lock out of her face. “I think she went straight to the recliner; you know her spot.”
“Oh good. I get to have a glass of wine before she berates me about the devil.”
Karen rolls her eyes. “She’s just jealous because your eyes turn that pretty shade of green and everyone in our family has eyes the color of shit.”
I can’t help but laugh. “I call them brown puppy dog eyes,” I retort. “I love Jim’s eyes.” I sniff the air. It smells like sugar, maple syrup even. I lean over the island. “What are you making?”
“The kids won’t eat vegetables unless I make them unhealthy. Maple-glazed carrots and honey sweet potatoes. Don’t worry; my mom still made her garlic mash. I also made a side of green beans. I think I might get the boys to eat them since I added almond slices. One of their friends had them during snacktime and they have been on a salty nut kick since. I haven’t told them yet that they are healthy.”
“The carrots smell good. I might eat some of those tonight.”
“Yeah, they are alright. The girls will eat them, but Roger hates the sweet. So I have to make green beans too or else he’ll complain. I better bring him his beer. Keep an eye on the food for me?”
“I gotcha,” I say and watch the boys wrestle over who cheated during the last round. Thankfully it’s not my job to break it up.
“Oh, Trouble still lives here? I thought you had come to your senses and divorced the whore.”
“Grandma!” Both Jim and Karen shout at their grandmother, who pretends to suffer from dementia when it covers her ass. She always waits until we are all seated at the dinner table to start her torture. I haven’t been able to enjoy a meal with her as company since Jim introduced me to her.
His mother smiles while slicing her meat. “Mother, you shouldn’t say such things.”
She forgot to add aloud, but I know she’s thinking it. I shovel food into my mouth instead of talking; that’s my plan. Keep eating. If there’s food in my mouth, it will make it harder to scream. And as soon as I finish this delicious meal, I get to eat another cupcake and a plate of cookies. At least that’s something to look forward to.
“What’s a whore?” one of the girls asks.
Grandma opens her mouth to talk but Joan grabs her hand, urging her to stop.
“Don’t say that word. Add it to the no word list,” Karen scolds the kids.
The oldest whispers that he will ask the boys at school. The others giggle. Their mom gives them the look, making them stare down at their dinner plates. The girls have sour expressions, like the food in front of them is poisonous; the boys look like there isn’t enough food on the table.
I agree with the boys.
“Your eyes turned green again. The devil’s in you, girl. He’s wreaking havoc, using you as his weapon.”
“Enough, Grandma. So Mom, Roger is looking at getting that promotion.”
“Oh really? That’s wonderful, dear. He works so hard.”
“How can you fools break bread with the devil’s puppet? Have you lost your faith? Or can you not see the hellish woman before you? The imp!”
“Okay, Grandma. It’s time for you to watch your shows in the other room.” Jim pulls his chair out from the table and escorts his grandmother to the game room. I think she does this on purpose so everyone can leave her alone and she can watch her shows in peace.
“Her eyes change; that’s how you know. That’s how you’ll know,” Grandma warns the family for the hundredth time about my wicked ways. It is part of the family tradition when we get together on the first Saturday of the month. His mother, Joan, criticizes my baking, Grandma accuses me of Satanic worshiping, and the kids leave behind a snaillike trail of sticky fingerprints. It makes for a miserable Saturday night and a cleaning day on Sunday. It will be over soon, I tell myself and gulp another mouthful of wine.
“Sorry, dear. Some people are just forgetful,” his mother says while buttering a roll.
“She thinks I’m the devil’s puppet. How the hell did she get that idea? Really, I’d love to know,” I mumble.
Joan shrugs and takes a bite of the layered roll. She swallows, taking an extra-long moment before saying, “Some people can just sense evil better than others, I suppose.”