By Emily Alexander
When my dad finally moved from the spare room in his sister’s house to a two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from downtown, he started cooking. It was my junior year of high school, and my parents had just split up. The Spotswood Street apartment was tiny. My sister and I shared one bedroom and my dad and brother shared a futon bed in the other one. We didn’t have hallways or closets or stairs. We barely had furniture. Everything we owned came from the reject pile that had been accumulating against a wall in the garage for years; junk intended for Goodwill or a someday college apartment. We had one loveseat and an uncomfortable chair my brother had been using to dump clothes on in his room at our mom’s. Our kitchen table was a plastic fold-out thing, and that and the chairs were the only matching pieces of furniture we owned.
Still, we sat there.
Every other weekend, my little brother, sister, and I packed up our clothes and left our mom’s big windowed house for our dad’s apartment, like some strange version of a vacation that didn’t quite feel real. As has now become tradition on family vacations, we sat down together—and we ate. We ate veggie stir fry, enchiladas with green sauce or red, baked mac ‘n’ cheese, Thai curry. We had chicken on Thursdays and sometimes we were vegetarian; our plates were colorful, bright, contrasting starkly against the white plates and bare walls. I used to tell my friends that sure, we could hang out, but I had to—had to—be home for dinner because we were having steak sandwiches.
It wasn’t like the years before the divorce when my parents were happily or unhappily married, I existed purely on Dino Chicken Nuggets and carrot pennies, nor did my mother leave my siblings and I to fend for ourselves often or ever post-married. I am very fortunate to be able to say with certainty that growing up, I was always fed and I was always fed well. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a small town in Idaho that provided relative shelter from the harshness of societal pressure, and instead offer to me a community that reinforced in me the inherent self-worth my parents had already begun instilling. During the year we spent yelling at each other for opening the bathroom door despite its obvious occupancy, I was sixteen and so skinny my knees looked like they shouldn’t belong to the rest of me. I ate when I was supposed to or when I was hungry, and didn’t really pay much attention either way, until that little kitchen on Spotswood Street.
I remember coming home after late nights at choir rehearsal and climbing the stairs to the little #8 glowing in the porch light outside our door. Already outside, the air was thick, damp with steam. When I walked in, the whole place was a breath against my neck; it was that warm. Night after night, the five that had become four (for years, every time I set the table, I would linger for a moment around the strange evenness of four) of us sat together, readjusting our chairs so as not to block the refrigerator door. We had this recycling pile in the corner of the room; I don’t recall actually using any kind of bin, which can’t be right given my dad’s painfully meticulous cleaning tendencies, but maybe that was some kind of evidence of the divorce. The thing always ended up taking over half of the room, extending into our chairs and occasionally giving off the slight stench of sour milk, but we used to sit there anyway and eat slowly, get up for seconds, thirds, and stay long after we were stuffed full.
My parent’s divorce and our suddenly multiplied homes left my siblings and I off balance and crooked, with one sock in the laundry pile at mom’s and the other on the floor in dad’s apartment. And then, on either side of that stupid plastic table: the easy symmetry of two plates on each side. The promise of togetherness—the promise of nourishment within that togetherness.
Eating, especially for women, has become threatening. When we eat—whatever we eat, however we eat—we risk (or we think we risk) gaining weight and ultimately becoming undeserving of love and acceptance. Eating is shameful.
Now, at 22, I am not all elbows and knees like I was at 16. I’m not sure exactly what kind of relationship I have with food and eating, except that I know I tend to either overeat or under-eat (mostly the former, with no real understanding of moderation). I’m really good about joking with my friends about how little self-control I have when it comes to food, but not as good about the more honest parts of me that turn side to side in the mirror and suck my stomach in and regret, regret, regret the Ben & Jerry’s I bought and ate before I could think about this inevitable moment.
Last night, I called my boyfriend after spending most of the day at the library. I’m taking 18 credits this semester and I am 12 or fewer kind of gal. I was the kind of tired that makes my eyes water and everything feel kind of heavy, but also light and unreal. We walked to Maialina and sat outside, our chairs pressed against each other. We ordered salad, antipasti, a pasta dish on special with zucchini and sausage and chevre. House wine because we really shouldn’t spend this much money on a casual Wednesday night dinner, but it’s our favorite thing to do.
A few days ago, in the midst of complaining about the pile of reading I had been assigned, he asked me what I’d like to be doing more than anything. I said I didn’t know, and asked him.
“Honestly,” he said. “I’d probably want to be eating somewhere.”
I told him he was my soulmate, and we laughed together and eventually abandoned all responsibility for the one that mattered.
Since it’s September and the weather will inevitably start getting colder, I revel in the still-open outdoor seating at the restaurants downtown. It got chilly at Maialina, but the food was warm and I wasn’t uncomfortable. The antipasti had pickled something (radishes?) and thick chunks of salami and mozzarella that dripped when we brought them to our mouths. We sipped our wine slowly and the evening spread and stretched. I thought maybe I was eating too much, maybe that bite and that bite and that extra piece of sausage weren’t really necessary for a body that abandoned exercise any chance it got.
Still, underneath the learned shame of eating, the assumption of food (or ourselves) as the enemy, is a foundation of love. And more than that, life.
Here I am with my dad six years ago, here is my sister laughing, here is my brother piling more rice and beans onto his plate. Here I am now with my boyfriend, here are our plates smudged and stained and empty. Here we are, the scrape of utensils against plates, the give and take of what we need to sustain ourselves. Here we are sharing in the process of life, of living.