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Original Essays | May 1, 2013 5 comments
I'd predict that 99 percent of the small talk in the staff elevator at my library involves the following question and its answers: "Are you reading... Continue »
Hope You Like "See-Food"by Jennifer Traig
It might be less odd if our books weren't so personal and so diametrically different. Mine, a darkly comic OCD memoir, recounts my obsessive need to keep kosher; Vicky's, a neon-bright mini-mart cookbook, documents her devotion to pork. They should have nothing to do with one another, but, written at the same time, they overlap. There she is, eating bacon, on page one of my book; I show up bearing cookies on page 105 of hers. Both books expose family confidences, secret ingredients, and embarrassments. There they are, our private stories and guilty pleasures, all laid out on the page.
Here's one secret I've saved just for you, about my sister's junior high experiments in mini-mart larceny: As far as I know she only did this a few times, but when she was thirteen she figured out that anything costs 89 cents if you cram it into a Slurpee cup and act nonchalant. Forty ounces of hot dogs and microwave burritos in nacho sauce makes quite an afterschool snack. After a few days she got sick of it, but man, while it lasted wow. Thrifty shoppers beware: now, they check inside the cup, especially if the Slurpee is hot and smells like cheese.
Those were the days. Or maybe not. While Vicky was out scamming 7-11, I was rocking back and forth in my room, chanting an endless series of prayers for her soul, my parents' souls, the pets' souls, the neighbors' souls, my classmates' souls, celebrities' souls, and the souls of everyone I'd ever met. When I finished with that, which was never, I'd re-wash clean forks and sterilize my hair ornaments. In my free time I scrutinized ingredient lists. I imagine the mini-mart larceny was a lot more fun, but I wasn't invited to come, and wouldn't have gone even if I were. I just wasn't cut out for it. My OCD manifested as a weird religious hyper-morality so extreme I thought taking a ketchup packet from the condiment bar constituted shoplifting. Besides, wasn't it a sin just to go in the store, what with all the porn?
Good times. Writing these books we got to relive it all. It was a strange year. While I was asking my parents to help me reconstruct the time my obsessive plate-washing nearly ruined Passover, my sister and her co-author boyfriend were begging them to supply their recipes for Spam Chowder and Pigs in a Poncho. You'd think we were raised in different families, but no, no, that's just the way it was. Growing up, my sister wanted corndogs deep-fried in pure lard while I preferred plain matzoh, but we still sat down at the same table every night.
And here we are again. Now that we've published these books, with their private stories and secrets, it feels like we've invited everyone to a big family dinner and proceeded to chew with our mouths open. Hope you like "see-food."
Now, however, we've started to see things differently. When you turn your family into characters, you are forced to consider the roles they play. Vicky and I have always played foil to one another. Only fourteen months apart, we needed this, these contrasts, or we'd bleed into each other and get confused. We decided our roles early on: she would be Trouble, and I would be Troubled. She would break curfew, and I would break down.
By the time we were in our twenties, living apart, we wouldn't need these identities anymore. But by then they'd be so firmly entrenched it would be years before I realized that. Vicky would have to point it out to me. We were home for the holidays. I was taking out the trash, a chore I'd struggled with during my obsessive-compulsive years, and all these years later no one trusted me to do it right. Between my hoarding impulses and my contamination fears, it had been an impossible task. Now here I was, a decade later, holding a Glad bag as my parents eyed me warily. "People, it's fine," Vicky declared, exasperated. "She's fine. She's not crazy any more." She paused. "Also, in case you haven't noticed, I'm the good daughter now."
The roles are less rigid these days, but still, we play them, to a certain extent. We're still different. I'm a lapsed academic, a bookish homebody; she's a pub waitress, all outgoing charm. I need help putting the extra leaf in the kitchen table, while Vicky builds her own furniture. She recently fished the bloated body of a dead rat out of her dog's water dish, while I'm too squeamish to deal with the bag of decomposing Swiss chard in the back of my refrigerator. It will remain there until I move out.
And we look nothing I mean nothing alike. Vicky's a full head taller, with long fingers and legs. I'm five squat feet of stumpy bits. She's far-sighted, I'm near. Her hair is stick-straight; mine, Designing Women-curly. I'm a brunette, and she's... well, right now she's sort of a redhead, thanks to the good folks at Miss Clairol. Oh, here I go telling secrets again.
We're different. But, as with our books, there's overlap. We both like eating maple bars, criticizing people on dating shows, and drinking the occasional cup of off-brand spiced rum. For the past few months we've been writing a book together. It's about unhealthy living, a topic on which our sensibilities converge. Salty snacks, denial, sloth: we are both experts in the field. In a month or two, I'll go visit her to go over the final manuscript. We'll get nachos and snack cakes and call it research. Because I haven't changed all that much, I will insist on scrutinizing the ingredients, and because she hasn't changed that much either, she will get annoyed. But then Elimidate will come on, and once again, we'll put our differences aside. There will be time to bicker later. But for now, there's a blonde with bad hair bad-mouthing an even blonder-blonde in a too-tight halter, and Vicky and I both need to yell at the TV.