Lessons From A TV Dinner

Children tend to believe without cynicism what the world presents them. Doubt usually arrives much later. How old were you when you questioned, for example, the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Angels, God? Probably six? Maybe, if your parents were good at hiding the presents in the closet, not until you were well into your seventh year, or more.

By and large, little kids accept reality as nothing but perfect, because why would it be anything but?

I remember when that perspective changed for me: I was little—maybe four or five-years-old—and my parents were out for the night, having hired one of their stable of babysitters to watch my brother and me. (An aside here: Susan Sarandon babysat for us a few times before running away to Hollywood to see if she could become a movie star. I have often wondered if she left town so quickly because every time she watched us my brother tried to kill me.)

Anyway, typical for such a night, we got to choose which frozen dinner we wanted. Of course my mother would never have served us frozen food for our evening meal, but when she and my father went out on a Saturday night, all rules went out the door with them.

Oh what a treat it was! Flipping through the pictures on the boxes, eyeing those images of apple cobbler and glistening corn kernels, neat in their tiny squares.

Interestingly enough, I was more a less a vegetarian at that point in my nascent life. Not because

I chose to be a non-eater of meat through some philosophical reasoning—I was, after all, just past toddlerhood—but because I hated the feel of flesh between my teeth. I simply couldn’t stand to chew it. My mother would find pieces of half-masticated steak in my pants pockets at night. Once, as she was getting me ready for bed she was certain I had an odd outbreak of Mumps due to the large swelling of my cheeks. Only after reaching into my mouth and removing two wads of undissolved meat particles did she breathe a sigh of relief.

Enough was enough, she pronounced one night after catching me furtively dropping chunks of her famous meatloaf on the floor in hopes that our dog, Quincy, would snatch them up. Not wanting me to starve—and knowing virtually nothing about the existence of tofu—she made me eat a lot of eggs and tuna fish, and doubled my portion of vegetables and salad at dinner each night.

So when the boxes of frozen dinners danced before my eyes, I didn’t care what was in the MAIN rectangle: I only wanted to pick the one that offered the best sides and the tastiest dessert.

As I’d done a half dozen times before, I grabbed the Swanson’s Salisbury Steak dinner, not for the steak part, but for the gooey mashed potatoes, the warm noodly soup that tasted like salt, and the green peas that popped like bubbles between my teeth. Mostly, though, I picked that box because of the square in the upper left-hand corner: the one that held the fluffy, batter-y peach cobbler.

salsburty steak

I knew I’d eat it first.

I remember the babysitter calling us to the table as she carefully carried the hot trays over with potholders and placed them on dinner plates, slowly un-pinching the foil from the sealed sides. Even my older brother, probably a mature 7 or 8 years old, wasn’t allowed to touch the hot metal. I waited while she uncovered Marc’s dinner (it was probably fried chicken). My turn next. As if in slow motion I can picture her forefinger sliding under the corner and pulling up the metal cover, the steamy smells of meat and veg rising up. When at last the tray was exposed I screamed. What was that? Instead of there being a hunk of Salsbury steak in the center section, I found only a sliver of slimy fat. How could that be, my small, but growing brain roared. This was definitely not what the picture showed. I was aghast. Afraid. My sense of the world as a righteous place thrown off kilter.

My brother told me to shut up and eat the other stuff since I had no plan to eat the meat anyway.

The babysitter agreed with him.

I stared at the tray, dumfounded. I got up and ran to the garbage can and pulled the box out. I brought it to the table and pointed from it to the quickly cooling tray. “But that’s not what the picture shows,” I tried. “Why would they leave out the steak part if the picture shows that it’s in the box?”

Why would the box lie?

Again the babysitter told me to sit back down and eat the potatoes and peas and cobbler and just forget about the missing meat. But I was too confused and enraged. I simply could not wrap my head around the disconnect between the promise and the delivery.

I refused to eat the offending food and instead ran to my room and slammed the door, crushed by the realization that the universe was not perfect; that my life was going to be full of surprises—and not all of them would be welcomed ones.

Because of the missing steak I became cynical that night. I lost some of my innocence. I discovered imperfection. I stopped believing that everything before my eyes was truthful.

I also went to bed hungry.

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Jury Rigged

This past Wednesday I took part in a mock jury. I’d seen the call for participants in the paper, promising both $75 and a light meal for three hours’ time. I’d come close to being on a jury more than a decade ago when I was summoned for a high-profile drug case while living in California. On my way to the courthouse my legs began to ache. During the voir dire segment I started to sweat profusely. By the time one of the lawyers got around to asking me if I had anything against people who used illegal drugs (he probably didn’t ask me that; but by that point I was in a flu-induced fugue-state), I was slumped in my chair, shaking. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, and instead asked me if I was sick.

“I think so, your Honor,” I mumbled.

She smiled and said I looked like I was dying and suggested I go home.

Being both a fan of The Good Wife, as well as a teller of stories, I’d always wanted to take part in the legal process, and was thrilled that I fit the profile the lawyers up north were looking for.

As I stepped inside the conference room and glanced past the group of other aspiring jurors seated at the large table, I may have uttered an audible-enough, “What the fuck?” Not because I saw that the light meal was nothing more than soggy-looking deli-sandwiches, but because there were dead deer hanging from all the walls. Almost a dozen large-antlered ungulates stared down at me through glass eyes.

jury1

Disconcerted, I asked the guy taking names if the case was about deer poaching. He looked up from the computer and raised his eyebrow as if he were looking at a woman with a low IQ.

“No,” he said. “All the partners in the firm are hunters.”

“Oh,” I said, casting my eyes over to table covered in tuna wraps and turkey on white.

While the very handsome attorney in a three-piece suit described the case in question, I tried not to be distracted by the dead-animal glances, focusing as best as I could on his face and my rather tasty sandwich.

I’d signed a non-disclosure agreement so I can’t share too many details, but the case involved a woman who should have known better doing a very stupid thing while on a job site and getting very hurt.

We heard both sides of the story. The plaintiff decided that since the guy in charge of the project hadn’t put safety measures in place, he was at fault. The defendant said that he thought it was more than obvious to everyone on the site that the thing he was demonstrating was only a mock-up of what the finished product would look like and that the woman should not have “tested” its soundness. It was this “testing” that caused her to get hurt.

The lackey who side-swiped me with his eyebrow showed us some slides of the injured woman’s broken body parts. A few of the other jurors moaned, but I was quite fascinated by the large steel pins sticking out of her skin. Honestly, I thought the gory images were far less offensive than the formerly adorable doe-eyed heads looming over me.

The lawyers left us folks to decide who was at fault and at what percentage, and, if we found the defendant guilty by more than 50%, what monetary value should we award the plaintiff for doctor’s bills, missed work, mental anguish, etc. etc.

I wanted to be foreman but the guy with the shirt buttoned up to his neck got picked. We went around the room about 50 times for each of the questions we were instructed to address. There was a standoff between the older woman with the well-executed breast implants and face-lift, who was worried that the defendant would lose his business over the incident, and the young nurse just back from fighting in Iraq, who was concerned that the plaintiff would, like him, suffer from PSTD for the rest of her life.

I congratulated myself for keeping an open mind and not jumping to conclusions based on the fact that the injured woman had hairy legs and unkempt toes.

Finally, after two hours we agreed that the guy in charge was 80% at fault and we awarded the plaintiff $1,500,000.

Before collecting my $75 I ran my hand over the soft fur of one of the dead animals and spoke silently to him with my mind. I told him how beautiful he was. I said I was sorry that the handsome lawyer shot him while he roamed silently through a dark fall forest, but at least he was mounted on a wall where he could witness the turning wheels of human justice.

And then I drove home.

Modern Love–Rejected

It only took me five years to finish my Modern Love submission to the NYTimes, and, even though I didn’t think it was the bee’s knees, I submitted it last month. As expected, I received the rejection this week. Still, I will post it for the sake of, of…of something dignified and ego-assuaging. I’ll even, for entertainment’s sake, add a few visuals.

WHEN THE EARTH MOVED

During the drive over to visit my ex-boyfriend Doug, I suddenly decide that I will have an affair with him. Not a full-blown sexual affair, but maybe a steamy make-out session, for old time’s sake. It’s been decades since we’ve seen one another, and while we are both presently in blatantly stable marriages, the blissfully potent year we’d spent together has been a permanent fixture in my memories. The two most thrilling experiences of my sophomore year of college happened while I was with Doug.

We’d met one sunny autumn afternoon as I strolled by the window of his dorm room. I saw the ruggedly handsome, blonde boy inside, his head lowered over a thick textbook, and said hello through the dingy gray screen. He glanced up and smiled.

“Why are you inside on such a beautiful day?” I asked.

“Studying for a poli-sci exam.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, hoping my freshly-washed hair shining in the sunlight, and flowered dress, billowing in the soft breeze, would stir him.

“You’re right,” he said, closing the book. “Let’s bike to the lake.”

We lounged on the grass close to one another watching the ducks swim, and poured out our stories. He wanted to be an architect. I wanted to be a writer. He wanted to live in the country. I wanted to live in the city. With the theme song to “Green Acres” playing in my head, I let him hold my face and kiss me. He smelled sweet, as if he ate nothing but blackberries.

A day later we were a campus item. Doug walked me to class with his arm draped over my shoulders. In the spring he led me on my first back-packing trip through the Yosemite Valley where I had to get used to eating and drinking from the one metal Sierra cup he’d tied to the side of my rented backpack. We hiked in four miles and made camp beyond Nevada Falls. Doug thoughtfully zipped together our sleeping bags, and the sound of the falls’ insistent surge washed over our warm tangled bodies as we slept. When we unzipped the tent the next morning we discovered that a May snow had silently fallen in the night. A few hundred feet below us, the Merced River raged past icy banks. Doug cleared off a flat rock and made love to me, my damp back cool, the front of my body warmed by his heat.

The 6.1 magnitude Mammoth Lakes Earthquake hit the next morning.

I’d been standing by the fire, sipping peppermint tea while Doug cooked oatmeal on the camp stove. The earth shook forcibly enough to send both me and the cup falling to the ground. Doug bolted up. “Aftershocks could send rocks and trees down,” he said scanning the side of the mountain above us. “We have to get out of here right now.”

We quickly packed up and raced back to the car. I couldn’t keep up. I was sweating. Thirsty. I whined that I needed to stop and rest or take a swig of water, but Doug patiently and persistently hurried me on. “We’re not safe here,” he said as he tightened the strap across my chest. “I love you too much to let you die under an avalanche of rocks.”

Now, a lifetime later, stopped at a red light, I wonder if Doug had actually saved my life. I twist the rear-view mirror and study the many lines around my eyes and mouth.

When we got back to the dorms, Doug gently swabbed and bandaged the painful blisters lining my novice heels as we watched the news reports about several hikers in Yosemite who’d been critically injured that day from falling rock. In bed that night, Doug had held me more tightly than ever before, repeating over and over how relieved he was that we’d made it out alive.

I reset the rear-view mirror and find a mint in my purse because I am even more certain, now that I am minutes away from seeing him again, that I will walk up to Doug and kiss him passionately. If he asks a startled why, I will say to thank him for leading me out of danger all those years ago. I will want it to be the same sort of spontaneous, deep, open-mouthed kiss that he surprised me with one night in front of Enrico’s Café in San Francisco. When we both finally, reluctantly, let the kiss die, I’d glanced up, slightly embarrassed by our very public display of affection. Over Doug’s shoulder I could see two men at a table, one of whom stared at us with a grin on his face. I knew the man from somewhere, but couldn’t place him.

Then my mind sudrichardbrautigandenly snapped onto the author photo on the back of Willard And His Bowling Trophies, the book I’d read only a week earlier. There was no mistaking that bushy moustache and long hair: the man who had just eavesdropped on our kiss was Richard Brautigan—my literary hero

I ran to his table, fan-crazy, and in an excited rush of words I told him how much I loved his writing: I’d read everything, everything! he’d ever written. He smiled warmly at me as if I were a toddler showing him a sputtering sparkler I had gripped in my hand. I was beyond star-struck, and when he invited us to share some food with him and his companion I yanked Doug over to the table and pulled up a chair.

Before I could assault him with the thousands of I-want-to-be-a-writer-too questions I had gurgling up inside me—where do you write; how long does it take you to write a book; where do your ideas come from—Richard turned to Doug.

“That’s a cool wool coat, man. Where did you get it?”

He was more interested in Doug’s coat than in discussing the brilliance of Trout Fishing in America. Obviously, he just wanted a young couple in love to join him and his friend for some beef stroganoff.

Richard’s companion sat in a wheelchair, paying no attention to Doug and me. Instead, he sat doodling on a stack of cocktail napkins. When I introduced myself and asked him wharonkovicst he was drawing he looked up and said, “The world, as it passes by.” His name was Ron Kovic, he told me, and when I asked him why he was in a wheelchair he said he’d been paralyzed by a bullet in the Vietnam War. “Maybe you’ve read the book I wrote,” he said. “It’s called Born on the Fourth of July.” Before I could tell him, no, I’ve not read it, but will as soon as I get to the library, he lowered his pen and went back to drawing the world as it passed by.

I turn onto the long private road leading to Doug’s address. The house he built is large and handsome, exactly as I’d expected. At my urging, Doug had applied to architecture school. I’d told him to follow his dream, but never imagined he actually would. A year after our first kiss he transferred to a design school an entire state away. We tried for a time to keep the connection, but, as with many distant romances, the relationship deliquesced into nonexistence.

Doug is walking toward the car and I’m still inside. He is lined and tanned, merely an older version of his old self. I step out, lick my lips and reach out my arms, but just as I am about to pull him into the long-imagined kiss, two tall young people rush out the front door. “These are my kids,” Doug says proudly before we get a chance to so much as hug. “They’ve been hearing me talk about you all these years and they really wanted to meet you.” I should feel flattered that I’ve remained a subject heading in his life history, but I am disappointed that I will not get to taste one of his sweet kisses again.

“Hey, you know, Amy is reading some of Richard Brautigan’s books,” he says while touring me around the large property.

I nod approvingly at the girl, who has inherited her father’s clear blue eyes. I am about to say how tragic it was that Richard Brautigan shot himself in the head not long after Doug and I had dinner with him, but rather than sully the air with sadness, I say, “Did your father tell you how he saved my life?”“Only about a thousand times,” Doug’s son replies with a roll of his eyes, and suddenly they are both gone—off to do whatever teenagers do in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Doug and I stand alone next to an enormous grape arbor.

“I still have that cocktail napkin with the doodle that guy Ron did of you.”

“Cool.”

“Did you ever see the movie they made about him?”

“Yeah. Tom Cruise looked nothing like him.” I look around and wonder if the coast is clear enough for a kiss. “Hey. I want to you thank you for a great time,” I say referring not to the present moment, but to our short time together.

“You’re welcome. That was the best year of my life you know.”

“You’re lying. You’ve had a great life.” If he is telling the truth then I want him to add that he’s not in love with his wife and that we should give it another try. Sure, I love my husband, but a do-over with Doug?

As desperately as I want to be, I know I’m no longer that twenty-year-old in his arms who wanted to inhabit the promise of the long road ahead of me, never thinking that one day I’d look back from another life at what we’d been. There are still dangers for me in love, and I want him to take my hand and lead me away from the inexorable surety of love’s death.

But there is no do-over.

Instead, Doug yanks a huge black grape from the arbor and slides it slowly, sentimentally, into my mouth. It’s as close to a fruit-scented kiss as I’m going to get. And for that I am, mostly, grateful.