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.
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.