November 17, 2014 | ,

The Hand That Feeds

My boys won’t eat.

The youngest doesn’t swallow as much as smear and fling. As though he thinks food’s taken through the skin. I blend his baby glop, peas and carrots and little rags of meat pureed together by the hurtling blade, and when I bring it to him strapped in his high throne he makes a cheerful squeaking sound. But I can’t trick a spoon past his lips, which curl and purse and never rest, and now he kneads his tiny hand into the goo and hurls fistfuls of slime, and now I’m running for the mop.

My middle boy’s on some kind of hunger strike. I set the plate down and his face jerks back in anguish like I’ve tear-gassed him with fresh, diced onions. He hollers: “no!” He hollers “sick!” and “yuck!” To feed him’s like trying to give a wised-up dog a pill—and he clenches his jaw tight, seals his lips, and squirms away, aghast. He’s grown so skinny now, his wrists I swear are ruler-thin, so we wage war. I pry his jaw, and hold his nose, and squeeze his cheek until his eyes begin to burn and when he finally gasps I choke my dinner down his bitter throat.

But my oldest: he hurts me the most. Sometimes he’ll eat, sometimes he won’t, and when he does it’s slowly, with no gusto, stooped over the bowl with dead light in his eyes. You’d think he was an inmate raised on gruel, he takes such pleasure in it. Tonight he slurps his soup awhile without cajoling, and I’m glad, at least, for this as I try to break the angry seal my middle makes his lips. Then, with no warning, my oldest screams a terrible, vile thing and flips his bowl, which sits there on the table upside-down, oozing sauce out like a broken head.

“Don’t talk that way to your mother!” I scream at him—his father’s not around to speak about me in the third person, so I do it myself—and just then my middle boy splurts the half-chewed cube of steak I’d forced into his mouth. He sprays the air, my face, my hair, with a mist of meat and spit. I take stunned breaths a minute, stare disbelieving at his rebellious bulging eyes—and then I hit him. I shouldn’t do it, but before I almost even know it I crack him with a fierce, backhanded slap, and my wedding diamond accidentally tears his tender flesh. Suddenly, the youngest two are wailing. My oldest flees upstairs to blast full-throttle music, singers whose witch-screams sound like the suckhole of a dentist’s straw. Tonight, I let the bass-thumps lumber through the floor. I hunt through my own tears for some wipes to clean the little stitch-sized wound I’ve made on my poor darling’s cheek.

It goes on this way. And when I try, when I try to go to Bill, he stops loosening his tie and holds up one hand as if to say—stop. No more. The world outside this house is bad enough.

“You really only need to do two things,” he says, “to keep me calm. One, make sure the kids don’t kill each other. Or themselves. And two, just make some food they’ll eat, for the love of Jesus Christ.”

You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard, so hard, when I buy only the best produce, assess each lettuce head for freshness, linger over every aisle to factor price and taste, make everything from scratch, I even take requests—they hate each dish the same. As though they smell somehow, impossible but still, that I don’t feel the way I thought I would for kids or dad, nothing fierce or unconditional like what’s sung in songs or promised in films. The thing I feel is more like this little warmth sometimes, like what ghosts out of a covered charcoal grill once everyone’s gone home. This secret blandness festers deep in me and I’m ashamed. That’s what they taste, I scare myself to say: the unmaskable rot of their mother’s halved defective heart, and it is poison.

These fool thoughts whirl while I prep another dinner, prepare again for battle, stream my tears a little while over some onions, dice tomatoes that stain the butcher’s block pink-wet with little seeds. My mother’s world-class meals fattened her whole adoring family—she taught me how to slice zucchini quickly into coins, to mingle onions and garlic in the oil until they turned almost to paste, to peel a hard-boiled egg by rolling it on the counter under one palm. She seemed to take such pleasure in it, I think as I cut, and had such love, and was so loved, that when we gathered over all those steaming bowls a family seemed a promise of a sweet and everlasting thing, a feast that’s never spent for all our eating, and then a tomato shifts under my finger and my knife slips and bites right in. The blade hits a nerve so hard it jangles my whole arm. I drop the knife and as it wobbles madly on the tiles I clutch the hurt and whisper, coo in pain.

I clench my knife hand like a tourniquet around the wounded finger, stand there in the posture of some desperate prayer, and watch in awe as three slow drops—drop, drip, drop—soak at broken-sink speed from my grip and fall into the chili. My blood’s brighter than the stuff boiling in the mix: it falls onto the crooked altar of a floating cleaved potato, then seeps like searing oil into the bubbling sea of sauce and burger meat and spice, and I’m so taken by the sight I stand with my blood running in a daze before I turn away, collect myself, uncurl my hand and take a look. The smallest knuckle in my pointer finger’s cut with a deep notch, like something on a kid’s kazoo. I wash away the wound in cold sink water—it stings like fire—and look awhile at the frayed dead tissue around the slit, fish-gullet-white, before I tie things up with tape and gauze and finish cooking dinner.

Tonight I call my boys in, plant my youngest in his plastic throne, and we sit down. The silence hums with central air. And no one says a thing about my finger, wrapped suddenly in white. But the boys eat. They eat and eat. I stand up from the table, overwhelmed, and stand out in the hall a while to catch my breath. I slump against the wall and listen in true wonder at a new sound in our house: the brisk clatter of spoon and bowl, the slurp and smack of mouths, and over all a delicious kind of quiet.

I have this ugly brooch my mother used to wear that’s far too old-ladyish for me but I’ve always kept it trapped up in a box as a reminder. So while the boys are out at school, and with my youngest napping, I clean the pin with iodine, close my eyes, and stick the cheek of my right palm. A dark little bubble blows from my hand, before the pain: a thorn, a sting, but not enough to scare.

I squeeze three drops onto the peas and carrots in the blender and whirr it all together, then go to feed my youngest. And it’s the damndest thing: he eats. He smiles and opens wide his three-toothed mouth, wrangles his squirmy lips in odd shapes and coos with pleasure while I stuff his mouth again, again, with his pink spoon. I feed him all I can, a whole day’s worth of meals, cram him fat with every calorie I can before he figures out what’s up.

I start to think about the sharpest objects in the house. I look through all our knives. I consider every blade, splayed out like single wings. And then I remember the spinning dicer lodged in the blender’s bowels. So I wash my youngest’s meal away, scrub the clouded glass, soap the blade clean, rinse the weird-shaped plastic pieces. I leave these organs drying on a towel, clean and lemon-smelling. And the poised blade glints as it air dries, sharp and deadly as a ninja star.

I start to cook and when the boys come home someone hits somebody else and once the wailing stops and they’re upstairs doing time I take the blender blade into the bathroom with a saucepan. Rolling up the crimped sleeve of my blue, white-spotted dress, my upper arm is pale as cream and a buried light-blue vein runs crooked under the skin. I hold my arm out like the woman in that famous wartime poster—We Can Do It!—and I cut a small line in the flesh, just a small one, exactly parallel with the cool tiles where my bare feet flop. I squeeze my bicep then, and milk a dozen drops into the pan, then clot the wet scratch with some toilet paper, roll the sleeve back down. Soon: three pans sizzle on the stove, filling the kitchen with that cooking sound—like old records just before a song. My oldest comes in and doesn’t sound like he’s even slightly fooling when he asks me what I’m cooking.

And so night falls. Again I enjoy the unlikely, the impossible: a second quiet night of happy eaters, no torture or coercion necessary, no screams or pleas or hunger strikes, no need to waterboard my middle boy with sauce or soup. My middle boy once swore a lifelong oath to eat no green-colored thing, but now he downs his smashed pea and porcini stew with thrilling gusto, his brother, too, and for a small and pretty minute the interlapping rhythm of their spoons make a kind of love song beat—one two three four one two three four—and I can tell you, it’s enough to make me sing.

It would be a perfect night, I think, if Bill creeps home at a decent hour. Instead, our room bathed in sickly TV light, I flip channels like vacation slides until I fall asleep. That’s my husband: Bill does all he can to miss or skip the family meals.  He works late, leaves long, makes excuses when he can’t. “Picked something quick up on the way home, doll,” he says, or, “Don’t mind me—I’ll fend for myself tonight, hon, food-wise.” But he leaves tomorrow for Shanghai, where he flies for business every other month, so I scour the Internet for details on the region, look for recipes with sweet and sour blended in slick sauce, and then I feel a wet feeling in my seat, five days or so too soon. As if all my blood-letting, the spreading hash of scabs on my right arm, has brought my period on in a rush. I go into the bathroom with a Mason jar, pull my dress up and collect what flows from me without a wound—a loose drip-drizzle like a drooly faucet.  And even this kind comes with pain, as the low ache sets in deep inside my core, and I want to go lie down in bed and pull my knees up to my head but instead I marinate peppers in rice vinegar and sherry, I slice ginger tissue-thin, and serve a kingly Four Happiness pork to Bill whose eyes go wide, whose very nostrils quiver like a dog’s. I don’t eat, myself. I only rest and watch their hands blur with speed, bent over their bowls, and feel that, for the first time, all is well.

Bill goes. And I’m alone again a little while. But the nights go better now, when dinner comes I no longer crack my knuckles like some torturer getting ready to probe a prisoner’s body for the truth. My boys, they eat with terrifying lust, they smack their spoons, their bowls,  into the table when I run behind and almost howl with hunger. They dive in before I even set their dinners at each place, like wild beasts pinning down a throat. The house fills with the sound of a thousand Nature Channels, and they stuff themselves and lope off, groaning, belly-swollen to their rooms to nap it off.

Then I do this stupid thing. I forget to lock the bathroom door. My sleeve’s rolled up when  I hear the hinges cackle: I look up to see my middle boy. He stands there in the doorway, and his eyes narrow as he makes sense of what he’s seeing: his mother on the toilet seat, a saucepan on her lap, digging the blender blade into her arm. A horrible confusion throws into his face, his mouth jumbles, and he switches off the light and slams the door. I sit there panting in the dark. It takes a long time, many tiny minutes, before I can stand, and turn the lamp on, and collect myself. I listen for sounds out in the hallway. And then I cut three lines in my right arm, which is white and fresh as a blank page, and pour so much into the pan that I’m woozy as I leave the bathroom, and the air spangles with tiny stars.

When I serve them, I watch my middle boy. He doesn’t refuse the food, as I fear, turn his head away in the old posture of disgust. Instead, he feasts at a tremendous pace. His fork hand churns in one smooth circle from the bowl and to his mouth and back, and he looks deep into my eyes and begs for more, and I realize for the first time he’s growing larger than his brother. He looks at me like he can see deep into where my heart beats, where blood swishes through its twisted chambers, and he wants all of it.

So it goes on this way. And I start to wonder. What if I scratched my arm, my legs, my stomach, wherever I am clean, and held the wound right out to them? Would they take directly from my skin? The three of them latched on like piglets to their sow? I made milk for them and I can make blood, I can always make more, and I will. When I see the way they watch me now—like they can smell me coming, like my very scent slicks their tongues, their teeth, with eager spit—my heart quickens and I feel cool ice pour down my spine. Sometimes my dreams break with a jolt and I fear I’ll wake with all three looming over me, hunger in their eyes, ready to make a meal of me. I’ve made them strong enough to do it. My youngest one’s six teeth are just enough to tear meat from the bone. My middle boy could likely fling me to the ground, could take by force the blood I draw out sweetly and by choice. I lock my door now when I sleep—my mother used to, how strange I thought it was! I’ll lock it still, I think, until their father’s home. But still I wonder, too, if I would give them even this: to tear me, drink from the source the thing they want, put their mouths up to the skin and take it. No longer gussied up in the sham costume of food.

Sometimes, I start to think, I just might do it. Sometimes, I really think I would.

Photo Credit: Douglass McLean

Joe Fassler is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in venues like The Boston Review, Electric Literature‘s “Recommended Reading,” TNR.com, and The Atlantic, where he runs the weekly “By Heart” series of interviews with writers. He also covers the politics and economics of …

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