So, rather than write a story of fiction, I am going to tell you, dear reader, a story of truth, a story of my Wednesday night December twentieth. To say it plainly, I hit Catherine in the side of her pretty face with a heavy, softball shaped, spiky orange melon, which I had always called Angry Jelly Melon when I was younger—but which dear sister-in-law Catherine insisted was an African Horned Cucumber that grew natively in some place I could not pronounce. Because I was raised in the San Fernando Valley she said I could not have possibly grown up eating it.
Already the surrealism of the situation numbs any sting I still feel. The night—no, let’s start with the day—maybe the month even. I paid my rent, left nada for his car bill, and my paycheck, which was disappointing in itself, was just enough to cover the debt Harry owed his friend for “that night in Vegas,” leaving us with $29. All this would be fine—I can handle poverty—except his sister, Catherine had come down to visit sleeping on my couch, eating my food I couldn’t afford, and reveling in the fact that she was on winter break from her prestigious East Coast college, taking on that kind of aristocratic pride seen in eighteenth century English novels where the virtuous heroine visits her ‘poor relations’ in proof of just how virginal and sincere she is.
She never said this. It was the smug expression she wore when I would come home from work (9-5) and refuse to get coffee with her because I didn’t have the money. She would give me this look: her thin brows arching, her Kewpie Doll lips pursing in such a mocking manner as if to say, “It’s so sad for you—you should have gone to college, like me—then we could get coffee.”
With Harry’s ever food consuming sister in town and no increase in our income, Harry and I cancelled our Disneyland trip, which was supposed to rekindle that early passion between us. Five years of 9-5 had deftly worked its way into Harry’s once carefree disposition, and—as I said this would be a story of truth I will own to my guilt—my patience in him and myself had converted to anything but. Frustrated and disappointed for many reasons, not just the Disneyland trip, Harry and I bickered with each other most of the night until Catherine (no doubt out of that same heroine mentality) took it upon herself to take us out to dinner. She took us, or rather we took her, to two restaurants before she ‘saw one that she liked the look of,’ only to get up and leave before the waiter brought us our drinks because she didn’t like where they sat us.
“I took a class where my professor was a food critic for—oh I can’t remember, but that doesn’t matter, you wouldn’t have read the magazine or heard of her—but she told me in her office hours never to eat facing away from the kitchen because then you could not be sure how they prepared the food, and I’m sure I saw a number of tables that faced the kitchen. They sat us in the corner on purpose.”
“Catherine, they were reserved.”
“Don’t be silly B’, really I wonder where you would have my brother eat if I weren’t here.”
“Beatrix and I don’t go out to eat.”
And that was how it was for the better part of December: cold and bitter. I heard about her working dissertation on Sumerian appetites, Harappan agriculture, and Egyptian foodstuffs while trying not to deafen myself with the very pen that calculated up bank statements, creditor bills, car bills, Sears bills, and any other bill that demanded in red ink PAST DUE. She plagued me with her conjured visions of far of places, distant in both time and space, and I was jealous—jealous that she seemed closer to them than me.
This fateful night in December, she in her sacrificial nature offered, or rather demanded, to go to the market with me. It was some night at the nearby college that required the students to run around in winter wearing only their underwear. Catherine and I navigated through the crowded streets of bare skin thoroughly uncomfortable; I for the shear perverted humor that the Virgin Catherine was faced with female nudity, and she for those 18th-Century morals of hers.
I navigated the cereal aisle—Cheerios, because Harry likes them better than Corn Flakes— while she spoke of ancient Eritrean cylinder seals that proved grain had been used as a diarrhetic. In the tea and coffee isle—more green tea for my nerves—Catherine lectured that the Chinese 5,000 years ago would disagree and recommend jasmine tea instead. I passed through the rituals of compiling milk, butter, and O.J. into my cart while Catherine, the cruel conjurer she was, beset my everyday routine with fantastical illusions of places I would or could never go.
In the soup aisle I listened to how the French categorize clear and thick soups as bouillon and consommé; that thick soups were classified depending upon the type of thickening agent used: purées were vegetable soups thickened with starch; bisques were made from puréed shellfish thickened with cream; cream soups were thickened with béchamel sauce; and veloutés were thickened with eggs, butter and cream. In the fruit aisle, as I handled seedless grapes and decided whether I could indulge this month, Catherine wandered over to the exotic fruit, held up the Angry Jelly Melon and laughed. I said its name and exclaimed that it had once been a picnic staple when I was a kid. Those thin brows shot up, her Kewpie lips pursed and in all aristocratic snobbery she dared to doubt this small piece of knowledge from my own history. I thought I had imagined hitting her with the spiked melon, but those pink lips were suddenly red from thick goo that ran from her nose. I remembered how the Angry Jelly Melon had tasted slightly like Kiwifruit, that my sister had been allergic to Kiwis, and because my mom had always loved them she had found a way to a compromise. Before I swung at her again, this time at the side of her head, I thought of 18th-Century imperialism. Isn’t that strange? I committed an act of violence against another woman while thinking of England’s colonizing of Africa and India. Later, when I took Harry to dinner, he told me I had broken Catherine’s nose and given her a concussion. I ate papadams with raita and drank beer.