The sun had set sometime earlier and I sat alone staring at my peas. The rest of the family had eaten and retired to watch television. It was winter and darkness fully set in by six o’clock at night. All I could see in the patio doors was a reflection. A reflection of me, with my hands in my lap, my feet dangling, not reaching the ground, and one last place setting staring at me from the table top. The rest of the table had been cleared. The room was silent. It was just me and the peas.
We had a rule in my family. You were required to eat one spoonful of everything served for dinner. I had perfected the art of avoiding that spoonful, through a combination of sleight of hand and stubbornness. I had long since progressed past hiding things in my napkin or sneaking them to the dog. No one ever actually got away with those. When you refused to eat just about anything, as I did, you elevated your game.
I would not eat meat. I would not eat most vegetables. I would eat some fruit. It was not until the age of thirty-four that I voluntarily ate fish. Unless you count Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, battered beyond recognition and drowning in tartar sauce. Meat was intolerable unless it was hot dogs or baloney. Essentially I would only eat meat that was not meat. I refused to eat anything off the bone.
I liked strawberries and raspberries. I only ate green grapes, with no seeds. I only ate green apples. I loved rhubarb. I liked potatoes and cauliflower and wax beans. I liked cranberry sauce, but only the jelly kind, nothing with sticks and twigs. I would request my mother not mash it up so I could admire the cone of cranberry gelatin with its perfectly formed ribs left by the can.
I ate nothing grape flavored and nothing peach flavored. I did not like oranges or orange juice with pulp. At one time I did eat blueberries, but too many summers of picking wild ones and too many camping trips where my brother and I subjected everyone to green mushy pancakes cured me of blueberries in the long run.
I mostly survived on Saltines, Cheerios, and Creamette noodles awash in butter and grated Parmesan cheese. I drank a lot of Ovaltine and Country Time lemonade. I ate Malto-Meal by the box.
And when it came to that dreaded spoonful I put up a battle. My father would watch me chew and chew. “Are you ever going to swallow that?” he would ask. I would pretend to swallow and even drink some milk, but I am quite sure he could spot the bulge in my cheek. The longer it sat there the more disgusting it became. Eventually, if there was no hiding it, no excusing myself from the table and spitting it out as I passed the garbage, I would swallow the offending material, horrified at the act and yet relieved it was over.
But the peas, the peas never came near my mouth. You have to hold your ground somewhere. For me, it was the peas. That evening, I watched in morbid stillness as my mother sunk the spoon into the bowl, lifted up the offending green mound and tilted it over my plate.
“You’re not leaving this table until you eat those,” she told me.
I hung my head and stared at my plate. I put my hands in my lap, as if to keep them as far from my utensils as possible. I sat silently. I will wait her out, I thought.
As everyone finished their meals, they cleared the food – my father and brother first, then my mother. She wiped down the table around me. I sat there, staring at the lonely spoonful of peas, a solitary green pile on my otherwise clean plate.
My parents and brother drifted down to the basement living room. I could hear the faint sound of the evening sitcoms. I could hear the murmur of their voices and the occasional laughter. The tick of the dining room clock permeated the room as the hour of television I was allowed each evening passed, without me present.
Eventually my brother came up the stairs and headed for his room. It was our bedtime. The clock kept ticking. I swung my feet. I traced my eyes along the filigree design on the clock face, over and over again.
I heard my father’s voice from the basement, followed by my mother’s steps in the stairwell. My father was hungry for his evening snack. My mother emerged from the kitchen to find me sitting there in the dining room with my doppelganger in the patio doors, staring at our peas, hands in our laps.
“Oh, just go to bed,” she said, exasperated.
In a flash I was gone. Peas in the garbage, plate in the sink, me in my bedroom. I had her now, I thought. I would never eat those peas again.
It was past my bedtime and I wanted to read. I crawled under my covers with my book and my flashlight. I would read for however many precious moments I could until my parents discovered my glowing, tented blankets. Eventually the knock on the door would come.
“Rebecca Suzanne, turn that light out now,” they would say.
And after a long wait. After I heard it go quiet in their bedroom, I tip-toed across my room, book clamped under my arm, and eased myself out into the hallway. The shag carpet disguised my footsteps as I picked my way toward the bathroom. I closed the door and turned on the light. I climbed up on the counter and opened my book. In my little mind, I had concocted the perfect plan. It was normal to see a bathroom light on in the middle of the night. Here I could read undisturbed until morning.