Breathe. Lunge. Squat, and breathe. Don’t let the tomatoes fall out of the bag. I go through my mental/physical warm-up routine, keeping my grocery bag perched on top of my head. I always make sure to warm up properly before any big event—during my Olympic soccer training, my coach always said that it helped center the body and the mind so you were in top shape to compete. This had helped us win gold, and today was going to be the biggest competition since because if I lost, I’d lose my son.
I had married Daniel, a Shakespeare enthusiast and an English professor at the University of Chicago, after my Olympic career. It was the worst mistake I ever made. I didn’t realize life with him was about supreme order and neat as hell. No thread was out of place in his closet, which seriously freaked me out. After five years we divorced. That was two years ago.
Now our son, Nate, is seven years old. Daniel and I thought we could make it work—we could be legally divorced, but live in the same house and pretend to like each other for Nate’s sake, to give him a normal childhood, but we couldn’t take it anymore. We wanted to live separately, but both of us wanted Nate to ourselves.
Rather than deal with lawyers and court and legal hassles, Daniel and I decided to settle this in a more efficient way with a cook-off.
We would each start and end at the same time and cook Nate’s favorite food—spaghetti and meatballs—and the one Nate liked the best would get to keep him. It is crazy important that Nate doesn’t figure any of this out with that little cranium of his, otherwise our whole plan goes whoosh down the drain.
Breathe. I keep up the warm-up until I see Daniel’s car coming down the street slower than a sloth having a hangover. Oh, and did I mention, the car looks more like a giant albino beetle than anything a normal person would be driving.
I finish up my warm-up routine before setting my grocery bag down, just as Daniel-the-Donkey finishes parking his car along the curb and starts up the driveway carrying a grocery bag exactly like mine (copycat). He looks very serious as he comes up to me; his collared shirt is perfectly ironed and not a strand of hair is out of place. He smells like an office building. Yikes. Inclining his head slightly, he looks at me with a too businesslike gaze:
“Good Afternoon, Sabrina.”
Straightening my bowtie, worn precisely for this occasion, I turn onto East Willow Road and head for the pristine white house with lavender shutters—my own place of residence. It’s quite a charming structure. I smile as my eyes fall upon the magnificent structure, with the perfect meteorological conditions of the day, the willow tree, the rose garden . . . It all seemed to be a utopia until I caught sight of a terrible obtrusion.
A sudden gasp passes my lips as my eyes fall upon the offending specimen—a woman in her mid-thirties with a beehive hairdo in fluorescent pink attire, exceedingly inappropriate for someone of her age, performing a task that seems a cross between yoga and a bird-like mating ritual. This display might be better tolerated had it not, much to my chagrin, been taking place in my driveway. My insides boil with utter humiliation as I am forced to pull up to my house, thus accepting that the creature in the driveway was indeed my ex-wife.
As I park in front of my humble abode, my thoughts wander to a time when I looked upon Sabrina’s athleticism as an admirable quality. As time went on, however, this aspect of her became more of a character flaw than anything—she yearned to the point of madness that Nate would someday follow in her footsteps, but she fails to see that such endeavors are against his calmer nature. In addition, the lady (though hardly so) is often quite rude. For this reason, it is best if young Nate stays in my care, therefore I must triumph over Sabrina in this cook-off.
After exchanging somewhat cold greetings, we both enter the house.
I walk into the house to find Gerdie, the “family” dog, lying on his back on Daniel’s white sofa. If he was on my couch I would remove him, but since it’s Daniel’s stuff he’s ruining I leave him be.
What kind of jackass picks a white sofa anyway? It’ll get dirty sooner or later. I gotta beat that moron. I need to get my head in the game. I drop my grocery bag on the countertop and do a couple of jumping jacks for good measure. Daniel looks at me with clear disapproval on his face. I flipped him off. Eh.
Our staring competition (which I was winning) ends by the sound of the door opening and Gerdie’s barking.
I am alerted to the arrival of young Nate when I hear the resounding creak of the front entryway. Sabrina’s head gyrates around and she hastens to the door. I myself proceed to the front for the purpose of greeting Nate and I find myself a witness to their conversation.
“Nate, honey! How was soccer practice? How many goals did you score?”
“None, mom,” the child responds.
“Oh,” Sabrina says, the tiniest hint of disappointment in her voice. “Well, what position did you play?”
“Coach said I could be the referee for the day because I know the rules the best. So I didn’t play.”
Before Sabrina can respond, I make my magnificent entrance and cut in.
“Referee? Well, young Nate, that is quite the honor! You should be tremendously proud of yourself.”
“Hi, Dad!” Nate sprints over and gives me an immense hug, quite impressive for one of his size. The expression on Sabrina’s face is one of such pure and fiery hatred that I perceive to be intended for me. Nate, being unaware of this, continues his oration. “Do you want to build science models with me? I’m working on dinosaurs now.”
“With much regret, I must decline your offer Sir Nate. I will be preparing tonight’s cuisine in the kitchen along with your mother, but I believe that you are quite capable of completing one such model by yourself. I wish you the best of luck!” Nate beams.
“Okay, Dad. I’ll be in the dining room. It’s great to see you guys!”
With the departure of the youth, Sabrina and I retire to the kitchen to let the competition commence.
Nate—7 year old son
Every day when I get home from soccer practice, I go to the place Mom calls “the dining room” and the place Dad calls “the central nourishment consumption area.” I build science models there; right now I am working on a “Tyrannosaurus Rex.” I have to be careful not to make a mess, and I put old newspapers under my models—Dad says the table is made of something called “mahogany” and it is very expensive. Sometimes, Dad comes and builds with me, but he wears gloves and always has a damp cloth next to him so he doesn’t get dirty. Today he is not building with me; he is cooking with Mom, which is funny, because I don’t think they really like each other that much. Something smells good though, so I am excited—it must mean they are working well with each other. Maybe we can all eat together and everyone will be in a happy mood tonight.
I believe that cuisine is an art form. Everything must be done in a certain manner, carefully, and with precision and order, otherwise the result will be simply horrid. With this in mind, let the spaghetti cooking begin!
The water must be at exactly 100 degrees Celsius before adding the pasta—a brand of noodles that are thin and delicate, just like angels’ hair. Sure to be preferred by anyone over the bulky, sausage-like noodles Sabrina decided on. While the water heats, I remove from my grocery bag a charming little contraption known as a “culinary knife.” This I use to dice the tomatoes into exact cubes for the sauce. It is critical that this step is taken, as if they are not exactly cubes the sauce becomes a vomit-like mess that will not present well at all. This task, unfortunately, is quite time-consuming, but it is truly worth the trouble. It is a common misconception that the food is all about the flavor! This is false, as presentation is a key factor! These small details, often overlooked, are guaranteed to put me in favor over Sabrina in Nate’s young mind.
I feel more and more confident as the time goes on, as Daniel has not even started his pasta, his tomato sauce just started—and we have only twelve minutes left on the clock. Funny thing about Daniel, whenever he gets stressed out, he always has an increased urge to “pass water” if you get my drift. As a matter of fact he scurried out of the kitchen just seconds ago, leaving the space to me. I sneak into the cupboard on his side of the room, looking for much needed basil which I spot in the way back, but as I reach for it my hand bumps against another jar—cayenne pepper. Without a second thought I empty the whole jar’s worth into Daniel’s sauce, giving the mixture a good stir to make sure it’s all in there, and, more importantly, that Daniel won’t spot it. This fireball will make Nate’s nose hairs sizzle. Sorry, honey, but there’s going to be fire in the hole tomorrow. Good luck winning this one, Daniel. Sucker. Ta-ta!
Stress prompts urination. I know this from experience. It is a rather unfortunate condition. After making sure my hands are hygienic, my bowtie is straight, my clothes are wrinkle-free, and I have assumed an air of professionalism, I hasten back to the kitchen.
Upon returning to my sauce, I notice a funny smell in the air. As I let out a rather undignified sneeze, I notice Sabrina looking at me with a sly smirk on her face. From reading all the classic old tales, I know as soon as I see this that something is wrong. However, having approximately ten minutes to finish cooking, I decide to dismiss it. Now, that my ingredients have been prepared, on to the presentation!
Everything is done and now just needs to be mixed all into one! I plop some spaghetti onto the plate and splut! add the tomato sauce. Sprinkle on some cheese and Sabrina Sullivan strikes again! I had this thing in the bag and I knew it. For good measure I toss some basil leaves on top for added decoration and this win was mine.
I align the noodles in a geometric configuration, making sure they are all in place before adding the sauce. Then, as every great chef must do, I taste the sauce. Immediately following, my lungs and throat burn and I launch into a violent spasm of coughing. My eyes are watery, my vision obscure, and I feel my delicate lunch of greens and pasta salad returning to whence it came. My limbs are inelastic as I stagger across and spew my lunch—right into Sabrina’s dish. A flavor of acid occupies my nose and mouth, yet in my dreadful state of mind and body I manage to make out a big pink blob gesturing obscenely at me and screaming.
“Daniel! You . . . flbttygyuft . . . stupid tdzhfgdh . . . AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!!!” Sabrina concludes her oration with a deafening scream. By now my vision has returned and my gaze falls on a woman consumed in utter fury, her once-neat beehive hairdo askew on her head. She appears to be in a state of hyperventilation and her speech is severely altered by these breathing patterns. Puffing, she gives an animalistic snarl,
“Daniel . . . what have you done?!”
“It appears to me that indeed youare the one at fault as youplaced the spice in my tomato sauce which induced me to expel my previously consumed lunch. Nevertheless, I give you my sincerest apologies for ruining your so carefully prepared cuisine.” Sabrina produces a shriek of frustration and in turn snatches up a culinary knife and projects it across the room where it embeds in the wall—mere inches away from where Nate is stationed.
I squeeze the glue bottle as hard as I can, but I just can’t seem to get any out. It feels like forever that I’ve been trying to get the glue to come out because I’m so close to finishing my T-Rex. But—never give up, Mom says, and look at the problem from a different angle, Dad says. So instead of squeezing it, which I know doesn’t work, I can unscrew the top and fish it out with a Q-Tip. A few strokes and I’m done! It turned out better than I expected, because I didn’t have Dad’s help. Wait till he sees this! I make sure to lift the dinosaur up slowly, by its base, and keep my eye on it the whole way to the kitchen. When I get closer, I can hear shouting, and I know Mom and Dad are fighting. Again. Maybe my dinosaur will cheer them up! As I quicken my pace to the kitchen, a kitchen knife zooms past me, inches from my face and buries itself in the wall. Scared, I drop my dinosaur model, which breaks into pieces on the ground.
I want to look up at Mom and Dad, but I can’t. Instead, I look down at my broken dinosaur, then at the clock. Two hours. And now it’s gone. I feel a stinging in my eyes and I look up at my parents.
“Nate, honey . . .” Mom starts, looking like she might cry, too. “We’re so sorry.”
“I am in agreement with your mother, Nate. I feel terribly. Is there anything—“ Dad says something, too, but I don’t let him finish.
“Why were you yelling at each other? Why do you never get along?” Nate asks, trying to be brave. Daniel and I look at each other and make a silent agreement.
We tell Nate everything—from when Daniel and I first met each other, to why we decided to still live in the same house, but have been divorced. Then we explain the cook-off and how we were both really serious about keeping him to ourselves that we just lost it a little.
Nate is quiet for a little while. He’s kind of a “silent but strong” type, so I let him be, let him work that cranium of his. But as more time passes, I feel terribly.
“I don’t understand,” Nate says, in a near whisper. “If you both were so serious about keeping me, then why did you set such high stakes on a cook-off?”
Ms. Ann told us that we would get to an age where we realize our parents aren’t perfect. I guess that age comes sooner to some kids than others. It’s nice and all that they were so serious about keeping me, but why would they put such high stakes on a silly competition? It reminds me of the bigger kids at school who yell and scream when their team doesn’t win capture the flag. They think a little game is so important, but it’s not really. Just like the cook-off—it wasn’t important until they made it important. They aren’t answering my question, so I pick up my dinosaur pieces and go to my room.
Young Nate departs, and the competition is over.
“We really screwed up.” Sabrina mutters.
“I concur,” I respond. Silence descends upon the lonely and now rather fetid kitchen. I reflect upon both Sabrina’s behavior, and mine, and I comprehend precisely what Nate saw to be so exceptionally abominable about it. Attaching such importance to an equally frivolous competition, without even consulting Nate to see how he felt on the matter. It puts me to shame to realize I was guilty of such behavior.
My own son corrected my behavior. If this was a different situation, I would have been furious, but now . . . I feel like I might cry. But I can’t let Daniel of all people witness that, so I channel all my emotion into anger, which is what coach always told us to do.
“Come on you sorry excuse for a man, help me clean up this mess that you made,” I snarl. He doesn’t move. Screw him. Looks like it’s up to me to do all the work, as usual.
I try for a while to get the dinosaur parts to stick on with duct tape, but it’s not working. I try to stop myself from crying but I can’t. I curl up in a ball in the corner of my bed. I had hoped for a while that maybe Mom and Dad would realize they were wrong and come up and say something, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think grown-ups ever admit they’re wrong when a kid points it out.
It’s funny, because today Ms. Ann told us that as you get older, you start to see what’s important and not important. It’s called “maturity.” She said it comes later for some people than others, but she never said how late, or how early. I thought all adults would have it. I was wrong.