When I hand the leftovers to my mother, she muses from her bed, “You know who else likes eggplant parmesan? Your father.”
Her voice betrays her hesitation; the knowledge that this might transform something I like about myself into something I reject.
“Really?” I’m looking at her, but imagining him: his attention falling to the eggplant’s shiny belt, just visible beneath the blouse of mozzarella; what’s wrong in his life, in the way he lived it, dissolving into tomato cream; the drama of getting what he’s hungry for, eclipsing what others might need from him.
When I think of what my father likes to eat, I think of when he poured orange juice over his Raisin Bran in my mother’s kitchen when I was five, then declared, just as matter-of-factly, “I can’t do this” and left for seven years. I think of the next and last time I saw him, when he coated a dinner plate in honey, overturned oatmeal onto another plate to cool, combined them with a fork, then spooned the goo in cultish silence.
Those foods make sense. They say, “I owe nobody explanations, I don’t do my dishes, and I’m leaving.” But this is different. The time it takes for tomatoes to cool suggests a comfort with remaining, with waiting for something worthwhile. A man eating eggplant parmesan is not a man on his way out the door. No one orders eggplant parm to go–I just can’t do this.
“Did he like it with marinara or tomato cream?” My question, strangely specific, feels essential: the sort of detail you slip into a third draft that makes a character real. I’m eager for an answer–I love tomato cream.
With the beginning of a smile, my mother responds, “I suppose that’s the limit of how well I know him.” She signals to my hands, as if I might want to write this down. “That’s a good line—I know my father well enough to know he likes eggplant parm, but not enough to know with what sauce.”
I press my fists into her duvet and my laugh blends with hers. It is good. The swift return from familiarity to strangeness; from the struck candle of knowing something to the surrounding darkness of knowing mostly nothing.
I hug my mother goodnight. When I turn to leave–“Take this, honey.” She pokes my back with the box. “Not a huge fan.”
On my way to the kitchen, I pause at the portrait my sister drew of an old man; a stock-photo she chose for an art class. He’s a stranger, yet it’s her most expressive piece: head tilted back, eyes closed except for a glint of white, mouth gargling an invisible fountain of laughter. Whether he really was laughing–or even happy–doesn’t matter. It’s not a portrait of him; it’s what my sister saw in him, made of him. The men aren’t here to ask. They’re not even on their way.
Tomato cream, I decide, turning the corner. Tomato cream.
Martha Krausz is a nonfiction writer, high-school writing coach and Body Positive mentor, currently living in Northern California with her white german shepherd, Alfredo. She holds a BA in literature & poetry translation from Hampshire College, and an MA in English & American Literature from Mills College. Her essays are published in Prometheus Dreaming, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, & The Wild Roof Journal; her essay, “Shadow Sister” was nominated for Best of the Net in 2021. Martha harbors a lifelong love of Virginia Woolf, wants to be Cheryl Strayed when she “grows up,” and practices intuitive movement & baking most days.