Wednesday, July 28, 2010

STRAWBERRIES by Heidi Ritzel

I wanted strawberries. Frozen strawberries. Not the kind I buy today, individually quick frozen to maintain their perfect shapes and packaged in a convenient resealable bag. The strawberries I was longing for, whining for, were sugar-laden clumps of red, broken fruit, packed tightly into a rectangular cardboard container capped at both ends with metal that you had to pry off with a can opener.

My mother stood in her sewing room, which doubled as our laundry room, carefully transferring my dad’s undershirts and my summer tee shirts from our white Kenmore washer into the dryer. She was annoyed at me, irritated at my whiny behavior, wanted to be left alone with her work and her thoughts. I had never done this before. I was the model German child, always doing what I was told to do when I was told to do it and never acting outside of the accepted, stifled confines of our family. But somehow today was different.

The strawberries in question were always kept on hand in our freezer. They were an essential ingredient in what became my mother’s signature dessert. The strawberries were placed in the bottom of a large glass bowl, the frozen red brick remaining intact for several hours on our yellow Formica counter until finally morphing into what could have easily passed for strawberry soup. Next my mother cooked a box of Jell-O tapioca pudding mix, using slightly less milk than the side of the box recommended, resulting in a thick, sweet, gooey pudding. This steaming hot mixture was poured over the thawed strawberries but not mixed. The berries would caress the pudding in their own time, gradually seeping into the white, hot goodness, forming what looked like little red fiords. Eventually, the strawberries created a liquid cushion on which the pudding would ultimately float. This dessert was made and served every time we had company and I never saw anyone not take a second helping. And although I liked this dessert as well as anyone, I don’t know why, on this day, I was so intent on getting my mom to take out one of those frozen boxes of sweet berries just so I could have some.

Her annoyance, as always, was palpable. She ignored me, told me to stop, threatened to tell my father when he got home, but I persisted. When my whining finally turned into tears, she stopped moving the laundry and did something extraordinary. Without saying a word, she walked to the freezer and took out a box of strawberries. For me. To eat.

I realize this was probably an act of sheer exasperation or perhaps the only way to stop my emotional upheaval. But to me, in that moment, it was the most loving gesture I had ever received from my mother. It was no longer about the fruit, it was about her willingness to provide some nurturing to a little girl who felt lonely, sad, unloved.

The fact that this rare display of love was provided by food was probably the first sign of trouble I would not fully realize until I was well into my thirties. The nurturing I so desperately longed for, arriving as it did in the form of food, became inextricably linked to eating. Food began to equal nurturing. The love I could find nowhere else I could easily attain from a gooey, frosted brownie. A hug would emerge as an embrace from a log of chocolate-covered marzipan. And an “I love you?” Well, that required pizza after pizza after pizza.

I didn’t know where else to get these things. I couldn’t ask, wouldn’t ask, because even if I had, the answer would have been no. And food said yes.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THE RESERVOIR by Billy Herman

If you fell down the embankment the current of the water is so fast it would carry you over the dam. Then the reservoir cop gave me a little green ticket for less than a crime and instructed me to leave.

Years later I would try to construct a drama that would make this little incident very important. But the drama was made of the stuff of dreams and every time I tried to hammer it together it would turn to nothing.

My friend Brian said one evening that we realize at a certain point that we are not living narratives. Life is much more random than we think and we are not following a dramatic arc.

My mom wanted to paint. She had just retired from being a registered nurse and was really into the painting class she was taking. She is in fact a first-rate painter.

I got it into my mind that I was going to clean the entire inside of our house. It was in fact way too messy, and I decided to be Hercules.

We were at cross-purposes and one day in my frustration I exploded in a fit of rage, after which I felt very hurt.

I drove up to the Ashokan Reservoir, parked my car and started to walk. When I saw the sign that said go no further I was too sad to obey it. I wanted to see what the dam looked like from close up. When I saw the white police jeep out on the road I knew I had been spotted and I thought, he’ll be here any minute.

This drama I had in mind is oh so vague. There was this bully I knew in grade school named Chad. To this very day he remains a stupid bully. I see him every once in a while, usually in restaurants. He became the villain.

After that my mind free-associated bits and pieces from everywhere. The sex appeal of the actress Fran Drescher for example. But that’s all I had. Bits and pieces and vague feelings, longing, love. Danger. Walter Mitty heroics. Friendship. If only I could put it all in order and have it make sense.

I composed a few outlines for it. It looked good that way. One of the outlines was a good piece of comedy on its own. Then one day when I was weak and sick I wrote the novella. It was undeniably bad.

I have a dream of returning to this story and telling it right, but like I said before it is made up of dreams that trail off into nothing. Getting the woman instead of having her reject me. Overcoming the fear and the glory of police. Seeing Chad as the failure he is. Turning the authority figures in my little world into human beings.

It is all right to never write this story. It is all right to wake up from it and let it go.