My mother cooks laksa, a spicy, sour, brown-red noodle soup native to her hometown in Malaysia. It’s so thick and gravy-like that there are fibers in the soup, texture from the herbs and prawn that make up the broth. We don’t speak while we eat, backs hunched, heads bowing over the bowl, sipping and sucking noodles into our mouths with so much focus we forget to breathe and leave the meal panting.
My mother stir-fries noodles and bok choy with peppers so strong they fill the house with fumes that make us cough. My sister and I, hacking and heaving, open all the windows of our house for fresh air. My mother buys live fish from the Chinese supermarket and kills it herself in our kitchen, a decapitated fish head bleeding out on our cutting board. She cooks hard-boiled eggs and leaves them on the counter for days. I grow up thinking refrigeration is a concern specific to white people. I get used to people asking, softly but with disdain, “What is that? Oh, interesting.” I never know how to respond when kids from the neighborhood comment on the meat my mother cooks. “Oh, my mom never cooks chicken with bones in it.” I didn’t know bones in meat were something you could turn your nose up at—was it not common knowledge that chickens, like most animals, have bones?
As a child I adore my mother’s food, but she gives me the same serving sizes that she gives herself. I sit for hours at the dinner table—at five years old, six years old, seven years old—full and unable to finish the meal. My mother stands over me and says what many mothers do, “You will sit here all night until you finish what’s on your plate.” Then, she takes it further. “And don’t try to throw it up because I’ll make you eat that, too.”
My mother believes in an abundance of food, but she doesn’t believe in an abundance of much else. My mother believes owning more than one pair of shoes is gluttonous. My mother doesn’t believe in deodorant. My mother doesn’t believe in Advil. Other things my mother doesn’t believe in: children wearing glasses, body wash, cancer. We fight and she pinches my ear until I cry out like an animal. We fight and she says, “You’re becoming just like your father!” We fight and she films me crying on her phone. She zooms in on my face. “Oh, poor you. Boo hoo, right? This must be so hard for you. You think you’re such a victim, don’t you?”
My mother likes to wear skirts as tube tops. My mother makes her own fur collar by sewing an Ikea faux sheepskin rug to her jacket. My mother pulls me out of school early so we can spend quality time together. She refers to herself in the third person. “Mommy loves you,” she says. “You are Mommy’s special first-born.”
My Jewish, Brooklyn-born father says she’s an unfit parent, says so to the judge who decides whether he’ll get full custody of me and my sister. My father asks me, “Don’t you think your mother should be buying you these things?” “Isn’t that a mother’s job?” “Aren’t you embarrassed that you’re wearing that same old sweatshirt again? Don’t you need other stuff to wear?”
The answer is yes, I do want fruit-scented body wash and back-to-school clothes and permission to shave my legs. But I roll my eyes, look toward the ceiling, mutter dismissively, “No Dad, I don’t care.” He’s sued my mom for full custody twice already. I don’t want him to have more he can use in court against her.
My younger sister doesn’t like spicy food as much as I do. She prefers my mother’s white fish porridge over noodles with chili sauce. Her preference for milkier tastes dates as far back as her toddler years, throughout which she refused to give up her baby bottle. In family photos she is always lounging on the couch or peering at the camera, clutching or sucking from a bottle of milk.
Throughout our elementary school years our parents fight, they yell at each other, they yell at us, they lash out. My sister cries, begs them to make up and unite in what my father has dubbed the “family hotdog”—all four of us embracing, my father and mother making up the outer bun, arms outstretched from both sides, me and my sister wrapped in the middle. I participate, but my face remains flat while my sister smiles in relief. I wish they would get a divorce already. The thought of my parents splitting up makes my sister burst into tears.
At night we lie in our parallel twin beds and stare at the ceiling, listening silently to our parents yell downstairs. My sister starts crying. I leave our bedroom, walk softly into the hallway, and sit at the edge of the stairs with my legs dangling between the banisters so I can hear their words more clearly.
More and more often as I grow older, my father’s fights with my mother turn into fights with me. Nothing in our family is compartmentalized or contained—frustration trickles down and leaks its way into every interaction. A quarrel about money for a field trip or whether I need to get a mole examined turns into an hours-long blowout that ends with my father bellowing, “From now on I’m just going to act like your mother is dead. To make my life easier I’m acting like she died, like she’s a goddamn dead person!” After these fights I am weeping in my bedroom when my sister appears, still young enough for it to be acceptable and even cute that she uses the front of her sweatshirt as though it’s a Kleenex, her mucus clinging unabsorbed to the front pocket. She pads toward me silently with her arm outstretched, a tissue dangling from her hand so I can dry my eyes. She pauses, quiet, tissue raised. I swat her hand away—hard, with the back of my hand. I feel badly for doing it before it’s done, but I don’t see any other way I can possibly react to such an offer. I refuse to make eye contact with her the entire time.
Everyone jokes that my sister is my father’s favorite. She is round-faced and curly-haired and looks cherubic far past her toddler years. My father calls her Pumpkin. When he yells at my mother, and then at me, and then finally at her, my sister begs him to stop. “Daddy, please—” over and over again.
As we grow older, my father becomes concerned with my sister’s weight. He says he worries about her health. He eats half a granola bar and puts the other half in the fridge for later, encouraging my sister to do the same. My sister reaches for a banana and my father cautions that bananas are high in carbohydrates. My mother, hurt and in disbelief that my sister doesn’t like her cooking as much as I do, accuses her of being anorexic. They fight for weeks. My father picks my sister up from my mother’s house to get ice cream and spend a “daddy/daughter bonding day” together. Instead, he drives her to a nutritionist to have her diet examined.
One day, already a teenager, my sister cracks. She confronts my father for the first time in her life and tells him he’s not worried about her health, he just doesn’t want a fat fucking kid. My father never brings up her weight again, but it’s too late. Their relationship is wobbly—always one misstep away from an explosive flare-up of old wounds.
Once, during a long conversation about our childhood, my sister confesses to me, “The first thing I think, the first thing I automatically say to myself when I’m upset is, ‘You are fat. You are ugly.’”
My father’s side of the family is made up of Holocaust survivors, people raised by Holocaust survivors, and people raised by people raised by Holocaust survivors. My father’s mother makes her own version of strawberries and cream and I grow up requesting the pink yogurt-like dessert more than ice cream. There is chopped liver at holiday dinners which no one is really excited about except me. I eat all of the gefilte fish, even the jelly on the side. There is always spicy brown Kosciusko mustard in the fridge (I once suggest to my father in a supermarket that we buy French’s mustard, bright yellow and mellow in flavor, and he looks at me with such disdain I think he’ll disown me).
My father is both predictable and unpredictable. Predictable, in that he’s a salt-and-pepper-haired, Brooklyn-born Jewish attorney with a skilled ability to play both the innocent victim and all-knowing authority during a verbal sparring match. My father views the divorce the way he views all legal battles: all is fair in love and war. My father is vain. Of each of the women he dates, he asks me and my sister: “Do you think she’s more pretty than the last one? Younger-looking maybe, but is she prettier?” When my father is angry he brutalizes with words. When my father is really angry he looks like a gargoyle, his drooping nose and spongy wrinkles turned suddenly hard and jagged, suddenly sinister.
My father is unpredictable in that he dropped out of college to pursue photography. My father loves spicy food. My father raised me and my sister telling us we would be smart, we would be brave, we would be independent, we would be successful. When I got my period for the first time at his house he bought every type of pad at the convenience store so I could decide what I preferred. In later years, he made sure I had access to birth control because my mother wouldn’t permit it.
My father tells me that when he was a child living in Brighton Beach, his Polish-born mother would send him to school with a sardine sandwich for lunch. Sitting in his school cafeteria, embarrassed, my father as a boy held his fishy sandwich hidden under the lunch table, sneaking down, head bent, whenever he wanted to take a bite. I recognize my father must know what certain kinds of shame feel like, too.
Years after the divorce is over, I start to realize I have a problem leaving food on my plate. One Passover dinner I eat multiple Cornish hens, beef brisket, matzoh balls, sweet potatoes, kugel, hard-boiled eggs, cookies, cake. Hours later my stomach lurches and I vomit violently. I am not ill. I haven’t consumed something that had gone bad. I simply ate too much, simply attempted to pass food through my body at a volume too large for my stomach to process. This overeating happens often. My sister and I never talk about it, but I know what she’s thinking: you’re the one doing all this eating while I’m the one being told to lose weight. I don’t let myself think about it long enough to feel guilty. Sometimes she tries to bring up the unfairness of it all, and I know it, and I am sorry, but I still won’t make eye contact with her.
Now, living away from my parents, I seek out hot pot restaurants in my city. There are multiple versions of hot pot (Mongolian-style, Szechuan-style, Japanese-style which is called Shabu Shabu) but for the most part it’s the same deal. Red or white broth boiling in the middle, the surrounding raw meat and vegetables almost entirely obscuring the surface of the table, the overlapping hands reaching past one another—eagerly dumping raw food into the broth to be cooked, to be retrieved with chopsticks, to be dipped into sauce, and to be devoured immediately. You cook and eat as you go. The soup boils wildly, and to keep up with it, you add more to the pot and take more out of the pot to eat. More angus beef, more lotus root, more fish, more tofu, more mushrooms, more cabbage, more udon noodles. The table is a mess, scalding broth splatters everywhere, steam rises out of the pot and into your face, you need to blow your nose for the third time, but you don’t care, you eat more, you dig more, you sweat, you swallow, you fight over the hands of others, arms over arms.
The soup-less version of hot pot, dry pot, is more spicy. It’s a Szechuan dish, famous for scorching chili and peppercorns that give the food its characteristic numbing sensation. It makes other spicy foods seem bland in comparison.
Hot pot and dry pot are both intended to be eaten by groups. I go alone. I sit by myself before a bowl large enough for four, swallow seaweed knots, taro root, wood-ear mushrooms, bok choy, transparent vermicelli noodles. The spiciness is a secondary factor. What’s really addicting is the peppery numbing of the lips, the tongue, the throat. This kind of numbing doesn’t desensitize; it only opens you up further to the chili pepper, to the red oil smeared across your chin, to the fast chewy rhythm of chopsticks-to-bowl-and-to-mouth-and-to-bowl-again.
I start finding my way to these meals alone long after the end of the divorce, long after I’ve been living away from home. Something about the meal—how athletic it is, how urgent it feels—makes me emotional. The heat is so overwhelming my leg shakes, my chest heaves, my thoughts stop, my memories resurface. I eat and I think about my mother trying to be a mother, my sister in the past as a small child, my father in the future as an old man alone. I eat and I think about each of us now, all separate. My mouth is so numb it feels like it’s vibrating, my eyes tearing, my gut protruding, but I don’t stop—I chew harder, I slurp more noodles, I eat, and eat, and eat, and mourn.
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.