The desert air of the starfilled San Pedro sky is brisk and cold as my cousin and I step out of her husband’s SUV. I zip my purple fleece up to my chin and follow them past rows of Adobe structures. Her husband leads us into a dark, quiet building made of clay. Inside, the room is lit by the glow of candlelight reflecting off of the faces of patrons lined along rustic wood tables. Shadows scurry about between them and one stops to direct us to an open table in the back. We reach it and I take a seat on a clay bench carved into the wall. My cousins take the bench across from me. A server appears from the shadows and places two wax candles on wax drippings at the center of the long table.
Though I speak fluent Spanish, I cannot answer the server’s questions, so my cousins help, “Do you want your steak pink, brown, or red? What kind of salad do you want?” “What are my choices?”, I ask. I don’t understand how they know without having looked at a menu. They refer back to the week before when their table was laid with plates full of colorful combinations of vegetables. Every restaurant has some variation of the typical Chilean salads. They list some of the ingredients by color. “Oh, yes!” I exclaim, “I love beets!” They order for me and I take in the ambience. A trio step in with guitars and I realize that there had been no music before they started to sing softly from table to table. “There’s no electricity here.” My cousin tells me. “Everything is lit and prepared by fire”.
The steak is accompanied by rice and beans and a fried egg. Next to the “strong” plate, sits a large bowl full of chopped carrots, beets, corn and other vegetables. A hard-boiled egg is sliced on top. The waiter placed a sectioned bowl loaded with limes, salt, pepper and oil at the center of the table. “How did he know I wanted lemon and oil?” I stated more than asked. “That’s how they always come,” said my cousin. Her husband recalled a trip to Texas, “That’s right! You have a long list of dressing in the US, don’t you?”
I push my cart along a center aisle at the supermarket and my eye stops at a drawing of a handsome face. There, in 1986, from the crowded shelf of the condiment aisle, my favorite actor smiled back at me over a simple title, “Oil & Vinegar”. Curious, I pick up the bottle and read the ingredients. "Lemon juice! Yum!". I buy it. The fact that Paul Newman shared his delicious recipe, so like the homemade dressings I remember from home, to raise money for a children’s charity just enhanced the satisfaction I feel tasting it.
The handsome, compassionate, fun-loving actor years ago and those who have taken over the salad dressings that bear his image have added all the usual choices to the simple, original option - going so far as to add Laurel wreaths and berets to some of the images on the labels. They’ve also loaded the dressings with sugar. His original is the only manufactured dressing I regularly buy.
I little more than a year after I introduced J to the pleasures of healthy eating, he turns away from the window of the apartment we share and shakes his head. “You’d think that guy would put away his Christmas decorations. I mean, it’s Easter already!” I look out the window and all I can see is the yellow-green buds on the branches of the tree. Spring is approaching after one of the hardest winters in years. He and I had made it through a trying first month in the apartment together and I was beginning to see the light with the melting snow. I search the green lawn across the street and see a tilted Santa on a sleigh. “Why is it that you look out the window and all you can see is what the neighbor does when all around us Spring is blooming?” I ask. J looks at me disdainfully and walks away.
Later, he is standing at the refrigerator with the door open. “There’s nothing to eat!” he yells angrily and slams the door shut. The edges of his voice are lined with fear. The anxiety spreads and startles me away from the sink. “We couldn’t possibly have gone through all that food so quickly”, I think. I open the refrigerator and pull out plastic containers of spinach, sweet potatoes, cooked black beans, cooked rice, broccoli, and grilled chicken. “What are you talking about, J?” I exclaim and proceed to list the items. I drop what I am doing and try to mitigate his desperation. Instead, an argument ensues until he finds a processed chocolate protein bar in the cupboard.
It was not the first time.
“I’m getting hungry,” J says to me one Saturday evening after we gave up gluten and sugar, “want to go out?” “Sure.” I reply. “Where do you want to go?” he asks. I shrug, “wherever you want, you’re the one who’s hungry.” His gaze begins to dart around the room. I try to help him, “Let’s start by narrowing it down” I say, “do you want chicken, beef, fish, or vegetable?” “I don’t know,” he says, the tone starting to sound agitated, “what do you want?” “How about British Beer Company?”, I ask. He shakes his head. I proceed to list four more restaurants in town that I know are open. He shakes them all off. “Where do you want to eat?” he insists. “Well, it’s not about me, so you decide.” I remind him. He explodes. “How can you say it’s not about you when I ASKED you where you wanted to go!” he yells, “J. I just listed five restaurants and you rejected every one, so it’s not about what I want.” I say. He walks away. I follow him and he keeps yelling. I don’t remember how we finally settled on Paparrazzi, but that’s where we ended up, stiff with silence.
After a series of these arguments, I took to preparing for J’s hanger. I developed a list of restaurant selections that I knew he would accept. I kept this list memorized in order to have the recommendations ready when he asked the fatal question, “Where do you want to go?”. In time, I came to be adept at predicting his hunger. I took to calling him about lunch three hours before we needed to eat so that he would have time to choose a restaurant, shower, and drive. If lunchtime came and we did not have a plan, his hanger would hit me in the jeep on the ride, or he would leave me sitting alone at the restaurant, so I took to carrying snacks to give him on the ride. I never understood why he couldn’t recognize the pattern that was so predictable to me I could set my clock to it.
“When I was a kid I was always hungry,” J says one day after we moved in together, “there was never any food in the house. I was so skinny my friend’s mother always offered me food. I was so hungry, but I never felt I deserved it, so I always refused.” He adds, “I was really shy.”
I wonder today if the cupboards in his mother’s house were really bare, or if he just didn’t know how to prepare food. Clearly, he felt neglected and undeserving. And clearly there is anger there.
Once, on a trip to the Newport Food Festival, I had no snacks on me and the drive was long. We arrived just before hanger-time. Wandering around, taking it in, J. suddenly says the fatal words, “I’m starting to feel hungry”. The anxiety ignites. We decide on a restaurant, but there is a 20-minute wait for a table. I see the shadow cross J’s face as he begins to pace around the hostess station. Agitation and desperation infiltrate his gait. I suggest we go to the bar. He snaps at me accusingly, “I don’t need to drink, Paulina, I need to eat!” I ignore him and walk to the bar. I order a mudslide and bring it over. He takes a sip. No sooner does the chocolate ice cream hit his tongue than I see a wave of calm wash over his face. The serotonin has been released and the beast is soothed. I can almost hear him purr.
I begin a pet-sitting gig for a client of mine on my birthday. During the months preceding this gig, I’d lost 10 lbs cooking gluten-free for my friend. She took me in while I waited to get into my condo at the start of the new year. Cooking for her gave me back the pleasure of preparing and sharing the colorful dishes I loved. I was reminded of the joy of my favorite colorful salads slathered in my favorite Newman’s Own. I was reminded of the pleasure of sharing meals. My friend lost weight, too. Both of us ate as much as we wanted.
I wanted to keep it up, but I had just moved again before the house and pet-sitting gig started. From one day to the next, I left my friend’s house and moved into my condo where all my worldly possessions were piled in boxes stacked high like the hedges of a maze. I then packed my suitcases and moved into the homes of my pet-sitting clients for the month of March.
“Well,” said my client, who is like a mother to me, “head over to your condo in the afternoons after taking care of the dogs and work on organizing your place.” “Sounds like a plan!” I say.
Packing for her house I fill a shopping bag full of spinach, eggs, shredded carrots, purple cabbage, sunflower seeds, fruit, nuts, and water. My intent is to continue eating healthy.
My client is kind and organized. She leaves detailed notes, a toiletry kit, folded towels, and an itinerary in her daughter’s room where I will sleep. Her daughter has collages of friends framed in glass hung on the walls around her bed. They’re just like the ones I had when I was a teenager. My client’s house reminds me of my boyfriend’s mother’s house where I practically lived until the day he threw my clothes out onto the street.
I arrive on my birthday after working a full day. Her dog jumps in circles to see me then rolls on her back for a belly rub. I can't stop laughing. We settle onto the couch together and snuggle. I am happy, but J’s name keeps popping into my head. I wonder what he thought of my birthday text. Was he conscious of the fact it was my birthday that night? Did he know I had moved? I remember how he was always the one I called with news.
I start to feel hungry. I get up and go to the fridge. The containers of vegetables stare back at me from the shelves. I shake my head, “I don’t FEEL like making a salad!” I think. I spot a diet coke on the bottom shelf. That was my drink of choice as a teenager. I pull it from the plastic ring and close the fridge. In the cupboard next to the stove, I know my client keeps her husband’s jar of Fluff next to a jar of Skippy. I pull open her bread box and pull two slices of bread. I spread the peanut butter and marshmallow on each slice. Standing at the counter with the dog staring up at me, pleading, I eat the fluffernutter sandwich and wash it down with Diet Coke. By the time I swallow the last bite, I've forgotten J. I go back to cuddling the dog.