SUNY New Paltz guest writer for Spring 2016, is the author of Russian Lover and Other Stories. Her fiction and nonfiction appears in New World Writing, The New York Times, Glimmer Train, Post Road, Spork, and other publications. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received an NEA as well as a Glimmer Train New Writer's Award. She is an editor at The Weeklings, a site devoted to the longform essay.
She once had the ability to hide within herself: a small girl with shanks of brown hair in a ponytail, covering her ducked down head with her forearms. She once had the ability to hold her hands over her ears and press in hard, hard enough that the air pressure changed, and the currents in her head whirled and whooshed and changed direction, as if her head was its own world, and the voice outside that said you always think you will get away with this was somewhere else, in outer space. And she could rise out of her young body and float in her room, that blue and white room, all the way to the ceiling, where she could look down and see the body lying in bed, looking up at her on the ceiling, sneakers still on her feet. And she was skilled at saying come back, because it was so strange to be up there, like an astronaut, no gravity, the opposite of gravity, all those years ago, and she knew enough to know that she had to go back.
Decades later, the hair is cut short and long and short and long again, and then is strangely long again and in a ponytail like all those years ago, because she hasn’t been to anyone to get it cut, she just doesn’t know who to go to. And there is never time, there is never ever time. And so she is making meatloaf. Making meatloaf as if there’s nothing wrong. The bowl of meat and egg and breadcrumbs and ketchup, the way she takes off her wedding ring and tucks it into the pocket of her jeans, and then mixes up that meatloaf, the wet meat and sticky egg, the itchy sweetness of the ketchup and the grainy breadcrumbs on her fingers. And presses it into that one good loaf pan, the glass one. And squeezes half a bottle of ketchup out over the top, so there’s a thick red glaze all the way across, even and bright, a little too much like blood. And there’s that skill of not thinking that too much, just don’t think that too much, just make the meatloaf.
She doesn’t even like this meat loaf. Sure, the ketchup is tasty and reminds her of that old sweet stew her grandmother made with sweet peppers and pork, measured thick cream into a cup and poured it in, the way the cream swirled white into the red heat until it disappeared. Now she doesn’t even like meat, and she doesn’t want to eat the meatloaf. But she makes it because he comes home hungry. He comes home after his day of working and he is a hungry man come home after work. And her day is more disparate, her day is more scattered, there are just things to do and things that may not happen, and things she might think about. She should get her hair cut. She should do this, that. And she might say to him, my day is more disparate but he would hear desperate and say, can you please speak like a normal person? And this a new skill now, that she has, to not say anything. Or is it.
She puts the meatloaf in the oven an hour and a half before she wants to serve it. And when it’s done and bubbling she takes it out with those oven mitts, and there is something about being a woman in the kitchen wearing those giant, padded mitts that sends her a little out of herself, but she’s still good at calling herself back in, it turns out. And she’s good at boiling up some spinach in the saucepan, the same way her mother used to do that, all those frozen vegetables emptied into the saucepan night after night, the way the hanging hook swung and tinged against the handle of the pot. The way her mother would stand at the stove, watching water boil and then suddenly turn to her, the eyebrows a little farther beyond the face than they ought to be.
She boils up the spinach, looking out the window at the treeless yard, and when it is done, she drains it, green water into a sink full of dishes, and she spoons some onto the plate. And then slices a thick piece of meatloaf. The ketchup top is a darker color, clotted with sugar and heat. And he sits down. And she sets down the plate. She serves him the plate. It is like that: all the dinners, cutlets and hot dogs, good normal food, he says, that she has learned how to make. Because cooking is something she can do right now, though not the cooking she wants to do. But tonight she thinks about the ceiling and about being a girl, she thinks about the way, all those years ago, her grandmother taught her how to make that stew by handing her an apron and saying, if you ever want to take it off, you just take it off. That's how you should make this stew.
I'll take more now, he says.
She looks at the meatloaf and all the glistening red of that ketchup, trapped within that pan of glass. She takes the ring out of her pocket. Drops it onto his plate.