"Eating My Heart Out: A Memoir in Progress" by Suzy Dalton Sonenberg--Part Two
As soon as I was dressed, I went back downstairs to the kitchen to try to move my agenda forward. "Mom," I ventured, "could you drive me to the village now?" "The village?" she asked, "What for?" "Well, I thought we could get some jelly roll and, um, maybe a few other things." "Jelly roll? For what?" She still didn't get it. "For today, Mom. For me to eat." "When can you possibly eat jelly roll today?" she asked. "You just had a huge breakfast, we're having lunch at Topsy's and then an Italian dinner!" "I want jelly roll before lunch, Mom. I thought we could go to the village for a little while now, and then when we come home I'll eat some." My mother was incredulous. "You can't be serious," she practically gasped. "Come on Mom, please. If I walk it will take too long. You know I have to eat as much as possible today. You heard the doctor say so. It's just for this one day. Please?" She shook her head slowly from side to side but, to my great relief, I could see that she was going to relent. "It's your stomach," she finally said. "Okay, we'll go to the village."
"The village" was the way we always referred to the heart of Forest Hills, the quiet, shop-lined T formed by the wide 2-block length of Continental Avenue, perfectly bisected by Austin Street, which stretched, longer and narrower, to the east -- forming the stem of the T. Of course the Forest Hills in which I grew up was nothing like the frenzied carnival it has since become. In those days, it was always possible to find a parking space just steps from one's destination.
Ordinarily, I loved going into the village with my mother. Most Saturdays I would eagerly ride the subway back to Continental Avenue after my morning dance class in the city, and meet my mother for a sandwich and an afternoon of shopping. Since she worked fulltime during the week as a fashion designer in Manhattan's garment district, my mother would cram all her errands into those Saturday afternoons. The routine was almost always the same. We would head down Austin Street to the little notions place where she bought the ribbons, seed pearls, sequins and buttons that she used to customize the cashmere sweaters she sold, as a sideline, to a Madison Avenue boutique. Arthur, the owner, and his wife Sylvia, both tiny just like their shop, always let me select a length of ribbon for my hair or some bit of lace to dress up my dolls. "Such a beautiful girl," Arthur would often say to my mother as I blushed with pleasure, "you must be proud." And my mother would find a way to deflect the compliment: "Arthur, if you'd look at the buttons instead of at my daughter, maybe you'd find the ones I ordered." Or, more frequently, with a flirtatious smile, she'd make the joke that I knew was not a joke, "Of course she's a beautiful girl, she has a beautiful mother."
Womraths, the bookstore across the street, was usually our second stop. There was a lending library at the back of the store. Each week my mother would return the book she had borrowed the week before, and then carefully select another to take home with her. When it came to literature, her taste was eclectic. She favored historical novels and biographies, but liked to stay abreast of the latest fiction - reading with equal ease in English, French and German. An avid reader myself, I always enjoyed browsing through the long rows of hardcovers and paperbacks while waiting for my mother to make her selections. I think it wasn't until a year or two after Eating Day that I managed in that way, while standing in Womraths over a series of Saturday afternoons, to read all of Harold Robbins then scandalous early novel, 79 Park Avenue.
I recall, much less fondly, the clothing store of my childhood, Famous Fashion. This was where the battle lines were drawn. Then and now, my mother agreed that what one likes is a matter of taste, and that taste varies from person to person. According to my mother, however, her taste was correct, and this applied to everything -- but most especially to clothing.
My mother liked to select my clothes for me. In fact, she insisted on it. The problem was that she would choose styles likely to look good on her, and expect them to look good on me. I had a high, small waist, good-sized bust, and large hips. My mother was essentially flat-chested with a low, wide waist and narrow hips. I would stand in Famous Fashion's dressing room struggling to fit into the clothes my mother would pass to me from beyond the curtain screening my cubicle. As I tried each new outfit, I was expected to emerge from the cubicle, walk up and down in front of my mother and Frances, the saleswoman, and listen to them evaluate my appearance. This was not fun. Nor did it do wonders for my self-confidence. In fact, the precipitating event, leading to our trip to The Lab, had occurred during just such a session.
My mother had made the decision that I was now sufficiently grown up to wear a straight skirt, notwithstanding the fact that my figure was sending a clear message that it was formed for anything but. That afternoon she had selected for me a narrow gray flannel skirt and a yellow button-down oxford shirt. The skirt, a size 12, barely made it over my hips, while the closed waist band stood away from my skin by at least an inch all around. The shirt, which was stiff and bulky, filled up the empty space around my waist when I tucked it in. "It doesn't fit," I told my mother through the curtain. "Let us see it," she insisted. "Come out here." I came out. The two-woman jury frowned. My mother fussed with the bulk of shirt at my waist, reached up under the skirt and pulled the shirt down, attempted to reposition the skirt around my hips. "Walk," Frances said. I walked. "She needs a girdle," Frances proclaimed, as she got the rear view. "I don't want a girdle," I said. "The skirt's too tight, and I hate the shirt." I had seen a soft pink sweater set that I thought would look much better with the skirt, but since I didn't want the skirt, I held my tongue.
Frances disappeared, and my mother fussed some more, examining the waistband and inside seams of the skirt to see how she could rework it for a better fit. Frances reappeared with an extremely ugly and frightening undergarment. Although my stepmother's sister Tilda sold things like this at Bloomingdales in Fresh Meadows where she worked, I had never seen anything like it, either on my mother, or drying over the shower curtain rod where she hung all the underwear that she hand-washed every night. But this thing that Frances carried had garters dangling from it. Garters meant stockings. I had not yet been allowed to wear stockings.
"Try this on under that skirt," said Frances. "Can I have stockings?" I asked my mother. "Try the girdle first and let's see how the skirt looks." "Can I try it with that pink sweater-set?" I pointed, sensing the opportunity. Frances brought it over. Back I went behind the curtain. The girdle was hard to wiggle into. It was stiff and uncomfortable and made my stomach hurt. But the skirt definitely fit better over the girdle, and the pink sweaters eased the pain. Back out to be scrutinized. "Much better," said my mother, I'll just have to take in the waist." "That looks good now," said Frances. "Can I have stockings?" I asked. My mother nodded. And so I learned how to lock my body into a girdle, and live with the discomfort, a practice that I continued for almost 20 years. After all, "Schoenheit muss leiden" my mother always said to me. One must suffer to look beautiful.
It was later that night that my mother expressed her concern over the fact that I needed a girdle. The way she put it was, "I can't believe that a daughter of mine would have to wear a girdle. I wonder if there's something wrong with you. I'm going to talk to the doctor." And so she did.
On Eating Day, I needed a ride to the Village, but I didn't anticipate shopping with my mother once we got there. At the corner of Continental Avenue and Austin Street, my mother stopped at the traffic light and signaled a right turn. Since the bakery was directly ahead of us, and there were several empty parking spaces in sight, it was obvious that she had some other destination in mind. "Where are we going, Mom?" I asked. "Well, since we're here and have some time, I thought we could stop into Grad's and see if they got in those cotton skirts," she answered, as we turned and cruised slowly down Austin Street. Grad's was the discount labels store where my mother bought most of her casual clothes. If that's where she was headed, I knew I'd have the time I needed to run my own errands -- if I could get her to agree to separate for a while.
"Could you go to Grad's alone and just meet me at the bakery in an hour?" I asked as she parked the car. She was surprised. "What are you going to do for an hour?" she asked. I was evasive. "I want to go up to Continental for a while." She hesitated, thinking, and then asked anxiously, "You're not going to eat more now, are you?" "I don't know," I lied, "I'll see what I feel like when I get there." "Remember it's only a couple of hours till lunch," she said, "And you still want your jelly roll." "I know," I answered. "Don't worry." I could see she was worrying. I waited. She looked at her watch, she looked down the block toward Grad's; she made no move to get out of the car. I looked at my watch and then leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll see you at Peter Pan at 11:00," I said, and jumped out of the car before she could tell me not to.
I quickly began walking, and then looked back over my shoulder to see her getting out of the car and heading away from me, down the block toward Grad's. I was relieved, because I knew that if she had stayed with me, I would have had to fight for every bite I intended to eat in the next hour. But I was also somehow sorry that she wouldn't be coming with me to see the extent of my capacity for food. I was surprised to find that I was actually enjoying shocking her, and was fairly certain that, despite her protestations, she would not stop me from carrying out the doctor's orders to eat as much as possible. But it was still only morning, and I would have the rest of the day for the demonstration of my prowess.
As I headed toward Continental Avenue I mulled over the choice I would have to make when I got to the corner. I could turn left onto the Avenue and head down the block to Schmidt's, the luncheonette just next to the railroad underpass, where I had recently made the discovery that a piece of toasted and buttered Drake's raisin cake paired perfectly with an extra-thick chocolate malted. But if it was chocolate that I wanted, and oh it was, then I could turn right and first check the Barricini's Chocolate store, just next to the Forest Hills Movie Theater, where my father's cousin Stella worked. If Stella was there, and alone, I was assured of some immediate free samples, and then I could buy even more to take home with me for the afternoon.
A Box of Chocolates
Stella and my mother did not like each other. And to be candid, I didn't like Stella nearly as much as I liked her position as manager of the chocolate shop. Stella liked me though, and since there were no customers around that morning, she let out a hoot of delight as I pushed through the door into the thick, deep scent of chocolate.
Although first cousins, my father and Stella had never been close. But now they were two of only four survivors of what had once been a big family. The other two were their respective brothers. All the rest, their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins had been murdered by the Nazis. By default, Stella and my father had become close family. Like my father, Stella was big (which is probably one of the reasons my mother didn't like her). Her hugs were enveloping, and not totally unwelcome since she smelled strongly of chocolate.
I had always been told that I looked like my father and my maternal grandmother -- which is not as odd as it sounds since my father and my mother's mother were reported to have looked very much alike: fair hair, blue eyes, regular features, full bodies. I think that when Stella looked at me, she saw her family --its past and its future. On Eating Day morning, what she also saw was a 12-year girl yearning for chocolate.
"So schatzi," Stella said, once she had released me from her sweet-smelling embrace, "What would you like to taste this morning?" We had developed a routine, Stella and I. I stopped in to visit whenever I could, and she rewarded me with my choice of two chocolates from the trays in the showcase. She already had her arm around my shoulders and was guiding me toward the case. "Stella," I said, "Today I'm going to buy chocolate - a whole box of chocolate; a pound, but not the pound already in the package. I want to choose the candies from the case."
"A whole pound of chocolate!" Stella seemed delighted. "This is a present for someone special?" "No. It's just for me," I said. "For you?" Stella looked confused. "Shatzi, you can come every day and Stella will give you chocolate to eat. Whatever you want. You don't have to buy a pound to keep." "I know Stella. Thank you. I love to come have chocolate here with you. But this pound is for me to eat today," I explained. Stella laughed a big laugh and pulled me to her. "No shatzi," she said. "You don't want to eat a whole pound of chocolate in a day. You'll have a big belly ache." And she laughed some more.
I was starting to feel intense frustration at the difficulty I was having in carrying out my well-constructed eating plan. I had surely not anticipated any resistance from cousin Stella who had always seemed to love feeding me chocolates. Why was it so difficult for me to get the food I wanted? "I have to eat a lot of chocolate today Stella. Really I do. The doctor said I do." "The doctor? What doctor? Dr. Glauber?" she asked, naming our family physician. And then I said the magic words: "No, the doctor he told mommy to take me to. I have to eat as much as I can today to find out why I'm fat."
"Ach! Here we go again with the fat." Stella scowled. "This is your mother who says you are fat, ja? You are not fat Schatzi. You are built like your papa and your Oma. You want a pound of chocolate today, I'll give you a pound of chocolate." And so I finally got to select my pound of cream-filled chocolates: milk chocolate candies in various shapes filled with raspberry, vanilla, coffee, orange, and even chocolate cream. I pointed to each of my choices, naming them slowly, one at a time, still hardly believing that they would be mine to enjoy that very day. With the taste equivalent of perfect pitch that has always been my burden and my talent, I could savor the exact flavor of each candy as Stella lifted it and placed it carefully into a shiny, white, one-pound box.
When the box was full, she gently slid it into a shopping bag, and then let me select two additional candies to eat right there in the store as she watched with a big, satisfied smile. When I tried to pay, Stella wouldn't accept my money. It was her gift to me. I hugged her in appreciation, giddy from the taste of the candy and the anticipation of more to come. Finally, after way too many good-bye hugs, Stella released me back into the morning sunlight, and I again turned right, heading further up the block toward Queens Boulevard, the heavy, reassuring weight of the bag clutched tightly in my hand.
There were only two reasons to go to Queens Boulevard. Well, three, if you counted crossing it to get to the library. Of course I never crossed it above ground. I would go down into the Continental Avenue subway station and cross underneath the six lanes of traffic zooming above. But I generally came to that corner with no intention of crossing. Down the block to my right was the Midway movie theater. At 12, I was allowed to go to the movies with friends on occasional Saturday afternoons --even with boys, as long as it was a double date.
Down the block to my left was the T-Bone Diner. When I was younger my father often took me to the T-Bone for lunch on Saturdays. Like so many other things, those lunches ended with the divorce, and it was at least two years since I had eaten there.
Lunch at the T-Bone with Daddy ranked among the best memories of my childhood, right along with Mutchky-time, a game he played with me when I was really little. My father would sit in his big armchair and hold my hand and wrist very tightly as I stood next to him. "Go away!" he would say. "Go to your room." And oh I would try. I would pull as hard as I could, wriggling, lurching, struggling to get away, and then dissolving in giggles as he, in a stern voice, would repeat "Mutchky, why aren't you listening to me? I said to go away." "I'm trying Daddy" I would shriek through the giggles, pulling at his fingers to pry them off my wrist. "I can't. You're holding me!" Then the skin around his light blue eyes would get all crinkly and he'd grin and pull me to him for a big hug, so close that I could smell the Tums he always chewed on, before finally letting me go.
Of course we didn't play Mutchky-time at the T-Bone; but we did have another game that we played there. We'd practically run into the diner, hungry after a morning spent together at Fairyland or the Zoo or the skating rink, and head straight for one of the narrow back booths. The waitresses all knew us and, like every waiter and waitress I would encounter over the years of dining out with my father, they couldn't do enough for him. Whichever waitress was serving our booth that day would rush right over. "Hello Mr. Dalton," she'd say. "How are you today? Can I get you the usual?" Then my father would look at me and ask, "Do you think Mommy will be angry if I have the steak?" And I would give the same answer every time, "I won't tell, Daddy. I promise." And he'd nod slowly and say, "That's probably a good idea," and then he'd turn to the waitress and say "Yes please, the usual for both of us." And the waitress, still smiling, would write something on her order pad and rush off to the kitchen.
Then, while we waited for my tuna on rye with lettuce and mayo and for Daddy's big T-bone steak with A-1 sauce, we'd start speaking in our made-up language that we pretended was Hindustani. I can't remember whether we ever spoke that language anywhere else; in my mind Hindustani is wrapped around the T-Bone Diner. We would speak very earnestly, as if engaged in serious conversation. I would give our invented words strong inflections, use wild hand gestures and contort my face into odd expressions. If there were people around us, they would turn to stare at me, and sometimes even start to laugh. My father would answer me with his own nonsense words, but in serious measured tones as though he were reassuring me or imparting some great wisdom. I loved that game -- my father, sitting there looking so elegant and serious saying things like, “Magishku talima makti!” and my knowing that the words were meaningless, a joke, a special secret that only we shared.
The imaginary conversation would continue right up until our food was served when we ended our game and got down to the serious business of eating. Loving, and indulging in, good food was a guilty passion that we shared. We recognized and understood it in each other. Food was, in some ways, our strongest bond, our true common language.
Sometimes, after I finished my sandwich and my father finished his steak, he'd ask me if I wanted dessert. We never ordered dessert when we went out with my mother, and it was something we only rarely had at home --unless there was company. My mother was a wonderful baker and always made elaborate desserts for company, Sacher Torte, Dobosh Torte, Panama Torte. But when it was just the three of us, a shared apple that she would peel, core and slice was our standard dessert.
I always said yes when Daddy asked if I wanted dessert, and I always wanted the same dessert at the T-Bone: rice pudding with warm fruit sauce. He wouldn't order any dessert for himself, he would just sit and watch me eat, but with never any sign of disapproval. Even in front of my father, I ate quickly and efficiently and with careful attention to the table manners that were drilled into me from early childhood. My mother had taught me that, even when eating alone, I must always eat as though the Queen of England was sitting at the tale with me.
After lunch, satisfied and happy, my father and I would head home. Once there, he would disappear into his wood shop, down in the basement, where he was always in the midst of some project. Then my mother, usually engrossed in a book, would make suggestions as to how I might spend the rest of the afternoon -- either doing homework, practicing playing the instrument of the moment, or helping with some household chores. Neither my father nor I ever mentioned the T-bone steak or the rice pudding that we had just consumed. But my mother made it easy by never asking anything about the time we spent together - not even what we had eaten.
Walking into the T-Bone Diner, in search of rice pudding on Eating Day, stirred memories. I avoided looking toward the back booths as I climbed onto one of the high red stools lined up in front of the counter, and settled the bag of chocolates firmly between my feet on the little step where they rested at the base of the counter. I wanted rice pudding; I would do what I had to do to get it, but I was glad not to recognize the waitress standing behind the counter. "I'd like a bowl of rice pudding please," I told her, "with the warm fruit sauce?" "Howie," she yelled toward the wall behind her, "We got rice pudding today?" I held my breath. She stuck her head through the swinging door leading to the kitchen, listened to a muffled response and then disappeared through the door. I waited. And then, there she was holding a deep bowl of creamy rice pudding with a gravy boat of warm red syrupy sauce on the side. "Here you go sweetheart," she said as she set it down in front of me.
I took my time. I never ate in front of anyone the way I ate when I was alone. Eating was always a sensual pleasure for me. I hid that pleasure from all other eyes. But on the rare occasions that I did eat alone, I allowed myself the full joy of food.
I poured sauce over the top of the rice pudding and slowly ate tiny spoons-full of pudding and sauce until all the sauce was gone. Then I poured more onto the top and ate through the next layer the same way. It took five layers for all the sauce and pudding to disappear. As I worked my way through that bowl, I became oblivious to my surroundings. I forgot that desserts were meant to be eaten quickly, quietly and guiltily. I ate as though alone, paying no attention to whether anyone was watching me. I believe I wouldn't have cared if they had been -- as long as they didn't try to stop me. It was the first time I had eaten alone at the T-Bone, and the first time I had eaten that rice pudding exactly the way I wanted to. And it was just as perfectly delicious as I had imagined it would be.
When I finished eating, I checked my watch. Only 15 minutes remained until it would be time to meet my mother at the bakery. Not long enough to walk back to Addie Vallins, the ice cream shop I had passed on my way to the diner, to get a black and white soda. I briefly contemplated a cone to go, but then pictured my mother's expression of horror, were I to meet her in the hope of purchasing the disputed jelly roll, ice cream cone in hand. Not a good idea.
I paid the check, left a tip as my father had taught me (10%, just move the decimal point one place to the left), and walked outside with my chocolates. There was a wooden bench at the bus stop just outside the diner. It was empty, so I sat and took the opportunity to eat a few of my hard-earned candies. In front of Stella I ate politely, popping the whole piece of chocolate into my mouth and carefully chewing, lips sealed until it was gone. But, on my own, I devised a system of eating cream-filled chocolates that made them even more enjoyable. First I selected the flavor I wanted according to the shape of the candy. Then I bit off one of the end walls on the short side of the candy and ate that pretty quickly. Next I slurped out the cream center, sticking my tongue deep into the chocolate to make sure I got every trace, and held it in my mouth to savor the taste for as long as I could before having to swallow. Then I waited until the taste faded before popping the rest of the chocolate into my mouth and slowly chewing and swallowing it. After four pieces, it was time to meet my mother. I closed and repacked the box, carefully wiped the evidence from my mouth and fingers with some tissues, and walked around the corner, half a block back down Continental Avenue to the bakery.
Always early, it was five minutes short of the hour when I approached the bakery. Having learned from my mother to honor the clock, I was not surprised to see her already waiting for me in front of the door. Her welcoming smile turned quizzical as she took note of the direction from which I came. "Where were you?" she asked. No wasted preliminaries. Hoping still to keep the secret of the rice pudding, I answered evasively, opting for the lesser evil. "Up around the corner," I gestured vaguely with the hand holding the bag of chocolates. It worked. Her eyes followed the bag. "What have you got there?" "Chocolates," I bravely offered. "From Stella." "Chocolates," repeated my mother, in much the same tone that one might say "Dog shit," and with an expression to match. "For today, I suppose?" "Yes Mom. For today." Surprisingly, she had no more to say on the subject. She simply turned and held open the swinging glass door for me to precede her into the bakery.
Oh that smell. That sweet, thick aroma and its promise of pleasure. The Peter Pan Bakery -- one of the most intense and pervasive of my childhood memories. We were no strangers to that bakery, my mother and I. Despite not considering dessert a necessary part of a meal, my mother did have a sweet tooth of a sort. Late in the afternoon on weekends and holidays, the days that she did not go to work, she would set about brewing a few strong cups of coffee in her little espresso pot from Italy. "I need some coffee," she would say. But it was code. It meant it was time for a tiny sliver of something sweet. It was one of the only customs she brought with her to America; a remnant of her Viennese past. Jause, the Austrian equivalent of British high tea.
Our Saturday afternoon shopping expeditions, a regular occurrence once Saturdays with my father ceased after the divorce, always ended with a visit to Peter Pan to ensure that a sweet would be available for jause. They all knew us at the bakery, the worn-faced women with their hairnets, their soft pink uniforms and frilly starched aprons. They called me honey, offered me cookies, told my mother what a nice, polite, lovely young girl I was. I never refused their offerings, but cookies were not what I wanted. Oh how I yearned for the tall shiny chocolate poufs, filled with who knew what, or the small square petit fours, coated with hard icing in beautiful bright colors and topped with little sugar flowers. My eyes scanned the tall glass showcase consuming the frosted cakes, the layer cakes, the cream-filled cakes. "Oh Mommy," I would say, "Look at that cake. Can we get that one?" My mother wouldn't even take my requests seriously. Those were American cakes. Filled with salt. Made with inferior chocolate. Too rich. Too gooey. I couldn't be serious.
No. What my mother craved was a nice dry piece of coffee cake, a nut cookie, sometimes in the summer a sliver of fruit tart - peach or plum. But every once in a while, never predictable in advance, she would opt for a piece of jelly roll -- a long sheet of yellow cake lathered with a thick layer of raspberry jam and then rolled into a cylinder and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I learned, eventually, not to ask for the unattainable, the cakes she would never consider. But the jelly roll, there was always the possibility, every Saturday, that she just might consider the jelly roll.
Whatever my mother chose, I would watch through the showcase glass as pink-covered arms reached in to slide her selection out of the case and onto the marble counter just behind it. Overhead, above the counter, hung huge skeins of thin red and white string twirled into double strands. I never tired, week after week, of watching as our order was lowered into one of the many differently shaped and sized white cardboard boxes and then deftly tied with that red and white string, pulled down in one smooth motion and then snipped with the scissors always lying at the ready on the marble top. Then up would come the box, over the counter, into my mother's hands and, at last into mine -- but only for the trip home. Once there, the box would be removed from my grip and carefully hidden so as not to subject me to temptation.
As always, I pulled a numbered ticket from the machine just inside the door and we positioned ourselves on the perpetual line leading to the counter. It was a weekday morning, and only three people were ahead of us. I could already taste the jelly roll. But would she actually buy it for me when we got to the counter? Two people ahead of us. "Suzy," she began. I knew it. "We can get the jelly roll now, but let's save it and we'll have it for jause this afternoon if you're still hungry after lunch." It was 11 A.M., and our plan was to be at Topsy's for lunch at 12:30. Her suggestion wasn't entirely unreasonable. But at 12 years old, having permission to eat openly and without restraint for only this one short day, I reacted by bursting into tears. The person still ahead of us on line looked uncomfortably back over her shoulder, and then rushed to the counter as her number was called. "My God, why are you crying?" my mother asked. "You're crying about jelly roll?" "I'll buy it myself," I almost shouted at her through a choking sob. "You can't stop me. And you can't stop me from eating it either." "You're really crazy," she said, looking at me as though I were a creature she'd never before seen. They called our number. She bought a pound of the jelly roll, pushed the box into my free arm, turned her back, marched angrily out of the bakery, and headed toward our car. Embarrassed, sniffling, but nonetheless victorious, I followed, clutching the box filled with jelly roll -- not a big piece, but mine, not to be relinquished when we got home.
After a silent car ride, my mother preceded me into the house and disappeared up the stairs. Knowing that she was not prone to hold onto anger, I felt confident that she would reappear when the time came to leave for Topsys. But, for the moment, I had the kitchen to myself. I wasted no time opening the Peter Pan box -- a snip of the scissors and the jelly roll lay seductively before me. Taking the one sharp knife from the drawer, I gently divided the cake into three equal pieces: one to eat immediately, one to eat after lunch, and one to save for the very end of the day. I wanted that hard won jelly roll to be the taste that would linger with me when Eating Day came to an end.
I put one piece onto a plate and then carefully closed the box with the two remaining pieces inside. I carried the box into the little vestibule between the kitchen and the back door that we used as a pantry and broom closet. I pulled out the red wooden stepladder that was stored leaning against the pantry wall, climbed up to the highest step and found an empty space on the top shelf behind a solid row of Campbells soup cans. There I placed the box with its precious contents. This was not one of the hiding places my mother used to keep sweets from me, but it was now the one that I would use to keep my jelly roll safe from her.
At last I was ready to eat the first piece, the one I had scheduled for morning consumption. I brought the plate and a fork to the kitchen table, sat down and, taking tiny little bites, slowly ate my way around the curve of the jelly roll, unraveling it, revealing its sweet red insides, savoring every morsel of dense yellow cake infused with the leached raspberry flavor and color, scraping the sticky jam from the outside of the next curve, sucking it off the fork and then pushing a moist piece of cake behind it to pull it all down into my yearning stomach. And so I ate my way through to the end and then, not hearing my mother yet on the stairs, I did the unthinkable: I lifted the plate to my lips and licked it clean. Satisfied at last, although of course only temporarily, I washed and dried the plate and fork, restored them to their resting places, and innocently sauntered up the stairs to see when we might be leaving for lunch.
My mother, once again in a seemingly good mood, was just coming out of her bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall and approaching the stairs. "Ready?" she asked with a smile, the jelly roll incident already forgotten or, more likely, deliberately set aside. Peace at any price was always my mother's motto. I was indeed ready.