Before Then Now
When I get really hungry—not the all-the-time uncomfortable grumbling, but that clawing, scraping emptiness that makes me frightened of what I might do for food and angry that even if I did it there still wouldn’t be any—I focus on one particular thing for as long as I can. The yellow plastic barrette of a girl in front of me on the bus. The jerky movement of the second hand on the clock above my teacher’s desk. The single flashing light of a bulb on a neon sign. It distracts me from how light-headed and sick and lonely I feel. It lets me go back to before, when we had a house near the park where I would ride my bike and take swimming lessons. Before my dad told me he’d be right back, that he was just going out with his friends for a bit, and I never saw him again. Before the men came and moved everything out of our home and our neighbors wouldn’t look us in the eye.
There used to be a time when my best friend Simone and I would meet on the steps of our middle school, link arms, and walk the few blocks to the candy store. Even though it was part of a strip mall, Mr. Brown, the owner, had decorated it to look like an old-fashioned sweets shop from somewhere in Europe. When we entered, a little bell would tinkle over the door and we’d be wrapped in the warm air of baking fruit and melting chocolate. Mr. Brown would give us samples and tell us he liked how happy we always were, “just like my own daughters when they were young,” he’d say every time. Simone and I would separate as we gravitated toward our favorite display cases. I loved the marzipan—the animals and hats and cars so tiny and realistic they seemed a shame to eat. Simone would spend long minutes just staring at the big glass canisters holding gumballs and lollipops and pastel saltwater taffy wrapped in waxed paper. In the end, we’d buy little bags of sweet-and-sour candies and fruit-flavored strands of licorice, the sugar coating our fingers and thickening our tongues.
When I got home, Mama would call me into the kitchen and hand me a still-warm piece of buttered and honeyed bread and a glass of milk. This was before she had to work different jobs at strange hours, back when her day centered around my father and me and our return to her. She’d line up the ingredients for that night’s meal on the counter, and then gather her large copper pot, a cast iron pan, measuring spoons on a key ring, and her sharpest knives. She’d find a radio station that streamed songs she remembered from when she was my age and sing along while she cooked. My dad would come home from work smelling like the freshness of almost-spring, his coat open and tie undone. I’d sneak another piece of bread when he distracted Mama with a long kiss on the neck, licking the honey off my fingers as I watched them dance around the kitchen.
The scent of roasting chicken and fresh herbs would surround me while I sat at the counter neatly writing on flashcards the words and definitions I had to memorize or working out math problems. I’d snatch a raw carrot from the pile before it was chopped and tossed into a swirl of butter. Then I’d set the table, laying out the knives and forks my grandmother had taught me to polish just like her mother had taught her. Carefully, I’d pull white plates rimmed with yellow and water glasses etched with flowers from the cabinet in the dining room. Daddy would carve the chicken, always remembering to give me both wings and a thigh because they were my favorites. “Lucky girl,” he’d say, with a wink. Mama spooned on vegetables and mashed potatoes laden with crème fraîche and rosemary. To start, I’d take a bite of each. First the satisfying crunch of crispy chicken skin. After, the happiness of sweet carrots coated in salty butter. Finally, the creamy potatoes that melted on my tongue. Usually there was dessert—a pie or cake or berries in whipped cream. I would linger over this part, running my fork over every inch of the plate, eyeing the serving tray for a stray bit of chocolate or fruit. I wanted dinner to last forever. I didn’t want to ever leave my parents or the comfort of their attention to take my bath and try to fall asleep.
And then, piece by piece, it all disappeared. The shifts were small and subtle, but they tangled together to pull everything down. The display cases at the candy store grew increasingly empty and Mr. Brown stopped offering us samples and never smiled in our direction. We had nowhere to go after school, because most of the places we’d hang out like the arcade and costume jewelry store had closed and it was too cold to go to the park. There were fewer and fewer kids to play with anyway as they began to move away to places where their parents could find jobs or they had family with room for them. Within a year, FOR SALE BY BANK signs took the place of bikes in front yards. I’d come home and there’d be no snack waiting, no bread in the pantry even. Instead of Mama, Daddy would be home while the sun was still out. He’d been one of the last people at the factory to go, having to first fire all of the men and women he’d worked with most of his life.
At night there were no old songs and dancing, only my parents’ hushed angry conversations followed by a silence that seeped from one room to the next. Sometimes Mama and Daddy’s friends would come, but not like before. Before, there were clinking glasses and laughter, our dining table covered in trays that held spicy sausages and salads, rice, and grilled meats, desserts we’d still be eating for breakfast the next day. I’d try to fight sleep like a warrior, but would always lose the battle, curling into a corner of the sofa with the sound of their music and stories in my ears. All too soon it turned into cans of beer and bags of chips and rushing me off to my room to do my schoolwork. Once-affectionate voices ordered me to stop asking so many questions. One by one, people stopped coming around until soon it was just the three of us, trapped in our separate hopelessness.
Then, after Daddy never came back, and the house and even the furniture were gone, Mama and I only had each other and some shriveled potatoes, a piece or two of bruised fruit and a few rubbery carrots, some boxes of rice or a couple of dented cans of spaghetti and bags of dried beans that had to last us longer and longer each week. She’d try to make different soups, saying they were good for us and would keep us strong. Even though they were watery and bland, I ate every bit, sometimes lifting the bowl to catch what my spoon couldn’t. She’d get angry when I’d ask for more or when she’d find me in the kitchen of our tiny apartment over the laundromat when I was supposed to be in bed. There were tears in her eyes as she tried to explain we had no more, but she still scolded me for being so greedy. One morning I showed her how my skirt spun around on my waist, but she just pinned it up and sent me off.
I would come home to find a note saying I should try to go to Simone’s for supper if I could. I longed for the comfort of a warm meal and a cold glass of milk, but I’d learned it was easier to drown my hunger with cup after cup of hot water standing at our sink than to sit at someone else’s table and watch their eyes try not to widen at all I put on my plate. It took energy I didn’t have to squash my anger at them. They didn’t understand that the Friday night dinner they thought I ate too much of would have to hold me until Monday when I could eat the free breakfast and lunch at school.
Now I stand in line with Mama with a brown paper bag, waiting for a woman to tell us what we’re allowed to take from the food pantry this month. There are so many people I worry there may be nothing left by the time it’s our turn. I move closer to Mama, trying to get near enough that she’ll think to put her arm around my shoulder or brush the hair from my eyes or run the back of her hand down my cheek. But she’s staring straight ahead. She has vanished into her thoughts and this place she’s found herself in.
I feel the shift in the mood of the line before I see the doors open. After months of this, my heart doesn’t skip a beat at the thought that a well-meaning person we know from church will be helping to load our bag. I no longer feel tears prick the back of my eyes as I look at Mama making an effort to straighten her posture and fix a smile on her face as we near the front. I can’t pretend anymore that I’m somewhere exotic on an adventure that will end well. I’ve felt myself turning wild over the last few weeks and months. That feeling of never being full, of never having enough of anything—food, drink, love—is fighting to control whatever I do next. I want to run to the front of the line, pushing and shoving, not caring who’s in my way, not even my own mother. I want to grab all the food I can and go back to the house that’s not ours anymore and lock the door against what is happening. I want to cry and scream I’m afraid! Please, someone, please make this stop. But I don’t. I know I have to be good and calm. I can’t do anything that will upset Mama, especially when we’re in public, especially when she’s trying so hard.
As we wait in line to get our share of whatever has been left for us, I try to think about the comfort found in a bowl of macaroni and cheese, the top crunchy, the middle creamy and tangy. What an onion frying in olive oil smells like just after it turns translucent and smoke starts to rise from the pan. The sensation when a bite of warm chocolate cake covered in thick icing mixed with a spoonful of frosty vanilla ice cream hits my tongue. It’s getting harder and harder to remember little things like that from my old life. I still try. I have to. Some days it’s all I have.
Heather McClean is a lawyer and writer living in Chicago. She recently received a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. She was the 2014 recipient of the Graham School’s Student Writing Prize. Currently, She’s working on a series of linked short stories.