The tomatoes cut themselves. At least, that’s what it seemed like to her. With a final snap and practiced twist of the wrist, her mother diced the last of them and picked up the scarred wooden board with her free hand. The knife scraped loudly upon the cutting board. The runny, red mess slid into the bowl. Her nose wrinkled.
“You know-” her mother rolled a cucumber towards herself, cut one end, twisted it and cut the other- “you could help by cutting the carrots. You’re really the best carrot-cutter I’ve-“
“You just want help.” She rolled her eyes, sighing as her mother smirked. “I saw that post on Pinterest, too. Are you really raising me or is Pinterest?”
Her mother rubbed each end of the cucumber to the main body, getting out the poison, or so her mother claimed. She knew it was nonsense. “Pinterest,” her mother said, no hesitation. “Why do you think we ate salad out of jars yesterday?”
She groaned and laid her head in her arms as her mother giggled. Honestly.
The screen door slammed around the corner. Her father’s footsteps brought him into the kitchen. “What ‘cha cooking?” He leaned over to look into the bowl.
“Only one snitch.” Her mother waved the knife.
Her father smiled widely. “Of course.” He got a spoon from the drawer and took a heaping scoop.
She watched from the stool, slouching suddenly and moaning, “Why is it always pasta salad?”
“Because it’s easy and made with everything that’s on hand.”
“Except the ham,” her father said, reaching the spoon in for another taking. The knife jerked up. The spoon went down.
“That’s only because you eat it before I can make anything with it.” Her mother gave a pointed look as she brushed the cucumber peels into the garbage.
“Ham,” her father shrugged. It was explanation enough.
“Out,” her mother gestured with the knife again.
Her father took a careful step back, eyes wide.
She giggled again, and he winked.
Her mother glanced at the clock above the sink. “Out! Your other daughter needs you to pick her up from basketball.”
“Oh, so now she’s my daughter.”
Her mother took a deep breath. Her father laughed as he turned and left, the screen door slamming just as hard as before.
She turned back to her mother . . . and the pasta salad.
“Seriously, Mom,” she shook her head.
Her mother shrugged, lips twitching. “You can’t mess it up. Well . . . most people can’t mess it up.”
Her mother cackled, yes, cackled as the smell of onion began filling the air.
Wisely, she escaped to her room, her mother’s laughter echoing in the kitchen.
“Mom! I can’t Google it.” She rubbed her forehead, looking around her apartment in utmost despair with the phone to her ear. “I have a search history, and Google won’t have any answers anyway.”
“And I’m supposed to? Just go over to their house-“
“I can’t just go over to their house. How weird is that?!” She stopped herself from chewing on her fingernails, started pacing the length of her completely carpet-covered apartment instead. Completely covered. Even the bathroom. Maybe she could ask for advice on that as an excuse to visit.
“Then take a friend with you.”
“Why can’t you take a friend with you?”
She pitched her voice higher, gesturing as she spoke. “Hi, friend-I-haven’t-visited-in-six-months-and-barely-talk-to, can you come with me to visit my former pastor’s family because I’m too scared to go alone?”
Her mother snickered. “Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way.”
“I sound pathetic!” She paused, leaning to scan the cement ground outside her window for any passersby who could’ve seen her. “I hate it here. I don’t have any friends.”
“You just need to go out and meet people.”
“I hate people.”
“Well . . .” Static filled the phone. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
She leaned against the wall, sun casting long shadows upon the grey carpet and walls, the scent of the landlord’s cleaning solution still permeating the air. She closed her eyes. “I want to be home.”
“In this house?” Her mother’s dubious voice barely covered the screeches of her younger sister and company.
She smiled. “No. I’d build a loft two doors down.”
“Live in the trees,” her mother added, smile in her voice as well. “Least you won’t get ticks in an apartment.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. Her toes curled into the grey carpet, grey wall behind her that no amount of pictures could ever fully cover.
Static filled the quiet, static and loud voices fading in and out from the street and the sudden whirring of a siren-
“Oh!” her mother exclaimed.
Her eyes opened. “What?”
“Bring them pasta salad!”
“You don’t even have to put much into it.” Her mother’s smugness came clear through the phone. “You’re a college student. They have low expectations.”
“Thanks,” she said dryly, smiling anyway. “I’m not going to bring them pasta salad.”
“Okay.” She imagined her mother putting a hand into the air, cocking her head in mock submission. “You don’t have to bring them pasta salad.”
The static returned. The voices faded completely. The siren grew louder, and then it, too, passed.
“Do you think it would still work without ham? That stuff’s expensive.”
“Just tell them you’re vegan.”
She fidgeted, rubbing the edge of the black dress. It still fit, even though she had bought it her first year in college at one of many thrift stores that had been her staple shops. The head of plaited blond hair shifted to the left, and she nearly brought her loose hand up to her mouth to bite it. She took a breath instead, exhaled slowly, and walked forward.
Her friend turned to her, red eyes and dark swathes beneath them. Still, there was an attempt at a smile.
She turned to the side, giving an awkward one-armed hug. Her friend slung one arm around her as well but still managed to slump into her. A warm puff and then a sniffle. She tightened the awkward hold. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Her friend shrugged. A stuttered inward breath. “It was t-time.”
“It’s still hard.”
After a full ten seconds, she was more than ready to let go. After a full thirty-five, her friend gradually released her.
She cleared her throat, shifted the Tupperware container forward. “I’ve got pasta salad.”
Blank eyes stared back at her.
“Pasta salad. Like, with ham.”
She cleared her throat again at the continued lack of response.
“My mom suggested it because, you know, it’s . . . you know, and it would be nice to have . . . and it keeps good for a while-“
“Thank you.” Her friend shook her head. “Sorry. I just.” Her friend shrugged again, wiped her eyes, and gave a weak smile. “It’s been a long day. That’s . . . great. Thanks.” Another smile, a relaxed one.
“Where do you want it?” She shifted backwards this time, towards the kitchen.
Her friend nodded. “The refrigerator. You might have to move some stuff to make room.”
She gave another consoling smile and left to do just that. As she played Tetris with all the casserole containers, she decided that pasta had been a good decision.
The screen door slammed at the front of the house. She kept her toes in the stream, following the sound of her mother’s footsteps as she approached. Her mother leaned against a tree. She kept her eyes on the moonlight reflecting off the dark waters, swallowed and said, “If you’re trying to look cool, it’s too late for that.”
“Is that a polite way of saying I’m too old?”
She shrugged. “I’m just saying that always being younger than Dad doesn’t make you young in general.” Her mother came forward, and she finally looked up. “Mom!”
“What?” her mother huffed as she slowly lowered herself to the ground. A big sigh filled the night as her mother settled with her arms behind her back, propping her up at an angle. “Just because I’m older than you, that doesn’t make me old in general.”
She stared for a moment at her mother, the crow’s feet firmly implanted, the smile lines etched even deeper.
Then her mother turned to her and raised an eyebrow, and she wondered how she ever believed her mother to be old. Her mother smirked, “Never thought I’d see you dump a man because he didn’t like my pasta salad.”
She snorted and looked back to the stream. The lukewarm water had been cool when she had put her toes in. “What can I say? It grew on me.”
The spring symphony of frogs and crickets filled the air but not overpoweringly so as it had been just a week ago. She bit her lip and looked into the woods, the dark trees stretching taller in the pale light. “He didn’t like the carrots.”
“So he had to pick out every single one.”
She turned to face her mother, tired of the even voice. “And then he said that it was too dry.”
A smile itched at her mother’s lips. “Yes.”
“It was flooded! Drenched!” She dug her fingers into the dirt, forever a child with her mother at hand. “You could’ve sunk a ship in it!”
“Have aspirations to be a pirate, do you?” She glared at her mother but with wide eyes and an incredulous expression, and her mother sighed, shifted to the left. “Everyone does have their own likes and dislikes.”
She snorted again and looked away. “He was a child. No. Not a child. He knew what he wanted well enough and could tell you just fine. He . . . he . . . I had to baby him.” She looked back to the calm profile of her mother. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to, but everything had to be perfect otherwise, otherwise it was such a challenge to do anything, and how could he work when he hadn’t slept well, and the night was ruined because he got a piece of lint stuck in his eye, and-“
Her mother giggled. “Run, girl. Run. A man with lint in his eye is no good.”
She laughed once. Twice. Her shoulders shook. The laughter kept coming, and the water on her cheeks was the warmest of them all. Arms wrapped around her, and she carefully lowered her head into her mother’s lap, still chuckling and wiping at her eyes. Her mother stroked her hair away from her face, placed a kiss on her forehead. She closed her eyes.
Slowly, almost unnoticeably, the chuckles faded to nothing.
Her mother tucked another strand of hair behind her ear. She sighed, relaxed into the night.
After several minutes, she idly remarked, “I think I should’ve clued in when I realized I liked his parents more than him.”
At her mother’s silence, she opened her eyes.
Disbelief covered her mother’s face. “Yes. Yes, daughter of mine, that should’ve clued you in. Some of us even call that a dead giveaway.”
This created another small chuckle. Her mother joined in. The frogs got louder, and the stream gurgled. The noise of the retreating car she swore she could hear faded. Her mother shook in merriment beside her. She closed her eyes and laughed.
“What is this?!” her mother hissed, jabbing a curled finger at the bowl.
She smiled, took a step around her mother and placed the bowl on the long white table. “A dish to pass. I’m no free loader.”
Children’s shouts burst out of the hum of the congregation. A parent hushed them and ushered them back to the play room until the food was ready.
Her mother continued glaring at her. “That’s pasta salad.”
“Correct,” she smirked. “My mother taught me how to make it.”
“I-“ her mother jabbed a finger at herself- “bring pasta salad to church and family functions. You can’t go around stealing other people’s dishes!”
“I used my own dish!” she protested with a wide smile, pointing at the container they both knew had been a present from her mother over two decades ago.
“That’s not what I meant,” her mother huffed and folded her arms.
Seeing her mother open her mouth again, she quickly cut in, “It’s different from your pasta salad.”
“How?” her mother demanded.
She took it off the table and held it up for inspection, resisting a smile. “It’s vegan.”
A long snort from her mother. She held back a giggle. Her mother leaned in, “You have the ham waiting for you at home, don’t you? To add to it after nobody eats this shit?”
“Mother!” She glanced around. Nobody had heard. She leaned back towards her mother. “Of course. I’m not stupid.”
They giggled, her mother breathlessly. She set the bowl down, offering her arm to her mother and waiting patiently until her mother grabbed it. They made their way to a table, and anyone who stopped to talk to them was encouraged to try the vegan pasta salad.
She gently rubbed one end of the cucumber against the main body. Then the other. With a practiced jerk, she cleaved it in half and skinned it. The peelings fell into the garbage with a thump. She sliced. Every other moment, a soft thud as the knife hit the board. She cut the circles into halves, into quarters. The knife scraped. The cucumber slid into bowl.
She picked up the tomato, put it on the board. She cut.
Her sister drifted in. More soft thuds and thunks and quiet scraping. Her sister was seated and the diced tomato in the bowl. The onion lay on the board. She raised the knife.
“What do we do now?”
Her sister’s whisper sat in the quiet, among the thunks and thuds and smell of onion stinging their eyes, pinching and twisting their faces.
She stirred it all together and got out two spoons. She put one down next to her sister and sat.
The clock above the sink ticked. The spoons scraped the bowl. Their clothes rustled as they shifted.
“Stop stealing all the ham.”
Her sister looked to her, spoon half in her mouth, half out.
She snorted lightly. Her sister cocked her head, wrinkled her nose.
She smiled, and her sister – so slowly – her sister smiled. They smiled, and the sides drooped, but she thought that it was okay. It was okay.
They each took another spoonful. The clock ticked. The spoons scraped. The clothes rustled. Their mother’s laughter echoed in the kitchen, and she thought that it was okay. It was okay.