Fork, by Joeli Nelson-Payne

I promised myself that I wouldn't be screwed up. I wouldn't pay him back for not wanting me when I was just tiny joints and lips inside my mother. (This is when the love theme from "Romeo and Juliet" should be played in Brady Bunch melodrama style in the background. Don't sound self-pitying.) I've been so afraid that someday I'll crack and show that inside I am burrowed trails. It's so predictable and weak. It makes me wonder.

What do I need? I become more angry and sad the older I get. More thankful and sensitive to richness and Good People and Things, too, but this bitterness... Bitterness tastes like a cigarette on the sneak. Familiar, fulfilling. The telling of my family's story, the unfolding, has become rehearsed. It has become my monologue, and I know how to work it. It is a rite of passage with new friends. It is necessary for them to understand these things so that they can understand my jokes about my mother on Prozac and my father's 21 year old bride. The trick is making it all approachable, conversationally. Make sure they can tell I'm fine with it, so they aren't afraid to ask me something, or don't think I'm a Sylvia Plath candidate.

I move the pepper shaker to the middle of the table. "This is my mother's first husband, George." I seem to tell this story more often than not at a restaurant, during a meal or over coffee. This provides me with easy actors.

(If we get into tangents, or if the person knows my family pretty well already, the bread plate is our house on Graceland court.) I unravel the story of my beginnings, starting in the middle. I point to the pepper next to the salt.

"They were married, they had me, my sister and brother. They divorced. They re-married, then divorced again. Pepper leaves." I put him at the farthest end of the table, or behind the napkin dispenser.

"Salt - that's my mom - moves next to ketchup - they marry a year post-pepper. Ketchup was my mom's boyfriend in high school. He was in real estate so he builds us all a house on some real estate he named in honor of the King - Graceland Court. I am the fork and I am fifteen years old. I never got along with George." I rest my fingertip on the dome of the pepper shaker. "I felt like he knew I disapproved of him, which I did, even as a small child." ("The only kind of job you could ever get would be on your back." I heard him say this to my mother before he threw the leftovers at her. "You don't like me, do you" I was only nine and said nothing. He cheated on my mother, spent all of our money on coke and horse races... Don't tell them that. People don't need to know all that. Just say you weren't close.)

Spoon and knife are moved closer to pepper. "Shannon and Joe got along with him. Only I didn't like him." Now the ketchup bottle, salt shaker, knife, fork and spoon are clustered in front of me.

"So it comes out when I am sixteen that there is a reason for my full cheeks and broad shoulders, so opposite my sister and brother's hollowed faces and ankles. Ketchup is my real father; it's complicated, but he wouldn't marry my mother, she married someone else, and their marriage sixteen years later was an attempt to bring us all together as we should have been from the start. But then they didn't get along. They had nothing in common except for me. He was a redneck, a Coors drinker, driving a big truck with magnetic panels on the side advertising his Catfish Farm. Big mouthed fish, wide reaching whiskers. I was relieved to know he was my father at first. It explained that distance from George. I saw my bones in his body, I saw my eyes in his, it was comforting. But then he made me feel cold and he was so crass. He didn't understand the worth of putting in hours of rehearsal for a play you wouldn't get paid for. (He would call for me to come watch Mr. Ed with him on Nick at Night. "This is a good movie," he'd say, lying on his stomach in front of the television. "Better'n those god damn foreign movies you rent. Bunch a spics." My Japanese American boyfriend in high school was "the chinaman." My mother said his concept of foreplay was saying "do you wanna?" Will that seem weird that my mother and I talk about things like that? She's young, we're close... Maybe I wish I didn't know things like that. I wish he weren't my father either. I sound like I need a therapist.)

"I was relieved when they divorced," ketchup in my one hand, salt shaker in the other, "but I felt sorry for him, left alone in the house he built for us. Whole rooms left unfurnished, our old belongings cluttering closets. Too many sets of sheets and towels in the closets. I felt guilty for driving to my mom's as he strung multi-colored Christmas lights along the roof of Graceland, for him and his dog Bosco." (Tell more bad stories about him. You want them to be on your side. This is supposed to be your story. It's just about all these other people. But my story was about reacting; I was quiet, I was good, I performed. Tell them you were president of your high school. Tell them you have lots of friends. Tell them you are an actress. You are my mother's voice, aren't you.)

I've taken to crying lately. When I met my boyfriend's family, when my friend Liz's father sang "That's Amore" at her wedding. I saw a film on Allen Ginsberg, and I tried to force my jaw closed and straight as he read from his poem "Father Death." About his father, about his love for him, about his grief. I felt a chasm open and I scrapped and clawed to prevent falling into so predictable a place. Embarrassing to be an infant, wimpering, hiding it. (I thought you were fine about it? I am fine, but I am affected. I'm going to tell you about myself really now. Don't be boring. Make yourself sound interesting.)

My life is what I do and like. It runs together, it's not well behaved and linear. Clean white laundry that smells of bleach, football games between great offenses, tea with milk and sweet'n'low, black Pilot precise pens, baseball hats (worn frontwards), putting down three books at the register of a book store, black demi-cup bras, The Marriage of Figaro, mashed potatoes with garlic, Danny Latimer's hugs with his huge belly in the way, Emma's Scottish accent when she says "for fuck's sake", the title "sexing the cherry" for a book, beer and a hot dog with Gulden's mustard at Candlestick, Jill and I roadtripping to the Kentucky Derby, white t-shirts under everything, Hitchcock movies - especially "Rear Window", Raymond Carver, the Velvet Underground singing about pale blue eyes, wine - all reds, powder on my nose and chin, brushing my teeth with Dave's toothbrush, nails without polish, four days after I get a haircut I usually like it, Audrey Hepburn saying "quelle rat" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's", baguettes and havarti with dill cheese and chocolate, Jake my dog, Shannon telling me one of her really good, really ridiculous fantasies, Van Morrison singing "Into The Mystic", Guiness beer and chips, back shoes, clay masks, a good cry, a bad cry, sweet potatoes, aquariums, Gabriel Garcia Marques, the canals in Amsterdam, oatmeal baths, Cafe Macondo with its yellow light and yellow tamales, when I let someone into traffic and they wave thanks, Christmas, my grandfather's big clean hands.

(You are not telling anything. You have always done this. You distract from the real topic. You act comfortable and accepting. I'm afraid I have no story. It's not resolved yet. I can't sort it into a chronology.)

It's not really funny. It's funny when my brother and sister and mom joke about it, but otherwise it has soured. Cliches filter into truths for me. I am becoming a product of my upbringing. I look like my father, Dave tells me. He asks me to find one or two things that I like about him, that will let me look at him sympathetically, and disregard the rest. There's nothing. I don't like him. I don't respect him. I don't need him. "That's sad," Dave says. "Sometimes I get worried" my mother says. She is eating a caramel rice cake and balancing a diet coke on her lap. "Sometimes I think I fucked you up more than anyone else. I look at you and I wonder what I've done to you, but then I listen to you and I think I don't have to worry about you, I have to worry about Shannon."

My mom and sister and I are drinking diet cokes from plastic tumblers on the back porch. We are making fun of my mother's husbands. "Remember the time when we walked into the hotel room in Hawaii and he was passed out naked on his back? That was so disgusting."

"At least you didn't have to have sex with him," my mom chirps in and we all groan. "You decided to marry him, we didn't. You have shitty taste in men, Period."

"It's pretty wacky," I say and laugh, putting the salt and pepper back into their metal holder, lining up the utensils. Ketchup next to mustard. Fork is split into three prongs. No you are not. (I promised myself I wouldn't be screwed up.)

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