These days my wife and I are forced to have supper with our kids. Family suppers are the foundation of a home education that we’ve enjoyed denying them for a long time. It was nice to have them out of the way so that their mother and I could drink wine in peace and say nasty things about other people. Now that we’re eating together, the bickering I can remember from my own childhood is replaying itself.
“I don’t like red peppers,” my son declares and steps away from the table. “I’m not eating them.”
JD holds his plate at a distance and pulls the beginnings of a face.
“You’re twelve,” his mother says. “You can’t eat only the chicken.”
“So what if I’m twelve? You’re fifty.”
Mia stares at him for a few seconds to contain herself.
“Sit—down,” she hisses. “I’m fifty because I ate my peppers.”
JD sits down but continues to hold out his plate as though he expects a butler to whisk it away.
“Now eat the peppers,” Mia says and points at the offending pieces of red pepper in his sweet and sour chicken.
JD does a microsmile that I’ve seen some villain do in a James Bond movie, microseconds before James Bond killed him.
“It’s not about age—” I hesitate.
“Look at the clock,” JD changes the subject. “It’s ten past nine!”
Mia turns to check the microwave clock. “It’s past your bedtime—”
“Just two minutes!” Annie squeals.
“Exactly,” Mia says through clenched teeth. “Two minutes! Now eat those peppers.”
“No!” thus Annie. “In two minutes it will be 21:12.”
“You know,” JD adds with a professorial air, “a palimdrone.”
“I’m ten,” Annie moves on before Mia can react. “I’m not eating this chicken.”
Mia turns from JD and levels a stony gaze at Annie.
“It had a life,” Annie explains and stabs at pieces of chicken with an accusing finger.
I struggle not to laugh. “Those were probably from different actual chickens—”
“Now they’re dead,” Mia says and calmly levels the same gaze at me. Without looking away she adds, “The best thing for them is that you eat them.”
“I’ll eat the chicken!” JD interjects.
“Yeah!” Annie cries. “I’ll eat his peppers.”
As I sit there, I marvel at how easy my children have it. They don’t know the kind of suffering I endured as a child. Their puny problems are limited to Mia and sweet and sour chicken. I had to deal with their father’s problems, the irrational rules of half of their grandparents, and a gem squash. For those who don’t know, a gem squash looks like this:
Its scientific name—Cucurbita pepo—sounds like a disease that afflicts clowns. If people had left it alone, it would’ve been OK. We could’ve used it as a camouflaged buoy, or as something to put behind the wheel of a truck on an incline. But some pervert came up with the idea to cook it instead. When that happens, the squash looks like a microwaved tennis ball:
The existence of the gem squash conclusively refutes the notion of intelligent design. It cannot be the handiwork of a sane God. Only indifferent evolution can climb the craggy slopes atop which sits the gem squash. This is what I said—probably in less technical detail—the night my mother decided that I was going to eat one.
“You’re fifteen!” she cried. “You’ve never even tried it.”
“I haven’t tried boiled turds either.”
“Dammit!” my father bellowed and banged with his fist on the table. “We’re eating!”
“It’s ugly,” I said when he’d adjusted his glasses. I pointed at the gem squash. “And hairy.”
I’d had an ongoing battle with gem squashes for as long as I could remember. I would flip them over and stuff other things I didn’t like under them and then claim that I’d eaten everything except, perhaps, the gem squash. At times I scraped the hairy bits from the inside of the squash and distributed them all over my plate in the hope that they would somehow disappear.
“What do you mean, hairy?” my father wondered. He seemed genuinely surprised. “It’s stringy. That’s the wonderful thing about it.”
“Stringy? It’s basically pumpkin floss.”
My mother motioned an end to our conjecturing.
“You will eat that squash if it’s the last thing you do,” she declared.
She tightened her face in resolve. The liberties she and my father allowed us had to be rescinded from time to time. We were allowed to interrupt them as equals and we were encouraged to reason about their rules, but now and again they were overcome by a desire to have it the way their parents had it with them.
“When we were kids,” she fumed, “we ate everything on our plates or there was hell to pay.”
My sister sighed in dramatic enjoyment as she ate her squash. “It’s very nice,” she said.
“Just think,” my mother went on, “millions of children around the world are hungry tonight. Here you sit with a perfectly good squash, and you don’t even want it.”
“Let’s send it to one of them instead.”
“Look!” she snapped. “Enough of this democracy bullshit! You will eat that squash.”
There was silence around the table. A point of no return had been reached.
“You’re not getting up from here until you’ve eaten that squash.”
I looked at the squash.
“I don’t care if you sit here all night, but eat it you will.”
It looked even worse now that it was cold.
“It’s cold,” I said.
The dishes were cleared away and only the squash and I remained. My father returned and paused opposite me.
“Just eat it,” he whispered. “It’s not about the squash anyway.”
I leant forward so he could tell me what it was really about but my mother came around the corner.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked.
“Then eat it.”
She sat down opposite me.
“Maybe you don’t understand,” she said, “but tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, here, at this table, you’re going to eat that squash. You don’t move until you do. And when you’re ready to eat it, you call me.”
She pointed at me and then at the squash as though the two of us were in trouble together. And then she left. A few minutes passed but she didn’t return. The gem squash was an arresting sight, sitting all by itself on an otherwise empty plate in the middle of nowhere. Now that it was drying out, the hairy bits had started to contract and the whole thing looked like a tumour removed from a cabbage. Even people who loved gem squash would not have wanted it.
For a while I concentrated on the microwave clock to see if I could predict when its minute digit would change. Then I wondered whether there was anyone who could honestly say that a gem squash was their favourite food. I couldn’t imagine such a person. And if that person didn’t exist, why did gem squashes exist? Nothing should exist that is not the favourite thing of something else. If that were true, there’d be no gem squashes. There’d be no Brooke Shields.
Maybe I could sleep, I thought. Surely my mother wouldn’t force-feed me while I was asleep? She could try while I was awake, but that wouldn’t be me eating the squash—that would be her eating it with my mouth. She wouldn’t do that either. In fact, I thought, what could she do?
At midnight I’d sat there for two hours and forty-eight minutes, longer than it took to watch a movie. My father came from his study and inspected the squash.
“Jesus,” he said, “I have to admit, it looks like cow dung with pips.”
“See the clock,” I said. “It’s symmetric. When I started sitting here, it said 21:12. I’ve seen 22:22, and 23:32 also. Seventy minutes apart.”
My father perked up. It gave him hope whenever I showed a glimmer of interest in anything mathematical.
“How many hours don’t have that?” he asked with some excitement.
At this, my mother arrived from her studio. She was smoking two cigarettes—a new one and one she must have discovered after she’d lit the new one.
“What are you talking about?” she asked and eyed my father.
“This is no time to talk about time,” she scolded him.
“I’d like to talk about time,” I announced.
“Yes?” my mother said and stubbed out the old cigarette.
“I’m not going to eat this squash,” I said. “Ever.”
“I know,” she said while she regarded me. “I realised that two hours ago.”
“Then why did you let me sit here?” I wailed.
“It’s late,” she said as she scraped the squash into the bin. “Go to bed.”
“All this is your fault,” Mia sniffs. “You should back me up, not encourage them to look at clocks and palindromes.”
“21:12!” Annie chimes and bites at another piece of red pepper.
“It’s late,” Mia says and gets up from the table. “Go to bed.”