“Hey spaz, do you eat to live, or live to eat?”
Hillary Malloy giggled as she asked me the question. I was floored. I didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t the content of the question, it was the fact that Hillary was talking to me at all. I was in Catholic middle school – St. Brendan’s – and Hillary was at the top of a holy triumvirate second in stature only to The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.
Hillary Malloy, Tina Hammers, and Maryanne Reyes. The big Three. God they were cute. More than cute. Every boy in school desired them.
I sputtered back “I eat to live.” She giggled and left. To this day I have no idea whether I answered “correctly” or not.
Hillary, Tina and Maryanne were way out of my league, but that didn’t stop me from burning the image of them playing volleyball in their Dolfin shorts into my retinas.
Four years later, in a twist I never saw coming, Maryanne called me up out of the blue and invited me to her Christmas dance. What I remember most is leaving her bedroom by the back stair when her parents got home earlier than expected. And we had only just begun to make out! Ah, the injustice! Sometimes it’s better to have no pizza at all than even a tiny bite. Who needs to have their appetite whetted when there’s nothing more to nibble??
But this isn’t about Maryanne, or pizza or even the other two queen bees. Like fellow Offender Roger, I’m not a foodie, even though I like food. Of course I do. Who doesn’t? What I really respond to when it comes to meals, though, is what the other person has put into it. And I’m not talking herbs and marinades, I’m talking back story.
When I was a little kid, my mom volunteered to work at the ‘84 Olympics in LA.
It’s just something she wanted to do.
She came home from the Games one day with a clear plastic take out box. In it was a ham and cheese croissant, some grapes, and a little chocolate. It was the lunch they gave to volunteers. She saved it for me because she knew I’d enjoy it. She gave up a meal for me.
I know, I know, it’s what parents are supposed to do.
But still, I was really touched. I pictured her standing at the information kiosk, stomach growling, as she answered tourists’ questions. This was the woman who worked two jobs to put me through Catholic school. She stood at a bank teller window all day, in spite of the painful varicose veins in her legs, to make sure I got the best start I could in life.
That little box lunch was us.
I remember a second special meal with my mom. Once or twice a year we’d go to the Hawaiian Kitchen, a restaurant on Western and Beverly, now long gone.
It was a splurge for us. We always counted our pennies and rarely took extravagant summer vacations. But one summer, when I was about 8 or 9, mom took me to Lake Tahoe for a week. I kayaked, we swam, played on the beach, even went to a casino or two.
When we got back home, there was an unspoken understanding that there would be no extravagances for a long, long time. And on the day we got back, walking from our car to an errand at Thrifty’s, we saw it blowing along the sidewalk: a ten dollar bill. I ran and picked it up and couldn’t believe it: a couple feet ahead there was another bill on the sidewalk! A five! I picked it up, giddy. We both smiled and laughed. I’d found quarters and single dollar bills here and there, but never a ten and a five, and certainly not together.
Naturally I assumed we’d put the money straight into the bank after our splurge in Tahoe. But no, that night, my dear, pragmatic mother decided fate had given us a gift, and it was to be enjoyed as such. That night we ate at the Hawaiian Kitchen. I have no idea what I ordered, but it was one of the best meals of my life.
That night I lived to eat.