A Small Taste of Normalcy
By Jocelyn F.
I chase the little green heads of my asparagus around my plate with the outermost tine of my fork. Tine. I love the word. When I say it, snow melts in my mouth and quietly sharp cinnamon lingers afterward. I grimace as I think of replacing that lovely taste with asparagus. I mouth the hard, ugly syllables and rub my tongue against the back of my teeth, attempting to eradicate the feel of furry caterpillars. I stare at the corner of my brown plate for a moment. Our plates have corners and hand-painted African designs on them, too. It distracts dinner guests, I’ve noticed.
“Eat your asparagus, Lynna, there’s a dear,” my mother says from the head of the table. She sits there instead of Dad, but he doesn’t mind. He’s used to her pointed, silent declarations. I discover that my foot is asleep, so I cross and uncross my legs. I can feel the linoleum pattern through my mat. You see, we don’t have a normal kitchen table. We sit on the ground on squishy mats like Mother says they do in Japan. I tell her that I don’t care about Japan, and the name of it tastes funny anyway. In reply, she reproaches me for not using the proper Japanese word for our mats, which I can never remember because it tastes all soft and bland, like overcooked rice. Whenever someone from school comes over to eat, I have to give the whole spiel: my mother went to an international college and she’s really a psychiatrist but she minored in international studies and spent a year in Africa with the Peace Corps, even though the pay wasn’t a quarter of what she would’ve made as a shrink; and so now she goes off on rambling lectures about the significance of the matriarchal family structure in primitive civilizations. Why can’t Americans be sensible like that? Normally, I stop after the part about the year in Africa.
When she met my dad after the Corps she decided to have kids, to practice her psychiatric trade behind the scenes. She imagined dark-haired, doll-faced little girls that would grow up to be graceful, willowy young women, just like her and her two sisters. I know this because she told me. One day she sat down with me and brought out an old shoebox whose cardboard corners were soft and tatty. Lifting the lid off carefully, she delved into the stacks of photos beneath and came up with a handful of pictures, all sticking out between her fingers and tangling in her bracelets. After carefully peeling apart the photos, my mother tucked her hair behind her ears and said, “Well.”
That was it. Just, “well.” Her voice tasted like the smell of mothballs, old and bedraggled and ready to be donated to Goodwill. Alarm pushed up the back of my throat; I didn’t want my mother to be old, and I didn’t want to taste mothballs every time she spoke to me.
“Lynna,” she said carefully, “you know that it’s best not to keep emotions all bottled up inside, yes?”
I knew she didn’t expect a reply, so I remained silent and struggled not to gag.
“Honesty is a tonic for the soul. That’s why I need to show you these and tell you how I feel.”
The back of the sofa dissolved and I knew I was stretching out on one of the muted red recliners in Mother’s office, at least in her mind. Silently I cursed Sigmund Freud: for his part in making my mother a shrink, and also because his first name tasted like tart lemons, which wasn’t so bad, but then his last name tasted like hot dogs, and the combination never failed to make me retch. Even thinking about it made me nauseous, so I tuned in again to my mother’s words.
“This is a photo of my sisters and me, when I was about eighteen. Lily was twenty and Amelia was, um, fourteen, I think.”
I looked at the picture, and a muzzy strain of sandy-beach oldies tickled my ear: the Beatles, maybe, or Buddy Holly. The three laughing sisters captured in the hazy colors of the faded photo were all too perfect: dark hair, mesmerizing eyes, slim silhouettes and smiles that almost forced the viewer to wear sunglasses. They made me want to go hide. I thought of becoming a hermit. Did any hermits live in Ireland? All the names there tasted like candy. I would fit right in with the Dubliners, too, what with my hair and all. (My friend Libby poetically calls my hair “flame-colored.” I call it carroty.)
“I wanted to be able to take a photo like this of my daughter, to put in the box next to mine. I wanted her to look just like me,” my mother said sadly, “so that when my hair turned gray and my face wrinkled up, I’d be able to look at my daughter and pretend she was a mirror, a living photograph.”
Her words were bitter in my mouth, pricking against my tongue and tender gums as if I rolled horse-chestnut balls around in my mouth. The whispering lyrics of the Beatles buzzed about my head like bees. Words banged around in back of my teeth. Mother, you’re the shrink here, you’re supposed to have it all under control and you’re not supposed to tell me these dreams of yours. Because, God, they’re yours and not mine and it’s not my fault you got a tall, gangly carrot-headed kid whose brain is hardwired wrong instead of a petite raven-eyed starlet. I focused my attention on the sick, tight feeling just below my ears, that prickly pins-and-needles sensation I always get when my taste-buds overdose.
My mother looked at me and then looked away, quickly, like she sensed I was struggling with my “condition,” as she charmingly terms it. My father calls it my “gift,” and makes it sound really cool and mysterious. Simply put, it’s just crossed wires and missed connections in the old conker. It makes me taste words and voices mostly, but sometimes I can see music and hear paintings, too. Only a few people know about my synthenesia, as the lab docs name it. It’s kind of cool sometimes, but other times I want to stop tasting the tang of old dog-eared photos and attic dust when my grandmother’s voice crackles into my ear over long-distance static. I wonder what it would be like to be normal, to say “Sigmund Freud” and not gag, to say any word I wanted in my Government-class debate instead of having to skirt around the word “constitutional” because it tastes like unwashed linen. Sometimes I ask God for just a small taste of normalcy.
I take my asparagus for another lap around my plate, admiring the way its green juices blot out the painted African patterns. My mother regards me silently from the head of the table.