Rice Grain Girl

Alysia Sawchyn

Rice Grain Girl is the third place winner of the 2017 LUMINA Nonfiction Contest, judge by Leslie Jamison.


Luis' Arm/Puro Colombia, Juan Giraldo


The girl is a picky eater. She doesn’t do it on purpose—once inside her mouth, peas grow and shoot tendrils down the back of her throat, tickling her gag reflex; sharp cheeses slice through her tongue and leave her unable to taste anything but their spoiled tang for weeks.

***

When I met the first man I loved, I was not eating.

In truth, I was eating, but I wasn’t eating much. I prefer the sound of the first sentence, though. It is cleaner, tighter. It is easier to understand.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I was prescribed a Ritalin derivative. Every morning, I ran upstairs to my parents’ bathroom, peed, took off my clothes, and stepped on the scale. It was impossible not to notice my weight loss, and I imagined I was the envy of every girl in my class that fall. I only drank orange juice while the sun was up.

Weeknights, I ate a sham dinner with my parents. It was a stressful, ritualistic affair. We ate dinner at a hardwood table, off plates edged in two-tone blue zigzags. There was salad, there was meat, there was starch, there were vegetables. Fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. We had napkin holders. My mother bought parsley to garnish the food.

These were difficult meals. Not because of the propriety or formality, but because they were the only times my parents and I spent together and tried to get along without the motivation of others’ expectations and eyes to keep us civil. I ate fast. I answered questions sparsely, like so many other teenagers, with monosyllabic responses like good and, especially, fine, the i-sound alternately clipped or long and drawn out depending on whether I was expressing avoidance or exasperation.

That summer, despite the variety of food on the table, I ate only salad and small amounts of protein. No starch or dressing or dairy touched my plate.

“You look great,” they said.

One night, my mother made mussels with cream and cut up an entire baguette into hearty, thick chunks, arranging them on a cloth napkin in a woven basket. She placed the basket between me and my father, knowing how much we loved the warm, chewy slices. I ate one piece.

“You have such wonderful self-control,” my father said.

When I stepped on the scale the next morning, I felt guilt and shame.

I was disappearing and becoming more visible at the same time. As I tucked my hands around my hip bones at night, I envisioned impurities, character flaws being burned away with my baby fat. As my cheekbones caught the light in the mornings, I was a sculpture, all stone. I imagined I could feel my stomach walls touching themselves and felt strong, like I was superhuman, surviving on air.

I now know this is child’s play for the anorexic. This only lasted until the spring, less than a full year, when I was eventually coerced by a man with a pockmarked face into eating bits of dried squid, handfuls and handfuls of clementines, hearty pasta dishes. I stayed thin, though I wouldn’t think so until years later.  

***

The girl’s parents grow desperate: they set a timer in front of her and threaten to throw away all unfinished food at the shrill alarm. One night, she outright refuses to eat the tinned salmon placed in front of her, and her father sends her to bed without dinner. But he relents. He brings her applesauce and apologies. She is an only child.     

***

Almost everyone I know has a first love story and almost all these stories end badly. I’m pretty sure the first man I fell hard for, Mick, had some nonspecific Asian fetish. Think pornography tastes and library books and katanas lining his bedroom walls. Though distressing in retrospect, it felt good at the time because I thought it meant he would stay mine.

Our families had only one obvious characteristic in common: we ate dinner together at the dining room table most nights.

On Fridays and Saturdays, my nighttime meals migrated from my parents’ house to Mick’s. Dinners there were entirely different, long and pleasantly drawn-out—an hour to eat, another hour for coffee and cigarettes. Even the lights at his house were softer, all dim and candles. His mother cooked in enamelware that comes out of the oven and goes directly onto the tabletop. Mick and his younger brother bickered and play-wrestled over whose turn it was to do the dishes. The dim light got dimmer as four of us—Mick’s father, his mother, him, and me—sat around the long table. We talked for hours.

My own mother and father, of course, strongly disliked Mick and his family. There was a leniency there, absent in my own household, that concerned my parents.

“They smoke in the house,” my father, who had quit only five years before, said.

“It’s cultural.” My mother spooned stir-fried vegetables onto my plate, then hers. “The Dutch, they let their children run wild. You know?”

I shrugged.

“They let their children make mistakes,” she said. A grimace.

My father picked cucumbers out of the salad with his fingers.

“What’s so bad about that?” A full five words, one conjunction, exited my mouth.

My mother shook her head, tsked her tongue against the back of her front teeth.

“You just know,” she said. “You can tell when a family is Dutch.”

Though my mother couched her dislike of Mick’s parents in cultural differences, a part of it was jealousy, though she would not admit this until years later. As I moved further and further away from my family, I moved closer and closer to his. And though now we can almost write it off as merely another trial of late adolescence, I wonder if she then feared a pattern emerging, if given her physical distance from her own family, she worried the growing rift between us would culminate in a cross-continental move, like mother like daughter.

There was also this: Mick went days without shaving because the stubble hid acne scars on his face, was junkie-skinny from heroin. Either in spite or because of these qualities, I cherished him all the more. My body still felt small against his.  

***

 “You know what my mother told me?” the girl’s mother asks.

The girl shakes her head. Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, speaks only in Chinese, and the girl cannot understand anything she says.

“She told me to always eat all my rice. She told me each grain left in the bowl would be a mark on my future husband’s face,” her mother says. Her mother reaches across the table, runs her hand across the girl’s father’s face. “See what nice skin he has?” she asks. “I always finished my rice.”

***

Mick moved to the Netherlands to attend college. He lived, for a time, in the upstairs room of an artist’s house. Located in a small, picturesque town, the house was an old converted print studio. In the remodeling, the artist, Tamara, removed walls, installed large windows that opened sideways and from the top, depending on how the handles were turned. Mick said when she first showed him his room, there were bunches of marijuana hanging from the rafters.

“Sorry,” she’d said. “We’ve been using the place for storage.”

He took it immediately.

Tamara and her partner, Oscar, were wonderful, warm people. She painted with oils and rented rooms. He lived on a houseboat and worked as a hospice nurse. Though Mick had since moved out to be closer to school and lived in a different city, we spent several days at her home when I visited him one early March.

Tamara, Oscar, Mick, and I stayed up late, sitting around a long plastic table in the kitchen. We rarely ate dinner, but I hardly felt hungry. I smoked cigarette after cigarette, drank purple Fanta, and felt like our time around the table was all that existed of life, that the school and work I’d left behind were disappearing, had never really mattered. We listened to music, talked about work, international politics, art, about anything. As the hours swam by, we waltzed in various pairs, sometimes human and mop, around the room, humming. Tamara rolled the weed she’d grown in her garden into each cigarette she smoked with dexterous, artist’s fingers. Crates of beer disappeared. One night, when Mick and I walked to the store to buy more, the cashier, a petite blonde, flirted with him. I didn’t need to speak the language to understand her gestures, her eyes. I teased him about it back at the kitchen table.

“Don’t do that,” Tamara said, pointing at me.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter.” Her blue eyes were red and half-lidded. “You know he loves you, so you shouldn’t say it. And if he didn’t, you saying something wouldn’t make a difference.”

She was right.

Friends came by the house. One night, it was a group of men from Mick’s university. Another night, it was Everhart. I’m not sure what he did at the time, but he’d said he was part of the UN peacekeeping mission during the Kosovo War. Half caricature, he remarked how pleasantly surprised he was that, though American, I was not grossly overweight. Later that night, he told me a story about drowning a litter of motherless kittens in a war zone “for their own good, you understand?” He sang slow Dutch ballads and riotous, political French songs.

The day I left, Tamara burned her yard waste, all the dead leaves and plants from the winter, in a small iron stove in the backyard. Its heat was enough that we could sit outside comfortably while the sun was up. Oscar cooked breakfast, fried eggs and meat, made sandwiches of dark, thick bread with mugs and mugs of coffee. I picked around the yolks. Everhart was still there, though I’m not sure where or if he slept. Mick brought his camera outside and took photographs of everyone while we weren’t paying attention. The pictures’ backgrounds look faded from the pervasive white smoke. Oscar’s blond ponytail is a blur, Tamara’s eyes are half-closed, her mouth open. Everhart looks at the camera. In most of the photos of me, I am in motion—laughing, talking, my hands a tan smudge in front of my face as I bring a cigarette to my mouth. There is one, though, where I am still. I am sitting on the ground, wearing Mick’s sweater. It is too big for my thin frame, the soft materials hangs off my shoulders, casting deep shadows around my collarbone. My hair is dark and pulled back, and I am holding a coffee mug so big my hands, bony knuckles prominent, barely touch when wrapped around it.

When I got back from the trip, my parents did not ask if I had a good time, though they were normally interested in my travels. There were annoyed I’d chosen to go in the first place, that I hadn’t yet grown out of or away from this man. Years later they saw the picture of me holding the too-large coffee mug and another of me smiling, sitting at Tamara’s kitchen table, and they asked where they were taken and by whom, remarking I looked so happy, so thin, so rested there. I don’t remember if I answered.

Mick tried to take a photograph of himself to give to me, but they never came out right. In some pictures he looks nervous, like he is about to run away, like the light is too much for his pale eyes. In others, he looks like he is mid-sigh. His cheeks are speckled, so many tiny shadows across his face from the March afternoon light.

***

What the girl does like are clementines. She can eat pounds of them in a sitting. She enjoys the task of peeling the small, thin-skinned fruits, taking the rind off in one piece—a process that initially required much concentration, but one she now does automatically. Afterward, she curls the skins back in place, trying to align the tears as best she can, so the peel is reassembled, empty, like a snakeskin shed and left behind.

She sometimes swallows the peeled fruits whole and pretends she is unhinging her jaw. The girl is a python, her stomach stretches, pushes out. She will finish them all.  

***

Some habits take years to kick: later in life, I moved to a land-locked state where I lived with yet another man with bad skin. Native to the region, named for one of the original evangelists, Matthew was a picky eater. I’d learned to cook, but he was suspicious of my bone-in meats, seafood, and half-rainbow of produce. I learned to make potatoes and potatoes and potatoes, savory pies with cream, huge pans of chili with cornbread. I gained weight from the heavy starches, my clothes fitting for the first time since I was a teenager, and it kept me warm through the Midwestern winters.

Matthew and his best friend went fishing at a private lake one afternoon. They caught maybe twenty fish—a mix of crappie, pronounced craw-pee, the small, patterned sunfish coveted in Midwestern lakes, and smallmouth bass—between them. When they returned home, Matthew stayed in the living room, disgusted, while his friend taught me the motions of cutting meat off bones, of peeling skin. It was time-consuming, and my hands moved awkwardly around the once-living creatures.

Most of the fish were female. Matthew’s friend pulled the yellow egg sacs out of their bellies with his thick fingers.

“Don’t puncture these,” he said, “you can fry ‘em up if they stay whole.”

Sometimes, after being out of the water for hours, fish convulse when sitting on the countertops of the unsuspecting. One flopped, bending back and forth over itself like a silver slinky, as I had one hand on her head, the other around the filleting knife.

I yelped, high and loud.

Matthew’s friend, who was heating oil on the stove, stepped in front of me, picking up the knife I’d dropped on the counter, and hit the fish in the head with its handle. He stopped her movement, but also ruptured her eyeball. The pupil blew; clear goop clung to the underside of the faux-wood cabinets. I nearly put my hands to my mouth, but was stopped by the slime on my fingers. It made them stick together as it dried.

When I was finished, Matthew’s friend made us dinner. The oil was hot, and the fish pieces were golden.

“Like chicken nuggets,” Matthew said.

His friend gave me a freezer bag full of the fish I’d cut, but Matthew said he wouldn’t eat them anymore, that he’d had enough.

I called my mother, told her I’d finally learned to clean fish.

The next weekend, Matthew left town for work. On Friday night, I transferred the frozen filets from the freezer to the fridge to thaw. The next day, I poured rice into the cooker, rinsed the grains, used the knuckles on my middle finger to determine how much water was needed. I bought ginger, scallions, soy sauce, green onions. I steamed the fish with pleasure.

When it was all done, when the house smelled like warmth and sharpness, I scooped rice into a bowl and spooned the white, flaky fish on top. I ate sitting on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, no ceremony. I pulled up my shirt. I had been unkind to my body in the heartland. My stomach curved outward, like an inverted bowl, my hipbones hid beneath my flesh. I finished the rice regardless.    


Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida. Her writing has appeared in Indiana Review, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction recently won Cutbank's 2016 Big Sky Small Prose Flash Contest. She is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection and writes the monthly column "Baking is Cheaper Than Therapy" at Barrelhouse. She can be found on Twitter @happiestwerther.