We are eating dinner in the breakfast room, the four of us kids and my mother. I’m particularly pleased because she’s served us spaghetti in the bowls from France that have a little painted boy or girl on the bottom and neat flat handles on each side. Guessing whether we have a girl or boy at the bottom of our bowl is a favorite game.
Boy, my older sister guesses. Girl, says my brother. Girl, from my little sister who has yet to eat a bite of food. They wait for my guess, but I’m in the middle of counting the number of noodles I’ve eaten and am afraid if I pause I may lose count and, well, then it’s all over. Come on they say. Guess already. Boy, I mumble, trying to hold on to the number seventeen in my head, but Margot, my younger sister, starts in with the moaning—her nightly ritual—and I know that things will only go downhill from here.
Margot clutches her stomach and continues to groan and claim that she feels like she’s being stabbed. She is six years old but looks about four because she barely eats. My parents have taken her to doctors, specialists even, but nothing’s ever been found to be wrong with her. She knocks her bowl away from her and rice with cinnamon, raisins, and butter, the only meal she’ll eat, spills across the table. The raisins look like a trail of slugs inching towards me and I can’t remember how many noodles I’ve eaten.
My mother, who is in the kitchen making dessert, fresh fruit and cottage cheese, screams at Margot to eat her food. I plot the ways I can make myself a new bowl of spaghetti, start my count over, and get it right this time. If I don’t, something very bad will happen. Take your pick: Margot will die of starvation, my brother Max will get hit by a car, Elyse will be kidnapped, or my father will die in a plane crash.
Margot is still whimpering when my mother brings us the fruit and cottage cheese. My mother doesn’t believe in serving processed foods or sugary desserts. She won’t use a microwave and cooks bulgur wheat, quinoa, and steel cut oats long before they become trendy. It’s the 1980s, and all we want is some Magic Shell or Cap’n Crunch like the rest of America. I am pretty sure that Margot’s stomach hurts because any time my mother isn’t in the kitchen, Margot climbs up on the counter to get to the sugar, used only for my father’s coffee, and hoovers as much as she can before she hears someone coming.
Margot, the most daring of us all, continues to groan and when my mother sets the fruit and cottage cheese before her, Margot shoves it as hard as she can, and the curds and cubed pears fly everywhere. Max and Elyse shovel down their dessert and clear their places, and I could do the same, except that if I do, I know someone will die tonight. It’s imperative that I start over with the spaghetti and count every noodle I swallow until my bowl is empty and I can see a little French girl or boy grinning up at me.
My mother looks at the cottage cheese, rice, raisins, and pears splattered across our kitchen table, and a low moan rises from her throat. She turns toward the closest wall and begins to knock her forehead against it, lightly at first, but then harder and faster. You kids, she says. Just wait until I leave you and go to Paris. I will. I will go to Paris to live with my sisters and leave you all here with your father. She is crying now and continues to beat her forehead against the wall. There is a rhythm to it: Bang, Paris; Bang, I will leave all of you; Bang, get on a plane; Bang, gone.
Elyse and Max watch from the kitchen for a few seconds and then go upstairs to their rooms. Margot has left the table and is picking through the bag of raisins on the kitchen counter, but I stay at the table, unable to look away from my mother. Her hair swishes this way and that, and snot drips from her nose over her lips. I watch my mother as she knocks her head against the wall and I count: fourteen knocks, nine Parises, seven I will leave yous. I am more unnerved by the odd number of Parises and I will leave yous than by what she is doing or saying.
That night, it takes so long for the house to go dark and quiet. My father arrives home from work late, after we are all in bed. I hear murmuring from my parents’ room, and I wait. Finally, when everyone is asleep, I sneak down to the kitchen and get the leftover spaghetti out of the refrigerator. I take one of the bowls from France and look at the smiling girl peering out from inside before I fill it. I count each noodle as it goes down my throat: Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. Our house is old, and I hear the creaks and groans as it settles in the night. The spaghetti is cold, and the noodles are hard to swallow. Then go to Paris, I say between bites and numbers. Then go to Paris, I say.
© Yasmina Din Madden
[This piece was originally published in now-defunct Word Riot, selected by Sara Crowley]