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A Skirmish

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I had an adventure tonight: I made dinner.

But I didn't really make it, I just kind of took all the leftovers and dumped them onto various heat sources. I started with the old macaroni, chucking it unceremoniously into a pot of boiling water. Flaming liquid sailed out of the vessel and sloshed onto the stovetop, hissing angrily as it hit the sides of the pot. Afraid to put my fingers too close to the gas fire's heat, I wrapped a towel around a wooden spoon and used my invention to mop up some of the spill. When everything was dried off, I rewarded myself with another draft; I knew I would never actually send the texts that I wrote.

I whipped out my phone and automatically pressed buttons: top right for contact list, five once for the letter "w", which defaulted automatically to "z", and therefore to the only entry beginning with that letter: Zachariah. Top right again for options, center for new message. I could practically see nursing homes full of people gaping at the scene; a girl with absolutely no cooking skill and yet an inhuman ability to navigate technology. I could see wrinkly grandmothers whirling through a kitchen and preparing a meal with just a can of mushroom soup, a cucumber and a healthy dose of culinary prowess, none of whom had the slightest notion of how to work a calculator. What I couldn't see were words, because the letters were simply refusing to cooperate with my thumbs and come up with something witty or exciting. The little blinking text bar taunted me, remaining still and infuriatingly patient. With a sigh I snapped the phone shut; unfortunately my communication skills were stunted even more than my kitchen savvy.

I turned my attention back to humiliating as many food items as possible. I was contemplating whether the tuna noodle casserole or the plate of broccoli and rice should be tackled next when my brother, Jacob, sauntered into the room, pulling behind him a train of Pinewood Derby cars tied together with string. "What's for dinner?" he asked, warily eyeing the various containers spread over the countertops. I was too distracted to answer his question; my OCD brain was running around having little conniption fits over his dribbling nose, his grime-encrusted fingernails, and the skid marks left on the tile from his processional toys. Ignoring me and the answer that he had never expected in the first place, Jake turned to examine each dish in turn, sometimes lifting a lid or plastic wrap to smell it. I sank back into concentration mode, still stuck between the choices. I closed my eyes and laid my hands on a new item altogether: a Styrofoam box containing a clump of shrimp alfredo and half a breadstick from our family's recent Olive Garden jaunt. I seized it, and, with another random feel, a bowl of mashed potatoes. While pondering the possibility of a successful combination of the dishes, my eyebrows creased to the point where they were obstructing my vision.

So it was rather understandable that I ran into Jake as I spun back around. Still, there was a generous helping of indignity slathered into his simpering look, which was not unusual; as a self-centered ten-year-old, Jake was a regular Duke of Drama, and an expert exaggerator. His huge blue eyes were teary and quivering as he whined, "No meat?" I glanced around at the containers, though I already knew what all of them held. "Doesn't look like it," I told him, stating the obvious. Honestly, if Jake hadn't smelled meat the moment he walked into the kitchen, there wasn't any. After all, my brother is a carnivore, which is quite ironic considering the positive correlation between meat consumption and intelligence. You'd think that for the amount of flesh Jake packed with every meal, he'd have had a genius IQ five years ago. Unluckily for him, there didn't seem to be any positive affect from his diet, leaving him almost shockingly normal and of totally average brain power.

So again, it was predictable that he did not comprehend most of my conversations with him. Most have dubbed me either impressively wordy or annoyingly so. Especially around my family, most of whom expect such behavior, I tend to do some extra flexing of my encyclopedic muscle. The habit is most prominent when I am focusing on something tricky, such as disguising a battery of half-eaten meals as something even remotely appetizing. Normally, I would not have provoked my emotionally unstable sibling, but my mouth went on autopilot the moment I tripped over his car snake and sent shrimp and potatoes vaulting out of my control and splattering every surface in sight. From my sprawled position on the floor, I cried, "Jeez, Hansel, do you really have to leave trails everywhere you go? Really, who would even want to follow them?" At which point Jake, already upset over his lack of edible carcass, ran from the room in tears, leaving behind the chain of a Boy Scout's crowning glory: chunks of wood on cheap plastic wheels. I swept them up with the rest of the mess and dumped everything in the trash.

As soon as I was done cleaning up what had been my one true hope of dinner, I pulled out my phone once more. My digits happily continued on their usual course as my brain fumed. For all that overexertion, it still only managed three more letters than last time:

"Hey" the text read, and again that stupid ending bar was making a fool of me. Still, I needed comfort and reassurance before the coming battle. I needed to know that someone out there wasn't totally insane. Well, my mind, still smoking, countered, Maybe Zach isn't the best person to go to for that.

Haha, very funny, I answered myself, He's the only one to go to, don't kid yourself.

I'm not kidding.

And it's true. I was totally serious. Not on the thinking-Zach-was-insane level, but my near total dependency on him for recent conversation had been, for lack of a better word, disconcerting. Without really thinking about it I looked at the directory of all the calls I'd ever received. Three fourths were from him. And I wondered what his phone showed, if I was the only one he ever talked to. And I knew that I wasn't.

So where did that leave me? Wanting to talk to the one person who probably did not want to talk to me? Hoping that I didn't bother him as much as I suspected? Watching the pot gurgle away on the stove and wondering if I would ever be able to successfully prepare a meal? It was as unlikely as my actually getting up the courage to start a conversation. Because that's all I wanted really. A nice long string of small talk and inside jokes, a memory or two, something unmemorable and mundane and insignificant. Because in recent months it seemed like everything I said was being watched and judged, everything I did was being scrutinized and searched.

And just when I began to appreciate not having to deal with any of that for the duration of the weekend, who should walk in but the master of miraculous mediocrity himself: my own dear father, followed by a disgruntled Jacob, whose face was twisted in a tear-streaked smirk. I hastily stowed my phone back in its pocket and made to appear as though I was stirring the hopeless pasta, but my father's carefully-honed observational senses were not fooled. "Oho," he jeered, "Hey, texter, whatcha doing?" He gave the original smirk, the one my brother had inherited, and that little laugh he exhales when demonstrating superiority. I glared at him, and he got down to business because he knew I wasn't going to play nice. "Jacob says you called him a Hansel. And that you broke his cars." I nodded, knowing that if I said anything, this would just take longer.

"First of all, I'd like to know what a Hansel is. And second, I want you to apologize."

I sighed, looked to my only allies, which happened to be the army of leftovers. When they offered no suggestions, I sighed again, then took the plunge. "In Hansel and Gretel, they have to walk through the woods without knowing how to get home again, so Hansel leaves trails of things so they can find their way back. Jake is like that too, he always has a trail of stuff behind him. And for your information," I added, only because I was so incensed I couldn't stop myself- I'm sure my palatable companions would have advised against it- "I tripped over the junk that he left in the middle of the kitchen floor and spilled food everywhere, so does he have to apologize for that?"

"You're older. You should know to be more careful by now. Jacob is still learning to manage his things, and he does not need you confusing him on top of everything else. I'll hear that apology now."

Again, I couldn't help it. "You first, Jakey," I prompted. My words were met by my father's scowl and shattered in midair. My brother's grin could not have been more pronounced. Admitting defeat, I stared pointedly at the floor and muttered, "Sorry."

"That's better," my father beamed. "Now run along and play, Jacob. What is it exactly that you're doing?" He looked at me over his nose, his low hands miming the action of texting. I had a sudden urge to throw one of the soggy vegetable medleys at his face, or better yet, the pot of ferociously bubbling water.

But anger wasn't going to get me anywhere. Any betrayal of emotion could be used against me. My voice was a flat monotone as I answered him:

"Making dinner."

"Well, keep at it." And with that the drama worshipper left the room.

In his wake my let loose the anger it had been trying so hard to hold back. I bit my tongue, grasping the countertop's lip and counting, One, two, three, five, seven, eleven... Even the calculations accompanying prime numbers was not enough of a distraction. Wildly improvising, my brain saw the scattered array of containers and concocted a game: Matchmaker. I lined up all the trays in a row, then selected one to be the bachelor. Green beans seemed masculine enough, so I grabbed them from among the ranks and slid them down the line. "Bachelorette number one enjoys a spin in the microwave or even a hot roast if she can get one," I declared, referring to the wedge of breakfast quiche, "but take her to the broiler when she's not ready, and you'll be in some hot water." For a moment I had an out-of-body experience, looking down upon myself making couples out of the forgotten residents of a refrigerator's darkest corners. It was pitiful, worse than being a meat-eater or obsessing over making life one big cliché.

With a shudder and a gasp I was back inside myself, stopping mid-description on Bachelorette number three, which was the rice and broccoli. All at once I felt really terrible, worse than anything in living memory. My anger and revulsion towards my father had not diminished in the slightest, but a sneaky vein of pity was working its way into the madness. I wanted more than ever to talk to Zach, but did not even allow myself to do as much as taking the phone out. My brain, for a fleeting moment, went desperate: a brief image of myself plunging my hand into the scalding pot flashed before my eyes. The pain? Nothing. Not a factor at all. The only feeling accompanying that scenario was complete satisfaction, what with the constant calls from various long-lost friends concerning my welfare, skipping gym and leaving class early, not having to play the clarinet and so bypassing the entire issue of band...it seemed a paradise. When I came back to reality my hand was actually moving towards the stove...

I needed to get out of that kitchen. As quickly as I could I dumped everything into a casserole dish, smeared peanut butter over the top, and shoved it into the oven. I raced up to my room, planning to check on the meal when I smelled something burning. Even then I'd probably have my father take it out, or just leave it for him to deal with altogether. I wasn't hungry anyway. The smell of slowly burning flesh had ruined whatever appetite I might have previously enjoyed. I turned the music up as loud as it would go and looked up at the sky, and when that still had me a little jumpy, I closed my eyes.

The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, the sound of a smoke alarm in my ears. I was up and in the kitchen before I even knew what was happening. Deft hands, which could not have belonged to me, removed a large black chunk from the oven and set it on the countertop. I turned the oven off and opened the windows to let the smoke out, then used a pen to pry the batteries out of the fire alarm. I was coming back to assess the damage fully when I caught sight of a note on the counter:

"Decided to eat out tonight. Didn't want to wake you! Call my cell if there's a problem." It was written on the back of one of my dad's business cards. I put it in the paper shredder and looked at the clock. I had been asleep for all of ten minutes. In fact, not all of the water had boiled out of the first pot I had set on the stove, so I drained the pasta. A little time and kitcheny magic had somehow revived them, transforming the doughy brick into a shower of fluffy noodles. Unfortunately the same could not be said for my other creation. A kind label might have been somewhere between overdone brownies and a supersized charcoal briquette. Neither option could truly capture the smell, which only made me want to open the windows wider even if it did let the heat out. I felt a deep sense of loss connected with the death of my leftovers; for the past half an hour they had been my only friends.

As I mourned my fallen comrades, a deeper loneliness took hold, and again there was a flicker of desperation. Before the image came clear again, I shoved it down, but not before I felt that same compulsive desire to call Zach and tell him everything. Suddenly, I seemed almost disgustingly needy, and to keep that from becoming anything more significant I forced myself to concentrate on the pasta that I was spooning into a bowl. One scoop, two, then three. I capped my mountain with a dusting of parmesan cheese, and, admiring my dinner, decided on another reward.

My phone was out again faster than I could think. Then I remembered my clinginess and it was away again. Then I recalled my loneliness and it was out once more, sleek and beckoning in my hands. I looked from my meal to my phone, to my food again, and to the phone. I put down the device and picked up a fork, then picked up the phone again. No compromise would work, I knew that from my disastrous attempt at mixing. I shut the phone and kept eating.

The battle was over. I was eating my very own al dente noodles by myself in a drafty house, and, for the first time that evening, I didn’t feel alone. Perhaps it was the fact that, despite my fallacies, I could still have a small victory or two. And that in itself made the whole war worth fighting.



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