Crave

AN EXCERPT

Our tiny beach house kitchen is filled with crates stuffed to the brim with vegetables, all the vegetables that don’t fit in the fridge that is already stuffed. One crate holds stacked celery heads, freshly picked and still smeared with dirt; one holds loose lemons; another, tightly packed heads of romaine. None of this was here yesterday. My mother, still in her nightgown, her hair held loosely back in a clip, is standing in the midst of all the produce with one hand on a gleaming silver machine: her new Acme juicer, which comes with a lifetime warranty. It’s only 8:00 a.m., but she is already making juice, and the hum that comes from the machine fills the room, as does the smell of celery, tomato, and cucumbers. There are two boxes of, as yet unpacked, additional Acme juicers by the cucumbers. Clearly she has come to this day prepared.

“Sit down and I’ll bring you your celery juice.” She says celery juice firmly. She’s trying to sell me on it, but she’s also not offering another option.

I sit. The juicer screams as she feeds the celery stalks through the square opening at the top, one by one, then pushes them down with the bright red plastic depressor onto the blade deep in the body of the appliance. Then: what sounds like disaster. The juicer rattles with an unbearable loudness, like it’s coming apart at very high speeds. It jumps and bumps across the Formica. My mother catches it, leans onto it harder, flips the switch off, leans hard until it calms. This, I later learn, is what happens when a chunk of vegetable misses the blade and in the spin of centrifugal force throws the entire machine off-balance. As the juicer loses speed and calms, my mother twists off the wide, heavy top and slows the spinning carriage with her open hand, the sound of metal on metal, her gold wedding band sliding on stainless steel. Once the juicer is still, she walks over and sets down a glass of vegetable juice on my place mat. It’s light green and frothy. A pink dollop of tomato juice bobs on top of the green.

“Drink it slowly,” she says. “Digest it in your mouth first.”

I take a sip. The juice is both watery and foamy at the same time. It seems like a mistake, like the foam and water should have somehow blended into a pleasant consistency. I mix them with my spoon, but all I get is water mixed with foam. The foam is already beginning to turn brown, and as the juice settles, the thicker greener liquid is separating from the thinner yellowy liquid. I take another sip. The tomato is sweet; the celery has a banjo-twang hit of aftertaste just as it does when eaten. I have an idea.

“Can’t I just eat the celery?” I ask.

“Juicing removes the pulp, so your body gets the nourishment without having to do the work of digesting.” My mother scoops the pulp from the stopped carriage with her hand and holds out the mash for me to see, a light green snowball. “The genius of the Program is that you are fasting while you are being fed.”

She drops the pulp into her plastic compost container for the garden. Finished scooping, she clicks the metal top back into place and turns the machine on again so she can make my brothers’ juices. According to Dr. Cursio, each juice combination does something different in the body. Greg gets cucumber and tomato; Jay, celery and carrot; and Braddy, cucumber and celery. The hum again fills the house. Although it’s early, the June day is already warm and all our windows and doors are wide-open. Our house, like all the others in this square-mile town, sits very close to the wide, usually carless, street. It’s small and made of red brick, with only a narrow strip of lawn between it and our next-door neighbors, the Ragusas. Francesca, the Ragusas’ only daughter, and I once punched holes in the bottom of two paper cups and knotted a string through each hole, then strung the phone between our two bedroom windows. We were surprised to find the vibrations of our voices carried along the string and we were able to talk without our brothers overhearing.

I wonder what Francesca and her family are thinking this morning about all this racket.

My mother is cutting vegetables and placing them in the blender. Yesterday she showed me the ingredients for a blended salad. One peeled lemon, one tomato, one quarter of a bell pepper, half a cucumber—no skin, and three leaves of romaine. A stalk of celery is used to push everything down as it blends. She turns on the blender; both blender and juicer are now going at the same time. I glance outside, but there is no one on the street. I have the same feeling I have when my father yells, that we are a loud family. How far is the sound of all this machinery carrying?

My sleep-tousled brothers wander in one by one and take their seats at the table. My mother sets a glass of juice on the place mat in front of each of them, then sets a bowl of blended salad with a spoon beside each of our juices. Braddy reaches for the spoon and scoops a spoonful into his mouth—the blended salad is a reddish-brownish-greenish liquid flecked with dark particles of lettuce tip and pink granules of tomato.

“Drink your juice first, Bradford,” my mother says as if she has known these rules all along instead of having just learned them last week when we picked up our Programs. “Dr. Cursio says we have to follow the Program in order because our bodies will digest the juices first, the blended salads next, and our protein last. We always start with the easiest food to digest.”

I’m taking too long to drink my juice. The brown foam floats in the warm celery juice at the bottom of my glass. I’m noticing that celery juice at room temperature is even less pleasant than it is freshly made from cool-from-the-fridge celery.

“Finish that last sip,” my mother says.

I down the last warm bit and shudder.

“Now drink your blended salad before it oxidizes,” my mother says.

I lift the spoon. The blended salad, too, is already starting to warm. I scoop a spoonful. It sits coagulating, wiggling like Jell-O, a convex skin across the top holding it all together, on the spoon. I spoon some into my mouth, hold it in the middle of my tongue, swallow. Like the juice, the blended salad consists of two distinctly separate parts—solid and liquid. Also like the juice, I wish these two parts worked more in tandem. The longer the blended salad sits, the more it separates. This leaves me with no option but to get it down as quickly as possible.

“Digest it in your mouth first,” my mother calls again from the sink.

I swallow another spoonful. The bowl still looks so full. I’ve barely made a dent. In each spoonful, I taste all the ingredients at once: tomato, lemon, cucumber, pepper, lettuce. Spoonful by spoonful, I finish it. Now my mother brings me two eggs, their smooth brown shells hot and steaming, in a small cup.

“Like this.” She shows me how to tap a spoon along the top third of the egg and take off the head. Inside, the white is jiggly and not all the way cooked. The deep yellow yolk sits wriggling in the midst of the jellied whites. She reaches in with the spoon and comes out with a scoop of runny yolk.

“Can’t we cook it more? Can’t I eat the whole egg?” I ask.

“Egg whites take B vitamins from our bodies,” my mother says. “The yolk is very strengthening. It has lecithin, which our bodies need. Dr. Cursio says if we cook it too much, it loses enzymes.”

She spoons first one egg yolk into my mouth, then the other. At least the yolks are hot, but other than the temperature, everything else—the texture, the taste—is no different than what it must be like to consume a raw egg. I swallow.

I have finished my first Program meal. My mother clears my plates. Her cheeks are flushed; I wonder if she’s feeling triumph. I try not to think about the fact that I will be drinking another glass of celery-tomato juice and eating another bowl of blended salad in only a few hours for lunch and then again a few hours after that for dinner, day after day, week after week, stretching into eternity, no end in sight.

Out the living room window, I see Francesca go by on her bike. She is riding down the street to the dead end and back, her usual sign to me that she is available.

“Can I go out and play?” I ask.

“Yes, but take it easy for an hour or so. Let your food digest,” my mother says.

Except for the two summers before this one, my family has spent every June, July, and August since I was three in Point Lookout. Now Francesca and I are fourteen. When she called on me the day we arrived, a week ago, I noticed that her breasts now tilted up perfectly under her striped cotton tank top. Her legs, extending from bright green shorts, were cleanly shaved and curvaceous. Though my body is changing and my thighs are fuller than they used to be, my hips are narrow and my breasts are barely noticeable in a T-shirt. I still look like a boy. I’m allowed no make-up and my hair, parted in the middle, falls messily.

At lunch I once again face down my glass of celery-tomato juice and my bowl of blended salad. My protein is a banana, which doesn’t even remotely feel like a real lunch. By the time my father gets home for dinner, we’ve already had our third juice and salad along with the plate of steamed vegetables and brown rice that constitutes dinner. It has been slow going for all of us today, slogging through the Program. My brothers and I have devoted much more time sitting at the table than we are used to, just trying to get everything down. Already I feel like I’ve been eating this way for more than just one day.

My father sits down on the couch in front of the television—the Mets game is on. My mother brings him his juice and salad. My brothers and I settle in various chairs around the room, pretending not to watch.

“What’s this?” he says.

“Cucumber-tomato juice,” my mother says extra-casually. If the Program doesn’t help my father’s raging, she’s out of ideas. “I can make you celery-carrot if you prefer.”

My father takes a sip. He holds the glass out to my mother. “Celery-carrot.”

She returns to the kitchen and we hear the loud hum of the juicer. She returns quickly with another juice. He drinks it like it’s a glass of water.

“Digest it in your mouth first.” My mother sets his blended salad bowl in his lap on a towel. The baseball announcer’s smooth, practiced voice jabs, soothes, rises to a crescendo, then buzzes steadily behind the crack of a bat, the roar of the crowd, my father’s guttural howl reaction to a missed play. My father looks down at the blended salad and dips his spoon in, asking no questions. Greg, Jay, Braddy, and I exchange glances. He eats that spoonful, then another. We look at one another again and titter. When our father is oblivious like this, we can find him amusing. He eats a fourth spoonful, his eyes glued to the game, then continues until the blended salad is gone. He sets the bowl on the couch beside him.

“What else is for dinner?” he asks, and I realize he is treating the blended salad like an appetizer, completely missing the point. My mother now sets a plate of steamed broccoli, steamed slices of zucchini, green peppers, and several scoops of brown rice on the towel in his lap. He eats this, too, without comment. My brothers disperse. I have to admit this is anticlimactic. So far, he’s treating this food like it’s food.

By the second morning, I’m hungry. After my breakfast egg yolks, I want to know what else I can have.

“I’ll cut you a nectarine, or you can have another egg yolk,” my mother says.

I eat both but neither help. I want something to fill the gnawing emptiness this steady parade of fruits and vegetables seems to be exacerbating. With all these cold, thin foods on one side of the seesaw, I’ve begun to crave dense, warm, heavy food to balance it out. But the Program doesn’t permit anything on that other side.

“Go outside and play,” my mother says, shooing me toward the door like I’m being silly. “It’ll be lunchtime soon.”

Since lunch is essentially the same thing as breakfast: celery juice, blended salad, four ounces of fruit, and two ounces of almonds—the two ounces of almonds being about eleven almonds, my only hope for satiation—feel more like a tease than a meal and only make me hungrier.

“Distract yourself.” My mother sounds impatient. “Americans are used to using food as entertainment. Food shouldn’t be entertainment; it’s nourishment.”

The only good part of this diet is that my thighs, which somehow ballooned out from under me during this past school year are being whittled away. Every morning when I check, looking at myself in the mirror over my parents’ dresser, I’m thinner.

On the beach, three days into the diet, I see Greg eating a Good Humor ice cream cone. He’s with Mateo, Francesca’s brother. I am surprised at the hot shock I feel, the pang of sadness for my mother. She’s in the kitchen all day now, making our salads and juices.

“Where did you get the quarter?” I ask.

“Mrs. Ragusa,” Greg says. His face is white; he looks guilt-stricken at being caught.

I turn away, leave him be. There’s nothing to say. It will always be like this in the rare moments we see each other cheat. We know the searing guilt, the shame, the sense of having committed an indiscretion—it weighs heavily on our consciousnesses. Already, in this short time, keeping us on the Program has become our mother’s life. She is in the kitchen from sunup to sundown. Our father is away all day and the implications of these salads and juices she brings him at night haven’t yet hit home. But we know, as the receptacles of all her blending and juicing and measuring and washing, what our adherence means to her.