Bite Down, Hard

Jillian Koopman

You meet your parents at a restaurant one night for dinner. They've driven up to your college on their way to your aunt's, a christening or something, a baptism. You don't remember. It's late, 8:30 already, and you're starving. You merely smell the alcohol and you're drunk. You're so fucking lightweight it's sickening.

Your father looks darling. He wears his hair bald in the middle now, or for the past forty years. You sometimes forget important details like this. You remember when he had the mustache, or when he didn't have the mustache. You forget, even, this detail sometimes, it's so natural to you it's like whether or not he has two eyes. But you look tonight to make sure—and yes, it's there, simple as math. Black and straight and ordinary as those two little equal sign lines.

Your mother gets more beautiful each time you see her. Older too, and somehow she still manages to pull this off. You feel ugly next to her and you're the twenty-one year old, you're the one with the tight thighs, while she is in her mid-fifties. But she is all sorts of other beauty you won't credit yourself with, can't credit yourself with, like bossing around tons of people who still love you or being able to replace parts of yourself with the lives of your children. But still, she wears her earrings, she is beautiful.

Minnie, they say when they see you, because that's their nickname for you. They are the only ones who call you Minnie, and you breathe in the smoke that this name from their lips seems to float in, heavy and forgiven, words that rub up against you like a cat that gives you no choice but to pet it, and you pet it and feel those unpleasantly familiar lumps in its back that you never knew whether they were vertebrae or tumors but your fingers still glide over them like water. Hi guys, you say, this "guys," as if you're still bouncing identities off each other like friends. Your father looks shorter, and you're already thinking what the hell am I going to do tomorrow, how the hell am I going to put these pieces back together, your father hugging you and you rubbing your face into the nylon of his windbreaker while trying not to see see his face because it's better just to know it. Minnie Min, you're doing well? I'm doing well. School going well? School is fine. They don't press now because real talk never happens here. And when you look into the restaurant you are surprised to find it empty, even disheartened a little, the clasped, reddish brown bubble of your night already deflating into the open air, growing cold.

As you're making your way to your seat the busboy or whoever makes this big show about hanging up your jackets in the coatroom, which is really just a rack along the outer wall of the dining room. I'll keep mine with me, you say for no real reason, and your mom stumps her voice into the air and says, Yes, I guess I'll take my coat with me too, though she's laughing in that way you do when you're chasing your four year old daughter who has just run blindly into the men's room. When the busboy tells you that your table is right here she says, Ah okay, I'll hang my coat up now, Min would you like me to take yours? And for some reason you are adamant about keeping your coat with you. The busboy looks at you like you're crazy, and you hang your huge ski coat on the back of your chair and hope it makes the restaurant look hideous.

The waitress comes over, a chubby girl with a face more wide than it is long. She wears one gold hoop earring and one silver. Can I start you off with a drink, she says. Wine, you and your mother say in unison, but then she changes her mind and gets a cosmopolitan and you get the white zinfandel and joke about how your tastes are so crude for someone who should know better. Your father gets merlot.

Minnie tell me about your new boyfriend, your mother says. Paul, you say, drawing the word out in exhaustion, both of him and of this night. But he is long gone, you add, with a hint of cruelty in your voice, the taste of which is not altogether unpleasant. And your father sneers into his water glass but you know he gets a kick out of this shit so you tell the story anyway:

Why you initially liked him: Nice hair, small nose, big hands big arms. But not too big. Your dad: What is this big hands thing? Big arms? So he can overpower you? Because you think something else might be big too? He is tipsy, eyes dancing into their own reflection in the water and looking at you like you are the pervert. I just like to feel safe, you say. What, you're not safe? And you keep going because he's not going to get it.

When it started to go bad: You're funnier than he is! Who wants to be the one making the jokes all the time? It's like you're amusing yourself! And you are, in a way. You had entertained yourself into sex with him, couldn't believe it when you'd walked back to his apartment that night but you knew it was too fucking freezing and far too late to make the walk back to your place alone, and so you let yourself go, not caring at the time about the consequences or rather not thinking about them, allowing him touch your arm and even laughing a little at how ridiculous this was probably going to be, your thoughts already skipping forward to the worry of his toilet perhaps clogging in the morning and the debacle you always have to go through with this. And when you get there the two of you share his absurdly small bed, its comforter tiny and fluff-starched like a four year old's, his huge legs stinking up the room with their pungent masculinity. He puts his arm around you as you watch some ridiculously juvenile movie with masturbation scenes set to heartfelt music, you thinking the whole time in screams things like: this is the type of movie you show a girl that you bring home? This is the movie you put on when you have a woman, a grown woman, in bed with you? You are freezing because his room is in the attic, and it's poorly heated, and he puts a blanket over top of you so sweet that you forget for a moment the way he had pulled you down on top of him immediately after starting the movie, as if taking cues from the dawdling, chippy-eyed teenagers wondering pathetically on the screen in front of you, and then at some arbitrary point in the movie a little timer goes off in his head and he turns to you with huge, tongue-ish eyes, gorged and lolling and smiling like some horrifying, rabid infant and before you know what to do with yourself he dives down upon you like a child into a vat of glittery stickers. At this point you are not paying attention to his lips somewhere on your body, wondering instead how this even works when you had thought in class how he had such big arms they were like pillars. In the end it wasn't even good anyway, you making jokes in your head the whole way through about how ridiculously detached you are now to everything, how concrete-like his kisses taste, flat and cloudless, even laughing to yourself about how tomorrow you'll look back on this event and shudder at your thoughts, use this event as fodder for your own internal arguments for you being crazy. Your hand meanders down his pants in a perfunctory motion, as you know where these things lead, and that the skin of the man must always be touched, the skin of the man, and when you get there his penis is the size of a horse thigh, your fingers withering up like raisins at the touch, and you don't even care at this point so you let it flop against the side of his thigh and wonder when things won't be so disgusting to you anymore. Though of course you don't tell your parents this part—but yes, in the Ben and Jerry's, when you had joked about how easy the test you'd just taken was and he replied with some inane story about how at the club last night some dude hit on his guy friend and he (Paul) had called all his friends to tell them how such and such is gay now or how he gets hit on by men, har har, and you're thinking, I'm supposed to be amused by this? You're making jokes about the fact that homosexual men exist and wish to pursue their sexual desires? And then you'd pulled a white chocolate chunk out of your ice cream with your teeth and thought how it looked like a tooth.

And now your parents are chuckling but they don't really think you're all that funny, but you know that you are so you smile to yourself when they say this, like a secret between you and you. Well Min you're going to have to settle down with a guy at some point, your father says, and you say, Well not really, even though you know this is true, know you need a man to love passionately and to love you passionately in order to be truly happy, and how prescripted and repressive this concept is incinerates you. It's so simple, you think to yourself, watching your parents watching you and not each other, as if they're afraid that you'll drift away mid-conversation. And when your wine comes you sip it and think about how you could probably get any guy you wanted and how that still wouldn't be enough.

Continuing: Have you heard back from any graduate schools, your father asks, and you wrench your chin into your face because you know that your mother knows you already got rejected from eight and why didn't she tell your father, you're the one who told her parents, convincing them all the while over the phone with your broccoli-in-the-teeth fakeness that you're still a worthwhile person, you're still intelligent, you're not a complete failure, how could you possibly be a complete failure when you are surrounded so utterly by failure, and when you are the only one just shining. And you think about that boy in your poetry class, the one who comes in everyday all buttoned up to his chin and writing poetry like he's so cool he even snubs himself. But then one day you notice how his pants ride up on his legs a little, how his calves are mushy and white and vulnerable-looking with black hairs curling like curious, sad old-man eyelashes and how on that day he wore no jacket, no scarf like an armor-piece around his neck, no wine-dry lips shut tight but open, hanging, shirt unbuttoned a little at the top, and hair and more paleness, more grime-skin warmness, the old fabric of his shirt like years and years of imperfection just piling on and how you'd thought that was the most real thing you'd seen in ages.

I'll take the lobster bisque to start, your dad says, and you think that you don't want a starter but your mom gets one for you two to share. You realize now that she's hiding something from you, can tell by the way her gaze flows glass-like over the ringed orb of her wine. She smiles at you with those perfect white teeth that never even had braces, spreading her thin napkin over her thighs while you watch your father who watches his wine glass and the tray of food a waiter carries by your table, smells twirling into his nostrils.

You’re anxious. When the waitress comes over you foolishly shove two rolls of seeded rye bread into your purse, as if you needed the extra food, as if your parents hadn't just bought you a hundred dollars worth of groceries this afternoon and wouldn't buy you this specific thing on their way home if you asked them to stop. They would vocally question your quirk and laugh harshly at how bizarre you'd become, and then your mother would pick out the crustiest loaf of rye she could find as your father pulled out his credit card. They are scared of you, in that way.

It has been a long end of semester, with grad school applications and final projects and final stages of relationships you had gone to great pains to correct or to deny or to keep alive. Your best friend, your roommate, had gone through a bout of depression and seemed to be coming out of it, fortunately, though for a while she would not leave your apartment and when you asked her one night to come out with you she had said no, stating that she did not want to have to deal with what everybody would say. You had pushed her, and she would not budge, and finally you’d called your mom one morning after a particularly bitter battle which had presented itself under the guise of your consistently leaving sweet-n-low on the counter but really you both knew it had not been about that, it was the simple fact of one person being happy, the other not. I'm afraid I might have been yelling at her, you tell her mom, whispering in your room while the roommate swipes rags across the counter with fiery, unclosing eyes. Let it be, Min, she'd instructed you gently. Some people just have to figure things out for themselves. And you had, you had gone out without her, cleaned up your stuff a little more, when you remembered, and just yesterday she had showed you this cute pair of shoes she had ordered online, and you had thought yes! Mom was right.

As for you, you have been back and forth with loving and unloving the self. You too often traded other people's advice for your own. And you guess this is what makes you feel so at ease with your parents, so at ease but yet so malignant, so stricken. It is like an illness that at least you can manage and can identify yourself as having, and feel comfortable within the boundaries of it, the sore, yellow lumps of the legs or the watery, rheumy eyes, pet leg dragging, deadening behind you; it is a manageable and categorical way to live life, despite its bleakness, its despair. It is easy, and it is all that you know. And in your parents’ eyes you can tell that they would rather have it this way, you small and sickening and sitting still inside of yourself while they pick out bed covers and socks for you, magnetic, flushing with a warm, condescending anger when you don't listen but still being grateful of the boundaries. The illness. But why are you thinking like this? Family is not an illness. It is love, and love is exactly what you need. Isn't it?

The waitress comes back with the bisque and the bruschetta your mom had ordered, and you take one and put it on your plate but do not take a bite. The waitress is hovering over. Would any of you like salads, she asks, and you think how cheap it is to ask everyone what they want at the same time like that, an amassing and crowded accumulation of desires. I would, your father chirps politely, and then looks to you with the clean, expectant smile of someone who has spent all his life organizing and tabulating the mathematics of consecutive instruction, of ordering food efficiently. On cue, you tell the waitress you'd like the same. Blue cheese dressing on the side, please, and your father nods because he knows how you only get blue cheese when you're with them, like it's some kind of security blanket. You smile back.

I need a few more minutes, your mother says, which irks you and pleases your father who likes to take everything slowly. You remember as a kid how he used to make you let the wax drip from the candles onto your birthday cake, saying it was good luck, and how one night you had cried when you'd thought it was ruined. Look, he showed you, his dark eyes incredulous and full of wonder at the sensitivity of his child. It comes right off! And as he peeled the red, rubbery puddle from the ocean of dark brown you had spent all afternoon admiring you had known for sure what magic was, and thought how fathers everywhere must perform similar tricks for their daughters, these side-pockets of mystery and enchantment, of short, bald-headed, grime-fingered magicians.

Your mother, still, hides something. You cannot tell if by her open happiness she is masking an inner depression, or perhaps smoothing over something that runs furious through her veins. She takes a large, sloppy bite of her bruschetta and you watch as pieces of tomato and onion cling to her lower lip before she pushes them into her mouth. What do you plan to do this summer, she asks you, though of course she would never ask you this, and it is your father asking you, nonchalantly, laughably uncaring, while your mother waits for your response with stiff, black eyes, chewing. I'm going to write more, you say, and you watch her two cheeks puckering and a mass of something that appears to be alive on its own, monstrous, perhaps not chewed so carefully, pass slowly down her throat. Don't you think it might be a good idea to look for some sort of permanent job, she asks in that hinting tone of hers, which in fact is clear and direct and often aggressive, nothing of the sort of a hint. You hint back with your own accusations aimed at her but engendered from your own insecurities. I hate offices, you say. I hate nine to five jobs. And you can't help but feel a pang of heartbreak as you say these words, knowing that your mother never really chose her job but fell into it, and that it didn't fulfill her. That nothing could. But you need to start thinking about money, your father says, blowing on his soup. You wait until he is done and then take the spoon from his hand, scooping yourself a large bite and jamming it through your lips. And suddenly you are hit with the vast, unwanted feeling of wanting so terribly to be alone.

I'm trying, you say, starting to break down, but there is a fog that seems to have moved into you since the end of this semester had begun (sometime in march?), and you feel like a leaf where the dew has started to march in from all angles and you can only sit there helplessly on the curbside, lying in wait with all of the other leaves, covered in dew, delicate and silent and feeling the outside of your body begin to blur with your surroundings. The feeling of being decomposed. How interesting.

I want to do something great, you reword, and the hilarity of this thought energizes you suddenly. You reach out for another piece of bruschetta toast and with your fingers pick up the remaining pieces of tomato on the plate. Your mother swallows her smirk as the waitress comes over with your salads, takes your orders for entrees. When you're finished she takes the menus, the conversation you had almost begun forcibly truncated.

What's Yvonne doing after graduation, your father asks, and you tell him that your roommate is still figuring out whether she wants to go to law school or apply for jobs in some type of department of immigration, foreign services. That's nice, your father says, all of his prejudices about politics and other occupations settled into a small, manageable, tranquil pool. He has a tiny glob of bleu cheese on his mustache, but you don't mention this as it doesn't bother you anyway. What's John doing, your mother chimes in, and John is your ex-boyfriend, the one whom everybody loved but only after you split up, you suspect, and with whom you are still friends though only superficially, as you are quite sure he still has feelings for you. John is moving to Chicago to write for a paper there, you say, not mentioning that it will be an online publication that publishes articles dealing with certain medical issues pertinent to those of a small region outside the city. That's great, your mother says, and then asks you if he's gained any weight. He looks good now, you say. Because I saw him after you guys broke up—no, he's better, he's been eating healthier. He doesn't work as hard, you lie, as hard work was never the cause of it. You remember him knocking at your door one night, incredibly late, some random Tuesday, his voice weak and grainy against the door frame as you had moved your fingers softly over the keyboard of your computer, unhearing.

Your mother is definitely acting funny. You are waiting for her to just come out with whatever it is. Nothing is ever as bad as the anticipation of it is. You are breathing heavily and want to ask her, but you’re afraid your voice might shake, and you don't know how exactly to be so direct, as usually it takes years for anyone to ever confront your mother about anything. Your father lifts his eyebrows in that smoke-room way he has and doesn't say anything. You've heard it from him before, nights when you're home on break or for the summer and you come home after a party, and he is drunk and deliberately awkward, angry even, at nothing in particular and sitting at the kitchen table with an empty glass of wine in front of him, dark and petrifying, silhouetted against the solid quiet of the night. Dad, you say, startled, and his outline does not move, his arm perched disturbingly on the table in a rigid formality that is so unlike his normal, jolly, if somewhat vulgar nature. Though this has always been one of the things that most endeared him to you. And he would tell your how "your mother" was upset or how "your mother" didn't feel like talking to him tonight, a brittle iciness in his voice as you watch the piss-like stream of water from your refrigerator and deliberate how to tell him that women sometimes become detached from their emotions because it is the easiest way to deal with having too much. That sometimes you just have to wait for people to get better on their own (this sounding somewhat familiar?). But he would argue back, and you would think how he was right, and how unfair she was being, and how irresolvable this whole mess was, this bleeding insecurity of love and life and the high hopes and sheer, weightless emptiness that comes with expecting more than you could even identify, if it did come along. Even though the thing you were expecting was never quite that grand anyway, but something as simple as a child remembering how once a hand never left her head, her own hand, or a trip to the ocean where the eyes are finally removed from the rocks and the waves washing up and down the shore are enough to calm the wind of the soul, if only in that moment. You are sure she has something to tell you. And when you think about it, you have something to tell her too, though you're not really sure how to phrase it.

I'm going to be leaving, you'd wanted to say, wanting to inform her of these plans of yours to go traveling across the country, out West, as your smart, more articulate friend had suggested, or to Europe or Asia or South America to teach English. But knowing as you formed these plans that you would be leaving her alone, leaving her alone more than you'd left her alone these past four years but only three hours away, that this time you'd truck out into the wilderness with boots unlike the boots she had constructed for you.

Oh, how easy it would be to just give everything up! You could work at McDonald's or be a garbage woman; you could drive trucks around the country and toot your horn at youngsters; you could feed birds or grow plants and let yourself starve to death, somewhere interesting and when they find your body they already know that you wanted to feed the air and the stars and whatever else you’ve grown up on, transforming back into the universe—but this is all bullshit, you know yourself, and you are too scared to do anything, so you sit and watch your mother and then your father, and stop caring about yourself. Because all the love you have had has left you—yes, has spun off to some distant plant, and you can hear it out there laughing, it is almost so nice you want to leave there. To leave love alone and frolick elsewhere, in denser, grayer fields. Perhaps you’ll take up a new hobby. But now the food has arrived, and everything is so fast and close and colorful, the night so bright and yet so dim and the seams are almost splitting, your faith about to tip over and then you put one bite into your mouth as if to silence your thoughts, and then another, and another, and another.

And finally, after you are halfway through your salmon, and wiping your face pleasantly, you say Mom, tell me what’s wrong. She looks at you, and with perfect eyes tells you that she has died. I'm not here anymore, she says. And you realize that her voice has begun to fade, her face too, even your father, the waitress with the chubby eyes, and suddenly you're in your own room again, shaking, metaphor dreams crushing you like waves and waves of rock or unbreathable air crashing over your head. You are crying but you can't call your mom because it's four o'clock in the morning, and so after several hours of strangling anxiety you get up and forget all about the dream when it's so fucking windy that you can't even walk to class without feeling like you’re going to get blown over. And this is how we tell those we love how we love them.

© 2010 Jillian Koopman. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jillian Koopman is a writer living in Tallahassee. She originally hails from Philadelphia and attended Penn State University as an undergrad. She studied in Seville, Spain for a semester and still speaks passable Spanish. In her free time she likes to exercise, cook,
and just observe those around her. She also writes poetry and nonfiction, in addition to fiction, and hopes to someday do work in translation.