I imagine flavors connect to memories in my brains like an old fashioned phone switchboard. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated.
Eggs, sunny side up, bring me back to that fateful conversation with my father 28 years ago.
I worked at my family’s donut shop from the time I was 12-18 years old, transitioning through puberty on parade for the morning shift waitresses, the workers at the ShopRite, and anyone getting their driver’s license at the DMV, located in the same strip mall. I was a trophy child, well behaved, with good grades, no boyfriend, diligently working at the family donut shop. I was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Russian Jewish version; instead of mastering Souvlaki, I perfected cooking eggs on a bacon-greased grill.
My father owned the donut shop where he functioned as the manager, accountant, donut maker and cook on the occasions when the alcoholic weekend short-order cook called out. He never trusted anyone to take on a managerial role nor did he ever find a baker worthy enough to satisfy his taste. After years of unending work, no vacation, seldom a day off, his hopelessness, insecurity, and exhaustion made him ripe for a midlife crisis, which is how I’ve always justified his actions. It was the summer of 1988; I had just turned 14 and my father was 40.
I don’t remember a time when I thought my parents had a happy marriage; communication meant screaming arguments. Insults flew like daggers through the air piercing the cigarette smoke; their only camaraderie found over their nightly shots of vodka around the dinner table. My father projected a large personality, confident, charismatic, charming, and conceited. I’ve always thought these traits were a red herring for his insecurities as a short bald man. My mother, disinterested in analyzing my father or reading his mind, only saw a man who put her down, elevating himself. At dinner, he would often lose his train of thought mid-conversation because his reflection in the glass door caught his eye. My mother desperately needed someone to tell her how beautiful she was and instead, she had a man who told her how beautiful he was. I perceived my mother to be an otherwise strong woman before this summer arrived. She worked a professional job, she cooked, she cleaned, she did the food shopping – for the house – and the donut shop. But my mother wouldn’t do what my father needed most: fluff his feathers, tell him how good he was, how smart, or how handsome.
So he found someone who would.
Her name was Donna but my sister, mother and I call her the whore from the donut shop. At first, we didn’t realize she was my father’s mistress; we met her as the donut finisher. We thought my father was helping her out like a charity case. She had fallen on rough times, my father explained; he eluded to a boyfriend beating her up. My mother, the perpetual do-gooder even allowed Donna to live in our basement for two weeks. She slept on the beige corduroy couch, lined with the soft sheets they brought from their old life in the Soviet Union. My mother had me bring her cold green grapes in a stainless steel bowl.
The surprising thing to me was how ugly Donna was. This is not just a biased opinion; she was empirically hideous, like a female emaciated version of Sloth from Goonies. She had stringy, unwashed frosted blonde hair in a mullet, her face was covered in cystic adult acne, her eyes were too far apart and different sizes in a vacant shade of pale blue, and her body resembled a skinny 11-year-old boy with no tits or ass, as my mother pointed out. I always thought if you cheated on your wife, it would be with a hot secretary type, not the strung out on heroine type.
Ultimately my observation led to my mother to the affair, catching my father with his pants down, literally. She walked in on them fucking – or else she was giving him a blowjob – I’ve never let her give me the exact details.
I don’t recall the exact events leading up to my mother’s heightened suspicions, but I suspect the whore in the basement was a trigger. It didn’t matter, ignited with my inner sense of justice and a teenager’s dramatics, I happily slid into a co-pilot role, not thinking about consequences of her mother catching my father with his dick in Donna. I was riding my bike two blocks away when I spotted my father’s cherry red pickup truck in her driveway. I knew she lived there; he had helped her find this apartment (2 blocks away). I came home and tattle-tales to my mother that I saw daddy’s truck parked at her house. She grabbed her keys, slipped on her flip flops, and walked the two blocks to find them mid-crime.
It felt like our family was hit by a tornado, our house was destroyed to splinters and yet we pretended we could tape it seamlessly back together as though it could still stand. In most families, I imagine the children shielded from the ugly truths of a marriage gone sour.
My parents didn’t keep secrets from me; I was the third leg they needed to keep the family standing. My father knew I was the one who discovered his car there and he knew he needed to talk to me about it, adult to adult. (I was 14.)
This conversation happened over a plate of sunny side up eggs I made for myself. I ate them with dry rye toast, cracking the perfectly formed dome of the egg. My face connected to my plate like a magnet. I refused to make eye contact with him. I didn’t want to cry or break. I wanted to remain cool and strong and to appear mature, understanding, and sympathetic. I loved my father deeply; I was the typical daddy’s girl and secretly thought him and my mother were never well matched. Somewhere in my subconscious, I thought the affair would be their way out. They could take this chance to start over; he was only 40; she was just 35!
I don’t remember the look on his face, but I’ll never forget the taste of those eggs. I was looking from above at my life, telling myself “you’ll never forget this moment” and instead of memorizing any of his words, his apology (was there one?), or his excuses, I memorized those eggs. The quintessential texture of the yolk, the vivid yellow explosion all over my white plate. I shoveled pieces of the egg-soaked, cardboard-like bread into my mouth as if t would take me out of this situation. I nodded along to everything he said. The whites of the eggs seemed fluffier than normal, thicker, elegantly congealed. I piled pieces of them on top of the leftover bread. I looked up at him when my plate was clean. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes.
“I just want you to be happy,” I said to him, reciting a line from a romantic comedy or a soap opera. Where else do you rehearse a scene like this? What experiences from my past was I supposed to draw from to come up with the perfect line?
All I wanted was for my parents to be happy; whatever it was going to take. I wanted to be supportive. I felt my parents’ misery exude from every action. In their drinking to pass out every night, in their yelling at each other, in their snide comments, in the resentment which surrounded and calloused their hearts. It wasn’t about revisiting roads which brought them there; it was about deciding what direction to take at the crossroads of past and future.
They say cheaters sometimes want to get caught to get out of a situation. I thought this would be my father’s chance to flee, but he didn’t. He begged my mother to let him stay and she feigned forgiveness. In reality, she felt decapitated and stabbed in the heart. Instead of confronting her rage, she confronted the bottle, and sloppily professed forgiveness. She said she was too afraid to start over or live without him.
So he stayed and they celebrated their 15 year anniversary. For ten more years, he walked on eggshells while she got more and more drunk, in an effort to erase the memory of the affair. Instead of resigning it to a hazy forgotten flashback, it grew into a brighter, angrier, fiercer, and obsessive vision haunting her into paralysis. She lived in a purgatory between the sanctified memories of the life they once had and the future they would never have.
By their 25th anniversary, my father had relapsed into his midlife crisis and this time, instead of Donna from the donut shop in Staten Island, it was Natasha from the donut shop in Kiev. His life sent him in an ironic circle BACK to Kiev to open a donut shop for an investor and there he met his second wife.
What effect did my father cheating on my mother have on me? I saw my first love betray me and undervalue our family unit. I would never trust another man again; confident every man had the potential, and would likely cheat on me. I would never let my guard down completely in any relationship and no matter how trustworthy the men in my life have been, they have eventually had to fall under spells of suspicion and jealousy. I would forever feel like I have to over-satisfy my men with enough sex, good enough sex, to make them stay. More than anything, I vowed to control my life so I never end up a victim, like my mother.
My father couldn’t foresee the trajectory the affair would have on his life, my mother’s life, my life, or my sister’s life. He didn’t consider consequence, as many don’t when making questionable choices. His impulsive decision to satiate an itch and his entitlement to have that itch scratched trumped potential repercussions. He didn’t know my mother would spiral into alcoholism like a little girl in quicksand. He didn’t care that her depression would land her like a casualty of war in which she never enlisted. She continued to live under a veil of sadness so thick she didn’t realize she was counting on me as her support line. I was thrust into the unwelcome role of her confidante, her therapist, her best friend, her secret keeper, and a life saver.
Only now, in my year of unraveling my tightly-wound history, do I realize how desperately I needed a mommy during those days. I needed someone to tell me this was OK; someone to assure when the rug is swept from underneath me, I will land on my feet. I needed someone to reassure me that shit happens to everyone in life and every relationship has flaws. I needed someone to hold my hand, rub my head, kiss me on the forehead and quote Maya Angelou:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still, I’ll rise.
Instead, I sucked it up, rose up, and became a woman, sweeping those secrets neatly back under the rug.