Chocolate Milk, Chicken Fried Steak, a side of fries and a Granny Smith apple. It was exactly how I had imagined and yet still surreal and disappointing. Sitting on its nauseating fleshy beige cafeteria tray in front of me, presented with the least amount of prestige possible. The individual items were segregated neatly by the raised enclosures of the dish, making it all seem fake. It was too neat and clean, too basal and boring. It didn’t look like food when it was separated like that. It watched me as I watched it, relentlessly. At first, all I could do was stare. I rubbed my thumb and pointer finger together, as I had always done when unsure. Where do I start? Childhood or Kentucky? Either way, the memories would come and go, mixing their flood waters through my veins until they were a crimson froth. “Isn’t that what you wanted?” A woman’s voice asked me. She must’ve been referring to my hesitation to approach the food before me. Its separation reminding me of a zoo, except now the animals were all dead, stuffed and mounted, staring lifelessly with glassy eyes. “Yes ma’am.” I replied, not able to look away from my tray. Isn’t this what I wanted? No, none of this was what I wanted. The expectation of the tangy sour apple was already making my jaw sore from anticipation. I picked it up, studied its beautiful roundness. They had picked out a perfect one. Not a flaw, not a bruise, its tight green skin shined back to me cheerfully, almost a smug and arrogant cheerfulness. It was an apple picked straight from the proverbial Garden of Eden. It was just a tiring reminder that colors would go on as brilliantly as before. An apple a day…My mind sang out. I knew it would come. I knew that stupid euphemism would come screaming back to me.I had taken it to heart as a child, thus getting into the habit of eating an apple a day religiously. Call it OCD, but every morning, after hearing that saying, I made sure I had a nice apple awaiting me as routinely as a morning prayer. My mother would smile at my quirk, making comments to my father that, “at least she’s eating fruit…” It was odd not to have one but over the years I had grown accustom to breaking tradition. Now, for my lunch, it felt almost blasphemous. I smelled it; its aroma was faint, a fresh sweetness, but still made my mouth water. I put it back down, knowing that I could not start with it; I would have to finish with it. If I couldn’t have it for breakfast, then I would at least eat it last, like I had usually done. One thing would be right and orderly with this meal. I grabbed at the sheath of utensils in their flimsy casing of clear plastic. I gently pulled at its seams, exposing my white napkin, my white fork and knife, also plastic. I unfolded my napkin slowly, laying its single ply body over my lap. The fork and knife bent with ease in my grip. I could sense their fragility and cheapness. How could someone be expected to eat Chicken Fried Steak with plastic utensils?I bent and breathed in deep the thick aroma of my main entrée. I poked my fake knife past the ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes and into the steak. I tapped, feeling the familiar battered crust. It was from Glenda’s; I knew it was true because only Glenda’s had that perfect crispiness, that heavy brown gravy. The kind that clogged arteries, the kind that people avoided like the plague. After I had Chicken Fried Steak at Glenda’s I knew then that everywhere else had failed my taste buds. I hadn’t been to Glenda’s in two years, but it was still there, on the side of the highway, with its same run down sign. It was an old Kentucky diner, sitting far outside of town, and it was kept the secret of truck drivers for ages. It had sat there, decrepit, for so long, that the original Glenda was now just the source of myth’s and legend. She was much more than I would ever be after death.Should I savor it? Should I just close my eyes and pretend like I’m at Glenda’s, watching people and rumbling semi’s shake the ground as they stopped for rest? Or maybe that I was with Paul? That was, after all, where our first date was. It was also the first time I had been to the small diner. I was so wary at first, but Paul led on with that wry sideways grin and I put my entire trust and heart into his hands on that very night. It wasn’t my first mistake, and it wouldn’t be my last. I could pretend. It would be easy, even though I knew Paul was trying hard to forget I ever existed, had even told me he hated me on more than one occasion. I could still pretend, because, honestly, I still loved him. He was the only boy I ever loved, and ever would love. If love was real, I had it for him.I began to cut away, knowing the knife would take a while to break the crust of the fried steak. At first my efforts seemed futile, like using a handsaw against a redwood, but once I had penetrated the crust the steak gave way like butter. That’s just how Glenda’s Chicken Fried Steak was, perfect. I was patient, the food was still steaming, and I had some time. I glanced to the clock, the hands ticking by like marching soldiers, perfectly on schedule. Yes, I had some time left. I had no where else to be at the moment, no appointments, no meetings. I sopped up as much of the gravy as I could with a scoop of the fluffy mashed potatoes, wanting to lick the minuscule remains of its deep savory flavor right off the tray, but I resisted. Instead I allowed it to sit and pool in its little corral and went on to my fries. They sat to the left of my Chicken Fried Steak compartment, a large handful hovering upwards like the Tower of Babel. They were wedges, spiced and baked, not truly fries, but my favorite. It was how Paul made them. They were his only specialty. He didn’t cook much, but his fries always impressed me.The first bite was a disappointment, a truly devastating disappointment. I grabbed at my chest as it suddenly flared in pain. It wasn’t from illness; it was only heart ache from constant breaking. Science had proven how real the pain was from heart break. I could testify to it. But they probably wouldn’t listen to someone who had their heart broken by fries. What about someone who broke their own heart? Who betrayed themselves? Would they listen then? Or would I be put on one of those late night TV specials and have eyes rolled at me?The “fries” were merely potatoes, sliced halfheartedly and tossed into an oven. They were nothing compared to Paul’s, who prepared them with pride and love. Who painstakingly crouched in front of the oven like a child waiting for cookies, the light inside beaming over his creation. He watched, he waited for the precise moment to flip them and crisp their undersides. He was good at it, a pro. He had perfected his technique over the years. But these, these “fries” were imposters. They crowded their section like a mosh pit, they were invaders, they were unwelcome and unworthy of my time. Still, though, they served their purpose, to conjure up something better. If I couldn’t have the real thing, at least I could still remember the real thing, could comprehend that I’ve been cheated. I could recall something better than these marginally putrid excuses for food. Maybe that’s what was important, not necessarily that I would get to be in that moment again, but just that I could remember that moment still. Who would Paul make his fries for now? Some other girl? Could another girl capture his heart again? Would he even make fries anymore? I had done that to him, crippled him, made him afraid of being brave. He had trusted and I had betrayed that trust and to what end? Phony fries and chocolate milk with a straw in it? Seriously, who drinks chocolate milk with a straw aside from children and invalids? The thought of me ingesting chocolate milk through a straw nearly made my stomach turn. It was like drinking water from an eye dropper. I didn’t savor my milk. I downed it quickly like I had always done. It sated my thirst and only made me think of rowing, which was its intended purpose. My one and only hobby. My team had quickly replaced me, that was alright though. They were only faces to me, it wasn’t sentimental. When I was on the water, slicing through it, my shoulders spiking in pain, it was only me out there. There was no team. I did not go out for drinks with the team; I did not laugh and joke with the team. In fact, I’m sure the only reason they kept me on was because I was good at it. And I was. I could ignore and push through anything as long as I was on the water. I left practice as soon as it ended; I arrived no earlier than necessary. I did not row to make friends; I did not do it to socialize. Then why did I do it? It was peaceful, hard work. It was honest and true pain begot from honest and true endeavors. I didn’t lie to myself when I was on the water, I didn’t over think everything when I was on the water, I was myself when I was on the water.Today I wasn’t on the water, hadn’t been for over a year. My chocolate milk was an after rowing snack, protein and hydration. I would suck it down as quickly as I could, I would laugh at the notion of a straw inhibiting my thirst. The snack complimented my workout perfectly. I rolled my shoulders around; they had lost the knots of tireless pulling and gained the knots of toil, balling up like the fists of children bored to tears. They had lost their strength and gained a formidable slump. I looked at the clock again. Twenty minutes had passed. I had time. I still had time. The Chicken Fried Steak compartment was empty, soiled but empty. The milk was gone, the straw tossed aside like dirty laundry. The fries remained mostly untouched; the first few were just that intolerable. And now, the last thing. What would stir when I bit into that apple? What serpent would reveal itself to me? What kind of lies would it whisper into my ear? That now I knew it all? I knew good and evil; I lived it out and was truly like God?From Texas to Kentucky and everywhere in between, my life had taken me and molded me and prepared me for so much, except that damned apple. That perfect, hand picked, selected by God himself, glorious apple and the serpent that dwelled within. I touched it, smelled it again, closed my eyes, let the viper inside bite me over and over and engorge my senses with its venom.It took me back to kitchens of houses I used to live in but would never see again. Conversations I had that meant nothing and yet everything. Places I had been the most innocent of selves, a child. Where laughter reigned and family had just been a normal way of life. Christmases spent with those long since dead, the child inside me mourning for the change that overcomes us all. The change that is inevitable in that everyone dies yet we all weep over it as though it took us by surprise. The venom charged into me again, searing my brain, torturing it in exchange for lost memories. There were mornings I could remember with memories I would never be able to share with people I never thought would leave. Memories that those I trusted would forget with time just like I had forgotten when those before me passed. Memories that others would try tenaciously to push out of their mind. Just another small betrayal. They would leave me behind, purposefully, those people who were now the sole carriers of my being. They would make it seem like I never existed. I would be written out of their stories to their children; I would be stripped away like paint on an old door, covered with something new, someone new. A white strip on a ledger, just another unneeded sentence in a sea of sentences. How could they do that to me? Leave me behind like that? Treat me like a stain on an old sweater and just throw me out instead of trying to fix me? But I was guilty of all those things as well, guilty of betrayal and forgetting and pushing them away. And if there was anything that I truly hated, it was hypocrisy, and yet I was ripe with it.“Are you gonna finish that?” The woman’s voice asked me. I waited for a moment. I looked at the clock. I still had time, time to finish. They gave me plenty of it. Should I taste the crisp tang of the apple once again? Or had it already infected me with what I had intended it to? Had the venom run its course? I shook my head.“No ma’am…I’m ready.” I replied blankly, staring down the apple. The serpent was gone now; he had run out of venom and was hiding away. Two people helped me up, their warm and gentle hands on each of my shoulders and I was escorted away. I took one last look at my tray, each compartment void of any meaning now. It had done as I required, it had accomplished what I needed it to. It brought back Paul, home, holidays with family, the purest moments of focus and clarity. It brought back a part of myself that I had lost somewhere along the line.I was surely done, that apple would not be my last regret. Now, instead of taste, there was only sight, sound and feeling. There were no smells in this place, except that of cleaning fluid, but even that was distant, meaningless. It was a sterile and cold place, built for dying. I could only see the pale halls directing my one way stroll towards my chamber, my gas chamber. I could only hear the clang of my chains. I could only feel that last shred of human warmth I would ever feel again, with two hot blooded hands on my shoulders. They guided me away, to a room built for people like me, people who killed other people.The taste of my last meal was already gone.
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