Issue #13, 1999
Life goes on after brain injury. Not like before. Not like you would have imagined, even if you could imagine it happening to you. Not in a clean, safe, nourishing environment. Not with your needs met. Not with the same tastes, smells, thoughts. Not with time out for a family wedding or cancer.
You inhabit a body you do not recognize, driven by someone else's mind that limps down the highway of life with three tires on four wheels. Your scar-free chassis mocks your shattered working parts. No road map shows the way.
Because you desperately wish to conjure the familiar from the usual, against the laws of common sense, you keep trying to cook. Until tasting, you think you have combined the same ingredients.
The final product lacks your spice of life.
October 12, 1997
Three years before you want to prepare Pot Roast The Way It Used To Be, you incur a brain injury on the way home from work when another person makes a foolish left turn into your car.
Chopped onions—a small plastic storage bagful that Mary, the chore service worker, cut up two days before. Mary spends three hours one week with you and two hours the next, and so you must plan how much chopping to assign her in one visit. You must leave the kitchen while she works because the sound disables you.
Lean top of the rib—from the butcher, delivered two days ago, on the day he delivers to your town, and souring, but you cannot resupply at will. You do not get out to shop, so you have lost the seasons. Are peaches plentiful now, or apples? Are matzohs on display, or candy canes?
Crisco brand shortening
Boiling water—not really at a rolling, vigorous boil the way you would like, but at the best you can manage safely under the circumstances.
Potatoes—the plastic bagful that Mary peeled and cubed two days before, now multicolored. You would have preferred to cook when the potatoes were white, the onions crisp, and the meat not on the cusp of spoiled, but just having Mary softly walking about and doing chores is too much stimulation for you.
You had worked all evening before and all morning preparing lists for her. There are supermarket items, bank chores, post office instructions, and bags for the dry cleaner and the library. But there is no second chance. Whatever you omit must wait until next week. When she leaves, you must rest or risk injury by falling or crashing into the walls or dropping things on your foot. You've already made two emergency-room visits for fingers smashed under similar circumstances of overload and exhaustion.
1. Place a heaping tablespoon of Crisco shortening in a big pot. It is good finally to use the pot again. Because you cannot manage to get the pot to and from its storage place, it has been sitting on top of the stove, collecting dust, for months. Pick up the shortening can after you drop it upside down. Try to discount the buzzing in your ears and the slight feeling of dizziness and nausea produced by the sight and sound of the flying, crashing can. You jumped away well.
2. Turn on stove.
3. Bend down to retrieve the bag of diced onions from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The onions cost you a great deal of money because Mary gets a fair hourly wage for her labors; she is a very good, precise worker. Most of the onions are the same size and thickness, and she diced all three as you had requested. But you forgot that you stuffed the bottom shelf with food that arrived at a later date, and the onion bag had been shoved to the rear.
You were uncertain about the amount of food you would receive from a charitable organization the day between the dicing and the cooking. The new food is in a large paper bag, enclosed in a larger plastic bag; only the bottom shelf would meet its "easy-to-find-later" positional requirement. The bag of charity food is heavy; when you stooped to store it in the refrigerator, your neck cramped, your arm felt numb, and you became dizzy and nauseated. So you rushed the task, and the plastic bag of onions lost its place.
A plastic tab slides across the top of the onion bag to seal it securely, and the bag itself is expensive. No onions will spread throughout the refrigerator in a wild dash for freedom or drop to the floor while the bag is in transit to the stove. It will be a shame to toss the bag out after only one use, but the noise and sight of the running water required to rinse it out will contribute to your general sensory overload at food-preparation time. The mental effort to remember to wash it out later would cost more than the financial gain accrued in saving the bag.
Now, foraging around the bottom shelf of the refrigerator consumes a great deal of your internal resources and pushes you closer to mishaps.
4. Brown the onions on medium heat. The noise of the sizzling onions will increase your dizziness and disorient you. You will lose your ability to distinguish distance and so burn the inside of your right forearm on the side of the hot pot.
You must stand close to the pot of onions because you cannot smell them burning; you cannot take your hearing problems away from the fire. You try to distract yourself by unloading the dishwasher. Since you are addled already, a little more bending and stretching should not make a difference.
As soon as you open a cabinet door, a flying box of coffee filters grazes your head. Even though you have not used the pile of pink china dishes on the right side of the most accessible cabinet since the BMW hit your Chevrolet, you have been unable to move them to a quieter spot in the kitchen. The dishes take up one of the few places you could store things you use every day, and the coffee filter box was balanced so precariously on top of the soup plates that it assaulted you at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately, you cannot delay the pot roast. You are at risk because Tuesday's meat and potatoes are becoming the worse for wear. Unexpected fresh produce rots in a box on the kitchen floor, over the furnace as it happens, because there is no room in the refrigerator until the meat and plastic bag of potatoes are removed.
5. Wash the meat and season it with garlic powder and onion powder.
6. Stand far back from the stove. Position yourself so that the pot of burning onions will not reach you if the meat lands in the wrong place; lob the meat into the pot; sear it over a high flame.
Remember to remain in the kitchen at all times, so the noise of the cooking meat can feel like little electric shocks. You are safe until you have to turn the meat. You will have to figure out how to hold the pot, and you must enforce your decision with deliberate and exacting thinking.
Even though you are in the kitchen and can hear the meat sizzling, you cannot smell progress. Periodically evaluate the color of the smoke rising from the pot to determine when to flip the slab of meat. Safe again, until it is time to add water.
While the meat cooks, receive two telephone calls from a man who wrote you a letter and seems to be masturbating. Call the police and hit *57 to trace future calls. Call friend to discuss anxiety and guilt over guy masturbating over phone. Rehash a form that has been haunting you for weeks. The form is for Meals on Wheels; if you could make phone calls and leave messages, it would have been off your plate after one or two chews. But it persists, tough to swallow and often reheated.
You must not get distracted. Back to the pot roast.
The secret to this recipe is the temperature of the water that you will add to the pot once the meat is browned all over and cooked through. The water must be boiling.
You have not boiled water in a whistling kettle on top of the stove since you wrapped your right hand around the body of the kettle to move it off a burner when it was very hot. You have been boiling water in the microwave oven. It never quite gets to that vigorous rolling boil you remember from before, and steam does not rise up as you pour the water out. But now, you are lucky. The two-cup Pyrex measuring cup is clean and ready, and you put tap water in this and put the cup into the microwave. Fortunately the microwave rings a bell when the appointed time has been spent, and shuts itself off, because you have forgotten that you have put the water in the microwave.
7. Carry the cup of boiling water from the microwave, and pour it into the pot containing the hot onions and the sizzling meat. If you manage this task safely, and remember to lower the light on the pot, you must try your very best to stay awake for an hour or so. The effort and the sensory stimulation of the flying Crisco can and coffee filter box, the sizzling onions, and the scary boiling water march exhaust you. You worry that you will fall asleep, or that you will be in another room and forget the stove is on.
You try to stay in the kitchen, but there is not much you can do. You are in no shape to wash the grime off the refrigerator, or water the little plants on the windowsill that look so thirsty, or polish any thing you have missed touching for so long. Sometimes cleaning things is like making love to them, and you haven't been able to dust, polish, or shine since the crash.
It is difficult to tell if the pot roast is the same as the one your mother, then you, used to make. Nothing tastes quite right since the collision, on the lawn of the Maywood, New Jersey, Bon Buffet restaurant three years ago, scrambled everything you knew to be true.
Making a Meat Loaf
As a passenger in a car that gets hit, exacerbate injuries from four years ago, add new ones; wait six months; try to cook again.
Part One: Salivate
1. Do not make any telephone calls or write anything demanding of mental attention, or bend or stretch, in order to maintain optimal functioning.
2. Have ready in advance: 2 lbs. chopped meat, 1 chopped onion, already-opened jar of marinara sauce.
Part Two: Machinate
1. Move stuff away from oven door; reach up to get matches; reach down to light oven.
2. Move portable dishwasher away from pantry door because first glance on shelf did not reveal meat-loaf pan that was in clear, easily accessible location.
3. Bend for pan; reach for oatmeal; replace dishwasher.
4. Bend for marinara sauce in refrigerator; reach for chopped onions; swivel for marinara sauce.
5. Reach for bowl in Hoosier cabinet.
6. The world is spinning already.
Part Three: Activate
1. Break and mix up egg; add oatmeal and marinara sauce. Mix. Get dizzy and nauseous.
2. Add chopped meat; mix with other ingredients; find another, larger fork because there is too much action for so little mixing.
3. Close eyes while working; right shoulder feels funny and center of back of neck hurts. Keep mixing.
4. Pour meat-loaf into pan and shape with two forks. Pour some marinara sauce over top from jar that is now only one-third full. But it feels very heavy. Smooth sauce over top of meat-loaf carefully because fork is hard to keep a grip on; muscles lack coordination.
5. Reach into bottom of refrigerator for sweet potatoes since they are known to be in refrigerator, having been placed there last night in a convenient location for today, now completely forgotten. Difficult to focus on task at hand; wash sweet potatoes. If phone were to ring now, answering machine would do all the work because you do not think your lips would work the words correctly.
6. Carry oh-so-heavy meat-loaf pan to oven and sweet potatoes. Shelf is up a rung too high. You are too uncoordinated now to move it; you would only get hurt or drop something or react poorly to an emergency.
Part Four: Ruminate
You are astonished at how much functionality you have lost. You have pain across the shoulder blades and in the back of the neck; your vision has become less ... cooperative (? you can't think of the word); your head is spinning; feels like your fingers are swollen; your tongue feels swollen; your left ear feels funny on the outside (like it is swelling). Even sitting still with your eyes closed, you are overwhelmed by sensory overload. It is a terrible struggle to type this; you have made and corrected many typos; you have changed many words because you ca not think of the right ones; and you fear falling off the chair. You don't want to lie down now, but you had better. And you bet the room will spin while you are lying in bed, and you will see light flashing on and off within your closed eyelids, and you hope no one you need to speak to telephones you today because you will not be able to do whatever it is you would have had to do if they called (this whole phrase is unnecessary, but you are unable to find a word to follow "able to.") Your back and your arms hurt, and you are yawning.
So much for today. It is over as far as you are concerned, and all the rest of the day will be an atte
Marilyn A. Gelman
Marilyn A. Gelman's work has appeared in the New York Times, Modern Romances, and Footwork: The Paterson Literary Review. Before a BMW hit... read more
The Brain: A Nonfiction Mystery
“Through a strange legal fluke,” Megan Foss, one of the contributors of this issue, recently told me, “Someone sent me my medical records... read more