Thick humidity sent trickles of sweat down Paige’s neck as she slogged into town again to the grocery store. She had bought entirely the wrong items on her previous venture, being sick of peanut butter from the jar, yogurt and frozen dinners that required a microwave that it turned out she did not have.
Carmen’s grocery was heavily air conditioned so Paige took her time, examining shelves of products lining the narrow aisles, certain that putting them together would create the food that she had always been served, or had delivered, but she had no idea where to begin.
Unable to focus and still sweaty, Paige rounded a corner and found a large freezer. She opened the door, relieved by the arctic blast of air that dried her sweat and cooled her skin. Without thinking, her hand reached for a carton of vanilla ice cream.
Paige’s mother had an air about her that the world was there to take care of her, and make her comfortable, and that she had done her part, living up to her end of the bargain by choosing a man she could control, but who also had plenty of money, and by looking a certain way, which required weekly visits to the salon and rarely eating solid food. She never seemed very interested in food anyway. Paige never witnessed her actually consuming anything other than fruit, white wine, and crackers at cocktail hours. She must have eaten more than that, sometimes, but the family never ate meals together, so who knew. Paige always ate what their silent and efficient personal chef set before her, well before her father came home from work or the country club, and before her mother drifted in to say goodnight.
The only memory Paige had of her mother showing kindness was when she caught their cleaning woman, Inez, eating a large bowl of vanilla ice cream from the freezer, seated at the kitchen table, gazing out the bay windows onto the lawn and garden and smiling to herself. Inez was enjoying the ice cream immensely, and instead of reprimanding her, her mother made sure a tub of vanilla ice cream was purchased every week.
Paige’s father got wind of this, however, as no one else in the house ate vanilla ice cream, and declared that they paid Inez to clean, not to eat their food, and she could buy her own ice cream, damn it. Ten year old Paige watched Inez eat her ice cream from the kitchen doorway, and overheard her mother tell her father that if that’s the way he felt about it, he could tell Inez that, himself. Paige heard her father yell “FINE” and she quickly darted into the kitchen, grabbed a bowl and scooped some ice cream into it. She was at the table eating it when she heard his approaching footsteps. The footsteps stopped, and Paige shoveled a large spoonful of ice cream into her mouth and forced herself to look up, and look her father in the eye. This was her most vivid memory of him. It was a Friday afternoon and he was dressed in his tennis whites, on his way to the club. He was a tall man, and fit, but for his middle showing his age and the number of martinis he enjoyed with an extra layer of bulk. This he cinched in with a belt, his vanity giving him the appearance of being stuffed into his shorts. He was not tall in the way that Paige’s mother was tall. He was just tall in the world of averages. Her mother was striking because of her height, eye to eye with most men and heads above the women. She was a swan among ducks, Paige knew.
Her father’s coffee-colored hair and eyes that were both the shape and color of almonds mirrored his daughter’s, the only two things in the world they shared. But those eyes were dark and darted from Inez to Paige and back again. Paige’s skin was hot and prickly and the ice cream stuck in her throat, but she spooned more in. Mr. Scott balled his hands and nodded rapidly at them, his face pulled in a grimace, twisting for words. Paige kept her eyes fixed on his. Inez smiled and nodded back to him, seemingly oblivious to the mental confrontation.
The standoff ended. Her father blew out the door like a March wind and Paige blew out a breath, her heart racing. They had won, she thought, feeling strong for a moment.
Until her father died, bloated from excess and squeezed by debt, Paige sat with Inez every Friday afternoon, tacitly united, eating vanilla ice cream. Bolstered by the victory, Paige would steal glances at Inez, fascinated and envious of her ability to render her father’s tyranny powerless by simply refusing to acknowledge it. Inez simply smiled, gazing out the window, savoring each bite as if it was the best thing that had ever crossed her lips, as if it made everything right with the world. Paige was just as mystified by her simple rapture as she was with her power against Mr. Scott.
Paige practiced emulating Inez, usually failing miserably because her parents didn’t notice changes in her attitude or demeanor. Eventually she stopped bothering to try to taste what Inez had tasted, or to appear strong and oblivious. But she was growing up, and her outer layer was thickening without her tending to it.
“Funny, you don’t strike me as a plain old vanilla kind of gal.”
Paige looked up at Deirdre, then back at the ice cream in her hand. She dropped the carton into her cart. “It’s my favorite.”
Deirdre peered into her otherwise empty cart. “Do you need some help, um, finding anything?”
“Yes,” Paige said quickly, in a rush of relief. “What is there around here that I can eat?”
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Genre – Contemporary Fiction
Rating – PG13