Her cheek and the side of her mouth stung. She could still feel the impact of the stiff hand that had made contact with her face a moment earlier; the redness of the slap itself and the ensuing redness of embarrassment crept over her face like a warm, red blanket. Her brown eyes welled up with tears and she braced herself just in case there was another slap in her future.
Crying made things worse so she concentrated on sucking the forming tears back into her eye socket. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. DON’T CRY,” she chanted silently. And she didn’t.
Her face hurt and the confusing words continued to ring in her head, “Don’t be fresh, you spoiled girl.” Her ears were still buzzing and she wondered why her words had provoked such a violent response. “I’ll do it in a minute” didn’t seem like a big deal.
She found the world a little bit confusing. At only seven much of her life was a contradiction and she was already learning how to navigate the moving target of rules and regulations. She often felt as if she did not know what to expect from one day or moment to the next. Cuddles turned into slaps and love turned into anger and support turned into degradation – all on the turn of a dime. Despite the confusion she found joy in small things.
She was a weird girl; she knew it and accepted it. She didn’t quite fit in anywhere or with anyone and she spent much of her time deep in her own thoughts. She created an imaginary world where she was thin and beautiful, popular and smart and where things just worked out in her favor. One of her favorite ways to escape was reading and on the rare occasions she was allowed to buy a new book she would spend a great deal of time picking it out, reading back cover after back cover to find the perfect escape. She could often be seen reading at the kitchen table, a bowl of beef Top Ramen to the side of the book. As she read she rolled noodles onto a fork and somehow managed to meticulously suck up one noodle at a time without missing a word of the book. The broth wasn’t a problem; she did not like soup. Books and Food were great escapes and when she combined the two it was like a child’s version of a double shot with a chaser.
Occasionally her family would go to Chinatown, to her favorite Chinese bakery and she was allowed to get her most coveted food – a steamed pork bun. The smell, the warmth and the anticipation of putting it in her mouth filled her with the type of joy that only a lonely, chunky little girl can understand. She loved the way it tasted and took great lengths to eat it as slowly as possible, but she also found it provided her with warmth and comfort. She had a little routine. She would take the pork bun in her hand, put it to her nose and inhale deeply. Though covered in thick dough, the scent of the sweet pork always managed to seep through. The smell made her happy. She would turn the pork bun over and put it against her cheek for just a moment; it was soft and toasty. Then she would remove the little piece of paper holding in the pork and eat the bun, holding it upside down, nibbling the dough as close as she could to the pork without actually eating the pork so as to save the best for last. She was careful not to let any of the pork drop on the ground. The only thing worse than a little Jewish girl eating a pork bun was a little Jewish girl wasting some of the prohibited pork. These moments of tender love between the girl and her pork bun were few and far between, but she looked forward to them. She just loved freshly baked items; a warm sourdough loaf came in a close second place.
Of course, everything was better when it was fresh: the smell in the air after a rain, the scent of grass right after being cut, cookies straight out of the oven with ooey, gooey, melty chocolate chips, clothing straight from the dryer, a new haircut, clean sheets, even a new pair of shoes. She loved those things.
For her, “freshness” was good while “spoiled” was bad. She hated when pork buns sat too long and became soggy, when bread became cold, hard and stale, when the green peppers she loved became limp, when apples became squishy and bruised and when watermelon was mushy.
Her young brain found it hard to grasp that she was both fresh and spoiled. She loved freshness; but now it had been used as a bad word against her. She was fresh. But she was also spoiled and that was bad. So no matter how she sliced it, she was just plain old bad. She felt defeated.
She promised herself she would try hard to not be fresh again. And she would try not to be spoiled either. She wondered what should she be instead. What would make her good again? She thought and thought. She decided if she didn’t speak so much she wouldn’t risk saying something wrong. She retreated further into her imaginary world and always weighed her words before she spoke. Her new self control made her feel more mature and she realized she had ripened into a better version of herself. No longer fresh or spoiled she embraced being ripe: she was seasoned, ready and perfect. Hurray!
Later that year, after a long weekend of camping she got into her parents car, and was greeted with, “whooeeeee, you are ripe.” Both windows were immediately rolled down for the ride home as she sat in the backseat in silent embarrassment.
And just like that, ripe became spoiled.