Just because I do not represent someone’s ideal of beauty, they are not allowed, by their actions, to negate me.
If you hang around my mother and me long enough, you will hear the Onion Ring Story.
I honestly don’t know why she tells it. Maybe she thinks it’s a cute childhood anecdote that should be shared whenever we’re around food of any kind. Maybe she wants to bond with my friends. Maybe she’s still punishing me.
I’ll tell you the onion ring story as she tells it:
I was 16 or 17, and my mother and I had gone to a now-defunct hamburger place called “Round the Corner.” Their gimmick was that you ordered your food by talking to the counter person via a phone at the table. When it was ready, the number of your table would appear on a lighted board above the serving counter.
On this particular day, I ordered onion rings. They showed up before our burgers, a heaped plate of onion rings that could conceivably have been shared by three or four people (the size of the serving gets larger every time she tells it). It was certainly far more, in her estimation, than I needed just for myself. But when she reached out to take one, I snatched the plate away and wouldn’t let her have it.
This is the part where she normally invites the hearer to laugh at what an incredible pig I was, and apparently still am. After letting the laugh ride for a bit, she will acknowledge that after I had eaten my fill, I let her have some.
My mother’s own relationship with food was a prominent part of our childhood. Dieting, for my mother, often took the form of only eating every other day, or eating nothing but heaps of steamed vegetables that smelled like boiled cabbage even if there was no cabbage in the house. When I was 9 or 10, my mother put me on Weight Watchers. I was given a complicated list of foods and told to follow it, and then mocked when I made mistakes like thinking I was supposed to eat four eggs a day, rather than four eggs a week.
Looking back at pictures of myself, I was not alarmingly fat. I certainly wasn’t the twig my older sister was, but, stung by the social cost of her own excess weight (one man she had hoped to date told my older sister and me that he didn’t like obese women, and I had to go home and look the word up), I think that she was trying to save me the same fate.
In my family, control didn’t happen with codes of rules or well-meaning lectures. My mother controlled us, and we controlled each other, by shaming. My family is quick to make a cruel joke out of almost anything, and heaven help you if you ever reveal your weaknesses. What, when, and how much I ate was the subject of constant commentary. When my mother was fat, she baked constantly, but doled out the treats grudgingly. When she was thin, she had the same irritating self-righteousness of the newly-minted nonsmoker.
We were also terminally broke all the time, so whatever we had as kids, we shared. It wasn’t a “we’ve got to stick together for the good of the group” sort of sharing. It was an “if I want something of yours, I’m going to take it” kind of sharing. Being the third of four children, I “shared” nearly everything with my older brother and sister. But of course our mother, being the only adult, got the first pick of everything.
When my mother remarried and the stepkids moved in, it got worse. Spurred by a lack of any kind of parental consequences, they were merciless in humiliating me for my appearance (which, again, going by my school pictures, was unremarkable). They may be failing English, getting expelled for fighting, worried about their social standing, but at least they weren’t fat. And because I was the low kid on the totem pole, my privacy and, therefore, control over my own life, did not exist. Every bit of my life was on public display and held up to ridicule.
By the time my mother divorced, I was spending as much time as I could out of the house, either at school or at one of my friends’ houses studying. Home was nothing but a war zone, and it was easier to be an expatriate of my own family than to exist alone in enemy territory.
After the divorce, my mother was raw and angry. My older brother and sister had long ago moved out, and my younger sister went to live with our father in another state, so Mom and I were left to put together a whole new relationship. The sudden absence of five other people meant that we had no one else to blame our anger on but each other.
I had hoped that getting rid of so many sources of friction in our lives would mean that my mother and I would naturally come together, but that didn’t happen. I was angry for having spent most of my teenage years trapped with abusive people. She was angry that her marriage had ended badly. She tried to go back to being the parent she had been before, but I was older and used to exercising more control over my own life.
So, on a day when my mother suggested that we get burgers and I ordered onion rings but she didn’t, and my order came and my mother reached across the table to take one without asking, my reaction was that I do not have to stand for people assuming that they are allowed to take whatever they want from me. Just because I do not represent someone’s ideal of beauty, grace, charm or what the fuck ever, they are not allowed, by their actions, to negate me. If allowed to be, I am a generous person, but there is a basic difference between being allowed to volunteer something and having it taken from you. It’s the difference between receiving a gift and stealing.
I’m sorry that my mother has been, in her life, so unsure of her position in the world that she didn’t feel she could count on being granted the things she asked for. And I did refuse her. But she never asked.
If she had only asked, I would have told her, as I’ve told nearly everyone who has ever in my life asked me for anything, from pocket change to life change, yes. That’s my victory. Knowing that I would have said yes.
Lise Quintana is the editor in chief of NonBinary Review. Her fiction has been seen in Red Fez, Drunk Monkeys, Extract(s), and other journals.