My hands are dry, creeks of blood cracking open. A pink fury. I wash and wash and hope.
* * *
The first week of COVID-19 quarantine, I accidentally cancel my grocery order of broccoli. My thoughts dizzy. I want to cling to vegetables as if they can buoy me.
My coworker sends me a picture of how her son’s school had left students’ belongings outside. Rain boots lined up like a haunting rainbow. I visit my parents for the last time and I feel the fear of touch between us—pushing us apart like mismatched magnets. Our favorite restaurants close, one-by-one. My job, working with young writers, moves online. A family friend with cancer moves from hospital to hospital waiting for surgery. My friends lose jobs. My family cancels our weekly dinners. My mind darkens with grief for the losses I was experiencing and that the world was experiencing collectively.
Every day at 5pm, I watch our governor give an update on COVID-19. His voice is smooth and whole, tethered yet emotional. He reminds us of the importance of mental health and how taking care of ourselves is an act of kindness to others. It shouldn’t feel so refreshing to hear a man in power and leadership talk about this—and yet it is. He reminds me of the inextricable closeness of taking care of our bodies and our brains. I am learning to find balance in how I nourish myself.
* * *
My partner and I just recently moved in with each other—we were in the process of figuring out the perfect mix of space and togetherness. And now, we are anxious wrecks, trying to reel our own fear in, while making space for each other to be messy. Normally, we complement one another—a give and take of emotions and support. Now, I am close to tears every day and he is far away, folding into himself, into video games. One day at a time, I say. This is going to last a long time, he says. I bake peanut butter cookies because I feel prickly and collapsable and these cookies are soft and whole. Every evening, he offers me a cookie and I say, I’ll have one later. When my life feels out of control, I limit what I eat.
* * *
I remember when the word “fat” was branded into my brain. I was seven years old and had just finished soccer practice. Our team was given little bags of animal crackers and the words “non-fat” glared at me, pulling me into this idea that fat was something to be avoided, a word saturated with shame.
I healed from the burn of the word throughout my childhood—enjoying the meals that my mother made for me. I was homeschooled due to a heart defect and severely underweight. A breathing halloween decoration—a skeletal, ghost-glow of a girl. My mother’s hair curled over the stove as she made anything I wished for. My family constantly encouraged me to eat and gave in to any food-related whim. Pasta with tomato-cream sauce, but only freshly made. I hated it leftover. So every day for lunch, my mother sizzled garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil. Steam rising from a pot of salted water.
My mother and I cooked together, our feet on the cold gray tile. My family gathered every night around the dinner table. Our tastes ranged far and wide—my sister and I were vegetarians and one of my brothers only ate meat, refusing vegetables or pasta. And yet, my mother managed to bring us all together through different dishes. We shared our days and our meals—passing stories and bowls down the long wooden table. Later in the evening, we could come together for tea and lemon cake. Flavors we could all agree on.
Once, there was a tornado threat, but we didn’t have a basement. So we made fettuccine alfredo and found comfort in the decadence of butter and cheese.
As I grew older, my body strengthened. I pinkened and gained weight. People commented how healthy I looked—a compliment in contrast to how sick I was, but the unsaid whisper was, “You’ve gained weight.”
* * *
Now, my days are the same and blending together. Episodes after episodes. Gray outfit after gray outfit. I am taking to the kitchen for refuge.
* * *
What I find so surreal about COVID-19 is the fact that we are all experiencing it together. We are in a collective state of horror and rightly so. Normally, when I’m having a bad time or my brain is misfiring, I have friends who sooth, who point out the reasons why I don’t need to be panicking. But this wasn’t the gray buzzing of anxiety—this is fear. Fear of a situation unfolding at an alarming rate, a death toll ringing. For the first week, I felt like I had nothing or nobody to turn to. My family was scared. My partner was scared. My friends were scared. But I realized that I could turn to myself. I could turn to cooking. I could turn to joy. I could stop making excuses of “I’m busy” and actually take care of myself.
* * *
When I started dating my partner, we were long distance. I was able to keep up my meticulous meal plans for the most part. When we visited one another, I loosened my rules and let myself enjoy the late-night french fries, reveling in salt and oil lips. But when he moved to be with me, I realized that something had to give–and that something was my limited eating patterns. I started branching out, braving foods that were distantly familiar but deemed “unhealthy” by my impossible and false standards. I pushed the boundaries until a stressor would knock me back to my tiny safety net of Indian takeout, Vietnamese yellow noodles, popcorn, or salad. As time went on, it got easier and easier to venture, but some of my rules were still deeply rooted within me, quick to pull me down.
* * *
I take to the kitchen, finding solace in chopping, mixing, sizzling. I drizzle oil to the calm cadence of, We will get through this. We will get through this together and flick my eyes up to see the governor repeating these words like a pulse. For once, I am using the full-fat yogurt that recipes call for—reminding me of the years of flavor that I’ve missed. I have marinated in regret for so many years. Food should be vibrant and exciting. We should celebrate meals and find connection through what sustains all of us.
I want to loudly proclaim my love of bowls and spoons and my disdain of mushrooms. I want to tell you that red pepper flakes are my prayer and my dreams are made of salt and vinegar. That tofu is otherworldly if prepared the right way. I want to sing my love for butter, even though I have spent the past moons saying I don’t. I believe that a cheese plate and vegetables can turn a day around. I stand by my childhood hatred of pasta with cream sauces as leftovers—it separates, leaving craters of oil glistening.
* * *
Now, it is late at night. My hands gritted with lemon peel and sugar. Butter melting in the oven. I brighten our apartment with the smell of tea cake. I send a picture of this lemon-jeweled loaf to my family. I imagine them remembering those tea times too—all of us around a table, our hands passing mugs and slices to one another. The space cozy with our breath, our closeness. I look at my hands stained with turmeric. I think of all they have held and will hold again—for now, here I am, holding on, one stir and one lemon squeeze at a time.
Hannah Rose Neuhauser lives in Louisville, KY. She works at Young Authors Greenhouse, a non-profit that inspires students to recognize the power of their voices and stories. Her work has appeared in apt, Luna Luna, Maudlin House, The Collagist, So to Speak, and Bad Pony. Hannah Rose tweets @velvetraccoon.
Cover photo by Katrin Gilger.