My friend Jamie holds out a thistle bloom, her fingers curved gingerly around the prickles. “Eat this,” she says. I’ve never once acted on one of her off-the-wall demands. But now that we’re sixty-three, I worry that I might someday. I imagine myself opening my mouth to accept the purple work of nature, feeling it poking my tongue, cheeks, and roof of mouth while I try to figure out how to chew without impaling myself. Then I imagine succeeding, and watching Jamie’s mouth fall open in surprise. It makes me laugh.
I set the wheelbarrow handles down, reach into its basin, and pick up a cabbage. Its outer leaves are falling off; suddenly it seems to me to hold the entire work of the spring and summer within its tight green orb. “Eat this,” I say, opening my mouth wide to indicate it should be done in one bite.
Jamie pulls her lip up into a sour-taste sneer. “Eat my shorts.” She hikes the thistle onto the lawn; it disappears into the ankle-deep grass. I make a mental note to wear shoes outside until I’ve found the thistle.
“Eat my dust,” I say, dropping the cabbage back into the wheelbarrow. A tiny bit of dust blooms upward.
“Eat it,” she says, ending our wordplay. She turns and walks over the hazelnut shell path towards my house. The breeze has picked up, so that all forty-two of my wheeli-gigs are turning. It makes the house look like it will lift off its foundation. It makes me happy.
A car pulls into my roundabout, sending up more dust for somebody to eat. A customer, who has seen my sign on the highway about hand-made gifts for sale, pulling in to do some shopping on her way to Seattle. She’s a young girl, maybe twenty-five. I direct her to the flower garden, where glass ornament-topped stakes nestle among white hydrangeas. “I’ll give you ten dollars,” she says of a blue beauty that cost me twenty dollars to make.
Jamie bristles and opens her mouth to speak, but I interrupt before she can tell the girl off. “I’ve got earrings for ten dollars.” I direct the girl to a table where I’ve set out some of my wire twist earrings. She exclaims over the treble clef pair, and hands me cash.
As the girl is driving off, I tell Jamie not to even think about scaring my customers away. But suddenly I’m confused. I’m not at home. I’m sitting at a table with a white tablecloth and a fake plastic rose in a narrow plastic vase, and Jamie is there too, and she looks old, and she is handing me a spoon. “Eat this,” she says.
“Eat my shorts,” I fire back. But my voice is scratchy, like I’ve eaten a thistle. I look down, and there is soup in front of me. I am a little hungry. I dip the spoon down into the bowl, but I’m too far away. I need to scoot up, but the chair feels stuck. I look down; it has huge wheels. Jamie loosens the brake and pushes the chair closer to the table. The soup is bland. They don’t use salt or a lot of spices here. I don’t want to be here. I think of where else I can be instead.
Jamie and I are sitting in a Mexican restaurant, for our thirtieth birthdays, and the staff has gathered around. One of them is holding out a hot pepper in a bag. It’s smooth and green. He says, “Eat this.” Jamie takes the bag, all cocky and confident, and folds its edges back. Everybody is chanting, now, “Eat this, eat this, eat this, eat this.” Jamie takes a bite out of the pepper. Not a small bite. Half the pepper. She’s chewing and swallowing and smiling, and nodding her head like it’s no big deal, but then she’s leaning a hand on the table, then both hands against the wall. She’s holding her hands over her mouth, bending forward, bending backward, grabbing the glass of milk, stuffing a cracker in her mouth. Then she’s got a hand against her sternum, saying she can feel it like fire, and she’s lying in bed, moaning.
But it’s me lying in bed moaning. Jamie sitting watching me. I ask her if her stomach is better now. She says she’s fine. And I realize that I’m not getting things right. Something’s wrong with my brain. I’m not thirty. I’m older. “Can they fix me?” I ask.
“Of course,” says Jamie. But I always knew when she was lying. Except once.
“I can’t go get Halloween decorations,” Jamie says. “I have to go home and do laundry.” She’s not looking at me, she’s looking at the TV in my living room, at president Jimmy Carter standing at a podium, and she’s fiddling with the loop on one of the eight zippers on her leather coat. She goes home, and I drive off by myself, but I just don’t get it. Halloween is Jamie’s favorite holiday. She would never pass up a chance to shop for scary skeletons to do laundry.
Halfway to the store I realize I forgot my purse. I go back for it. Jamie’s car is in back in my driveway, and so is my husband’s. Warren was supposed to be working at the store, but he’s not, and Jamie had driven home to do laundry, but now she’s back, I go inside and hear laughter and squealing in the bedroom. I put my hand on the doorknob and pause. A piece of coal sticks in my throat, burning.
Jamie is still trying to get me to eat. But the tablecloth is blue, and I’m at the table with the fake daisy, not the fake rose. I yell at her for ruining my marriage, but the wrong words are coming out, and the staff members are there calming me, and Jamie is calming me, and I don’t think they understand what I’m angry about because they keep telling me that I’ve always liked applesauce.
My hand is on the doorknob. I turn it, push the door open, and enter the bedroom. The rush of air blows twenty purple and pink orbs about the room. Warren looks crestfallen at the sight of me. Jamie lets go of the balloon at her mouth on purpose; it screeches around the room and drops to the floor. So does Jamie. I’ve ruined my own surprise party.
I’m sitting at the blue table, and they are still trying to get me to eat my applesauce, still telling me that I like it. I take a spoonful and feel its smooth, wet graininess in my mouth. It’s true. I do like applesauce.
I’m lying on my beach towel at Sand Lake Park, alone on a Saturday. All the girls I hang out with are in dance class, and I’ve tried it but I’m the most uncoordinated twelve-year-old there is, and anyway I can never remember the steps. Jamie, the girl in my math class who always has a funny comeback for John Eventhaller’s comments, lays her towel beside mine. We watch people do cannon balls and flips off the diving board.
Jamie hands me a red delicious apple, saying “Eat this.” She’s taken bites out of one side of it. I turn it around and bite into the virgin side. The water sparkles. The sun feels hot on my shoulders. I chew and swallow, and take another bite.