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My parents met at a party in September, 1975. A month later they left Rhode Island and drove cross-country together in the Volkswagen bus that my mom had bought for the trip. They brought along my mom's dog Sagebrush and two of her friends. Actually, the two friends, the dog, and my mom brought my dad. He wanted a ride out to his friend's place in Ohio, but ended up staying with them all the way to California. My mom's two friends left in California, and my mom and dad ended up driving home together.
They didn't have much money. By the time they got to Santa Barbara, they were so poor that they stood wearing sandwich boards advertising a soup and sandwich special at the Bluebird Café in exchange for a free lunch, which they split. They also worked as telemarketers and house cleaners. They ate very cheaply. Lots of cheese, my dad says, and crackers. For two weeks, my mom didn't eat; she drank only apple juice -not because they were starving poor, but because she wanted to cleanse her body.
Mostly they slept in the bus, but they had friends to visit across the country, and for a while, they stayed in Virginia with my mom's father's cousin, whom they barely knew. The only times they ever ate meat were when it was served to them at people's houses, for it was far too expensive for them to buy on their own. They began to find, as they made their way across the country, that it felt heavy and unhealthy, especially red meat and pork. When they got back east three months later, they moved into a small house in Narragansett, Rhode Island, with rotting kitchen walls so soft that you could stick a finger through. One day, my mom thought back and realized, slightly revolted, that the last piece of meat she had eaten was a hotdog with sauerkraut and mustard at the Oak Hill Tavern, months ago. Right then and there, she decided that if she couldn't kill something herself, she wouldn't eat it. I was born five years later, and my mom and dad began their parental journey with the intention of raising a family of vegetarians.
I was five years old, and pale. My parents were concerned. At about the same time they noticed I was paler than my fellow kindergarteners, my dad came down with pneumonia, from working with the insulation in our unfinished attic.
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My parents ordered us chicken fingers, the deep-fried breaded kind. I tasted it, and it was white. That's the only opinion I had. How did they expect me to know if I liked chicken after that one bite? I ate about half a chicken finger, decided for myself that it wasn't very exciting, and told my parents so. They seemed satisfied with my answer. My dad ate some, even though he didn't like it, to help his pneumonia. My mom tried a bite too, just because we were in Chicken City, having a family dinner. She said eating it was like listening to a familiar song, not in that it recalled a specific memory, like a song would - not a particular childhood dinner, or adolescent turmoil, or anything like that. It was much bigger; it brought back her entire life, a whole twenty-five closeted years, in one bite. Very overwhelming, she said. She also said that the people who were listening to us in our booth in Chicken City probably thought we were very strange.
I was around six when I realized that there was a difference between me and the rest of my classmates. Yes it was subtle, but it was a distinction nonetheless. In first grade, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every single day of the entire year. (I couldn't eat it for years after). My classmates had peanut butter and jelly too. But they also had meat, and that was the difference. They had ham and cheese sandwiches, bologna sandwiches, BLT's, salami lunchables, and leftover pepperoni pizza. They had meat calzones, and they talked about hamburgers. They talked about meatloaf, they talked about pork, they talked about lamb chops. They talked about bacon, liver, tongue, hotdogs, and most of all - steak. And I had peanut butter and jelly. In the corner, quietly.
I was in first grade, and I loved my parents more than I knew how to do anything else. Logically, I came to the conclusion that the meat eaters were evil. Not based on principles of animal rights or anything sensible, of course, but purely on the basis that they all did something my parents didn't. If my parents didn't eat meat, there certainly had to be something wrong with it - my parents were always right, about everything. The only rational explanation I could procure for this rampant carnivorism was that all of my friends had to have bad parents.
This radical opinion was short-lived. I began to realize that I was in the minority, and a driving desire for conformity began to fester in my mind. My peanut butter and jellies were suddenly no more than skinny slices of wheat bread procured from flimsy old sandwich baggies. The hams and cheese, on the other hand, were snuggled cozily between two luxuriant slabs of white doughy fluff, safely journeying to the lunch table in steadfast and durable Ziploc. Those Ziploc Baggies were heroic, even, for protecting the sandwiches I so coveted. I felt sheepish with my non-meat meals, my unsubstantial and silly lunches.
Far worse, though, were birthday parties. Always, the dad barbequed hamburgers and hotdogs, and the birthday boy or girl frolicked carefree and satisfied, pinning tails on donkeys and opening presents. I always took just a bun.
"Just a bun?" the mother would croon, soothingly, perhaps trying to coax me out of my shell.
"Yes." I say, quickly, trying to run away and eat my empty meal. But she won't leave me alone.
"No hotdog?" she tries again. I shake my head. "No hamburger?" she tries harder. Again I decline and try to free myself, try to find a friend to save me from her meaty stare and caring clutches.
"Well, why on earth not?" She gets to the crux of the issue, and I get red in the face, and self-conscious, for I know what comes when I tell the mother that I am a vegetarian.
"You mean you don't eat meat?" That is what it means to be a vegetarian, I silently tell her. "None?" She is incredulous, disbelieving. She begins to look at me differently, her eyes narrow. "None?" she repeats, less a mother, now a critic. She is scornful, even. "Why not?" Yes, I knew this was coming. I tell her my parents don't eat meat, and then she immediately, without words, lets me know that she thinks my parents are the bad ones.
"Get this!" she says to her husband, the barbequer. "Emma Lichtenstein's a young vegetarian! Yeah, Lichtenstein, Debbie and Michael's daughter! None of them eat any meat! What do you think of that! Unbelievable, I say."
She turns back to me. "So really. No meat?" I should have fled while she was relaying my story to her husband. She doesn't really know what to do, and fumbles. "Okay, well aren't you going to be hungry?" Before I can assure her that I'll be fine, she convinces me that it is absolutely essential that she run inside and fix me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and she disappears. Peanut butter and jelly. Of all things.
When she emerges from the house later, everyone else is of course finished eating, and I must eat the entire sandwich, even though it is made with chunky peanut butter and rye bread.
Birthday parties come and go, and I want more than anything to eat the hamburger, eat the hotdog, join the carnivorous ranks of my peers, but my allegiance to my parents holds true. Never once have they told me that I am not allowed to eat meat, but neither have they ever served meat in our house, or eaten my grandmother's Thanksgiving turkey, or even put the gravy on their mashed potatoes. And my mom always cringes when her dad knowingly asks if she wants white or dark meat. I know that if I run with my peers, I will be the traitor to the other side. It will be a gross betrayal, and I could never give myself over, no matter how strong my lust becomes.
Years pass and I enter adolescence. My loyalty to mom and dad has faded and almost snapped. Meanwhile, my blood-thirst has blossomed and nearly come to fruition. I must have meat. I become obsessed. Meatloaf, shepherds pie, tongue - I want it all. I want to sink my teeth into juicy flesh, tear it off a bloody carcass. Let the juices drip down my chin. I want to be a caveman.
My obsession stews and intensifies, and finally my resistance breaks. Suddenly it becomes clear to me that although I'm surprisingly scared, eating meat is something I need to actually do, not just think about. I begin by cheating.
A sleepover birthday party: pizza for dinner. Six or seven pizzas, many more giggly girls, a ruckus. Among the commotion, I spot the pepperoni. It is carefully concealed - not the standard round slice laid on display atop the pizza, but carefully chopped and nestled below the layer of cheese. I have reached for a piece before I can think. Oh, it looks like cheese pizza, but there are little tiny not even noticeable chunks of meat below the surface. This pizza is more than meets the eye. Whoops, I take a bite. Oh wait, was that pepperoni? Oh no, did I eat meat? Oh gosh, let me pick off all the pepperoni that I can see - I'm a vegetarian, I don't eat meat! Oh, what a silly mistake; there, all the pepperoni's off now. But wait, there seems to be hidden pepperonis - darn it, did I just eat another?
I ate the whole slice. I picked off a mere fraction of the pepperoni bits, and then quite cautiously but wholly voraciously ate the rest. And now I had eaten meat.
I was liberated, I was free! I needed more, more, immediately. As I fell asleep that night, my mind was soaring on the wings of a carnivorism. Who knew where life would take me, now that meat eating was on the agenda? I could go anywhere, do anything. I could follow my ancestors in the hunt, sniff out my prey, tear it to shreds with my bare hands and teeth, devour it - I was on the path to fulfilling my potential as savage animal. The taste for animal blood was on my tongue.
I began to nibble. A bite of ham and cheese here, a crisp of bacon there. One bright and sunny cookout, I put veggie burgers behind me forever; I ate a hamburger. I dressed it with my buddy Heinz and sandwiched it inside my old friend the roll. I felt, with my first whole hamburger, that I had done it; I had become a carnivore. Yes I had, I could eat meat whenever, wherever I wanted; look at me, I ate meat. Any vegetarians in the crowd? Nope, no sir, not here. Certainly not me.
Yet, I had not done it all. There was still something lurking in the shadows, something quite dangerously exciting to conquer. My quest as hunter had just begun. What I needed now was a fat, juicy steak. A T-bone. Well-done, preferably, maybe even charred. Steak was the meatiest of the meats, the king of my animal kingdom; it would be the pinnacle of my meat-eating conquest. It was what they all talked about: steak steak steak, for dinner last night, rare, well done, anywhere in between. Steak and potatoes, steak sandwiches, for dinner tonight. Steak steak steak. There was a sigh before they would stay "steak." A breathy reminiscence of the most succulent taste of the night before, or glowing eyes to foreshadow the excitement of what was to come. It was steak, and I needed to have it. But how...
"Emma, am I cooking for you too?" I am at Amy's house; it is dinnertime; I am fifteen. And I most certainly will be staying for dinner, thank you. And we will be eating steak.
We set the table, then sit. Before I can demand my steak well done, it is there, on my plate. Glaring up at me, gray, daring me. I look around the table. Everyone is chatting, calmly, nonchalantly. Everyone has steaks on their plates. I don't really hear the chatter, and I am certain no one hears my steak taunting me. I glare right back at it, challenging it to a duel. You're on, cow. Yeah, that's right, nothing but a cow, a dead one, and I am going to eat you up so fast...
Oh, but wait, my heartstrings sing, you were once a cow: a gentle cud chewing, tail swatting, grass-grazing beast. My resolve is softened, my ferocity weakened. The steak has matched me. I look at it; it looks at me. But then I am once again fierce carnivore, and I pick up my weapons. Fork and knife, left and right. I plunge their talons into the gray slab in front of me and I saw. And I saw. The cow is tough.
But, ha, I am tougher! I tear away a piece and hold it up to my mouth, and my hand quivers almost imperceptibly. Sweat nearly breaks out on my forehead. I have a horrendous thought: what if I don't like it? What if I don't like steak? What will I ever do? My days as hunter will be no more, my carniverously-constructed world will be shattered into billions of tiny pieces, I won't be my fierce and vicious self any longer. The cow has almost won.
But I am better, stronger - I am a savage. I put the bite into my mouth and chew, chew, chew. The taste is gray and meaty, but I am not concerned with taste. I am interested only in the chewing. Chew. I get it down, but I have not yet won. There is an almost entire slab of meat waiting for me. The cow patiently swishes its tail. I go for more. And after that, more still. I saw and I chew, chew and saw, swallow swallow swallow. And then the steak is gone. The plate is black glass, and empty except for the tiny steak crumbs, which I leave.
I go home. I am triumphant. My mom and dad are sitting at the kitchen table. I don't notice what they are doing, or if they are talking.
"Hello," I say, and slide on my socks across the kitchen floor. I open the fridge. I say hello like I have a secret that I am about to reveal. They don't notice that tone in my voice. I close the fridge and decide to reveal the secret.
"I had steak," I say.
"Yeah?" my mom says, raising her eyebrows. Skeptical, but she believes me.
"Yeah," I say. I say it forcefully.
"Ah." My dad tilts his head back slightly, so he can look at me down the length of his nose. He starts nodding his head slightly. It's his uncomfortable nod. "How was it?" he asks, wary.
"It was great," I push. "It was just great." Trying to get a rise out of them. "Yeah, it was really good. I ate the whole thing. I had it well done. When you ate meat, did you like your steaks well done? Yeah, Amy's dad made it, and I ate the whole thing. I liked it too, you know."
"Okay," they say. Maybe it's only one of them who says it, but they are the same person right now, the same vegetarian. I can't read any emotion in their response but I can hear them laughing silently; I know they are.
I'm annoyed. I managed to catch them off guard, but they are far too good at handling surprise. They show close to no reaction. How can this be? Why aren't they mad at me? All they do is turn back to each other and resume their own conversation. Can this be happening to me?? My own parents don't care about what I do with my life! Why don't they at least ask more about it? Maybe they could even say that they knew I'd have to try meat sometime. Far too much to ask would be for them to acknowledge my attempt at becoming my own person. All they can say is "okay." And it was basically a grunt.
I want more out of them. "So I'm going to have it again sometime," I declare.
My mom narrows her eyes a fraction, her narrowing of disapproval, and I feel alive. A thrill rushes through my body, excitement for the showdown to come. Yes mom, I am my own person and I eat meat! and no, dad, I don't have to do the same things as you! Just try to tell me I'm not allowed to eat meat - you won't get anywhere. I'm a mature, independent teenager, and I can make my own decisions, thank you very much! I will certainly be eating meat from now until the day I die, and that is the end of this discussion! I'm going to my room! Yes, mom and dad, bring it on.
"Alright, if you want to" they say together, nonplussed as ever.
Alright? Excuse me, that's it? Well then, fine. Fine fine fine! And then, all my nervous energy leaves me, and I am disappointed and listless.
"I'm going to do my homework now," I say, disgusted and defeated.
Following this disheartening anticlimax, my meat-eating continued for a year or two more: hamburgers at cookouts, bacon at restaurant breakfasts, and pepperoni pizza, yet my lust for blood began to wane. With the shocking discovery that steak was not my salvation, I had started to realize that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make myself like the taste of animals. They were just meaty. I never had steak again, and one day, when faced with the prospect of eating another hamburger, I - like my parents over twenty years ago - realized for certain that I didn't like meat.
At a cookout once again, a pile of hamburgers stared me in the face - gray, dead, and knobby, and the thought of ingesting such a greasy, meaty patty revolted me into turning to the plate of veggie burgers. They looked no less unappetizing - brown, bumpy, and chunky, even regurgitated, but to my sore eyes and stomach they seemed infinitely more tolerable. And so I sandwiched one inside a white roll, added a monstrous amount of ketchup to cover the taste, and ate the entire thing.