I think it was the first time that Mom wasn't home to make us dinner. It's certainly the first time I remember it being so. Mom had left her journalism degree half-finished when she and Dad married, and supported him while he finished his degree in Chemistry. Then, a year or two after my arrival, she became a stay-at-home mother, while Dad taught high school science, drove a school bus, coached basketball and, in the evenings, managed a grocery store. While all this was going on, Chris, Sara and finally Jaime arrived. Mom stayed at home to take care of the four of us. She woke us up in the morning, fed us breakfast and, in the summer, lunch, tended our scrapes and bruises, sent us outside to play when we were watching too much TV, and disciplined us, when need be (and that "needed be" an especially large amount for my younger siblings, who were as foul and black with evil as I was shining and white with goodness). And she always, always made us dinner.
That night, however, was different. That night, Mom was not home. Maybe it was the first night she sang with the "Sweet Adelines" ladies barbershop choir -- the reason is unimportant. She was not home, but Dad was, and I must have been 8 or 9 and Chris 6 or 7 and Sara 4 or 5 and Jaime 3 or 4, and Dad cooked us dinner and we all sat at the formica-covered table and he put a platter of grayish-reddish meat down in front of us, and another platter of onions, and we asked what it was, and he wouldn't tell us. That was the important part: the platter of grayish-reddish meat, and the fact that he would not tell us what it was. "Just try it," he said. " I know you'll like it."
Chris asked if we had to eat the onions, and Dad assured us we did not. Chris and I did not eat onions, though Sara did (at this point, Sara ate anything -- later she would eat less and less meat and then become a vegetarian and then a lesbian, all of which confused my parents equally). Dad poured us glasses of milk, put a hunk of the mystery meat on each of our plates, and spooned onions for himself and Sara. I can't recall what, if anything, Jaime ate -- at this young age we barely paid any attention to her except when she fell out of bed and rolled under it in her sleep and awoke screaming because she didn't know where she was. Sara ate her mystery meat with gusto and without question -- at her tender age Dad's word was golden, and if he said she'd like it, she did.
Chris and I were older and more sophisticated, and therefore more suspicious. We whispered to each other at the end of the table opposite Dad, who was clearly enjoying his meal. We were quite certain he was poisoning us, and said so. Dad strongly suggested we shut up and take a bite. We did. It was horrible -- the consistency was smooth and yet somehow grainy, the taste was too rich, and, despite the fact we had asked for no onions, it definitely had an onion-y aftertaste (Dad had, of course, cooked the onions with the foul stuff, then separated them onto different plates in order to fool us). We complained that it was terrible. Dad said it was fine and we should try it again, with mustard. We complained loudly, and Dad insisted we try it again, under penalty of spanking. We did, with mustard. It was still terrible. We asked, again, what it was, and all Dad would say is, "Meat. Steak. It's fine -- just eat it." We conferred at our end of the table once more. Perhaps if we asked him what animal it came from, we could make a clever end-run around his subterfuge.
"It doesn't taste like steak," I said. "What animal is it from?"
"A cow," Dad replied, his mustache undulating as he chewed.
Chris whispered, "He's lying. I think it's horse." It was a fair guess. Dad hated horses. Maybe. We'd certainly never seen him with a horse. We'd seen him with cows and chickens and dogs and cats, and we'd heard tell of Uncle Wayne raising a pig when they were boys, but never any word about horses, and he'd grown up on a farm, where horses should have been plentiful. It was clearly suspect. I would have said "kangaroo," but kangaroos were from Australia, which would likely make them expensive, and it was unlike Dad to splurge on anything, especially dinner. So a horse was as good a guess as any.
"I think you're right," I whispered back.
"Can we have peanut butter and jelly?" Chris asked. It was a fair question. Chris was a particularly picky eater at this young age, and Mom often let him have PB&J instead of whatever casserole she'd cooked. Dad, however, disapproved of Mom's coddling, and would have none of it.
His mustache twitched. "You'll eat this or nothing."
It wasn't much of a choice. We picked at our plates for a little while, but we were well-fed kids and could skip a meal without dying from it, and so we chose "nothing." Dad was clearly disappointed, and his lips turned into thin lines under his mustache. We complained of hunger throughout the evening, and Dad offered to heat up the dinner left-overs. Eventually we gave up. Then it was bedtime. Chris and I lay in our twin beds in the dark, tucked securely under our matching marigold Star Wars bed spreads. Dad was in the living room room watching TV, but we knew from experience his hearing was sharp, and he'd detect anything over the softest murmur.
"I can't believe he made us eat horse," Chris whispered.
I nodded, though he couldn't see me in the dark. I couldn't believe it either.