Everyone has “that person” in their life– a drama queen (or king) who makes everything about themselves and blows everything out of proportion.
If you’re lucky, that person is a comfortable distance away– a friend of a friend, a cousin’s roommate, the neighbor three doors down… Someone you can usually avoid, at least most of the time. If you’re unlucky like I am, they’re family.
For me, that person was my sister.
Simone was always too emotional. I don’t know where she got it. We had the same parents, and I can confidently say that her bad behavior wasn’t tolerated or rewarded. In fact, it usually backfired! Simone never learned. The punishments only added fuel to the fire. To her, penalties were proof of “abuse”.
Even minor inconveniences were met with such drama that I found her exhausting! It got to the point where, before she even opened her mouth, I’d find myself snapping–
“What now, Simone?”
Because there was always something. I honestly don’t know how she lived like that– the perpetual victim. Personal accountability was a foreign concept. It was always someone else’s fault. Simone blamed our parents, and when I was older, me; for “letting it happen”. You almost admire the mental gymnastics it took to be forever blameless.
As adults we had the freedom to grow apart. The choice was more mine than hers, because at first she would text, call, or e-mail almost daily with a list of her latest grievances or silly dreams. Simone always wanted to be a chef, which I guess is a good job for someone so emotional… but I never tried her dishes because I didn’t want to sit through dinner with her.
I tolerated Simone at arm’s length; it worked for a while– it wasn’t as bad when I didn’t have to live with her… but eventually, that too grew old and I blocked her on everything. It wasn’t supposed to be forever, but it was such a relief that I couldn’t bring myself to open the floodgates again.
After that, I only saw her at the family functions she was invited to, where I’d see I was still right about her. Simone was always shunted away in corners like a kicked puppy; waiting for me to feel sorry for her. Since she hadn’t changed, I didn’t feel bad for cutting her out.
We’d gone years without seeing each other, even longer since speaking– but one day, I received a letter in the mail from her. Seeing her name on the envelope, I almost tossed it– but curiosity got the better of me.
It was an invitation to dinner at her house the following week. Beneath the date and time, she’d written a small note to convince me:
I’ve changed, she promised. Come see, and be a family to me. I’ll prove it. If you come, I’ll accept whatever happens. The publisher bought my cookbook, it will be on shelves soon. Isn’t it time you tried my cooking?
I was skeptical of the claim. That she’d changed– not the cookbook. I imagined she’d paid some vanity publisher to get her book on shelves. I didn’t care about that, except that I saw it for what it was: an excuse to invite me to dinner.
The letter, hand-written, still seemed like a cry for attention. Even so, I was intrigued by the proposition and agreed. I unblocked her number and called. It was the first time I’d ever called. Within a few rings, she picked up.
“Hello.” her voice caught me off guard with it’s suddenness– and flatness, a greeting spoken with no inflection. No emotion.
I paused, half-expecting her to continue… but she didn’t. “It’s me. I got your letter,” I said, beginning to wonder if I’d regret my decision. “I’ll come to dinner.”
“Okay.” When I didn’t say anything else, she spoke up again– “Was that all?” which… annoyed me, because she was acting indifferent to the fact that I was giving her a chance. A chance she’d written me to ask for! But I’d be no better than she was if I let my annoyance show.
“Yes, that’s all. See you soon.”
I was oddly disappointed by the exchange, even a little unnerved– but it also gave me hope that she was right. That Simone had changed.
For too long, I’d regulated her to more an acquaintance than a sister. Someone I recognized but didn’t really know. Maybe she’d been changing all along, learning to control herself more and more as she matured.
At Sunday dinner, I mentioned Simone to the rest of the family. I was having my doubts and was curious what they thought. If she could really be better.
“Simone said she’s publishing a cookbook, she invited me to dinner next week.” I said suddenly, twisting noodles onto my fork. I’d been quiet up until then, oddly reflective. For some reason I was dreading the dinner. Something didn’t feel right, but I’d already agreed to go…
“Oh, was that what she was babbling about?” Father replied. “I said we’d try to make it, but she knows how busy we are.”
“She’s so scrawny I doubt her cooking is any good.” Mother added, not looking up from her plate. By then, my still-twirling fork was choked with pasta; I took a bite and let the subject drop. The table grew lively again. I lost track of the conversation, only interjecting when prodded.
“Is everything alright, Andy?” Mother asked. I said it was fine, because I was fine. Trust Simone to get me into some kind of “mood”. I hated to think her emotional nature had rubbed off on me. I excused myself early and went home, still frustratingly reflective.
I almost called Simone to cancel dinner but decided that was almost… cowardly. But how was it cowardly? Why was I acting scared? No. It wasn’t that I was afraid to go to dinner, I just didn’t want to bother– dreading the theatrics that were sure to accompany it. Surely it would be dinner and a show. A show I had no interest in seeing.
“You don’t care. You’ve always been the favorite.”
I could imagine the accusations so well I could hear them. I could feel the headache that always followed too, forming with the tell-tale tightening my temples. Damnit, Simone! Always a pain. But I was going, and that was that!
I had to set an example for her. I was the oldest. I had to be someone she could aspire to– that meant no flaking. It meant tolerating whatever tantrum she decided to throw… and in the end, she said so herself: she’d accept whatever happened. It could be the definitive end of our relationship; a final clean break.
The week leading up to the dinner felt dragged out, yet I still wished it was longer. Time was just slow enough to be uncomfortable while still fast enough that I didn’t feel prepared when the time came. I’d half-hoped some dire emergency would pull me away– but the universe wasn’t in a charitable mood.
Simone’s house was a shabby white shack in the bad part of town. I’d never been there before, but I wasn’t surprised by it. There was no driveway, only mud. I’d have to wash my car on the way home.
Still, she did the best she could with what she had– I gave her some credit for the wide begonia planters that lined the walkway and the hanging baskets of bleeding hearts that swayed from the porch rafters. Flowers drew your eye away from the drab exterior of the place, if briefly.
The doorbell was broken so I knocked. There was no welcome mat. The wait was just a heartbeat too long, just long enough that I wondered if she was coming. When I raised my fist to knock again, the door swung open. My sister didn’t smile, just opened the door a little wider.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” she said.
“I said I would.”
I stepped over the threshold; the floorboards creaked. My heart fluttered with the suddenness of the sound, but I awkwardly laughed it off.
“You can leave your shoes on.” Simone said, but I ignored that. I wasn’t going to give her any ammunition by tracking mud across her floors. I took off my shoes, leaving them just outside the door. Simone didn’t say anything, gesturing for me to follow her down the hall.
The house smelled of spices, and in spite of my doubts… my mouth began to water. My thoughts began to wander. I felt oddly nostalgic, though I’d never tried Simone’s cooking. The walls were painted yellow but were otherwise bare.
We reached the kitchen, no doubt the nicest room in the house. Simone grew her own herbs, little planters decorating every available surface. A large window let lots of light in, even through the thin, threadbare curtains. There was a small eating nook in the corner, tucked by the window. The surface of the pale wooden table had three place settings with plain ceramic dishes. Two of them were flipped upside down.
Let’s get this over with.
“Make yourself at home. I hope you’re hungry.” Simone walked over to the fridge and pulled out a large bowl covered in plastic. I sat down, feeling a little cramped in the corner of that little booth. I pushed the table out slightly, giving myself more leg room. The dishes quivered on the table with the movement, but nothing fell.
“This is only the first course,” my sister said, returning to place the serving bowl in the center of the table. It was a salad with the greens cut rather… square. For some reason, there was a blue striped candle in the middle of the bowl. The kind you usually found on a birthday cake. Simone lit it, though it looked like it would tip over at any moment. I’d never seen a candle on a salad before, but figured there probably wasn’t much you could do to make a salad interesting.
“My own take on a dandelion green salad. I call it Birthday Salad.” Simone said. I expected her to sound boastful, like most chefs would be at the unveiling of a dish… But Simone just seemed matter-of-fact, even… bored.
“Dandelion? Like the weed that grows in my yard?” I looked down into the bowl. I could see little bits of lemon, too. Zest and a crumbly type of cheese. I’m sure the rest of the ingredients were herbs, but I wasn’t sure which ones. A salad trying too hard to be fancy, I thought. Or a way to trick me into eating her lawn clippings.
“Try it before you judge.” Simone said. “I grew most of the ingredients myself.” So… lawn clippings, with little bits from her garden. “If you don’t like it we’ll move on to the next course.”
I shook my head, refusing to lose to a salad. My sister grabbed the tongs and served me. The candle tipped over in the process, the little flame sputtering out. Fortunately the greens were too wet to catch on fire. Or maybe it was unfortunate? A fire would have been all the reason I needed to leave.
“I already tossed it in dressing,” Simone explained, like that made her decision to add a candle okay. She sat down across from me, folding her hands in her lap. I picked up the fork, spearing a bite– but hesitated, letting it hover inches from my mouth. I could feel her eyes on me the whole time.
Suspicion crept into my thoughts. My sister had gone through a lot of trouble to make a multi-course dinner. A dinner she wasn’t eating, and without any of the sort of outbursts I’d come to expect from her! Was this what they called gaslighting?
I felt like she was provoking me, even as she looked on passively. Waiting for me to take that first bite… or refuse to eat and leave the table. Then she could accuse me of being too emotional! Overreacting, when I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong.
“Why did you put a candle on it?” I asked.
“Because it’s Birthday Salad. Does it matter? I’m not expecting you to eat the candle.”
“But why is it Birthday Salad?” I persisted, fork still frozen in place. I was stalling and I think she knew it. Even so, she didn’t even look annoyed.
“Because I was thinking about a birthday when I made it. My 11th at the park. Maybe you remember?” I didn’t, but decided not to admit it. I couldn’t remember much about her birthdays, let alone any birthday in particular.
Pushing back the creeping paranoia, I took a bite. The fork was colder than I expected, which was strange because I hadn’t noticed when it was in my hand. The salad was bitter and sour, the sodden greens heavier than they should have been– still somehow crunchy, despite their wetness.I contemplated spitting it out, it… wasn’t to my taste. But I swallowed my pride, and that first and only bite.
My throat tightened as if rejecting it– I could feel that mouthful make its way down, yet that tightness only intensified and seemed to spread. Even my chest began to constrict–
“Have you ever heard the term ‘cooking with love’?” Simone asked, watching me. I set down the fork. I realized what was happening– I just didn’t know why. I was trying not to cry. The urge seized me in it’s grip, a noose around my neck.
She’s trying to kill me!
I couldn’t answer, but Simone continued anyway: “Well, I found out that you can cook with other feelings too.You can put them in just about anything. Do you know which one I used in that salad?”
“Poison?” I gasped out. Two syllables shouldn’t have been so hard. I hunched over the table, hyperventilating. The pressure behind my eyes was so much that I half-expected my eyes to come flying out of their sockets!
“No. It might feel that way, but emotions aren’t poisonous. Besides, it wouldn’t be so bad if you just let yourself cry. But you can’t, right? That’s probably because I couldn’t either.”
Her words felt far away, I was focused inward. On the sharp pain pressing into my ocular cavity, filling my skull– it hurt. I felt like I wasn’t breathing, even though the rapid rise and fall of my chest told me I was. The feeling of deep sadness had morphed into panic, a sensation I quickly tried to smother with anger.
“What the hell did you do?” I demanded, but the anger intended couldn’t be wheezed out, only the words.
“I just told you.” Simone replied. “I guess you’re done with the salad. Are you ready for the next course?” she reached across the table to take my plate. My mouth opened, trying to tell her ‘no’, but nothing came out. When words failed me, I shook my head instead.
“Yes you are.” Simone said. “Don’t be such a baby, it’ll go away in a minute. You only had a taste. I lived it.” As she said this, the tightness was already beginning to lessen– though my cheeks were stinging and wet.
“I made enough for everyone, but you’re the only one who came. Good thing I put all my disappointment in that salad, or I’d be feeling it too.” Simone kept going like I hadn’t refused, covering the salad and putting it away.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish here, but drugging my food is going way too far!” I was able to shout again but she didn’t even flinch.
“I didn’t drug anything. I only put my feelings in the food. Now you can experience it and tell me how dramatic you think I am.” Simone was still calm. Too calm, as she brought over another covered dish and set it in front of me.
“It’s all in my new cookbook.” Simone continued, “I have a signed copy for you, you can take it home after dinner and see for yourself if you really don’t believe me. I think you’ll have some feelings about tonight.” she actually did smile then, though there was something wrong about it. Maybe it was her eyes. I wouldn’t even say they were cold, but they were… something.
“It’s important that you try it. Just a bite. You don’t know what I’ve given up so I could share this with you.”
“I don’t care.”
“I know. That’s the problem. I’m trying to teach you empathy. If you still don’t care by the end of the meal, I’ll accept that.” Our eyes locked, she looked at me expectantly. Simone didn’t say a word, but I knew what she was waiting for. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. I wasn’t playing this game.
“Fuck this.” I stood, “I already tried your nasty salad, not sure why you thought I’d keep going after that. Don’t contact me again. Accept that, or don’t.” I expected her to cry, or scream some insult or justification– but she didn’t.
Her blank stare almost made me feel ashamed of my own outburst, but not enough to stay. Maybe on the outside she was calm, but this night was clearly about making me feel bad (or sick, or dead) and I wasn’t going to sit there and eat it! How stupid did she think I was?
“You might regret it.”
“I won’t.” I said firmly, stepping around her and heading back to the front door. My heart was racing, fists clenched so hard my hands shook. Simone followed me, watching me shove my shoes on and stomp towards the car. My shoes weren’t even completely on; the heels flattening and nearly flying off with each step. I’d go home bare-foot if it meant getting away from her!
“I gave you a real opportunity,” she called after me. “I thought if you felt something, you’d understand. But you really can’t. Or won’t. Because then you’d feel bad. Can’t have that. It’s easier when you can write me off instead.”
“Keep talking! You’re just proving me right,”I spat, “acting all calm to trick me. But it was just another guilt trip that your life was so terrible. You didn’t change at all.”
“You didn’t either.”
“I didn’t need to!” her false calm was only making me angrier! Worse– it made me more afraid. Maybe she put a bit of anger and fear in that salad too… if I believed any of that nonsense! I hastily put the car in reverse, hissing a curse through my teeth when my tires spun.
Simone walked right up to the driver side door, peering in at me– I must have been red-faced and practically frothing with rage. It was rage, wasn’t it? The wheels continued to spin, sending mud in every direction… but she didn’t move away.
“Don’t be scared. Come inside, Andy.” she said softly, sounding so reasonable for such a manipulative bitch. “Finish dinner. I’ll even pay for the tow. I promise it’s not going to hurt you… it might even make you better.”
I turned off the engine, getting out of the car. I started digging into the mud with my bare hands, not caring that I was ruining my clothes in the process. I’d rather dig myself out than try another bite of her weird, mindgame of a meal. I didn’t trust her. I didn’t know what she was really up to, and I wasn’t going to gamble with my life!
Simone didn’t move, just watched for a while– but eventually went back inside. I thought about calling the police or getting an ambulance, but decided against it. Making that kind of scene would make her feel like she won. Besides, I’d only eaten one bite.
After fighting with the mud, I made it home. I tracked dirt on my floors all the way to the shower– where I washed off, clothes on. Another one of Simone’s messes for me to clean up. I was only surprised she found a way to make me bring it home. My sister had really outdone herself!
When I went to bed, it was hard to sleep– I kept wondering about the dishes I’d left untouched. What were they, what she put in them, what the point of it all had been. I hated losing sleep over anything she did, but when I closed my eyes… that feeling came back; the closing of my chest and throat, the pressure behind my eyes, like I might cry myself to sleep. Maybe I did.
I vowed I’d never forgive her, but of course she had to call me from the hospital a few days later. Putting herself in a place where only a monster would ignore her.
I almost hung up on her, but… I knew it would make me look bad. I grit my teeth and listened. It made me angry, but at the same time it was comforting. The obvious manipulation; that was the Simone I knew.
“Did you do it for attention?” I asked her, unable to help myself. I was still mad.
“No, it was an accident.” she said, “I messed up, Andy. The pain helps me see that now. I had to call you before they gave me another dose of painkillers.”
“Well, yeah. You did mess up.” I agreed, feeling my shoulders relax. Maybe she wasn’t going to try and blame me for this after all.
“I took out too much. I thought if I showed any emotion at all, you wouldn’t come.” she said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I need to put some back. I need your help.” I didn’t know what she meant exactly, but felt my brow furrow.
“After that stunt you pulled?” I could feel a chill sweep over me at the mere memory.
“I didn’t mean to scare you Andy. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever. What do you need me to do, exactly? Tell me and I’ll decide if I feel like it.” I didn’t agree right away, still thinking this might be some kind of trap.
“Go to my house. Get my leftovers–” I opened my mouth to argue, but before I could get a word out she added, “they aren’t for you. I put so much of myself in those dishes that it’s not coming back like it normally does. So… I need to eat them if I’m going to be myself again. Otherwise I’m not sure I’ll ever recover.”
“Simone… you know how that sounds, right? I hope you’re not talking like that to the doctors. You’re going to get yourself committed and that’ll make the whole family look bad. That’s the only reason I didn’t have you arrested!”
“I know you believe me. You were scared.” Simone said, “Even if you won’t admit it. But I’m not even asking you to believe me… only bring the leftovers. Please. Some of everything. As soon as you can. While I still care about it.”
She told me where the spare key was hidden and I found myself back at her house. There were deep trenches in the mud lot, reminding me of that night. I decided to park on the street, walking up slowly like I expected Simone to ambush me with a tray of her cooking.
I fumbled through one of the hanging baskets, making a mess of the flowers before I managed to find the key. This time I left my shoes on, making a beeline for the fridge. Inside, I found stacks on stacks of tupperware.
All of them were labelled with emotions: sadness, jealousy, joy, anger, love and relief– too many to mention. I was intrigued. There were a lot to choose from. It was like she really believed she’d been cooking with feelings. It was like I believed her.
But there was only one way to find out. I grabbed the dish labelled ‘relief’, setting it on the counter. It was some kind of casserole. I’ll only take a piece, I thought. If it’s any good.
Of course I wasn’t going to go for anything that might make me feel bad. I opened drawers until I found the silverware, fishing out a spoon and coming back for a little sample.
The casserole was cold… but it felt warm when I put it in my mouth; a warmth that spread through me and relaxed muscles I hadn’t realized were tense. A placebo effect, surely! But the feeling was so fleeting that I found myself reaching for another bite, then another, then another… until I was full and couldn’t eat anymore, despite wanting to.
That’s when I noticed her book, Cooking Your Feelings, sitting on the counter. An author’s copy, since it hadn’t hit shelves yet. Maybe it never would. I grabbed it, tucking it under my arm and decided which dishes to bring. Only the good feelings, none of the bad ones.
The rest? Well…I made an executive decision. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was the only one who knew what was best. Simone always let emotions get in the way. I didn’t. She filled a whole fridge with her feelings! It was strange to see something as abstract as emotion quantified like that. I doubted mine could fill even one shelf- I had a lot more self-control.
I filled up a garbage bag with her sadness, anxiety and jealousy. All the bad emotions. Who needs feelings like that? The bag was very heavy. Simone would be better off without them. Besides, once she healed from her injuries she wouldn’t care anymore.
I was half-way to the hospital when I thought… maybe she didn’t need the other emotions either. Maybe it was because I was curious. I kept thinking about trying some of the other dishes. That “relaxation” casserole had been tasty. Much better than that bitter disappointment salad!
Simone wanted me to try her cooking and I was finally ready to grant her wish. Besides, she’d made it for me hadn’t she? The feelings didn’t belong to her anymore. They were a gift. They were mine. But I was going to choose what I felt, and if she thought I’d choose to feel bad she had another thing coming!
Now that I knew she wasn’t messing with me, that her story about cooking with feelings had been true…I realized I liked her better this way; this calm, unemotional Simone. The sister I deserved but never thought I’d have. I turned the car around.
By the time I got home, I felt a little bad– she’d asked me to bring the leftovers, but I wasn’t going to. Anyone else would give in to the whims of their little sister. But you can’t reward bad behavior! Sometimes you can’t have your way and it was time Simone learned that. She’ll thank me later.
Fortunately, my more uncomfortable feelings were short-lived– thanks to her cookbook. I’ll never have to feel bad about anything again. I took all those pesky feelings like fear, doubt and guilt– and put them in a throwaway peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
My sister is the chef, not me.