We were a margarine family, straight down the line, and we especially loved the tubs, for their convenient spreadability and the slender, but ever present possibility, that one day they would return our taunts of ‘butter’ with a crude yet whimsical ‘Parkay’. We didn’t know what butter was. We didn’t care.
We never called it margarine, though—it was always ‘butter’ to us. Like we called Cool Whip whipped cream, Velveeta, cheese, and what we felt for each other, love. ‘Pass the butter’, we’d say, and get margarine in return. ‘I got an A on my math test’ got us a dollop of ‘no reason anyone in this family should get less than an A on anything’, and ‘mayipleasebeexcused’—a string of words as meaningless as our locker combinations—released us, away from that table and into the night.
Where I learn things. Things like what a firecracker will do to a turtle, how to catch a crow, the taste of beer, first cold from the bottle, then yeasty and warm on the mouth of another. I learn words, too. Words for love and words for fucking, but none for confusion or the hollow eggshell of surrounding night.
One night I stay in. I need a poem to read for English. My Dad, an English major turned banker, decides to help. He takes a slim white volume from the shelf, Sonnets From the Portuguese, and turns to Sonnet XLII: “how do I love thee…” I sit on the arm of his chair and read over his shoulder. We alternate until he coughs and stops, then I finish, “…and if God wills, I shall but love thee better after death”. A trip of time, imperceptible, then, ‘Well, that’s one option’, and he’s up and out of his chair to return, on tiptoe, the book to its place high on the high shelves.
Then the night the cold rushing night fills me runs through me choking as my father crumples to the floor in front of me, a rag doll. I try to scream I try to breathe around the eggshell in my throat and just as I am about to scream my brother’s name my father blinks, shakes his head, stands. ‘Whew. Bit of a dizzy spell there,’ he grunts as I stare and nod and turn and we are back in our places, his chair and my night.
I learn more about butter as I get older. That it’s lighter and sweeter than margarine, and harder to melt (put the pat under your plate to soften up, a date tells me), plus all sorts of things that have nothing to do with food. I learn to whip cream, and appreciate Gruyere, but poetry, oh I’ll just never get poetry.