She put a padlock on the outside of her bedroom door. My mom’s roommate. She was beautiful and wild and I was completely in love with her. She was kind to me. She took me out for spaghetti once. Another time a picnic. But that day, the day of the lock, she was enraged. She hated my mom’s boyfriend with a passion. “He was in my room again wasn’t he?” I didn’t know. I stayed far away from the boyfriend.
Roommate accused the Boyfriend of eating her food. I was afraid to tell her it was me. Her food. Mom couldn’t keep groceries in the house because she was on a diet. We usually had Saltines and Boyfriend’s beer. I don’t know what my mother subsisted on, and Boyfriend would get fast food. But Roommate had watermelon, and carrots and cheese, fancy flavored waters and apples. When I would ask mom for dinner I was given a couple dollars to ride my bike to the gas station. “The Convenient” we called it. Chips, candy bars. It was something.
Then Roommate was just gone. An open door. A twin bed, a mirror propped on the wall, a small bag of garbage. I wished I had not eaten pieces of her watermelon, or smuggled out her carrots and cheese, but I had a new bedroom. An upgrade from the couch. I hauled my clothing from the hall closet to the big closet in my new room. I could see the bay from the window. I had a sheet and a pillow. It was okay.
Mom was in the Navy and when you are in the Navy you had to go “out to sea” at certain times. I think it was once a month, or if there was a hurricane or storm. In my couch days, I could be gone before Boyfriend was up. Out the door, into the swirling sea of neighborhood kids or to the actual sea, the bay, to play in the sand. Some of the parents in our complex wouldn’t let me in their house. They didn’t want “messed up with those white people.” Others always seemed to have an “extra” sandwich or a glass of Kool-aid when I was around, even if it wasn’t lunchtime. They knew.
That all changed with my new room. It was that weekend, mom was going out to sea. I woke early needing to pee. The door wouldn’t open. I pounded. Silence. My bay view window also overlooked the parking lot. Boyfriend’s car was gone. The hardware from Roommate’s lock had remained and he had locked me in. Desperation. Roommate’s abandoned bag of trash provided a Big Gulp cup, a makeshift toilet.
After a few hours, I began yelling for help out of the window. No one answered. Our apartment was on the end, separate, only two units. The only other white people in the complex, two ex-Marines, like Boyfriend, lived there. That night, when Boyfriend returned, they appeared and called him over. I would not try yelling out the window again. Upon release I raced to the bathroom to gulp handfuls and handfuls of water. I was warned not to tell. I learned to prepare. Rinse the cup and put it under the bed. Get what you could and hide it. Saltines. Beef Jerky. Between the mattress. Under a pile of dirty clothes. Tucked up inside the corner of the closet. It was still never enough for a whole weekend. It was better than nothing, better then hours of staring out the window with your hunger as your only company. I snatched a couple books from mom’s room. The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Story of O. Not exactly child friendly, but my mind was hungry too. It was a hell of an education.
I’m the adult now, and one of my kids is hoarding food. Crackers, fruit, frozen waffles. Anything he can get his hands on. Under the bed, between the mattresses, in the drawers, in the closet. I worry that we’re going to get bugs. I’m afraid he will get sick. I’m constantly cleaning it up. A constant reminder of his life before he came to us. A constant reminder of what we share. I have granola bars in my car. Protein shakes in my purse. I once stayed at a hotel that had bowls of shiny apples in the lobby. I was only there a few days but I steadily collected apples in my room. So many apples. I didn’t eat them. Such a waste. But I don’t need to be hungry, I just need it to be there. And so does he.
I got him a box with a lock and a key. The key is his. I ask him if he will at least keep the food in the box. Yes, he is enthusiastic about the idea.
My mind can’t help but go to other people I know, people who do not always have keys. People whose access to food is decided by someone else, an authority who has deemed them too fat or too foolish decide when and what they eat. People so desperate they will resort to violence over a juice box. People left to sit for hours, whose minds are surely hungry even when their stomachs are not. I think about food, power and control. I give my son the key to his little box, and assure him he will always have the key, and maybe that will help.