Creative Nonfiction: Peels
Thalia Bardell is a second semester junior at Emerson College pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. Her primary focus is non-fiction and personal essay. Although she is extremely passionate about writing her one true love in life is the Boston Red Sox.
**The third section of “Peels” was published as an excerpt in Gangsters in Concrete, an Emerson publication, for their mini-mag edition that came out this fall.**
I was in third grade and I was standing in the kitchen watching Mom peel carrots. She was standing at the big white sink with a bag of carrots open on the counter to her right. In her left hand she held the shiny silver peeler. As she skimmed the carrot, the wrinkly outer skin peeled off in long strips. They curled out gracefully from behind the peeler and landed in a growing pile at the bottom of the sink. The colors that stood out to me most. The translucent, blue-yellow light of late afternoon filtering through the large kitchen window. The impossible orange of the freshly-peeled carrots against the stark white kitchen sink. The sheen of the peeler as it melded all of the colors together, glinting and winking in the setting sun, casting orange strips into a bright white basin. Mom stared out the window as she peeled. She didn’t look at anything, not at the carrots, not at her hands as they deftly maneuvered the peeler, and not at me. I looked at the carrots, at her hands, at her face, and she looked lonely. It was carrots and colors and a feeling of disconnect.
As a child I feared spiders and the dark. Those were the tangible fears, fears that could be eradicated with the flick of a light switch or backside of a book. Sometimes, when I would come home from school, I wouldn’t find Mom peeling carrots, or in her living room chair by the window, or at the loom in the extra room. It was on those days that I would climb the stairs with heavy feet, like my sneakers were sinkers, lead weights used to drop fishing line rather than navy Keds. At the top of the stairs, I would look slowly to my right and see the closed door. Oak and a deceptively warm dark-honey color. I feared closed doors. I fear closed doors.
I was in seventh grade, just home from field hockey practice, sitting at the kitchen table, watching Mom peel carrots. Her back was to me and though I couldn’t see the mountain of carrot peelings growing in the sink, I could hear it. The peeler made a soft scraping noise as it ran lightly down the length of the carrot. Top to bottom, top to bottom. Shick, shick, shick. The skin fell away from the vegetable and revealed fresh flesh. Chop, chop. The small paring knife that Mom kept at the sink edge removed first the pointy and then the round end of the carrot. Plunk. The carrot dropped into the colander. She slid another out of the bag, gracefully, and began again. Shick, shick, shick. That day it was mostly sounds. Sounds and carrots and a familiar feeling. We’re disconnected, Mom and I. In the kitchen we didn’t speak, even if we wanted to, and the sink overflowed with silence and carrot peelings.
Sometimes I would go to the door. I would put my hand on the knob, and I would start to turn, and then I would stop. I would press my ear up to the wood and hope for some sound, but I never heard anything. On the days when the door was closed I wished that I could hear her crying. Crying is better than no sound. No sound means that there is nothing left to cry about. Empty is a scary place; a gaping hole where people go to disappear.
I was always terrified that she would disappear. I don’t know exactly what that meant, but it was a palpable fear, a heart-pounding fear. It was a fear that I would open that door and find she had simply evaporated, all of her clothes left in an imprint of her body atop the covers. I was afraid of something worse, too. Especially in the elementary school years, the navy Keds years. I was afraid I would open the door and find her dead. Now it sounds dramatic, but she was always so sad. She always looked so lonely, and nothing I did made her better. I didn’t understand why she felt this way or why I felt this way; I just knew as I stood outside the door, sneaker tips lined up toe to toe, that something didn’t feel right. It was like she was a ghost that I couldn’t grab, couldn’t hang onto. She kept slipping and sliding through my hands, like the carrot skins through the peeler and I wanted to hold her so badly. I wanted to tell her that it would be all right. That she had me and there was nothing to be afraid of. What I really needed was for her to tell me all of those things, but neither one of us was capable of asking for what we really needed. So I would sit outside the door and wait until she emerged. Just to make sure.
I stared at Mom’s back. I wondered what she had been doing before I’d gotten home. I wondered if she had been crying, or if she had been at the sink the whole day, peeling carrots and staring. I wondered if, when I opened the fridge, a cascade of carrots would flood from the shelves, overtaking me and her and the entire kitchen. The sky was navy-blue-black through the kitchen window and I saw her face reflected in the panes of glass. She was staring, blank and empty, eyes vacant as if she had gone somewhere else. I had the sudden urge to take the carrot peeler to her. Shick, Shick, Shick. Not in a violent way, but just to peel away her tough outside, to get to the fleshy inside so I could see what’s underneath. I stared back at her reflection in the kitchen window, but she didn’t notice; she’d gone beyond the window. I opened my mouth; the urge to bridge the space between us with words was as overpowering as my imagined carrot flood. I am that little girl that sits outside the door and this feeling is the same as pausing with my hand on the knob, except this time, instead of being paralyzed with fear, I am frozen with ice-cold rage.
Why won’t you look at me? Can’t you see me? Come out from behind that door! Everything I needed to say to her was right on the tip of my tongue. I shut my mouth and left for my room. The scrape of the wooden chair legs on the tile floor broke her trance, but by the time she’d turned her head she was staring at my back as I exited through the kitchen hallway. Slam. This time I was the one who shut the door. Did she wait on the other side for me?
I was a senior in high school and standing in the kitchen watching Mom peel carrots. It always bothered me that she couldn’t peel just two or three carrots; she had to peel the entire bag. I wanted to tell her to stop. To say, Jesus Christ, who is going to eat that many carrots, Ma? I was staring at her with rage, my eyes burning hot and red in their sockets. All she did was peel carrots. If she wasn‘t shut up behind her closed door she was at that sink peeling carrots. It was one or the other, behind the door or at the sink and I never understood until that day. And when it hit me, the dark red rage faded to a softer hue, the light through the kitchen window filtered the color behind my eyes until it glowed, still hot, like embers, but cool enough to be moved, shifted. She’d been here the whole time. She’d stood right in front of me, peeling, and it never occurred to me to speak to her. Never to ask her why she peeled so many carrots. She wasn’t the only one slipping through cracks and fingers; maybe she had the same feelings that I had, regarding me. There were two people in that kitchen that needed each other.
I really looked at her. First at her face, her long profile, her sloping nose; then at her hands, left hand gripping the rounded end of the carrot firm and steady, forearm resting on the edge of the sink. Her right hand moved methodically, quickly, efficiently, down the side of the carrot. I stood with her, shoulder to shoulder, and moved my gaze to the kitchen window, hands resting on the countertop next to her, and I tried to see what she did. For a moment I was lost in the fading gray-blue light of dusk and then I noticed something different. Silence. I looked down into the sink; my mother’s hands had stopped. I looked up and our eyes met.
“Thalia, make sure you always peel away from your body, so you don’t cut yourself.”
She handed me the peeler and stepped slightly to her left so that I stood at the edge of the sink. I gripped the round end of the carrot with my left hand, a little too hard, oddly nervous, like somehow my carrot peeling performance might close the gap between us. I began to run the peeler down the side of the carrot and the peelings came off in short jagged strips, not graceful and elegant like hers. She handed me another carrot. I tried again—more short strokes. Another carrot—my mother took my peeling hand in hers and guided it. The skin came off in one simple stroke, perfect. I tried on my own, the strokes lengthening slightly, getting more confident as I wound around the carrot. As I made my way back to the first stroke I peeled off one long, thin, curling, peel. I smiled, cut the ends off, plopped it into the colander, and reached my hand out for another.
I know now that it’s the carrots that kept her here. The rotating motion of the carrot in the left hand, the down and away, down and away action of the right hand; like a meditation in motion. Shick, shick, shick. I know now that she needed to peel the whole bag to keep herself grounded when her world was overwhelming her. I don’t know the details of her struggle, but I do know that I sometimes lose myself in a bag of carrots, looking down into the sink surprised to see a mountain of orange against the muted silver basin. I don’t know where I’ve gone in the gray-blue dusk light of early evening, but I think about my mother and I understand.