Their spoons sat next to their plates untouched, a detail that would hardly be worth noting, except eight-year-old Delia was very particular about every aspect of this sleepover and saw the slight on her utensils as a party faux pas. She herself sat at the kitchen table with one plastic purple fork and one plastic purple spoon fisted in either hand, all the better for pushing and scooping the requested Taco Bell dinner kit into her mouth. Plus the purple matched the tissue paper streamers hanging above their heads.
Non-purple dishes filled with chopped tomatoes, grated American cheese, ground beef, shredded lettuce, and crunchy taco shells covered the small formica dinette set just like the image on the taco box itself. But at its center, of course, sat a Corelle bowl of fluffy white Jasmine rice, an unapproved add-on by her mama. No one said anything of it when they sat down, and Delia contended that rice was an appropriate taco add-on. She preferred it herself, and was surprised when her fellow eight-year-olds made grabs for the bowl at once.
Rice aside, the party itself wasn’t very different from her best friend Ella Ree’s slumber party over the summer. Granted, Delia's house was smaller; she didn’t have a basement theater with a big screen TV or a large playroom perfect for recreating their imaginary house’s floor plan. But Delia and her mama cleaned the house and bribed her siblings to hide away in their respected rooms. Mama even brought Delia to the party store to purchase decorations— all of which were purple— and Mama gave Delia the freedom to deck the house with streamers, half blown balloons, and a lone, shiny balloon weight. At three dollars a piece, Delia was allowed only one of those extravagances.
The result was spectacular, if a little jumbled. And Delia looked at everything proudly as she led her guests, with reckless abandon, in building a blanket fort in the dining room and making all of the living room shelves their dollhouse.
“I love rice,” Kitty said to Delia’s right, as the miniature girl scooped a forkful of the pristine grains into her mouth. Delia had to agree and chewed good-naturedly in response as Kitty took another forkful. It was only then that Delia realized that the girl was eating it plain. She stared at her for a good minute before turning to Ella Ree who piped up.
“Do you have sauce?” she asked, gesturing to her rice with her fork as well. Spoons still sat under the lip of each little girl’s plate. Rice was still the star of the plate.
“Sauce?” Mama asked, upon them at the sound of a question.
“Soy sauce,” Rebecca elaborated confidently from the other side of the table.
Delia blinked at her friends, then turned to her mother for clarity. Mama looked just as confused. She took a second. “Ah.” She walked away towards the cupboard where canola oil, the meat cutting block, and any large bottle was kept. Mama took a second before turning, holding up a bottle with a red paper label, a lone illustrated swan sitting elegantly in a lake. “Toyo!” Mama announced, clipping the Y and O off neatly and making her way towards Ella Ree. The rest of the table, as if taking a cue, clamored for some some as well, pouring the black liquid carefully under Mama’s guidance and blending the concoction together with their non-spoons.
Delia never saw anything like it. The four girls around her table poured the toyo directly onto their rice, no sabaw or broth to dilute it. No taco meat. No tomatoes. No nothing. She watched in fascination as her friends continued on, working through naked plates of rice, hungrily.
It was almost like watching a cat be pet backwards from the tip of the tail to the front of its head. You don’t have to do the action yourself to feel the discomfort. You just know it’s going against nature. And yet, every single little girl at the table ate plain white rice with no meat dish or ulam to speak. And toyo on rice without broth or sabaw was just wrong.
It was dry and unfeeling. Naked. And weird.
And yet they seemed to like it.
“Your house is the best,” Ella Ree deemed, chewing. Delia did her best to look encouraging and noncommittal to witnessing the horrendous food act before her. “My mom hardly makes rice,” Ella Ree admitted, and she smiled directly at Delia, before taking another satisfying chew, making Delia forget about utensils and purple and basements.
She felt the knotted feelings and discomfort ebb away. Something warmer enveloped her. Reassurance buoyed her up in her seat. And she genuinely returned Mama’s smile over the blonde and brunette heads busily eating, and ate her taco meat and tomatoes with rice piled on top. Spoon and fork worked together like knitting needles in her hands, bringing lettuce, meat, and rice to her mouth.
And all the while, everyone’s spoons sat on the table, untouched.
Granted, weeks later, Ella Ree, with that same face and mouth, turned down this time, would take it all back, because the blonde girl lost her white patent leather flip flop amidst the jovial mess of Delia’s room. It was the left shoe, and Delia held the right tsinelas in her hand above the fray, thinking to keep it safe from whatever fate met its left comrade.
“Your house is crumby,” the eight-year-old blonde kid said, searching the carpeted floor covered with stray McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and dollhouse furniture. Sheer minutes ago, the two had been bent over Delia’s dollhouse, her dresser top, and the open floor next to her bed, creating a town with the small Barbie dolls Delia had accrued from countless Happy Meals. But a quick call from Ella Ree’s mom brought a halt to the proceedings— namely building a mall with the spare shoeboxes Delia had collected for this purpose— and the fun and laughter that filled the space seconds ago was replaced with Ella Ree’s clear distress.
Delia didn’t point out that Ella Ree was the one who requested to keep her new white slippers on when she entered the domicile. They had little shiny black butterflies on the thong above the big toe too, and Delia couldn’t help but grow slightly envious at the simple footwear.
Mama would never get those for her. Mama would laugh and tell her that she didn’t come here so her daughter would still wear tsinelas in the street.
Delia knows. Because she’s asked Mama before.
“I need to go!” Ella Ree groused, looking frantically through Delia’s bedroom. Delia stepped around plastic odds and ends littering her floor, shoe still held in one hand. She followed their natural progression of play, while her guest stood near the dollhouse, red in the face, eyes searching, body still.
Delia’s house, while smaller than Ella Ree’s, had an imprecise charm to it, one that Delia was acutely aware of. While Mama made rice and watched over the messes they made at her slumber parties, Mama also worked long hours at the hospital, and Papa wasn’t one to tell Delia or her sisters no. It’s how their coffee table was covered with paint and hot glue marks and marker. It’s why dollhouse furniture lived on shelves in the living room. And how breakfast could be Oreos. Ella Ree’s mom didn’t make rice, but she did talk about food pyramids and stored potatoes in a wooden box so they were out of the way. Mama left potatoes and cassava rolling freely on the ground in a corner of the kitchen. Mama thought a food pyramid meant rice with meat. Delia loved her Mama and her house, but Ella Ree’s was cleaner when Delia would drop in randomly. Delia and Mama would speed clean if anyone was dropping by. She doubted Ella Ree had to do that.
Then again, Delia took her shoes off when she entered, no questions asked.
“You can take one of my shoes,” Delia offered, heart in throat as she scoured the room once again. She didn’t wait for a response and scurried down the hall to the foyer, where her family usually took their shoes off. She brought them to Ella Ree. “You can take the pair.”
This was apparently not the best course of action. Ella Ree’s tiny face contorted in disgust as she looked at the well-worn leather sandals Delia dropped at her feet. “No,” her best friend said, her facing breaking into tears. “I have to go!” Ella Ree reminded, and she took a step out from behind the dollhouse.
Delia did a quick glance at the bedroom floor for good measure, her own senses numbing at the messiness. “Your house is crumby.” The words echoed in her head again, and Delia pushed it down and blinked back a heat behind her eyes. When she inevitably found the lost flip-flop for her friend— it was right where Ella Ree was standing minutes before, overlooked— not even its recovery brought her peace. Ella Ree herself didn’t say a word of apology and left in haste. And Delia sat in the middle of her floor to put her room back together but even better than before, tears un-falling and sucked back into her head.
It wasn’t difficult. Cleaning up her room. Gathering up her toys from around the house. Buying the right jeans from Old Navy. Packing lunches with chicken salad sandwiches she made herself— her mother had a tendency to put pineapple, apples, or bits of Spam in it— and snacking on potato chips. Never inviting people over. Never going to parties herself. Delia read years worth of books and left MTV on in the background to keep up. Delia used forks in public and turned down rice at home. Delia watched Dawson’s Creek and worried about boys. Her legs stretched out longer. Her dollhouse was moved out of her room.
Mom was still the same, working, loving, cooking. And on one of her day’s off, as Delia placed her cereal bowl and spoon into the sink, she offered to pack her lunch.There was a tenderness in the simple offer, and Delia felt genuinely excited when her mother sweetened the deal with the promise of lumpia. The crispy pork-filled egg rolls were one of Delia’s favorites, especially with sweet chili sauce to dip it in and fluffy comforting rice to chase it. She agreed and stayed in her room while Mom fried everything. Delia left in a hurry through the front, the smell of stale oil and onions burning through the air behind her.
Good lunches, real good lunches, lunches you don’t make yourself, can make the difference when you’re in French class conjugating verbs, waiting for third period. Delia had a secure comfort awaiting her, and that, coupled with the irregularity with her mom being at home, added a bit of nuance to her day and pep to her conversation in Mademoiselle Kingsley’s class.
As Delia sat in the cafeteria with the bustle of students at her back, she eagerly peeled off the cheap Tupperware top, mouth slightly watering, excitement pitter-pattering in her veins. And yet, no.
She peered into the Tupperware with deflating cheer. She pushed aside the container top, dotted with condensation — the culprit to her lunch’s downfall. Once opened at the lunch table for all to see, she stared at the white rice packed with sitting gelatinous chili pepper sauce, and the soggy meat tubes, which lost their luster next to the cafeteria-purchased taquitos and home-packed peanut butter sandwiches nearby.
“What’s that, Deals?” Ryan Richards asked, grabbing the seat across from her. He peered at her open Tupperware politely. And Delia smiled and prepared her pitch, her tongue drenched in sweetness and patience as she told him how her mother just wanted to pack her lunch. And how could Delia really say no?
“That’s nice of you,” Ryan said, nodding along, taking a bite of a taquito off his tray. She heard the crunch as he chewed. “So it’s Philippine?”
Filipino. Delia didn’t move to correct him but smiled and nodded. “Yes, it’s one of my favorites,” she admitted. “It’s sort of a crispy egg roll and rice. My mom added sauce too. That’s the orange stuff.”
She watched him as he looked at the soggy mess that was her lunch, chewing a rather crispy-sounding taquito. “Can I have some?” he asked.
Delia beamed, nodding a little more proudly and holding her container aloft. “Yes, please.” Her mother’s egg rolls were the jewel of her family. At parties, her mother was pried for the secret recipe and surprisingly, unabashedly, she gave it to them. Many have tried and those same have failed, coming way behind Mom’s. And Delia felt that same pride rise up in her at this opportunity. Ryan grabbed one of the small egg rolls with his forefinger and thumb.
It was a testament to the lumpia themselves, and Delia’s love and pride for her mother, that she trusted their magic all on their own.
And yet, it was pure disappointment to watch Ryan’s boyish, clear face run the gamut from curiosity to mild politeness as he chewed. “Thank you. It’s really good,” he said, turning to his own tray without a beat of appreciation for the gift she had just gave him.
Delia picked one up, quickly noticing the softened, sagging skin of the egg roll wrapper, the lack of crunch between her forefinger and thumb as she gave it a slight squeeze. She dipped it into the Mae Ploy chili sauce, which had spread all over her rice, and she pulled, rather than bit, off the top piece. Soggy.
The flavor was there. The ground pork to minced onions and carrots ratio was right, albeit dulled down by a cold lunch. Delia stared at the innocuous plastic Tupperware, and her heart sank down deeper, the day’s anticipation weighing heavy.
She looked up and saw Ryan holding a fork aloft, gesturing to his own lunch. And Delia accepted it, taking a swipe of the refried beans and a bit of the Spanish rice from his tray. Ryan made a grab for her container, pausing only for Delia’s encouraging nod, before he grabbed a lumpia and dropped it into his mouth in one go. She watched as a small satisfaction bit at the corners of his lips.
Delia reached across the table and took another careful scoop of school sanctioned beans and rice with her fork, sliding the bite off the tines with her teeth, smiling all the while.
About Georgette Eva
Georgette Eva is a Filipino writer and community builder living in New York. She grew up in Georgia, which has no bearing to her name, and has written for sites like Bustle and The Boiler Journal. She uses spoons to eat anything from salads to spaghetti. Find her on any platform @yaygeorgette.