Aftermilk

Fiction by Tara Campbell

 
I. Toast

You’ve got to get to the toaster as soon as it pops, kids. That’s the only way to butter the toast soon enough. That’s your golden hour for butter, you know, when you can get it on there and spread it out like a tasty blanket of goodness, even straight from the fridge if you forgot to set it out sooner, which you usually do. There’s just too much going on sometimes, you know, making sure everyone did their homework and put on pants and found their shoes, making sure the eggs aren’t burning, and then you look up and the toaster’s popped long ago and the toast is already cooling, and you’ve missed your window. I’m not blaming you, kids; that’s just how it is sometimes, too much to pay attention to at once.

But, kids, on those days when you don’t miss your window and you get there in time, you can do magic. That butter goes on the toast quiet as a cat’s paws on carpet, and it soaks right in like rain on the beach, and the bread gets as soft as it was the moment it was born, like right when it came out of the oven, and that’s when it smelled the best, too, so it’s almost like going back and getting a second chance. And then you bite into it, because when you’ve buttered it like that, who needs jam, and the butter seeps out on your tongue, sweet and salty and warm, and it’s better than anything you’ve had in your mouth for years.

I’m just saying it’s a real shame when you miss that window, kids.

You miss that window, the best you can hope for is that you remembered to put your butter out soon enough, so it can warm up a little. And maybe you even put it close to the toaster for a little melty action, because you found out the hard way the microwave was too much. That’s what you call the nuclear option, like that biker Mommy dated after the divorce.

You kids wouldn’t remember him. You mostly stayed with your father then.

So no butter dish in the microwave, okay? If you miss the toaster window, you’ll just have to scrape little pieces off your stick of butter and dot your slice with them, and if you hurry, your toast will only be dry in patches. And if you don’t think about the way it could have flowed like honey had you got there quicker, you won’t miss it too much when it doesn’t taste as sweet.

Doesn’t pay to think too much on the past, kids. Don’t cry over spilled milk or cold toast. You just buck up and make do when you miss your window, even if you forget to take the butter out of the fridge first. Then you just grit your teeth and scrape off as thin a sheet of butter as you can, like a surgeon, and transfer that slice to your cold, crunchy toast, which is probably even a little burned because you bumped the dial when you moved the toaster out of the puddle of juice someone spilled—and left on the counter, mind you, like he didn’t have hands to clean it up himself—anyway, you moved the toaster out of the juice so you wouldn’t electrocute yourself, and then put the plate on top of the toaster for maybe a hint of warmth, because you know—again, from experience—that you can’t even put the whole thing in the microwave, toast and all, and use the toast as a butter buffer, because then the bread will get all chewy and stale, just like your second go-around with that biker who was already too much the first time. (Learn from your mistakes, kids, that’s all Mommy asks.) So you go ahead and drag that little sheet of butter across dry land, knife screeching like it’s raking a chalkboard, until the butter breaks into smaller shards, and shove that rubble across the desert until it rubs down to pebbles, which you finally have to cram into the toast, which you’ve fractured and flattened by now, so it looks like one of those videos of water frozen into shelves of ice at the shore. Then you think about all the shredded toast you’ve had to choke down already, and how many more greasy slices of sawdust you’ll have to choke down in the years to come, now that it’s too late to go back and spread manna on warm, lightly crisp, sweet-smelling bread. But you can’t torture yourself, thinking back to those days when you used to catch it just in time, all the time, when it was just you and your radio and your tea, and maybe later you’d head to the market or a café with a friend before your date with the cute law student that night—he was taking you to dinner somewhere you never could have paid for yourself, and frankly neither could he, not at the moment, but both of you knew it would just be a matter of time till he became partner, in more ways than one, or so you thought before everything else happened and you wound up with the other boy who would become your ex—and you weren’t worried about a thing because you thought you had all the time in the world.

But look at that, kids. Toast is done. Here’s the butter. Hurry up. That’s it, see that butter glide? Hear those cat’s paws on carpet? Smell that bakery? Quickly now, get it all the way to the edges. Hurry up, before it dries out. Things have a way of crumbling apart when you wait too long.

II. Love and Orange Juice

Never get the orange juice with pulp, kids. It’s disgusting. If you want pulp, eat an orange. That’s the whole point of orange juice, to have just the juice. Don’t ever trust a drink you have to chew. Except for Blizzards.

No, we’re not going to Dairy Queen for breakfast. Mommy has some standards, no matter what Daddy might say. I know he makes you drink orange juice with pulp when you’re at his house. He always knew how much I hated that stuff, but he still kept on buying it. He said I was just being picky, said it was silly to buy more than one kind of OJ and fill up the fridge with doubles. He’d come back from the store with a huge family-size jug of it, to save money, he said, but really it was just because he was . . . Forget it. I know he asks you kids what I say about him.

Anyway, he tried to get me to drink it with pulp, saying it was healthier, like how all the vitamins from vegetables are in the peel, but I’d just use my fork and lift all those nasty sacs out of there until it was drinkable. Drove him crazy. Even when we had both in the fridge, sometimes I’d be running late and not exactly looking, and I’d pour myself half a glass of that pulped-up sludge before I realized what I was doing, and he always got bent out of shape if I asked him to drink it for me, ’cause he’d already had his by then and said he’d be pissing orange with all the extra juice I made him drink. So I said fine, I’d pour it out, and that about made him blow his top. “Prodigal” was his word. What does that mean? It means a person who doesn’t want to chew on a glass full of slimy juice bags.

You don’t mind it? Well, that’s nice of you, trying not to hurt Daddy’s feelings like that. You kids always were kind, you got that from me. Like when he forgot things, which he always did, I didn’t always rub his nose in it, you know. In fact, I even told him why I hate OJ with pulp, told him more than once, but he never seemed to remember it when he hit the juice aisle in the grocery store and came home with a carton of nightmares. Well, “nightmares” is a bit strong, but definitely bad memories. Because here’s the lesson, kids: always eat breakfast before you start in on the screwdrivers.

It’s a drink, kids. Mommy wasn’t always as smart as she is now. I made some questionable decisions when I was young, and it’s your job to learn from them. See, there was a tradition in high school—you’ve got a long way to go before then, kids, but you should still hear this. This tradition was called Senior Skip Day. It was in the spring, when the teachers were still teaching, but the kids were just about full up on learning. It was always the second Friday in May, so everyone knew when it was, even the kids who weren’t seniors yet. Well, one year, when I was one of those underclassmen, a friend and I decided to join in on Senior Skip Day—but we didn’t know where any parties were or anything, so it just turned out to be Two Sophomore Girls Skip Day. So we went over to another girl’s house, and turns out she had a party right there under her bed in the form of a fifth of Smirnoff. That’s vodka, kids, a nasty, nasty kind of alcohol that looks like water but is anything but.

Long story short, kids, we got those screwdrivers wrong that morning. A real screwdriver is vodka plus probably more orange juice than we were using, plus not on an empty stomach at ten in the morning. We got it all wrong, and as a consequence Mommy got sick, real sick, and it turns out that orange pulp is not so easy to wipe from the floors or from the memory. So ever since then, orange juice with pulp is not how Mommy wants to start her day. And Daddy knows that, because I’ve told him more than once, and, really, why was pulp more important to him than making his wife happy?

Anyway, don’t tell him I said that, kids; he’ll just get upset. But let this be a lesson to you, and it’s not just about orange juice. Whatever your pulp is in life, be it ambition or religion or where to live or how many kids to have, or whether to have them at all, never stay with someone who doesn’t respect your feelings on it. Not that they have to give in, but if you can’t even have equal cartons in the fridge, kids, it’s time to pack your bags and go somewhere you can have your own fridge for a change, your own fridge with your own stuff you put there with your own hard work. Because you’ve always been able to do it, you just didn’t know it because you’d always been told you’d never be able to do it on your own.

Don’t ever fall for that line, kids. You deserve something out of life, and you can accomplish anything you put your minds to. And you should never be ashamed of following your own goals, large or small. Even if it’s something as simple as sitting at your own table in the morning quiet and sipping on a nice, cool glass of orange juice without pulp.

III. Aftermilk

Kids, I’ve eaten way too many bowls of slush in my life, and I don’t want the same for you. So listen: don’t walk away from your cereal once you’ve poured the milk. Just don’t.

You may think you can have it all, wrinkle-free laundry from the dryer and a delicious bowl of Mini-Wheats, but that’s an illusion. You hear that buzzer, you block it out or you’ll be walking back to a bowl of Pablum with jagged icebergs of wheat sticking up as if they’d tried to claw their way out of the brew.

And don’t open the mail after you pour, kids. Don’t even look at the mail. Because let me tell you, one phone call about an erroneous charge on your credit card and you’ll come back to a swamp full of slimy, bloated Kix corpses you’ll have to shovel into your squawker one spoonful after another. It doesn’t help that they were stale to begin with. Family size may be cheaper, but it’s a heavy price to pay when it’s just you and your roommate.

Yes, this was before I met Daddy, before I had you two.

Of course you always have to eat it. It’s not like you have money to burn, like you can just throw that nasty goop down the disposal. It’s not like you can buy the actual brand names, either. Momma didn’t always have Post and Kellogg’s in her house, kids. The stars of her shelves were Kroger and Freddy’s, or whatever chain store happened to be on her bus line.

Yes, kids, it’s nice that we can have Lucky Charms now. So why aren’t you eating them? Milk’s poured, clock’s ticking, school bus is on the way. Didn’t you hear a word I said?

You learn early to avoid the puffs and the flakes. You learn soon enough to stick with the clusters, the granolas. They might just have a little crunch left by the time you’re done holding your roommate’s hair back while she throws up—morning sickness, and you knew that bastard Randy was gonna cut bait as soon as he caught wind of it, and she’d have to move back in with her parents, and you’d have to find another roommate, and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. So always use a condom, kids, and stick with your clusters and granolas.

And know that even Grape-Nuts are no match for certain phone calls. Because sometimes that phone rings, and you think you’re just going to pick up for a quick chat with your boyfriend, and by the time you hang up, you’ve got no more boyfriend because he doesn’t believe you when you swear you haven’t been sneaking money out of his wallet, when all you had to do was ask. And maybe he’s right, because you’ve been pretending you can afford real Grape-Nuts, and genuine Cheerios and actual Special K, and all just to make him think you had it together enough to buy name brands, but all you have left now is a heaping portion of room-temperature fiber stew.

No, kids, that wasn’t Daddy. That was before Mommy met Daddy. But let that be a lesson to you, it doesn’t pay to lie. It’s not nice to lie, even though everyone does it sometimes. Sometimes you have to, like when you plan a surprise party and you can’t tell the person before it happens. Or when you two ask what you’re getting for your birthdays and I say, “I don’t know.” You don’t really want to know, do you?

I didn’t think so. See, sometimes people tell little lies to make other people feel better. Remember when your friend Tina got that crazy haircut, but you both told her it looked good so she wouldn’t feel bad? You said the other kids teased her, but you two were nice to her even though you don’t really like her.

Those types of lies aren’t really lies, they’re more like kindnesses. Like, it’s a kindness when your parents say school simply wasn’t the place where you could show your best strengths, or when your friends say sure, you could be a star, you just have to want it bad enough. It’s a kindness when agent after agent tells you they’d love to sign you, but producers wouldn’t know what to do with your kind of beauty. It’s a kindness when your friends say how inspiring it is that you keep chasing your dreams, despite everything. It’s a kindness when the guy you’re dating, a regular where you waitress, asks you to marry him shortly after the condom breaks, says he was going to ask you anyway. And it’s a kindness when you say yes. But then you think maybe kindnesses aren’t always that great after all, because somehow all those kindnesses led to a bunch of meanness, and now Mommy and Daddy don’t live together anymore.

But, kids, don’t misunderstand me: All that kindness, and even the meanness, was all worth it in the end, because look what Mommy got out of it. I got you! I could never have imagined finding something as beautiful as you two on my path of little white lies. And that’s not just another kindness, kids. I really mean it.

Listen. Hear the clock chiming? You’ve got ten minutes to finish up and catch the school bus. Go learn something. Pay attention to Teacher like your lives depend on it. And remember, no failsafe is safe from failure, but even if you mess up, you can still salvage something beautiful out of life.

But first, finish your cereal, kids. Go on. Eat every last spoonful before it all turns to mush.

Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer. In 2016 she was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the Larry Neal Writer’s Award and the Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, volunteer with children’s literacy organization 826DC, and MFA candidate at American University. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was published in November 2016.