Thousand Words Project

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One of Us

I remember the exact moment that Megan, my brother’s girlfriend, became a part of our family. It was the summer after my mother returned from India wanting a divorce, the year Elias’s lacrosse team won Northeast regionals, the year I got braces. It took us fourteen hours to drive to Florida from Washington, DC, in Dad’s two-door Toyota Tercel. Megan sat in the back with Yoshi and me, and Dad and Elias sat in the front, sometimes taking turns driving.

Our drive to Gainesville was punctuated by my hatred for Megan’s childlike fussiness. The D’Aiellos are a family of holder-inners. The dog got a break, but we held everyone else - our travel companions, in particular - up to rigorous family standards of dignity, self-control, and urinary retention. Megan did not pass muster on this. “Holding it gives you a kidney infection,” she’d whine. Or worse: “I’m a small person! I have a small bladder!” Here was a moderately offensive expression of the differences between us. My father, brother, and I are not small people. Megan was an elfish dishwater blonde of Irish descent. The D’Aiellos are big, dark, stoic Greeks. That it was hot as hell, that the Tercel’s air conditioner, radio, and passenger’s side rear window were all broken, that dog hair was clinging itchily to us all, was fine, just fine, thanks, no need to make a Thing out of it. We looked upon all this with Spartan reserve.

It was a classic vacation. We played minigolf, took pictures in groves of banyans, waited for Megan to pee, rented paddleboats, toured the Museum of Natural History, went horseback riding, waited for Megan to pee, played battle-of-the-sexes badminton, went swimming, waited for Megan to pee. If we saw signs for zoos, aquariums, monuments, or county fairs, we stopped to check them out. It was this kind of freewheeling opportunism that led us to the fundraiser for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida. Dad spotted a banner that said, “Can YOU handle the VERMONSTER CHALLENGE?” And Eli, who was driving at the time, said, “Hey Penny, can you handle the Vermonster Challenge?”

“I’ll challenge your Vermonster all the way to Texas,” I shot back. I don’t really know why said that, and I didn’t know what a Vermonster was, either.

“You’re on, P,” he said. “Wake Megan up.”

We arrived just in time. The Vermonster Challenge turned out to be an eating contest, and the Vermonster itself was a giant sundae in a bucket: twenty scoops of Ben & Jerry’s, four ladles of hot fudge, four bananas, three cookies, two brownies, whipped cream, and four choice toppings. Dad declined on account of his bypassed heart, offering instead to cheer us on from the sidelines. Megan was still shaking the grog out of her nap, flush-faced and puffy-eyed, toeing the line of post-doze crankiness, as she sat down next to Eli. I squinted across the table at her. She can’t eat like us, I thought. No way. I caught myself grinning, because it pleased me to have woken her up to the prospect of bolting some portion of a 15,000-calorie extravaganza.

A few moments later, a Ben & Jerry’s server came over to us, explained the rules of the contest, demonstrated the universal signal for “I am choking,” and then moved on to the other three-person teams. I took my watch off and rolled up my sleeves. Megan didn’t notice, and I didn’t do her the favor of suggesting she do the same. And then, at the swift blast of an airhorn, we dove in.

It was disgusting. Within seconds, the contents of the bucket started looking like the contents of a stomach, everything all mixed together. Our hands plunged into the amorphous mess like the alternating pistons of some grotesque machine. “Banana,” said Megan, full-mouthed. “Use them for scooping toppings!” We grabbed bananas and made tools of them, working at a frantic pace, almost bonking heads a few times.

Elias slowed for a moment, assuming an odd expression - mouth slightly open, slight flaring of the nostrils, eyelids at half mast - wholly given over to staring at Megan. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I bet it was gross. I would’ve elbowed him if I could reach, but Megan beat me to it. “Eat, idiot!” she shouted, holding the last of the banana and part of a cookie in her face with her orchid-pink, French-manicured hands. Then she stopped abruptly, raising herself into the air and whirling around like a startled animal. I thought she was going to hurl, actually, but instead she banged on the table with her fists and announced that our competitors were gaining on us. My hands were cold and sticky and I was starting to have trouble swallowing. Somehow, though, we’d eaten three quarters of the way through the sundae in a matter of minutes, leaving a goopy ooze where the dessert had once been. I could feel ice cream running down my chin, cookie crumbs stuck to my nose, the sweet, stale smell of whipped cream on my breath, my head pounding with brainfreeze. It was almost too much.

From over my left shoulder, the excited shriek of a prepubescent boy broke the hubbub of consumption: “We’re winning, you guys! We’re gonna win!” This enacted a transformation in Megan. She let loose a battle cry, seized the bucket like a berserker, lifted it to her face, and guzzled the soupy mixture of crumbs, sprinkles, and ice cream in great gasping gulps while Elias and I stared on in awe. It was like watching someone score the game-winning goal in the last seconds of double overtime. The victory was ours, but the glory was all hers. When she’d downed the last of it, she put the upside-down bucket on her head and pumped her fists in the air, blindly drawing me and Elias into a triumphant, sticky hug.

“Megan,” I said to the bucket, “Oh my god. You were awesome.” And I meant it.