Walking on Eggshells

Whenever her parents were around, Mary and all her adult siblings became both raging teenagers and helpless infants at the same time. It was painful to watch Chris, the most sensitive of her brothers, try to trade groveling attention for approval that was never granted.

There were six children in the family but only two who mattered: Mary, the homecoming queen; and Jim Jr., the genius. Jim Jr. enjoyed but downplayed talk of his special standing. Mary, on the other hand, never acknowledged her favored status, perhaps from fear of losing it. For her, 
winning approval was a life or death struggle. Without approval and the glowing attention that came with it, she wouldn't exist. Maureen, a younger and more delicate sister, was her first opponent. In the face of her parents' judgement, Mary would only choose perfection, or the illusion of it.

When the parents, Jim Sr. and Dorothy, arrived for breakfast at our Mission district flat on the corner of Delores and Guerrero, I thought I was ready for them. After the usual shower of false affection, they said that they both preferred a two-minute soft boiled egg with English scones. It all sounded quite simple on the surface. Mary and the parents settled in for a round of Bloody Marys and Camel cigarettes, while I went off to the kitchen where the challenge of timing a two-minute egg would devolve into existential tragedy.

Mary’s father was making another attempt to quit smoking so was exuding unsettling amounts of tension. This latest campaign was built on advice from one of his fellow General Mills Execs who claimed to have quit by taking only two puffs from each cigarette then immediately stubbing it out. In his usual habit, Jim Sr. would smoke at least two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. On this regimen, he was wasting two packs an hour. Heavy smokers themselves, Dorothy and Mary both adopted this practice to support Jim, creating literal bucketfuls of butts in short order.

I grew up in a family of Italian cooks who hardly measured ingredients much less consulted a timer but for this I did watch the kitchen clock. A
an appropriate two minute mark, I lifted the eggs from the gently boiling water , cracked holes at the top of the shells, and placed them in special cups that Jim's mother had bequeathed to Mary. Arranged on a vintage English Willow pattern plate with heated scones and lemon curd, I was impressed with the results and called Mary into the kitchen so she could, at her request, present breakfast to her parents.

As soon as she entered the kitchen, her eyes zoned in on the eggs. They were too runny or too unappetizing, a mishmash of too many somethings that were unacceptable. Though having nearly no experience herself with egg preparation beyond the scrambled kind, Mary concluded that the problem was timing. She took off her wristwatch, propped it face up in the middle of the stove, and instructed me to watch the second hand. After reminding me of the need to achieve a perfect two-minute boil, she returned to the distraction of Bloody Marys and Butt Buckets.

I rolled another round of organic, hand-fed hens eggs into the bubbling bath and extracted them with exact timing. Making her way back into the kitchen for more vodka, Mary decided that the yokes were too hard and therefore unfit. As she garnished the Bloody Mary tumblers with politically correct, fair trade, celery, she warned me that the third round had better be the charm or she would be "mortified" by the failure.

The third round was as close to impeccable two minute timing as egg boiling can get. Confident that this marathon fiasco would finally break through the finish line, I took care to ensure that every yolk was placed 
unbroken into its cup, and called Mary into the kitchen to begin the presentation. 

By this time, the Bloody Marys had kicked in, adding an obvious wobble to her saunter. She looked at the eggs, scowled, and announced, “This food is cold. I can’t serve them these.”

I wanted to scream something about being trapped in a Twilight Zone episode. But I didn’t. After taking a moment to collect my thoughts, I said, “If these aren’t good enough, then we’ll have to go out for breakfast because I’m finished cooking today. I’d happily eat any of these eggs and so would my parents.”

Using a power move she perfected at the Ford Modeling school, Mary jerked her head up while casting her eyes down in a disgusted glare. But it didn’t phase me. I served the cold eggs. Sotted by the volume of vodka they'd consumed, the guests weren't in any condition to want food anyway. The three of them stabbed at the yokes with their scones just long enough to create wasted leftovers. Then they returned to the comfort of alcohol and tobacco.

Witnessing this bloodshot melodrama through billowing Camel smoke, I realized for the first time that I was politely condoning this contorted behavior right along with them. And a question that I didn’t yet know how to answer embedded itself in my mind, “What the hell am I doing here?”