Cracking the Shell

Even as adults, Angela and her siblings twisted into monstrosities of victim and sycophant whenever their parents were around. It was painful to watch, especially as Chris, the most sensitive of her brothers, groveled for attention that was never granted.

There were six children in the family but only two who mattered: Angela, the homecoming queen; and Jim Junior, the genius. Son Jim enjoyed but downplayed his exceptional status. Being a male first-born with revered talents, his position was secure.

Angela, on the other hand, never acknowledged her special standing, likely from fear of losing it. She used the word “mortified” even in cases where most people would consider “embarrassed” to be an exaggeration. In the face of her parents' judgement, there was never enough approval to go around. Perfection, or the illusion of it, was Angela’s chosen guarantee of acceptance. She used Maureen, her younger and innocent sister, to master a skill at eliminating rivals.

My position in this family dynamic was too complex to explain here, or maybe anywhere. At the time, I was a naive outsider seeking cultural approval, hoping it would distinguish me from my working-class background. Through a mishmash of misguided impulses that began at a Catholic women’s college, I lived with Angela for many years in San Francisco. Over time, without noticing, I became a channel for the whole family’s unnamed appetites, a captivate of confusion and uncertainty until the spell was broken at the crack of an egg.

When the parents, Jim and Dorothy, arrived for breakfast at our Mission district flat near the intersection of Dolores and Guerrero, I thought I was ready for them. After the usual exchange of false affection, I outlined their brunch options and both preferred two-minute soft boiled eggs with English scones. It all sounded quite simple on the surface. Angela and the parents settled in for appetizer rounds of Bloody Marys and Camel cigarettes at the front of the apartment, while I worked the two-minute challenge of soft boiled eggs in the kitchen.

Angela’s father was making another attempt to quit smoking so was fully engaged with creating palpable waves of tension. This latest campaign came 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, father Jim would smoke at least two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. On this regimen, he was wasting nearly two packs an hour. Heavy smokers themselves, both Angela and her mother adopted this practice to support the father, creating literal bucket loads of butts in short order. Without the threat of emotional combustion, this scene would certainly be taken as comedy.

At the two minute mark on the kitchen clock, I gently lifted the eggs from the slow boiling water, cracked holes at the top of the shells, and placed them in heirloom egg cups that Jim's mother had willed to Angela. I grew up in a family of Italian cooks who hardly measured ingredients or used a formal timer so a regular clock seemed like a worthy compromise.

With the cups surrounded by heated scones and hand made lemon curd on vintage English Willow plates, the results looked formally impressive. I called Angela into the kitchen, as she requested, to present the breakfast to her parents.

On her first step through the doorway, her eyes immediately rejected the eggs without even tasting them. Being too runny topped the list of many imagined defects, far too many to pass the parent test. Though having no experience with egg preparation herself, Angela decided that the problem was in the timing. After reiterating the need for an impeccable two-minute result, she propped her Omega wristwatch in the middle of the stove so I could devote my attention to the sweep-second hand. Then she returned to the treadmill of Bloody Marys and Butt Buckets in the front room.

I rolled a second round of organic, free-range eggs into a bubbling bath and removed them with exact timing. Making her way back into the kitchen for more vodka, Angela determined that in this case the yokes were too hard and therefore unfit for consumption. While garnishing Bloody Mary tumblers with fair trade celery, she warned that if I didn’t get the next round right, she would be “mortified”, as though I’d be responsible for something akin to murder.

The third attempt was as close to impeccable as two minute boiled eggs can get. Determined to bring this fiasco marathon through the finish line, I took great care to place every unbroken yolk into its cup, then called Angela into the kitchen for the finale.

By now, Bloody Marys had liquefied her motor skills, adding an obvious wobble to her saunter. With watery red eyes, she did a quick visual inspection of the brunch tray and announced, “This food is cold. It can’t be served.”

I wanted to throw the eggs, cups, English Willow plates and all, at her. But I didn’t. Something had cracked open in me while building the heap of shells. Only I could free myself from this endless Twilight Zone episode. “If these aren’t good enough,” I said, “then we’ll have to go out for breakfast because I’m finished with this today. I’d be glad to eat any of these eggs and so would my parents.”

Rattled by my newfound confidence, her head jerked upward while her eyes peered down into mine, a power play she perfected as a contestant in the Junior Miss Minnesota pageant. But I ignored her and served the cold eggs to the parents myself. At this point, they weren't in any condition to eat much anyway. They stabbed at the congealed yokes with their scones just long enough to create wasted leftovers, then returned to the obsessive comforts of their smoke and drink.

By witnessing this bloodshot drama from beyond the influence of billowing vapors, a vision of my own role in condoning such behavior began to take shape and a question entered my mind for the first time...“What the hell am I doing here?” The answer would eventually introduce me to the only approval I ever needed. My own.