previous: Run it! ch 12
My hands were trembling in my apron pockets. I watched as my team of teen waiters approached the judging table, they were watching their steps carefully. (Or maybe it was just me being neurotic.) With the heat of the soup and the delicate nature of the garnishes, each serving of my dish had to be moved with extreme care.
Once again Moma presented the dish to her parents, making sure to give a respectful bow to her acting principal father. “Please enjoy.”
Giovanna presented to her father, making sure to arrange the plate for maximum aesthetics. “I don’t envy your job.”
Tomas Aldini laughed. “Well, I truly envy your friendships. Almost makes me wish I could go back in time to re-experience my days at this school.”
“I love you too, Dad.” Giovanna took a step back, to allow her boyfriend to serve next.
The tall, blond Kyle Mito presented to Hillary and Akira, placing the dishes with delicate precision. “Please enjoy.” He bowed to Hillary, “May you eat in good health.” He then bowed to Akira. “I hope you enjoy it as much as Prayikina’s dish.”
That left me and Jamie. “Did you want me to present to your mom?” he asked, placing a calm, comforting hand upon my shoulder. It was times like this when I appreciated his massive height. In truth I wanted him to wrap me in his arms and keep me safe from the cruel realities of this world. “No, I need to face her. You should present to your dad.” I turned to Jamie. “I’ll just need a shoulder to cry on, when this is all over.”
“Yeah, right.” Jamie pressed his lips to my ear. “You’re not her little girl, you’re a culinary bad-ass.”
I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Thanks.” I took a breath and I carried the dish to my mother’s place at the judge’s table. I wanted to make eye contact, to stare her down. But the moment I saw the whites of her eyes I was, in fact, too much of a scared little girl to proceed. Instead, I placed the bowl in front of my mother, and then immediately looked at the ground, as I took a step back.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the judging panel, please enjoy my dish.” I nervously waved my hand like an overly enthusiastic waitress. This work of art is entitled, ‘Elena’s lotus egg soup’ named for both myself and my late paternal grandmother.”
“Work of art?” my mother snickered under her breath, just loud enough for me to hear.
“Yes, because food is art especially when it comes from a place of joy and love.” I meant that as a jab, because my mother’s cooking was as technical as a military drill instructor teaching Advanced Algebra. “What you have in front of you is a tomato broth, infused with dried chilies and medicinal herbs. It was also seeped with shrimp, crab shells and freshly procured fish bones for added protein and mouthfeel.” Now I was just talking out of my ass; the soup base was made of scraps because it tasted good. “Within the soup are strands of egg whites dyed with hot sauce, and crab dyed with a lemon-spinach puree. The whole thing is topped with a poached egg and a shrimp chip flower created with a culinary 3d printer.” Closing my eyes to take a breath, I could hear the judges tasting my dish. ‘Open your eyes, Elena. You can do this. Just focus on someone other than your mother.’
Jamie’s father would make this an easy task. The massive biker-Rockstar stereotype took a bite of the shrimp chip, dipping it into the soup like an excited child. “Hey Jamie, come over here, I want to talk to you.” He spoke without a care in the world (as if he was not sitting on a professional judging panel, wearing a clip-on microphone.)
“Yes, Dad?” Jamie asked from a good distance away.
“When you told me you were dating the daughter of Remy Moceanu and Alicia Nakiri: I had to admit I was worried. I mean seriously; the fire of Remy combined with Ali’s stuck up personality, I was expecting Elena to be a ball-busting b-“
“Dad!” Jamie rushed to the judge’s table. “I swear if you’ve been drinking…”
“I don’t need booze or pills to know that Elena is a miracle of genetics.”
Pills? No one had said anything about pills. Jamie shook his head in embarrassment. “Yes, Dad, Elena is beautiful and talented, just like mom.”
Although I appreciated the comparison, to Jamie’s billionaire entrepreneur mother, I knew that was the wrong thing to say to his father. Jamie’s parents were separated for a reason.
The pro-wrestler sized man grabbed his son by the wrist. “No, don’t you ever say that again! They might be comparable, maybe after six or seven bottles of rice wine…”
Jamie casually brushed him off. “Is that what you drank before you drove here?”
Now people were starting to stare.
The large man wiped his mouth. “Compared to your mother, Elena is an angel and you need to treat her as such.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Jamie gave a respectful bow. “I appreciate your insight.”
I could tell he was holding back. Jamie may have looked like his father, but he had his mother’s grace and professionalism. Regardless, i reached out to him, coaxing my boyfriend back to my side.
Jamie was finally able to breathe again. “Holy crap. Sometimes I’m glad he never got full custody.”
I knew that, had this not been a school event, the pair would have thrown down. “You did well,” I said in a whisper as I gripped his hand.
Jamie put his arm around me, holding me close. Suddenly, his body froze. “Is your mom crying?”
“I don’t know.” I honestly didn’t care.
But Jamie’s heart was always in the right place. “Mrs. Nakiri are you ok?”
She had been doing a ‘pretty cry’; barely showing emotion beyond blotting her eyes and cheeks. Then Jamie’s words caused her to lose it completely.
“Nakiri,” my mother said in a whisper, as she covered her mouth but her mic was picking up everything. “I never even took his name. I never wanted to be his wife, Alicia Moceanu, but now…”
“You can still take his name,” Jamie pointed out with genuine sincerity.
“It wouldn’t mean anything!” She cried in a napkin. “My husband is gone!”
“He lives on in Elena!” There was a sense of fury in Jamie’s voice. The arena erupted in applause.
“Genetically…” my mom muttered directly into her mic.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I could see Jamie was furious, his fists were at his side, as every cell of his body was trying to maintain self-control. I placed my hand on his arm, in a half-hearted attempt to hold him back. “You don’t have to engage her, she’s not worth it.”
Jamie took a breath. “I apologize in advance.” He took a step forward, away from my grasp.
‘Aw, crap.’ There was no turning back, now.
“Alicia Nakiri, I’m calling you out! Elena’s connection to her father is more than genetics, and you know it! It’s the reason why you’re crying, you self-righteous c-” Jamie pursed his lips, stopping himself just in time. “Elena looks like her father, she always has but now you realize she has his talent! She thinks like him! She’s an innovator! You can’t look at Elena without seeing his spirit!”
My mother stood up. “I don’t have to deal with this blatant disrespect. But considering who your father is, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Jamie shook his head. “Alicia Nakiri right here right now: anything that you wanted to say to Remy Moceanu, anything that you SHOULD have said to the man who tolerated you for over two decades. I challenge you, no I dare you to say it to Elena!” The crowd went silent.
Looking around I could see Giovanna and all of my friends making the sign of the cross. This was odd since not all of them were even Christian.
“Yes,” Uncle Akira said standing up to face her. “If your late husband was standing before you, what would you say?”
My mother balled her fist as she casually walked over to Akira. At first, it appeared as if my mother was going to simply pass him (since that was the direction of the nearest exit.) But as she did, she landed a swift backhanded punch straight to the family jewels.
I would be lying if I said it was the first time. (Ironically, she never once punched her own husband in the balls.)
Akira gasped for air his voice was a meek whisper. “…was not expecting that.”
Prayikina was laughing. “You were not expecting that? No offense, but you have the memory of a goldfish.” She took off her mic and left in the direction of the bathroom.
The competition was brought to a halt, as Aunt Erica brought her husband a bag of ice. “You had to admit you had that coming.”
“I just don’t feel like biting my tongue for the sake of keeping the peace.”
“That’s why I love you.” As Aunt Erica helped Uncle Akira return to his seat, she turned to me, with a sudden realization. “Where did Prayikina go?”
I looked to Prayikina’s station, the stress balls were on the table but the girl was nowhere to be found. “Bathroom, I think.” That was when I noticed that my mother had successfully made her escape.
I grabbed the stress balls, rolling them in my hands. Something felt very wrong. “Jamie?”
“I think we need to check the parking lot.”
“I got your back.”
Together we ran, following the same path my mother took. It didn’t take long to locate her. “I think I see her by the wall over there.”
My mother stood in the parking lot. Leaning against the white brick wall, she pulled out my father’s half-empty pack of cigarettes and his favorite onyx lighter. The beautiful piece was carved into the shape of a Koi fish. When the flame was activated, it looked like the sea creature was part-dragon. “What would I say to you, dear husband?” My mother asked.
I knew she wasn’t talking to her self, she was talking to the lighter. I truly did not want her to smoke my father’s cigarettes but was in no position to stop her.
She lit up and took a long drag. “You always had good taste even with your disgusting habits.” I watched in horror as she stomped out the cigarette, before dumping the rest of the package in a nearby trash can.
Suddenly a shadow raced across the parking lot, followed by my mother falling forward. Someone had punched her in the back of the head.
It was Prayikina. Her eyes were filled with fire and her hands filled with rage. “I don’t care if this gets me disqualified- someone needs to say this to your face! You are a horrible, ugly, sorry excuse of a human being! You are a terrible mother, and I hope you die alone!”
I grabbed Prayikina as Jamie grabbed my mother. “Chill, Prayikina!” I shouted.
“Chill? You can’t be serious, Ellie!”
“You need to be the bigger person.”
“She’s not even a person, this bitch hit my dad in the …”
With my arms around her, I opened my hand to reveal my father’s stress balls. “In what?” I asked with a giggle. With the tension eliminated. I let go, allowing Prayikina to stand on her own.
“Your dad is going to be fine.” I started to laugh uncontrollably. “I mean Uncle Akira’s always been fine.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “What Elena is trying to say,” he paused to laugh as we locked eyes, “Akira Hayama is a grown man, he can fight his own battles. And no one here wants to see you get disqualified; not your father or your fans. Not to mention just how bad your mom would punish you; your parents live on campus, they could ground you until you graduate.”
I handed my cousin the stress balls. “We good?”
“Yes,” Prayikina sighed. “I’m sorry, Aunt Ali “
“Don’t worry I’m not going to have you disqualified.’ My mother went to the trash can and retrieved the package of cigarettes. She lit up another one, letting the flame smolder, without actually smoking it.
“I still want to apologize,” Prayikina said, rolling the stress balls. “I’m sorry for attacking you, I’m sorry for saying what I said, but most of all I’m sorry for laying claim to these.” She spun the orbs like a magician before handing them to my mother. “Uncle Remy’s balls always belonged to you.”
My mother cracked a genuine smile. “I remember the day I gave these to him. I thought they made him look intimidating.” She rolled them in her hand. “But really, what is so intimidating about a pair of stress balls?” She looked at her hand, staring at her wedding ring. “I’ll tell you what’s intimidating. The day of my wedding.”
“You try being a pregnant bride.”
“Fifteen years ago
I stood in the restroom of the courthouse wearing my wedding dress, a simple spaghetti strap gown with black lace trim. Why I chose those colors I will never know.” She put the cigarette to her lips, taking a long drag. “I was only four months pregnant but I was already showing, and holy fuck did I look like a cow.”
“I’m pretty sure you did not.” I heard the story before; according to my Dad, Mom was so upset she didn’t allow for pictures to be taken.
“I had chosen my gown when I wasn’t showing. I really loved that dress, on the website, anyway.” She took another drag, blowing a ring of smoke. “Because of our work schedules, it had taken us longer than expected to make it to France to elope. So, there I was, locked in the restroom at the courthouse, just refusing to be seen in my awful state. And then I saw your father in his black suit. He looked so sexy, I felt like crap. But he just bowed his head and smiled. I imagine he said something like, ‘Mistress, is this all for me?’ He was always talking like something out of a fairytale.
I’m sure I replied with, ‘What are you blabbering on about?’ while dragging him to the courtroom for the appointed time. Because God forbid, we were late for our own wedding.”
“All because you didn’t want to have me out of wedlock?” I asked. My statement implied what we were all thinking; did she ever really love my dad?
“Your father, he grabbed my arm, pulling me close. He stroked one finger down the back of my neck (since I had been facing away from him.) As he turned my face to look at him, my heart was racing. His hand caressed my cheek as he looked into my eyes with such love. I don’t quite remember his next words, but I like to think he said, ‘Alicia, you are so stunning. After the ceremony, I wish to return to the hotel and make love to you, my beautiful bride.’ Something European like that.”
“European?” I chuckled. “Interesting choice of words.” My father was eastern European, and on some level that seemed just foreign enough to warrant being called a non-European.
My mother’s eyes were off in a dreamy daze. “I would have moved my lips to his ear and whispered, ‘Only if you wear your bandana.’ Too late now.” Alicia looked at the stress balls, rolling them in her hand. “I’m sorry Remy. I wasn’t the wife you deserved.”
I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight. “Are you talking to the stress balls?”
“So, what if I am?” My mother chuckled while still maintaining her professional demeanor. “I wish you knew how much I loved you, Remy; how much I valued you as my partner, my best friend. You put up with my bullshit for way longer then you ever needed to.”
I wanted to comment; make a snide remark about if she was finally admitting the truth, perhaps she deserved an engraved plaque.
“I should have treated you like the King that you are,” she paused, blinking away tears. “That you were.”
For the first time in my life, I actually believed the tears in her eyes.
My mother looked up at the moon, letting the light wash over her pale features. “You were always better than me,” she said to the stress balls. “I miss you so much, Remy.” One of the balls fell to the ground, bouncing away. Instead of going after it, she gripped the remaining ball hard as she wept.
Principal Sam appeared, having picked up the rogue ball. “Is everything ok here?” he asked, arms crossed. He seemed annoyed with our immaturity, but willing to show compassion given the situation.
“Yeah,” my mother said with a nod, “We talked out our differences and now everything is fine.”
“I’m glad,” Sam replied, handing her the ball. “I’ll need all of you back in the arena for the final decision.”
“Of course,” I said, taking hold of Prayikina’s hand. “Are you ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” my cousin replied with a sigh.
“No matter what happens, we’re still friends.” For the first time I felt nervous. It would be so easy for Prayikina to leave me behind. “Right, Kiki?”
“Of course, we’re friends. Who do you think we are our mothers?” Prayikina put her arm around my shoulder. “We’re going to be friends for the rest of our lives. And if you ever treat Jamie the way your mom treated your Dad, I’ll be there to give you a good kick in the ass.”
My cousin shrugged. “And I know you’ll do the same for me.”
I nodded, glad to be competing against someone so awesome, compassionate and kind. “Wait, are you saying you have a boyfriend?”
next: Run it! ch 14