Nonfiction by Ann Petroliunas
Wonder Bread and Velveeta Cheeze
When I was young and I was sad. When I was young and I scraped my knee. When I was young and I was sick, my mother would place a quarter inch slab of Velveeta between two pieces of Wonder bread buttered on the outside and let it sizzle until the cheeze spilled out the middle. It usually came with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup and always with a Vlassic dill pickle she sliced by hand.
When she was dead and I was sad. When she was dead and someone scraped my heart. When she was dead and I was sick, the only thing I’ve ever managed to eat is grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Velveeta was replaced by cheddar was replaced with Gouda made from cows not treated with RBGH. I traded up from Wonder bread to Brownberry whole wheat. The iconic can was replaced by a box of Imagine low-sodium organic tomato bisque. But always with a Vlassic dill pickle I sliced by hand and a something moving about my heart.
Eighteen years ago my mother stopped making me grilled cheese sandwiches.
Two years ago my dear friend, April, was diagnosed with the disease that killed my mother.
When April’s cancer came back and she felt shitty after her 18th round of chemo, we found 15 minutes between the puking where she felt like eating again and she let me make her a grilled cheese sandwich. Organic cheddar, Provolone, and Dave’s Killer 9-grain bread. Enough time to let it sizzle until the cheese spilled out in the middle, but not enough time to slice a Vlassic dill pickle by hand.
Three weeks ago I fried up the first thing April held down for days.
Two weeks ago the scan showed her lungs continued to respond to the Gemzar. Two weeks ago the scan showed new lesions on her liver. Two weeks ago she laid out the new treatment plan and a clinical trial and the decision she and her husband made to stay positive. Two weeks ago I put the path I knew between 2 pieces of 9-grain, fried it up, and swallowed it. Breast. Lungs. Liver. Brain. Death.
Last night I didn’t answer her phone call because I was 3000 miles away eating Roquefort and Brie with somebody else’s mother. We didn’t even bother with the bread.
One hour ago I picked up the phone as I was boarding an airplane because I knew something was wrong. Last night, as I was eating Roquefort and Brie and goat’s milk cheddar and something French I can’t pronounce, the cancer cells were multiplying in April’s brain.
And now airplanes. And silence your cell phones. And this dear child sitting next to me on this backwards red eye who keeps accidentally closing his eyes and falling into my lap. And his poor father who thinks I am crying because his son is either head butting or kicking me from his sleep. And I just want to tell him about April. And that it’s ok if his son wants to snuggle in my lap. Because I really need a hug. But he only speaks Chinese. So I pressed the call button and as the flight attendant hurried to turn it off, I asked her if she could make me a grilled cheese sandwich. Her eyes narrowed and then softened when they met my swollen ones and she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t, but we have a roast beef baguette or an artisanal cheese box.” So I said I’ll take the Buffalo Trace. And I’m drinking the tiny bottles of bourbon as fast as I can because this is what shock and grief look like on an airplane.
I cannot breathe. It’s a thousand degrees in here. I’m trying to be grateful this family moved me to the window seat. And I’m trying to remember that April is a fighter. And that I am not the center of the universe and therefore not all stories end like my mother’s. And I am grateful. The middle seat would have been miserable. But even with a window to remind me that the ground still exists, my fists are clenched and my teeth are clenched and my heart is clenched. And I’m sandwiched in the 2nd to last row of this airplane. And we still have 3 hours to go. And I want to punch the double paned plexi-glass windows out so I can breathe. I want air. Cold air. And I want to run. Or throw myself in the ocean. Or scream. Oh my god I want to scream. But we live in a post 911 America and if I scream on an airplane, they’ll turn it around and lock me up forever, and I don’t think they make grilled cheese sandwiches in prison. And I just want this plane to land, so I can tear through April’s refrigerator for cheddar and provolone and Dave’s Killer 9-grain bread. But I’m so fucking scared that we’ll pull onto the Tarmac too late. And I’ll be ¼ mile away instead of 3000 but my grilled cheese sandwiches still won’t be able to save her.
The day after April died, I went to work. I walked into a Geometry classroom at noon, because someone had asked me the night before what I needed. And I answered, “If you don’t feed me I won’t eat.” And so when the bell rang for lunch, one friend pulled out an electric griddle from underneath a stack of textbooks, and the other a box of Pacific Foods red pepper tomato bisque from a refrigerator hidden under a pile of ungraded quizzes. And they looked at my expression in horror and said, “Oh no! You don’t like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup?” And I looked back at them and wept.
Ann Petroliunas is a 2017 graduate of the prose certificate program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, OR. She is an educator, writer, and managing editor at Arq Press. Born and raised in Chicago, she now resides in Oregon and often gets confused about which one is home. She writes memoir and makes collage and short form poetry. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, Hot Metal Bridge, and Memoir Mixtapes. You can read more at www.annpetroliunas.com"