by Wendy Fontaine

One day in kindergarten, when Mrs. Delassandro asks you to draw a picture of what you had for breakfast, you draw a big meal, the kind people eat slowly on Sunday mornings. Crispy bacon, scrambled eggs. Two golden squares of toast, a pat of soft butter atop each one, and a tall, cold glass of orange juice.

When school lets out, you go to your Aunt Marilyn’s house and show her your picture. She babysits you while your parents work in the shoe factories. They drop you off at her house in that dark cool hush of early morning, then pick you up again every afternoon around three.

Marilyn is more than a babysitter. She is your father’s aunt, like a second mother to him and his six siblings when they were little. Older now, with tightly curled hair and round glasses, she stands a foot taller than your Uncle Phil. He works in the paper mill, a solid step up from the shoe factories. For twenty dollars a week, Marilyn watches you and teaches you things like how to draw, how to swim, and how to pick lettuce from the garden and rinse it in the sink.

Aunt Marilyn takes one look at your picture and says, “That’s not what you had for breakfast.”

You look down at the paper, with its free-floating shapes, all brown and yellow against a mimeographed sheet of white, and wonder how you thought you’d trick her. After all, she is the one who fed you that morning. The one who feeds you most mornings. Each day, your mother walks you to the front door of Marilyn’s green-and-white clapboard bungalow. From there, you drift bleary-eyed through her kitchen to the living room, where you lie on the couch and pretend to sleep for another hour while she ushers her own children, most of them teenagers, off to school.

Then, when the house is quiet again, she wakes you. She feeds you breakfast and gets you ready for school.

That morning, she served you cereal. Not the Special K she usually eats but Franken Berry, sugary bits of strawberry-frosted corn with pink ghost-shaped marshmallows. The kind of cereal advertised on TV and turns the milk carnival pink.

“Why did you lie?” Marilyn wants to know.

You look away. Behind her, the TV flickers an episode of Mighty Mouse, the one where he stops a speeding train using only his legs.

“Can’t remember,” you say. But of course, you can. You remember everything. You remember to clean up your crayons and your toys so Dad doesn’t yell. You remember the way to school, down Richardson Avenue and Knapp Street, all the way over to the crossing guard on Vine. You remember where to sit in the classroom, between Stevie Coates and Alan Lewis. And you most definitely remember what you had for breakfast.

Besides, Franken Berry is your favorite. It’s the one your parents don’t buy for you at the supermarket because the store-brand stuff is cheaper. You love the way those little marshmallows squeak when you bite into them, the way the fake strawberry flavor lingers on your tongue. You even like that flamingo-colored milk. It reminds you of cotton candy.

Back then, and for most of your childhood, you tell lies. Some are simple. Others are elaborate. You tell people your real name is Gwendolyn. You say your grandmother was born in Italy, that she came to America through Ellis Island. You claim your family recipe for lasagna was originally hers, carried over on the boat, when really it’s from the Betty Crocker cookbook. In fifth grade, you will straighten out a paper clip and reshape it to your top row of teeth, fashioning a retainer like the one all your friends have but the dentist says you don’t actually need. In high school, you’ll stitch a fake label to a plain sweatshirt to make it look like the ones that popular kids buy at the mall.

Your lies are harmless, not so much untruths as they are fantasies. Stories you tell yourself about yourself, all because you want to be someone else. Not just a factory kid from a factory town but someone important. Someone interesting. Someone with a past and a future. Somehow you imagine that bacon and eggs are what the rich kids are eating, the kids whose dads run the paper mills and the shoe factories, who live in big houses with front porches and basketball hoops in the driveway. You will do anything and say anything to feel like you are one of them.

Aunt Marilyn appears to believe your lie. Most adults do. Or so you think. She puts your drawing back in the pile of papers from school and goes to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of iced tea. Meanwhile, you settle in front of the television and watch as Mighty Mouse flies off to save his sweetheart, Pearl, for the zillionth time.

Your mother picks you up at three, same as always. You go home saying nothing of your drawing or what you did in school that day. The next morning, for breakfast, Aunt Marilyn makes deviled eggs, your least favorite food in the whole wide world.


Photo by Leah Kelley via pexels