Chapter 1

From my chair in the dining room I watched Little Karen, in sight through the door and standing at the kitchen stove. She was a sweet woman, more girl, really, so gentle and unsophisticated and child-like. Her face was long and her eyes wide, her smile somewhat tentative. Even her movements were hesitant, as though the idea of thrusting herself into the space around her made her just the slightest bit jittery.

As Little Karen and Tamara discussed what they would cook for dinner that evening, I took a quick look at Tamara, wanting to engage her but still not sure how to do it without incurring her wrath or triggering my neediness. Finally, I just commented on the way her nail polish matched her outfit. She grinned, told me that she had bottles of nail polish all over her room. They hadn't let her wear it when she was in drug treatment, so she bought every color she liked in the early days after she got out.

"Couldn't buy drugs, so I bought polish. That was five years ago."

"You've been sober five years?"

I knew, from the fifteen months I had lived and worked with the women at Samaritan Inns, that sobriety was – no exaggeration – desperately difficult work. I had seen the dogged determination required, the courage to imagine and hold out for a better life when all inclinations were to go back out and use. I genuinely admired Tamara's accomplishment, and told her so.

"Yeah." Tamara regarded her perfectly manicured nails. "When I was druggin', I let myself go all raggedy and triflin'. Dirty ol' sneakers..."

She looked at the tattered but comfy Keds on my feet and said, "... like yours..."

Kathy, seated at the next table, snorted.

"... ripped-up jeans, didn't care 'bout my hair or nothin'. In treatment I knew I ain't never want to look like that again."

Ignoring the snipe at my shoes, I said how pretty she always looked now. She told us how, after the rape – she had been unable to pay her dealer, so he let some guy rape her and it had been worse than when her cousin raped her when she was twelve – she'd gone crazy in front of a cop and got locked up. The judge had offered her jail or treatment. She chose treatment.

Kathy said, "I been raped, too."

"Who ain't"

Me, I thought.

The morning sun slanted across my lap, warm and comforting. I loved the dining room, so full of light from rows of windows on three walls, simultaneously roomy and embracing. I'd imagined it as a center for family gatherings like those of my childhood. Sunday dinners at home, putting on our best manners and church clothing for the fanciest meal of the week eaten not in the kitchen, as on the other six days, but in the dining room at the table set with our best silver and china. The dinners were for polite conversation that, although it often devolved into hilarity, had to remain proper and with little, if any, controversy. These meals were what I missed most when I left home for college. Re-creating them was what I hoped for the dining room at Miriam's House. Here, like my imaginings about women automatically liking me, was another script that was never followed.

I adjusted my chair to catch the shifting sunlight. Tamara, Kathy and Little Karen were holding a vigorous discussion about chitlins. I didn't even know what chitlins were. I felt suddenly tired.

Their voices called me from my thoughts.

"I don't let nobody clean my chitlins. Ain't no one gonna do it like I do, like my grandma taught me. She was country! She knew how to clean her some chitlins."

They laughed. I got up and left.


One evening later that week, I was abruptly stopped on my way down the stairs by a peculiar odor in the air. I usually tried hard not to impugn or even give the impression of impugning another culture, but I had no idea that what I was smelling could possibly be food – at least, not in undigested form. Mystified, I followed my nose into the kitchen, where the nauseating odor seemed to be emanating from a pot on the stove. I lifted the lid, took a whiff of the steam rising from the boiling mess, and gagged.

Tamara, watching me, grinned. "Chitlins. My favorite."

Oh. It was food. And this was Tamara, ever ready with the quick and slicing jibe. I rearranged the expression on my face. "Hmm. Chitlins. What are they?"

"Insides of pigs. Don’t worry, I cleaned ‘em good. I ain’t triflin’." She gave the pot a stir, sending another plume of noxious steam into the kitchen's humid air.

Insides? I wanted to gag again. Watching me, Tamara's smile broadened.

"What you have for dinner?"

"Tofu stir fry." Here was my chance to freak Tamara out with an unusual food.

"Tofu? What the hell is that?"

Now I was the one grinning. "Fermented soybeans."

"And you think chitlins are bad? Fermented beans? Sounds disgusting."

"Not as disgusting as chitlins." I was a bit shocked at myself for answering in kind. This was not how I usually spoke to the residents. I stole a wary glance at Tamara to gauge her reaction: still grinning. Whew.

"No way my chitlins is worse than them beans." Once she had settled the lid back onto the pot, thank God, Tamara turned to send the spoon clattering into the sink, then pivoted back to me. --No way.

"You don’t know that. Have you ever tasted tofu"

Later, I realized this was what she’d been waiting for.

"Okay, I’ll eat a tofu if you eat a chitlin."

Oops. This was not where I expected the conversation would go. But her knowing smile galvanized my pride – it surely could not have been my stomach – into agreeing.

Tamara happily went to the cabinet for a plate as I left, rather less happily, for my apartment to get “a tofu.” Belatedly suspicious of the alacrity with which she had proposed and been ready for the deal, I realized I’d been fooling myself about having the upper hand. I looked at the innocuous bit of tofu as I put it on a small plate. At worst, tofu is tasteless, but since my husband had stir-fried it with soy sauce and a few spices, this had a pleasing flavor I couldn't imagine chitlins having. I’ve been had. But the tofu and I went downstairs to our fate.

As soon as I entered the kitchen, Tamara grabbed the tofu off the plate, popped it into her mouth and chewed enthusiastically. Watching me. I stared at her, suspicious.

"At the treatment center they only cooked vegan food. Never did get to like it, but I can eat it."

She swallowed, turned to the stove and lifted the lid off the pot.

"Okay, and now for the chitlin."

Dipping into the pot, she pulled out a pale, half-curled strip of … something. The now-familiar odor sidled toward me. She put the thing on the plate. She carried it over to me. I put it into my mouth. My teeth closed on it. Already anticipating the taste – as judged from that smell – I had firmly resolved not to allow my expression to reveal any disgust or, what was more likely, fear. But I had neglected to prepare for the texture, and it felt as though I'd placed a slimy rubber band into my mouth. Firm resolve, conquered by a chitlin, faltered and fled.

"Acccchhhh!" I spat the offensive thing out onto the plate. "It’s like rubber"

Brown eyes looked at me slyly from beneath bangs. "You have to eat it. I ate the tofu."

She was right. Very quickly, so as not to give my mind or stomach or taste buds a chance to protest, I threw the chitlin into my mouth, gave a couple of ineffectual chews, and swallowed it determinedly – gagged it down was how I described it to Tim, later that evening.

Then we went into the dining room, Tamara and I, and we sat down in front of the stereo so she could play her Yolanda Adams gospel CD. The sun was setting, the room in dusk, but we turned on no light. Just the two of us, smelling of chitlins and finding the beat.