Fiction: Gado Gado by Claire Polders


After my mother’s funeral, I bike to The Hague’s largest street market and fill myself with life—motions, scents, colors, sounds. I also make a pit stop in the neighborhood toko, a shop I’ve never set foot in before. Plump bags swing from my handlebars as I’m pedaling back to my childhood home.

I dump the groceries on the kitchen counter before opening the terrace doors. The house smells of death and the not-so-long struggle against it. Flowers of solace hang rotten in a vase. I haven’t taken the time yet to throw them out or carry my luggage upstairs. With a thousand tasks crowding my list, I’m lost for a place to start, and therefore veer toward something that needs doing for reasons other than practicality.

I tuck a bottle of gewürztraminer in the fridge and lower a cookbook from the shelf.

Of course I went to her funeral—could I not have gone? My father was excused because of the oceans and continents that have been separating them for twenty years. I only had to take the train down from Haarlem, a thirty-minute ride. The sky was like marble this morning, frozen with swirls of clouds. I unpack my groceries in the relief that she is buried and I can move around unseen.

Out comes a sack of bean sprouts, two small Chinese cabbages, a fistful of red chilies, bagged shelled peanuts, a chunk of funky looking tofu, a carton of eggs, canned coconut milk, several wedges of copper-colored paste wrapped in cellophane, a container of fried onions, a bundle of green beans, transparent sachets of fluorescent spices called ketumbar and djintan, a root that may be ginger but isn’t, bags of krupuk, a garlic bulb, a cauliflower, a cucumber, and one kilo box of long-grain rice.

The kind lady in the toko was patient enough to help me locate the ingredients she knew I would need. She threw in a slice of cinnamon spekkoek as a gift. My eyes must have been more swollen than I realized.

I thumb through the cookbook, virtually unused, glancing at pictures and names—Nasi Goreng, Babi Guling, Tongseng, Saté Ayam, Lumpia Semarang. Indonesia has more than thirteen thousand islands and as many recipes. With a steel ladle, I keep the book open on the page that tells me how to make Gado Gado (Mix Mix).

The last time I saw my mother, she looked like the bouquet of flowers I now find myself tossing in the compost bin outside. Her pale skin had begun to fold over its own wrinkles. I listen to the buzz of city traffic and the dialogues of birds. Back inside, the house surrounds me like an army base, devitalized by peace.

I haul out the colanders and bowls, select whisks and measuring spoons.

Unlike most mothers who lived to nourish their kids (it seemed), my mother never enjoyed feeding me. Cooking, like eating, was a necessity, a job that didn’t call for elaborate hours behind hot skillets. I grew up on instant oatmeal, canned split-pea soup, and frozen pizzas burnt to a crisp. For my mother, taste was beyond the point. Probably because her appetite was equally beyond the point.

I scrub the cauliflower under running water. Rinse the sprouts and beans. Let them drain. Cut the cauliflower in bite-sized chunks and shred the cabbage. The slaughter of the raw.

It’s a lie that you can’t perform on drugs. A few white lines made my mother a high-functioning pro, focused, competent, working twelve hours a day. She was even sporty and health-conscious if you can believe it—sugar was way worse than coke. It was only when she came back from rehab that she acted sloppy and insecure, more critical of herself than of others.

I boil water, throw in the rice, time the eggs, and blanch the vegetables. After the eggs are hard-boiled, they will need to be peeled and quartered.

Her habit’s occasional excessiveness made it a problem, though. She would talk superabundantly, from the moment she woke till the hour she slipped into unconsciousness. Strangely, she rarely spoke of reality. Her words conveyed how she thought the world ought to be: coffee hotter, cars faster, vodka cheaper, daughter more invisible.

I grill the peanuts in a casserole. Pulverize them in the food processor. Splash in the coconut milk. I suppress the urge to sample a bite. The brown sludge curls in the pan.

When my mother was high beyond the task she’d set for herself, she would latch onto other tasks, like cataloguing my outfits, postures, or facial expressions. Each time she lost control, a fury that had nothing to do with the situation was unleashed. People who witnessed this fury spoke of it with awe, as though it were an accomplishment. Perhaps it was; the rage got things done. She once punched the hotel manager who refused to take the Dionysus room off her bill after the overhead projector had stopped working halfway through her presentation. Although banned from the premises forever, she got her reduction.

I sauté chopped garlic and slices of Laos root. Measure out teaspoons of sugar.

My mother, a career coach, had one idol in life, Dr. Aletta Jacobs. In 1878, Aletta Jacobs was the first female student to graduate from a Dutch university. She also became the first female doctor in Dutch history. She advocated the use of a pessary for contraception, fought for women’s suffrage, organized rallies, established societies, drew up petitions, and worked for world peace.

I wash and wafer the cucumber, salt it, and let it sweat. Bare naked. Then I fry the tempeh in palm oil until crispy.

Six-months pregnant, my mother dreamed of calling her unborn baby Aletta. My father, who didn’t want to burden me with unattainable feminist expectations, proposed the laid-back name Laura. By way of response, my mother got high and challenged him to a game of Scrabble. She won, and I take the way this conflict played out as representative of the distribution of power in my parents’ marriage. They divorced when I was nine.

I free the shrimp paste from its cellophane jail. Get the smelly gunk all under my fingernails.

There have been times that I was convinced my mother had grown to love me, her clever daughter who kept her nose clean. And I believed I’d grown to love her too, even though, or perhaps because, we rarely spoke to each other.

The beans feel fibrous on my tongue, the sprouts soggy. I taste and drain the rice—al dente. An odyssey of textures.

On the last day of our living together, a week before I would travel to Bali where I would spend the summer and more with my father’s relatives, my mother prepared an Indonesian dish for me: Gado Gado. She hadn’t told me about her plan in advance; it was either meant as a surprise or she’d cooked it up on impulse. I remember coming home in the late afternoon and being drawn into the kitchen by delicious smells. There she was, my mother, hair messy, hands greasy, an apron around her waist—what a sight! Noticing me, she grew excited, like a puppy getting worked up about its own tail.

“What’s this?” I asked, gesturing at the dishes laid out on the counter.

“All for you,” she said. “Hungry?”

I was hungry but unwilling to give her my gratitude.

“I worked on it all afternoon,” she added.

“You shouldn’t have,” was my response.

Although the steaming food regarded me with rancor, my mother was still smiling. “I made this for you.”

“Right.”

Her face dropped.

“It’s graduation week,” I said. “You know that. I’m meeting friends. For dinner.”

She seemed surprised that I was unable to appreciate her efforts. “Why not meet them later, for drinks? Here”—she dipped a spoon into the peanut sauce and brought it to my mouth—“taste this and tell me I don’t love you.”

I pushed her hand away from my face. “You don’t love me.”

A world of possibilities folded itself up, collapsed, vanished. If each relationship has one particular moment, of triumph or humiliation, of sudden insight or unbearable pain, that can flip the balance, this would have been it for us. Saying the words as though I meant them, I had screwed up, big time, in an unforgivable way. I knew it even before she turned her back on me as if on the devil.

She had it coming, of course, my rejection wasn’t unjustified, but we were both disappointed by my failure to rise above her limitations. The small door she had opened, I had slammed shut. And worse: On a deep, dark level of my mind, I marveled at myself for having dared to do something so revengefully defiant.

I stir and blend and scrape. Frenetically.

Later in life, when regret chased the sleep from my nights, I reminded myself that I had never shown my mother the research I’d accumulated on the effects of cocaine on a fetus’s undeveloped brain. I used to think it was my back-up. If my mother ever blamed me for my hostility, I could wave the report in my defense.

Cocaine use during pregnancy can induce a long lasting disruption of dopamine receptors in the brain cells of the unborn, which alters the child’s later ability to function. Common cognitive impairments are attention deficits, disorientation, mental confusion, self-animosity, nightmares, sexual disturbances, depersonalization, changed self-perception, learning disabilities, amnesia, emotional blunting and/or emotional hiccups.

Today at her grave, I wanted to believe that I’d concealed the report to spare her.

I set the dinner table for two with Delft Blue porcelain, good linen, real silverware—stuff that’s only hauled out of the cupboard on special occasions of which I can only remember the one I refused to attend.

I light the candles, thinking of my mother as fearless. An old friend of hers at the funeral told me that she’d accepted the speed of her demise, but not the form in which it had arrived. So typical. Her cancer wasn’t lifestyle-related, my mother had said, so her death was undeserved.

Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and currently lives in Paris. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short prose appears in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Online she can be found at www.clairepolders.com.

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