This is a work of fiction.
We sit across from each other. It’s an obtuse but intimate angle, bisecting the corner of the table so that my knees touch her dangling toes, and our faces are both within grabbing radius of the other’s arms. I realize the position is reserved only for these situations, third dates, and cartel dealmaking. By the time it took me to realize this, that is to say over a number of meals that feels both too high and too low, she has started to methodically drop banana bits and soft Cheerios onto the floor from her high chair.
The evolution of eating goes both ways. It is not just defined by what I feed her, nor by her jaw muscles’ involuntary biology, but also by her realization that she has a role to play in this happening. Consciousness, in other words. What the role entails is poorly understood, nonetheless her brain sparks her into action, the most eventful action possible, the same impulse that causes an ignited flame to softly explode, the thing that we call “bursting,” she hovers her hand over the edge of the high chair and uncurls her fingers from around the oxidizing banana slice. She knows nothing beyond me so her eyes are locked with mine, gauging the eventfulness of her action from my response. I, on the other hand, know too much beyond her, and overanalytically surmise she is doing this for effect, though effect itself (let alone cause) may be too advanced a concept. Look straight ahead, I tell myself, think of something else. Think of the wood floor, think of the approaching Roomba. I wonder if Roombas are programmed to avoid banana slices or attempt to mop them up. I think of the latter scenario, the robot dutifully inching away toward the window, leaving a trail of banana slime like a pet slug, then myself having to turn it off before spending 10 minutes on my knees with a vinegar-smelling rag in my hand. Roombas are cognitively the opposite of babies: all cause and effect, no consciousness. Certainly not nearly as useful as the commercials make them out to be, yet just enough for Joe Blow Consumer to pick one up at Target while on his way to the diaper aisle, desperate as he is for anything to help him around the house.
A loud hiss crescendos through the window from the street cleaner passing by on Montague Street. That’s the marker for ten past eight, twenty minutes before my conference call for which I still have to prepare. That machine doesn’t so much clean the street as whips up dust in the gutter into a thick August cloud, blowing into the faces of dogs, children, women in makeup, and the crowd lining up outside L’Appartement 4F. With their sunglasses on and their socials queued up, they are driven by a different impulse altogether, something in between a hungry child and a robotic vacuum. A half-conscious state, perhaps, that society permits us all to slip into, so long as we have residual income, a place in New York City, and a desire to be in the know. In this state even the fiscally conservative with diversified portfolios will pay $50 for a box of Le Petite Croissant Céréale. Forget assembly lines and mass-puffed breakfast cereals of the before times– this is hundreds of half-inch croissants, individually hand-rolled, baked, glazed, and dehydrated. With a bowl of milk, it’s a black magic fusion of savory, fatty, sweet, crispy, and cold that could only be created by a childless European immigrant. A list I have recently been crossed off.
Pit, pat. Pit, pat, pit pit pat pat pat. Galen has moved on to Cheerios. They are not entering her mouth.
With my mind already lingering on miniature things, I consider the Cheerio. How on earth are these tiny donuts made? Grape Nuts, Corn Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Rice Crispies… all those look like they could have been gathered in a field, chipped off a tree trunk, or picked off a stalk by a 19th century industrialist. But quarter-inch rings do not occur naturally, so how does one design it, let alone make it? Do you cut out little flat washers and bake them till they puff? Or do you make a hollow cylinder and slice it? No, the answer has to be individually hand-rolled sausages which are then wrapped around the hand or finger, the ends stuck together, then glazed and baked. The outrageousness only strengthens its likelihood– the more work and ambition is required, the more likely an American entrepreneur will take up the challenge. Or a European one, on his way to becoming American. I think of Gautier, in the back of L’Appartement 4F at midnight, hunched over a counter rolling tiny croissants with mummified fingers. His beard has flakes of hard dough in it, his eyes are bloodshot, and he puckers his lips in anticipation of the cigarette he will treat himself to as soon as this batch is in the oven. He hasn’t slept more than 3 hours straight in over 10 months. He is at once ecstatic and depressed, watching his sculptural pastries be grasped and torn apart in the dirty hands of strangers who haven’t been hungry, truly hungry, since they were children. Ashley, his bubbly wife, gabs with the customers and the local council members out on the sidewalk in her native Brooklynese (“They can’t understand you, Cherie,” she tells him), and if he ever gets a moment to look up he reads her lips through the storefront and all he can hear is her saying she’s not ready for children, that doesn’t he want this bakery, their real baby, to thrive?
Like croissants, Cheerios are not quite identical. I know this because each one that dings the floor flies off on its own trajectory to an unseen corner by some law of Brownian motion. About one out of every six wins the coin toss that is her decision-making process, and is carefully put in her mouth with pinched fingers. What is it about those ones that made her choose eat over drop? Can I replicate it? Can I curate just the right conditions around my daughter that will make her do exactly what I need her to while still having it be her choice? I’ve kept still this whole time for fear of provoking her, though a lab scientist would point out that her behavior hasn’t changed. I roll my eyeballs sideways to look at her. Seeing me see her for the first time in a few minutes, she pauses and leans over the side of her chair, looks curiously down at the floor-strewn Cheerios, points at them, and says “Ma.”
The surge shorts my brain’s circuits. I blink slowly, my eyeballs suddenly tingle, I stop chewing my own food. While I wasn’t looking, her kindling consciousness had grown into a blaze, feeding on the latent love in my averted eyes. Already she knows, and she has let me know that she knows using the universal salvo of warm-blooded vertebrates. Millions of meanings fly like sparks off the syllable, even the one that shouldn’t be there. Here she is, the latest upgrade to the human genome, the most evolved being in history, and she has just come up with a new meaning for that word.
“Ma,” she says again.
The sequence is far too intricate for me to analyze, too advanced for an adult, so I continue dreaming about croissant cereal while my child considers the Cheerio.