The Cheese Sandwich Story
Trigger warning: Family violence ahead.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, ATLAS PERSONALITY. This story is partially about a cheese sandwich, but it's mostly about the time I bore witness to an unforgettable display of violence.
For a free ebook copy of ATLAS PERSONALTY, join my mailing list here. It comes out on ebook July 9th, 2021 and this Fall in paperback or hardcover.
My most vivid memory of random familial violence begins with the beauty of a cheese sandwich.
Cheese, cold, not grilled; the bread soft, untoasted. The basics. Paper plate, kitchen counter, shredded Mexican four-cheese blend, little bit of butter spread across the interior of both slices of Boudin sourdough.
My Vavo (pronounced "Vuh-vah," our cute family nickname for my sweet, lovable grandmother) gave me everything I ever wanted as well.
Home for school, snack.
This sandwich was a remedy for my boredom. It was exactly what I craved and needed. Originally, I had wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, but the language barrier resulted in that. A glorious creation that, upon reflection, helped me down the path of dangerous childhood morbid obesity.
In that moment, I did not care.
My elbows graced the blue-and-white tiled breakfast bar, whose grooves bore the scars of many crimes of food-related passion. I moved the crumbled sandwich from its bird and flower-lined paper plate through the air, as if I were carrying royalty, and nestled Princess Sandwich into my eager, pre-watered mouth.
I gnashed down on it with the unnecessary voracity of a hydraulic press attacking a stuffed bunny. The four-cheese blend—Monterey Jack, mild cheddar, queso quesadilla and asadero cheese—began to blend with the salty oiliness of the margarine and the sharpness of the sourdough.
Over and over, gnash after gnash of my teeth, I began to turn to little bits of the sandwich into glorious, Frankensteined bits of somewhat artificial tasting goo in my mouth. It was glorious, it was sexual, it was the early stages of food addiction.
I was underwater and all noise and commotion that existed outside of my sexual food perfection bubble was garbled noise and gobbledygook. As I settled into the sandwich, however, the world outside of myself began to come into focus. The perfection stopped.
Maybe a quarter of the way through my sandwich, I began to notice something in the air was off. Not a smell, not a sight, but a feeling of menace. Like a street rat, I sniffed it out—and by that, I meant that I took my head away from my scrumptious, perfect sandwich and merely looked up.
I can’t remember what exactly the fight was about, but my mother and Vavo were going at it like championship fighters. In her corner, wearing a made-in-Portugal gentle, welcoming blue and white floral print muumuu, my Vavo screamed something fierce in Portuguese. I say “something” because one of my great shames was that I never actually learned Portuguese—though I had every reason to, having grown up deeply embedded in the community. My mother returned the scream with a bigger, more ferocious scream.
At this point, I can only assume the argument was about my father, who was currently at his night shift as a nurse at the convalescent hospital two towns over in Riverbank.
(In Portuguese, obviously:)
Mom: “I think you we need to look at other living options for you, mother that I oh so love—”
Vavo: “I’LL FUCKING DESTROY YOU.”
Mom: “WE NEED YOU TO LEAVE, YOU ARE BAD FOR MY MARRIAGE.”
Vavo: “I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S BAD FOR YOUR MARRIAGE, YOUR MARRIAGE.”
Mom: “MOM, IT IS CLEARLY YOU, BECAUSE MY HUSBAND HAS A PROBLEM WITH IT BUT INSISTS ON STAYING OUT OF THE TAKING-CARE-OF-IT PART.”
Vavo: “I am going to hit you now.”
Mom: “Wait, but my son—”
Vavo: “LET THE FAT BITCH WATCH.”
The experience of watching someone get hit so hard that their equilibrium crumbles and they meet the ground with a thud is surreal.
Boxing and mixed martial arts feel all so staid and organized compared the reality of a raw, disorganized fight. The messiness of real violence has a way of sending a wave of destruction eviscerating everything within a mile radius. While the physical pain is, I’m sure, painful, everyone absorbs a bit of the shock and the soul—the soul is what gets hurt the most.
My Vavo’s open-palmed haymaker cut through the air like a katana through softened butter and connected with my mother’s left cheek. Her feet left the earth beneath her, her body spun around and, in the midst of her spin, her eyes met mine—disappointment on her falling face. Her knees slammed to the floor. Her hands fell forward and caught the cheap, stained, gentle, welcoming floral print linoleum on the kitchen floor.
My mind began to reel. I saw myself on my family’s little battlefield, lost in the fog of war. It was as if a bomb had gone off mere feet away from me. I stumbled through the debris of devastation, the ceiling lights blinded me, my stomach felt like it was falling out of my rupturing, cheese-filled gut. There was a ringing in my ears that mixed with fear and anxiety, all those frequencies now lost in the ether—
I took a deep breath and came to my senses. I found myself standing in front of my broken, defeated mother. She looked up at me, her cheek beginning to swell, and her big, striking, brown eyes said: I am so sorry.
I looked up at my sweet, sixty-something-year-old Vavo, and she held her hand in the air. It trembled as she looked at me and something in her posture acknowledged she had made a mistake. That would have been enough, had I not been only seven—but instead, like the good soldier I was, I composed myself for one last battle with the enemy.
This was a short battle as well, because I had just the death strike that would obliterate her for all eternity—which, as we'd established before, was the worst punishment.
Looking back, my mom had probably tried to get me away from the situation, but could not find the strength to get up. It had been taken from her in a whirlwind of agony and embarrassment. She was probably afraid I had seen something that would scar me forever, and also that I would say or do something stupid.
But, in my heart, I felt I had to defend my mommy.
My Vavo’s eyes met mine. We locked onto each other. She shook with fear, but I knew, like anyone in battle knew: when your enemy looked the most wounded, that’s when you killed. And when they were dead, you should keep shooting into their big, dumb faces, because they were weak and you were strong and this was America, we loved to kick when the other person was down.
Before she could even attempt to shoot the first shot—as she was too frozen with fear, shame, self-doubt, and undoubtedly over sixty years of pain and abuse to now reckon with—I grabbed my bazooka and aimed for the head.
Sandwich unfinished, I pulled the trigger.
“I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE.”
Arms flailing, I ran off to my room.
Alone, the passion wore off and all that was left was shame. In the darkness of my bedroom, in my red and white racecar bed, I lay there and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars and planets on my ceiling. A cold, poisonous liquid filled up my veins from my toes to the top of my cheekbones, and tears began to ooze out of my eyes. Sobs rocked through my gut and violently pulsed, jerking the quarter of cheese sandwich I got to enjoy all through my small intestine. My abs began to burn as I writhed with unrelenting agony.
What have I done?
What can I say? War is hell.
In April 2019, I learned I was going to be a father.
In July, my mother died unexpectedly.
In December, my son was born.
In February 2020, my dad was arrested by the FBI.
In March, the world slowly entered the apocalypse.
This is the story of that time.
My first book, ATLAS PERSONALITY, comes out July 9th, 2021. The only way to get a free copy is to join my email list.