I don’t know how to talk about grief without mentioning Applebee’s.
But let me rewind.
I don’t know how to talk about my father without mentioning Applebee’s.
For my family, 2010 was a rough year — followed by, like, 9 more rough years — but I’ll spare some details. In 2010, my late father was learning how to be a single parent. And despite us having lived in the same house for 12 years, and having gone on family vacations together, and having sat in the same car for an hour-long drive to school every day for years before I transferred to the nearby public school where I traveled by bus, we were beginning to get to know each other for the first time. We were learning basic things, like so… What are your hobbies? What food do you like to eat? What movies do you like? It didn’t always go well.
Dad was the silent type, but I wanted to know things. I wanted to talk about “What just happened?” or “Why did you forget to pick me up from the movies?” or “What are you doing on your computer from before I wake up until after I go to sleep?” Often, when I’d repeat myself enough times or wave my hand in front of his face long enough to sufficiently distract him from the lines and lines of intricate code he was weaving together like a cross-stitch, we’d clash. Neither of us were angry by nature, but we turned each other into yellers. And afterwards, when I’d inevitably cry, my father just didn’t know what to do with me (“Wouldn’t it be easier if, when you were sad, you just turned that off?” — An earnest question he posed to me, more than once, to which I could only reply “What???”)
So, I’d wash my face in cold water and he’d take me to lunch at Applebee’s.
The first time he offered, it felt wrong. Dad knew that Mom didn’t let us eat that kind of stuff (meaning, anything non-organic, or fatty enough to drip grease down my chin when I took a bite, or too American-sounding, or possessing the power to turn my tongue a different color) unless it was a really special occasion or someone else (read: someone American) took me. But far be it from me to turn down a soda and fries, I thought.
Walking in felt like entering the world I was always told I shouldn’t want to belong in. The lunch crowd was sparse — unlike dinner, when you’d have to slalom between big friend groups from school or the kinds of loud laughing families that let their kids put their elbows on the tables — and we got our pick of the red vinyl booths that were so unlike all the restaurants we’d been to before. I remember looking past Dad, who was looking down at his phone, at the wall directly across from me — covered in a collage of blown-up photos of students from my new school. It made me nervous, how disconnected I felt from these people. Do the few classmates I see, who I’m ducking away from whenever I think they’re close to seeing me (despite being certain they’d have no idea who I was), know who they are? Does Alyssa, older and always out with new friends, know who they are? I was overwhelmed at how small my world was: Dad, Alyssa, Mom, Grandma in Russia, two friends from my old school, me.
We both snapped our heads down to the menu and then up to the waiter when it was time to order. For Dad, steak and broccoli and a cup of black coffee. For me, a glass of raspberry lemonade as tall as my head and chicken fingers with fries. Later, a brownie with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
This became our routine: Fight, forgive (a sort of implied forgiveness, because Russian parents don’t need to say sorry to children, I was told more than a few times), feast. Fight, forgive, feast. Fight, forgive, feast. Food as comfort became our common ground. Rarely was it ever fancy anymore like it used to be, or a point of pride, or even a job well done — unless someone bought me the ingredients for котлеты с жареной картошкой and I was done with my homework. Food filled gaps in conversation, made up for words unsaid (and those that probably shouldn’t have been said), and found comfortable silence between us.
Usually, Dad and I tiptoed around each other’s weird relationships with food. I was insecure because I was a middle school girl with a stomach that felt too soft (whatever that meant), and a size tag much larger than the XS sported by the other girls who wore leggings with crop tops to school. He was insecure because he felt he was too stationary at his computer all day, too slow on the rink with the other men in his 40+ league that he played recreational ice hockey with. Every now and then, I’d spend a few days drinking orange juice from a measuring cup while trying to obsessively count calories on the MyFitnessPal app — which I’d delete after a few days, and then eventually re-download, then delete, then repeat. He’d declare he was going on a diet and eat nothing but cashews all day, and then grill up a salt-and-peppered, much-too-rare steak that I’d take a big bite of before bed.
But all bets were off at Applebee’s.
Those 6 years between the real beginning of our relationship and his passing, the ones during which we relied on each other so much in so many unfair ways, still sometimes make me shudder when I think too much about them. But those moments when the only sounds escaping our lips were slurps, swallows, and burps make me smile, too.
While I no longer indulge in a plate of chicken fingers like I used to, I learned an important lesson from these lunches: It’s okay to be comforted by food. I’ve repeated this short sentence to myself throughout the past year — during which my body has changed so many times that I feel like I’ve been looking at myself exclusively in funhouse mirrors.
2020 (and, let’s be honest, 2021) has been another rough patch — one that interrupted what I considered the best time of my life — that I’ve had to comfort myself through, in various ways. I exercise because it makes me feel good, I tell myself, but I also eat because it makes me feel good. Those two truths aren’t mutually exclusive. And I’m so grateful for all of the greasy, drippy, crunchy, sloppy food that I’ve learned to make when I need to cook myself out of a bad mood.
I haven’t had lunch at Applebee’s in a long, long, long time. And I don’t know when I will again. But I still feel like I’m in that red vinyl booth all the time, asking if I can get a refill on my raspberry lemonade and knowing the answer will be yes.
As always, thank you for reading.