I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed eating peanut butter from the jar and thinking about the time Jamie and Sam and I tried to make Chinese dough balls, the kind like Jamie’s family always makes for the New Year. That was the summer after we graduated high school, the summer the three of us worked together at that math-and-science summer camp. It was hosted by a local boarding school, and it was the most popular summer camp among all the middle school nerds of lower Alabama who would rather spend three weeks watching high school teachers perform mediocre science experiments than eating s’mores or telling ghost stories.
It was Sam’s idea for the three of us to be counselors – he needed extra cash for next year, he reminded us, when he’d be at Vandy. It was always Vandy, never the full word, and he dragged out the ‘a’ nice and long so we’d all have time to reflect on how impressive he was for going there. He talked about college as if he was the only one going – or, really, as if he was the only one going anywhere of any value. He was going to Vaaandy to study mechanical engineering, something that I, with my undecided major and state school prospects, couldn’t possibly compete with.
My spoon scrapes the side of the peanut butter jar and I wonder if I made the decisions I did just because of people like him, to prove some kind of point about what I was – what I am – capable of. It all just felt like a contest, and my friendship with Sam has always been dangerously competitive. Even once we were at different colleges, even now that we’ve graduated. We kept in touch because he always liked to boost his ego, and his old high school best friend was the perfect foil for his new successful self. He never said it, but every time during undergrad, when he’d call to catch up and graciously remind me that there was nothing wrong with choosing a state school, every time he pretended to regard my studies on the same plane as his, he was really just implying, with every word, that I was never going to make it out of Alabama. Would I have come to the city if not for that?
It was Sam’s idea, too, to make those dough balls. The camp lasted six weeks, and we had to spend all six of them living in the same dingy dorms that the middle schoolers were so thrilled to occupy. The school was technically a public school, state funded, so all parts of the campus were varying levels of dilapidated. The furniture was falling apart, wardrobes missing hinges and desk shelves slanted at precarious angles. We had to share communal bathrooms with hordes of messy 13-year-olds who had very obviously never had to clean up after themselves. And, as Sam lamented far too often, there was no real kitchen anywhere in any of the dorms. Instead, each hall was equipped with a toaster oven, a hot plate, and a microwave.
I think the same competitive streak that has pushed me out too far into the world is what caused Sam to insist we attempt to cook. He said, “Man, I wish I could cook here,” and I said, “Yeah, but you can’t.” He heard my simple, factual statement as a challenge.
Next thing I knew, I was standing alone, surrounded by overstuffed shelves lined with products plastered with big-eyed cartoon characters speaking in a language I couldn’t understand. The Asian market was dingy and crowded and, according to Sam, the only place where we’d find whatever special flour that the dough ball recipe required. I waited for him and Jamie to return with the flour, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible, though everything about my appearance – namely, my glaring whiteness – screamed, “I don’t belong here!”
On the way back to campus, I sat in the backseat, unable to contribute in any way to the argument happening in front of me.
“Powdered sugar,” Jamie insisted. “That’s how we always made them at my house.”
“No,” Sam argued. “My aunt topped them with crushed-up peanuts. Mixed with a little sugar – there’s nothing better than that.”
“We didn’t get any peanuts,” Jamie feebly countered, but she’s always been a people-pleaser, and she knew as well as I did that it didn’t matter how many times her family had made the dough balls growing up, not when Sam’s aunt had made them the one time he visited her in Malaysia. He had the bottom of a jar of peanuts that he’d been snacking on in his dorm – just the perfect amount for what we needed, he told us. What we didn’t have was powdered sugar.
Since it was the aspect of the recipe that required the least effort, knowledge, or cooking skill, the task of crushing the peanuts was delegated to me. While Jamie and Sam boiled and simmered, kneaded and rolled, I put peanuts and sugar into the cheapest food processor we could find at the Walgreens down the road and pressed the button. I hated that this was all they assumed I was capable of. I hated that they were right.
Jamie was part of the problem, too, you know. That summer, when Sam and I had just graduated, she still had a year of high school left. She wanted to feel like she was on equal ground with the two of us, but that was always overshadowed by her need for everyone to get along. Sam, for his part, treated her and me as if we were equally below him. Still, her strategy of doing whatever she could to placate the two of us did little more than make her the perpetual mediator for Sam and me. By the end of it, she was the only one who really knew how much we hated each other – something we weren’t willing to admit, even to ourselves.
Now, I haven’t talked to her in… has it been months? We were never really close, individually; she existed in the context of my relationship with Sam. She was much more sincere than he when insisting how lucky I was to have so many options, more time to decide what I’d spend my life doing. Not like her, pressured into the medical field by expectant parents and a highly successful older sister. She was incapable of condescension but instead showered me with an exaggerated reverence that made me feel a lot better about myself than I liked to admit. I wanted to give her something to actually be impressed with. Every supportive comment only made me feel more like a fraud.
She was the one who carefully suggested I be in charge of the peanuts. “I know you don’t love cooking, and, you know, Sam and I are a lot more familiar with the recipe and everything, so maybe it might, I don’t know, be a little bit better if you, uh, just grind up the peanuts?” She had a tendency to ask her statements. She was always looking for an answer from somebody else, some confirmation or refusal.
I felt a steady, vibrating pressure under my thumb as I did my one menial task. The blades ripped through the peanuts in the processor with a satisfying, drawn-out crunch that made it impossible to hear Sam explain how the real name of this dish was Dongzhi tang yuan, also known as glutinous rice balls or Chinese New Year dough balls – as if he hadn’t just looked it up on his phone, as if I couldn’t have done that on my own or Jamie didn’t already know. The tension within the processor was slowly relieved as the peanuts were crushed into smaller and smaller pieces. It was almost therapeutic, a mixture of violent and soothing that I hadn’t realized I was craving. I didn’t want to stop. But finally, the blades were spinning with so little resistance from the peanuts that I knew they had to be a fine enough powder. I reluctantly removed my thumb from the button and opened the lid.
Of course, I’d fucked it up.
Did you know that peanut butter is made by putting peanuts in a food processor and pressing the button for just barely longer than the time it takes to crush the peanuts into powder?
That’s all that was in the food processor: crunchy peanut butter.
Is it the peanut butter that brought up this memory? No, I think it was the failure: failure to realize that all the time I spent aiming for success was actually setting me up to appear successful. Failure to figure out what it is that I actually wanted, besides something that would impress the small people from my small hometown. I’m still not sure what I do want. I know it’s not this, somebody else’s idea of a good life. I am sitting on my bed eating peanut butter from the jar, avoiding confronting the truth that I will soon have to leave this apartment and begin a life and a job that will never feel like mine. But people like Sam and Jamie sound impressed when they call. Sometimes, I can convince myself they actually are.
That night, they finished making the dough balls. They were white and round, unexpectedly chewy. They stuck to my teeth and weren’t nearly as sweet as I expected. I wondered if they would have been better with crushed-up peanuts. I probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway.