There are so many ways to eat ramen. Ramen wet, ramen dry. Ramen that got stepped on, straight from the package, crumbled up. Ramen in a bowl with hot tap water. Put another bowl on top, if you have one. Let it sit for three minutes, if you can stand to wait.
Ramen quickly, ramen slowly. Ramen sitting on the floor. Ramen on a hillside covered in dandelions, overlooking a busy intersection. Mountains in the distance.
Flavor packet. Flavor packet on the dry noodles. Flavor packet in the hot tap water. No flavor packet. Half a flavor packet. MSG. Beef packet. Chicken. “Oriental”. Flavor packets in the silverware drawer. Flavor packets in the silverware drawer when there is nothing left, not even any silverware. Flavor packets mixed up with the rubberbands, plastic ties from bread bags. Square small silver foil flavor packets. chicken chicken chicken printed diagonal on the packets.
Ramen costs five cents, ten cents, twenty-five cents, depending on how much you buy at once. It’s a pyramid and the more money you have to spend the less the ramen costs. The whole world is set up like that and you’re at the bottom, the bottom bottom bottom, you slid slid slid scrambling and grabbing at roots and tangles of ivy and sticks that broke off in your hands, rotten from the rain. You rolled end over end, all striped and splattered with mud, and landed in a wet and stinking ditch where the only food is soggy oreos that wealthy children have dropped absentmindedly from their plump, sticky paws. You dart from puddle to puddle, picking the soggy cookies from the mud, like in a nightmare.
If you’re poor enough, ramen will always cost too much. If you’re poor enough you’ll feel like a trespasser even going through the automatic sliding doors of the grocery store. You don’t have any money and your hunger pulls negative ions from the food and even that is stealing. You walk through the doors anyway and take free heat and free light and free non-violence and non-shouting and it’s free to be around people who aren’t hallucinating, at least for a little while.
Ramen’s a good friend when you have a quarter but it doesn’t fill you up. It fills your tummy full of salt water and makes your head feel hot and then in an hour, you feel sicker than you did before. You’ve got a hunger that’s deeper than the salt mines in the Mediterranean sea. You’ve got a hunger that turns your insides into catacombs. Your muscles are steel cables and your bones are swiss cheese. Your head is a bird’s nest made from spider webs and your own saliva. You can’t think.
You can’t concentrate. School is good for the free meal. Corn dog, microwave corn, thick cobbler made from corn syrup. Quart of milk. Bright yellow mustard. You want to steal the other kids’ lunches. You can smell the ho-hos in their lunch boxes from across the cafeteria. Those kids don’t even notice if they have food or not, they’re so well fed. Turkey sandwich, foil packet of fruit snacks. Like gold coins.
Today after school you walk south along the road, past the forest to the strip mall where there’s a bakery thrift store and a value village. It’s breakup, there’s a good blustery wind and all the snow is melting and you can smell the wet dirt underneath. When summertime comes the sun won’t set anymore and you’ll play outside till ten at night, collecting leaves and sticks, stringing sunshine dandelions into necklaces and making small dens in the mossy, spongy riot of the forest.
When the summer comes the forest will sustain you, but for now you’ve got to eat.
Heaving yourself up, you bend at the waist and lean into the dumpster behind the bakery thrift store. Just like on the parallel bars on the school playground, girls with their jackets draped over the metal bar, going round and round and round. There are lots of boxes of donuts inside the dumpster and you feel your heart race as you paw through them. White powder donuts, waxy chocolate donuts. Dropping back onto the ground, you cradle your score in your arms. You tear one package open as you walk and quickly eat a donut. You eat another as you walk past the forest, past the narrow dirt paths that lead to the flat, tea-colored lake. You can smell the lake today, the earthy water, the salty ducks. You eat another donut, biting carefully its waxy chocolate exterior. The inside of the donut is dry yellow cake. It backs up in your esophagus, coats your mouth like chalk. By the time you get home your head is thumping and you feel dizzy. Your thoughts are going in quick circles, bumping into each other, manic and frightening like a Donald duck cartoon. You lay on your bed, still, and will the donuts to digest. You drink a cup of lukewarm tap water. It tastes like metal.
In the summer there won’t be free school lunches but it won’t matter. There’ll be sunshine and warm bare dirt and bare skin and green good-smelling plants along the burbling forest streams and wolves howling in the mountains. You’ll make necklaces out of chips of wood and small treasures from leaves and grass and bits of spruce pitch. You’ll lay belly-down in the moss and stare for hours at the millipedes and the iridescent beetles. You’ll climb every single tree within a quarter mile of your house, giving them names and stories and remembering their smells, sweet and green or sharp and dusty, and peeling off thin whorls of their bark to wrap around your wrists like bracelets. You’ll avoiding going home as much as possible, and at home you’ll sleep with all the windows open and the bad air will go out, out, and drift away into the wind, and dissipate into a million tiny particles and be eaten up by the good light and the green growing things, which are bigger and larger and more important, and stronger.
Nature is stronger.
And this summer you’ll be brave. You’ll steal handfuls of cookies from the bakery in the grocery story (there’s a sign that says One Free Cookie! but you’ll take five) and you’ll make a plate of tacos at the hot bar, with the thick refried beans that you love, even though you don’t have any money to pay. You’ll eat them on the grass among the dandelions, ravenously, and when they’re gone you’ll go inside and make some more. You’ll steal Barbara’s purse and poke your fingers through the holes in the lining, run your hands over the old leather until you find the place where a few quarters rolled, the place where a crumpled dollar lives. You’ll go to the mall and check the coin return in all the payphones, slide your finger along that curve of metal, feel your heart jump when there’s a dime there, a quarter, money forgotten by someone rich, someone who walks around with dollars falling from their pockets, someone who owns every packaged product in the world, every expensive box cereal, every 49 cent fruit pie.
You’ll find five dollars on the ground and blow it on nutty bars and pixie stix. You’ll shoplift red nail polish and sit in the back of the public library, reading seventeen magazine. You’ll have dreams of earthquakes that shatter the glass facades of every store in the mall, leaving ruined merchandise piled in the aisles for you to take. You’ll suddenly hunger for not just food but for material goods too, for plastic molded objects and clothes that smell like the store. In the evenings you’ll eat your ramen on the wooden back deck of the apartment, your shoes off. You’ll watch the shadows move as the summer sun passes over the hill. The ramen noodles are soft and crimped, a little cottonseed oil floats on top of the broth. There are flecks of vegetable matter or some cousin of vegetable matter, something that was once a leaf. You watch the shadows lengthen over the dandelions. You can feel yourself growing inside yourself in this good summer light, opening up like a moth. There is something inside you that’s stronger than all of this. Stronger than ramen, stronger than poverty. You don’t know what it looks like but you can feel it there, like a white hot ball of rage or fire, some potent, highly reactive element that wants to break open and set your whole apartment in flames. Something living, something that you grew on bleached white flour and hydrogenated cottonseed oil and MSG. Something monstrously strong. Something just strong enough.