Excerpted from: Ascending Bastard: An Autobiography
The Cereal Saga
The first place we lived where I actually knew the name of our street, was Kearn Street. I was six or seven when we moved there. Prior to this, we lived not far away where I have a few scattered memories of coming home from school and watching Speed Racer on channel 52, which was a UHF channel. My older sister Linda once fell backwards in a kitchen chair, hit her arm on an electrical plug and got shocked. My little sister was caught eating dog food out of the bowl on the kitchen floor. A pro-wrestler who was bald with a mustache lived across the street and had a huge flag pole.
It seems strange to me that I have these few random memories, but then I have one prolonged memory of a time when my parents went on vacation to Tijuana and my sister and I stayed with our next-door neighbors while they were away.
The first morning we were there, we had cereal for breakfast. For whatever reason, I did not eat all of my cereal. I may not have been hungry, or maybe I didn’t like it that much since it wasn’t what I normally had. All I know is that not finishing my cereal was not an option. The lady (and mother of the children there) told me I had to finish it and that if I didn’t, I would end up having it for lunch.
Maybe I didn’t take her seriously. I was excused from the table and allowed to go play. Later when we were called into the kitchen for lunch, my sister and the two girls who lived there were presented with sandwiches and milk. I was given my bowl of cereal from that morning, which had been stored in the fridge. If I hadn’t the appetite for it that morning, there was far less chance of me wanting to eat it now. Now it was a multi-colored, gooey mass floating in milk. I don’t think anyone would be able to eat it unless they were starving to death.
But the mother wasn’t kidding. This was my lunch. She was being true to her word. I would be allowed nothing else until I had finished my breakfast. I did not eat the “cereal.” I sat there staring at the goop while the others ate their sandwiches. I was only 5 years old, so I did not argue or put up a fight. I barely knew this woman and was intimidated by her. She had a very no-nonsense attitude toward me and was insistent that I was going to finish my cereal or I would eat nothing at all.
After the other kids finished eating, once again, we were all excused from the table, and the dreaded bowl was put back into the refrigerator. Later, when the husband had come home and dinner had been made, we were called into the kitchen again. Everyone had a plate of cooked food placed before them on the table and I was given my bowl of cereal.
I cried. I pleaded. I told them it was too yucky. I could not eat it. I told them I was starving and needed food. The lady (with the backing of her husband) told me if I was hungry then I should finish my breakfast, and if I was still hungry after that, I could have some dinner. I could not understand why they were making such a big deal over the cereal and I hated them. I wanted to go home. I didn’t care that my house was empty and there was no one there to take care of me. I just wanted to be away from these people and have something to eat.
Once again, I failed to eat the cereal and there was no form of punishment. We were excused from the table and allowed to play until it was bed time. I watched the girls play while I held my aching stomach. The following morning, there were four bowls of cereal on the table when we came to the kitchen for breakfast. Three of them were fresh, and one came from the fridge. She just wasn’t going to let up on this. Again, I sat at the table and cried with my head and stomach hurting from hunger and feeling despair that there was no way out of this situation other than eating this bowl of thick, colored milk. The cereal was not even recognizable as cereal anymore. I knew now that I would have no food until my parents came back from Tijuana. I had no idea when that would be. I had to eat this disgusting cereal or starve. I chose to starve.
Lunch time was a repeat of the previous day. The other kids were presented with a lunch of Chef-Boyardee Spaghettios and I was given that god-damned bowl of cereal from the fridge. I hated that lady now with a passion, and I was really hungry. More than I’d ever been before. I was desperate to eat, but the thought of trying to consume what was in that bowl made my stomach clench and made me feel like I would vomit, if only there had been in anything in my stomach to actually throw up.
The other kids finished eating and were excused. I was sitting there by myself. This time I was told that I could not be excused from the table until I had eaten the cereal. She told me this had gone on long enough and I was going to eat it. I guess she knew she couldn’t starve me and might have been thinking of how she was going to explain to my parents that I had not eaten the entire time they were away.
Stuck in an impossible situation, I finally began thinking of an alternative way out. I had always done what I was told and never defied authority, but there was no way I could comply in this situation. I had to be bad to get out of this predicament. The lady did not stay in the kitchen with me the whole time, so I was alone for a while. There was a window next to the kitchen table with no screen. I saw an opportunity. I opened the window and dumped the contents of the bowl onto the back patio. I closed the window and set my bowl back on the table in front of me. I wondered what would happen if they saw the mess I had made on the back patio. Would these strangers spank me? If so, would they use a belt or a yard stick? Now that I was finally freed from the cereal I should’ve felt relief, but I was terrified of getting caught at cheating my way out of it.
When the lady came back into the kitchen I told her I had eaten the cereal and asked if I could be excused. She asked me if I wanted another bowl since it had been so long since I had eaten. The last thing I wanted was to start this whole wretched cycle over again, so I declined. As hungry as I was, I resolved to wait until lunch time to eat anything.
As we played through the hours between breakfast and lunch, I waited every second to be called before her, or even worse, before her husband to explain why there was a milky mess splattered on the patio below the kitchen window, but it never happened. I was allowed to eat lunch, and then dinner without incident. I wonder now, if they had found the mess, would they have scraped it back into the bowl and insisted that I eat it?
I also wonder how people can be that way. How could someone starve a child over what amounted to just a few cents worth of food? How could someone be that way with a child that is not even their own? I’m not saying what they did was viciously abusive – god knows children have suffered far worse at the hands of adults. The daily news always has some fresh horror story that will break your heart and baffle your mind. But even still – what if I hadn’t dumped the cereal out, and hadn’t eaten it? What shape would I have been in when my parents returned? By dumping the cereal and getting myself out of that situation, I also gave the people babysitting me a way out of the trouble they were potentially getting themselves into. But of course, I didn’t think of that then.
Thinking about it now, I also wonder if my parents would have done anything at all – even if they knew the full circumstances. Probably not. Wanting to be good neighbors and be accepted, and being grateful for the favor of babysitting, they probably would have gone along with the lady and assured her that she was right and that they would have done the same thing. Then they would have assured her that I would be punished as soon as we got home for wasting food and misbehaving.