That night, I don’t sleep. Part of it is excitement. I’m also terrified that if I fall asleep I’ll wake up and my leg will be gone. So I spend the night beneath thin sheets, running my right foot up and down its new mate, toes dancing on graphene-coated bone and memorizing the curves of the blade.
At 0400 I throw off my covers. It’s too early, too dark, but I can’t stay in bed any longer. Soon I’m out of the dorms, stretching and breathing in deep the cold morning air, trying to temper my excitement.
I start out with a light jog and marvel at the recoil my new leg has, as if it’s impatient for a long-distance steeplechase. I stop and adjust – Dr. Reynolds showed me how to tighten the pistons, essentially my calf muscles, so they don’t fire so enthusiastically.
I begin again, carefully jogging from floodlight to floodlight, introducing the rhythms of my old body to my brand new leg. Soon we’re working in concert, soon my confidence picks up and my pace quickens, soon my arms are pumping and my ponytail whips behind me like a proud flag.
Next I try ladder sprints. The leg has limitations – pivoting is one of them. Since I have no left ankle, I have to use my dominant right leg for turning. But lunges are a breeze and skipping is a joy.
All too soon I have to stop and catch my breath, sides heaving, sweat dripping from the end of my nose. Have you ever noticed that the air feels like it has less oxygen in it at 0400?
I’m out of running shape but instead of feeling frustration, all I feel is an eagerness to recapture my stamina, an impatience that I can’t do all the work now, at once.
What’s for dinner? my comms bracelet chimes. I stop prepping 60lbs of carrots for tomorrow’s meal – chicken pot pie – to type out a quick response. For all of our weird aggressions and dissimilarities, Zelda and I have found our common ground: food. It turns out two kids who grew up starving look forward to mealtime with equal fervour. We love it all: anticipating dinner, dissecting dinner as we eat it, then recapping dinner in bed before sleep takes hold. We critique each meal and revisit old favorites, as if I’ll pass on our critiques and compliments to the chefs. Which I never do.
Chicken and sweet potato curry with naan I text back.
I’ve never had curry! She writes. What’s naan?
Me neither! It smells delicious – spicy and kind of sweet, I write back. Naan is like an Indian tortilla, but a little thicker.
I can’t wait to try it!!!
In fact, working in the cafeteria has made me friends where my personality has failed. It turns out there’s a small gang of former starving kids on campus. We eat together now at one of the big round tables in the cafeteria – the table closest to the kitchen. I sneak them extra food when I can, so they’ll like me more.
But dinner is two hours away and right now, I have a mountain of carrots to peel and chop. I look around – a small team of cooks orchestrated by Mrs. Anand and Señora Chabela are busy braising chicken thighs and stirring huge pots of a rich orange curry that reminds me of a summer sunset. Mrs. Anand stands over one pot, tasting and adding spices while Señora Chabela is showing three cooks how to flip the naan on large cast iron skillets. I wish I could watch and learn but in this space at least, I know my place.
Each night, the people around me prep and make dinner for the roughly 350 students and 500 military personnel that call this base home. I’m the only student employed in a kitchen with
30 cooks. The first week I started, there were two of us: me and a second-year blond girl named Jancy. She’s the only person outside of a casino I’ve seen wearing lipstick. She walks with the smug confidence of a girl who’s been loved all her life.
“You’re never fully dressed without a smile,” a billboard once taught me. If that is true, Jancy is never fully dressed.
That first day, Mrs. Anand greeted us and showed us around the kitchen, then set us up in the corner cutting 20 lbs of onions. Instead of becoming teary like me, Jancy was enraged.
“I’m not doing this,” she said, her knife clattering to the table. I didn’t respond. I was busy figuring out how I could covertly slip an onion slice in my mouth. It had almost no smell but my eyes stung with each slice.
“This is untenable,” Jancy added when I didn’t chime in. Then she raised her hand. When that didn’t work, she stood up and began snapping her fingers, shouting “Excuse me!” in a sing-song voice until Señora Chabela and Mrs. Anand came over.
“Yeah, I’m not doing this,” she repeated. “This is officer school. I didn’t come to serve people. My grandfather is a four-star general.”
The two women were silent for a moment. I kept up my torturous cutting, hoping they’d notice that I was working and wanted no part of Jancy’s petty mutiny.
“Get out,” Señora Chabela finally said.
“Excuse me?” Jancy said, unsurety sneaking into her voice.
“Get out of my kitchen. Now.”
She stood there for a second, unsure of herself now that she’d gotten her way so easily. Señora Chabela snapped her fingers in her face, “rápida, rápida, rápida!”
So she did – she slowly walked out the door.
“Pinche pendejo. The greatest leaders serve their people,” Señora Chabela said, shaking her head. “Apuesto a que ella cagará en la cama a la primera señal de conflicto.”
I snorted with laughter. I couldn’t help myself.
“Ah, me entiendes?” she asked.
“Tu también quieres irte?”
“Bueno. Regresa al trabajo.”
Jancy never came back, to the dismay of no one. And since I don’t have any actual kitchen skills, my job mainly consists of washing dishes, wiping down counters, sharpening knives and prepping for the next night’s dinner by chopping things. But I’ve never really used a knife before and I’m very slow.
“Jesucristo, eres slo!” Señora Chabela is staring at my modest pile of carrot bits.
“Lo siento señora,” I say.
“Quieres aprender una mejor manera?”
“Mira,” she says.
She gently takes the knife from my hand and lines up three carrots to my one. She curls her fingers up on her left hand, so her knuckles are facing the pointy end of the carrot – “so you don’t lose a finger on top of your foot,” she says – and manipulates the knife with her right in smooth strokes, almost like waves instead of my clumsy chops.
“Ahora tu intenta,” she says.
I take the knife from her and try again. My technique isn’t nearly as good as hers but it’s better than it was, and I’m grateful for the instruction. “Gracias señora.”
“De nada. Nathan! You’re burning the naan! You need to flip it sooner or turn down your burner.”
Señora Chabela strides towards a harassed looking Nathan. She speaks English usually but switches to Spanish with me and the cooks she knows can follow. It’s strange – most people here can’t speak Spanish, or even understand it. Not even know-it-all Zelda.
No sabía lo que me perdía hasta que vine aquí, a esta cocina.