Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Year of Macaroni and Cheese

Nineteen-eighty-four was the year of macaroni and cheese. I lived to cook macaroni and cheese, and I cooked macaroni and cheese to live. I ate it almost every meal. If I wasn't eating it, I was cooking it - or at least thinking about cooking it. It was a meal that I ate alone. Alone, not because I had no friends, but because I was too embarrassed to admit my obsession with macaroni and cheese.


Why macaroni and cheese? Because it was cheap, almost as cheap as the soggy lakefront air I breathed. I was in my masters year, and my assistantship and student loan only covered my tuition and rent. The rest of my expenses, like food, came out of my already depleted savings and my job on the orchestra staff, which provided an extravagant $1200 for the year. The university, which shall remain nameless, divided up its assistantships so that if one took the maximum student loan available, that added up to tuition plus a room, but not board. (Hint: private Big-10 university north of Chicago.) It was a practice in only my department, unfortunately, cruel to those of us not receiving money from our parents. At 22, I shouldn't have had to. I was above the age of consent, owned a car, was about to cast my anti-Reagan vote in my second Presidential election, I could drink legally, and I lived over 400 miles away from my parents who were busy paying for the education of my siblings.


At first, I experimented: mac and cheese with hot dog pieces, mac and cheese with ground beef, and if I felt extravagant, chili mac. I tried to make enough for two or three meals, but soon as my funds dwindled. I more often than not stuck to unadulterated Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - $0.39 at Dominick's (a short walk away).


In April my finances became dire, and I knew my lease in student housing would expire at the end of June, coinciding with the end of my loan. To save money, I started buying generic Macaroni and Cheese ($0.19 at Jewel, a longer walk away) and powdered Kool-aid ($0.59 for enough to last almost a month). I must admit that I wasn't feeling very "Kool," not stepping out of my house other than to buy macaroni and Kool-aid and go to classes.


By May I discovered that one could make macaroni and cheese without milk, saving an extra expense - just butter, salt and a little water. It was a step down, even from the taste of the generic variety, but it was a warm home-cooked meal every day. Surprisingly, it remained one of my favorite foods. After my macaroni and cheese year, I often joked that I could eat pizza at every meal, having almost entirely gone off mac and cheese, but I wonder now if that is entirely true.


By the end of May, I regularly hid in my room - studying, as I told the few friends that I had left – not looking forward to skulking back to my parent's house for the summer. That would have been too embarrassing, so I started looking for a job, certain that another summer at McDonalds was out of the question. That would have been worse than going home, and it wouldn't have earned enough for my rent, even if I could find a cheap place.


On June 1, my net worth was $14, not counting my car and the musical instruments required for my graduate studies. By June 15, it had dropped to £4 with two weeks left to find a place to live. A friend of a long-forgotten friend gave me a name of someone who had a room going. It was in a two-bedroom apartment that had the living room partitioned – that would be my room - and I was to share with two women around my age, Juliet and Mo, not forgetting Jasper, Juliet's cat. Of course, my lone allergy is to cats.


Juliet invited me over to have a look around, but my priority was whether I could survive the cat. Juliet was cute, and I so wanted to make it work. My corner room was on the ground floor of the front of the building with two large bay windows, great for natural light, but horrible for privacy.


Juliet was cute. Did I say that before? She had a boyfriend, but I didn't care. She was cute enough to brighten the cloudiest day, and she liked to wear spaghetti-strap halters. That was a change from elbow macaroni, but I dug bare shoulders.


I did my best to avoid the cat, ignoring the slightest of tickles in my throat. The next day, I found a job in the University Library. It was part time, but it covered the rent and would keep me in macaroni for the summer. The only problem was that it would be six weeks before my first paycheck. I desperately phoned my father and begged him to cover the deposit and first month for me, which he thankfully did. I should have phoned him earlier, but I had expected him to say no.


The next day I phoned Juliet and agreed to rent the room. That night, rather than celebrating with a large plate of macaroni and cheese, I succumbed to a delayed reaction to the cat, sneezing, coughing, spluttering, and generally feeling miserable for the next three days.


But I had a place to live, a car with half a tank of gas, and would be starting a new job the following week. I was happy, and I was going to make it work.


My father's check arrived three days later, so I paid my deposit and rent, banning the cat from my room, and made plans to move in. In graduate school that usually doesn't take much planning. The entirety of my worldly goods fit in the back of the boat of a car that I drove, a 1971 Plymouth Satellite. (A rust-bucket of a muscle car without any muscle.) I didn't even need help moving, and someone was kind enough to leave a mattress, so I didn't have to sleep on the floor.


A week later I had moved in, barricading myself in my room away from the cat, and stacking my stereo and books on board and cinderblock shelves. It would be the end of the summer before I had enough money to buy a cheap drafting table to work on, but it was summer - a hot Olympics summer - and I had no plans to do anything other than my job, jog along the lakeshore occasionally, watch the Olympics or the Cubs on television, and eat macaroni and cheese. At the time, I could think of nothing I would rather do.


I donated my hand-me-down black-and-white television to the communal cause, but rarely saw Mo, and Janet never seemed to leave her room. My only companion, therefore, was Jasper, who nestled on my lap as I watched my sports. The TV had to be placed by the front window to get any reception at all, but when I got bored, I could watch the comings and goings from the building, which were often much more interesting than watching the Cubs lose.


Jasper and I had a love-hate relationship. He loved me when I sat on the couch, but hated me when I walked to the bathroom in the morning, often digging his claws into my hairy legs when I wasn't paying attention. He was also angry that I wouldn't let him in my room, as the previous tenant had. I often sat on my bed eating my macaroni and cheese watching his little paws probe under the ill-fitting door, as if he thought he could drag himself through. Although he succeeded in gaining entry a few times, my efforts at self-preservation succeeded in keeping me relatively sneeze-free for the summer. I can feel my nose becoming itchy just thinking of him.


I later decided Juliet wore that spaghetti strap halter just to lure me into subletting my room, for she and Mo were gone by the end of the summer, taking my fair-weather friend with her, leaving me with new roommates, and a new lease with its annual 10% increase. With the new school year came my next year's financial aid, as well as a new job. To celebrate, I fixed myself a large plate of chili mac, a meal that I wouldn't eat again for a long time, since there was a by-the-slice pizzeria around the corner, thus beginning the year of pizza.


I often wonder what happened to Juliet, whether she finally broke up with her boyfriend, as I had hoped. Although I've regained my appreciation for macaroni and cheese, it still brings back memories of that summer, Juliet and especially Jasper, a summer that I was (mostly) self-sufficient for the first time, spending my days on the sofa in front of the television, daydreaming about Juliet and watching the world go by without me out the front window.

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