Poetry & Fiction

Brooklyn Fiction: Mantis by Cara Dempsey

by Cara Dempsey


For maybe two weeks, I’ve been looking for a color green as ugly as the one from my pictures, the wallet-sizes that I’ve been keeping buried in my bags of chips and watching get all freezer burnt inside the cartons of my Cookies N’ Cream. No luck. Every green that I find is either too much like a healthy smoothie or else too springy, like the kind of green that lemon-lime sodas come bottled in. I’ve been looking for it everywhere I go. I spend half my life thinking about giving it a name and doing the butterfly stroke through pools of it. In my journal, I’ve been writing names for my color as they come to me: WICKED WITCH TIT and BAD KITCHEN TILE and FORGOT THE LEFTOVERS. I’ve searched these on the internet. Nada.

In my hand is a stack of about twelve paint chips. Lightest to darkest, paint chip says:


And not one of them feels like the word for my thing. None of them is the same as the thing I know I need.

I pick up another paint chip and ask myself, is DILL PICKLES really what I’m looking for? If I cover my kitchen in FOREST RIDGE, will it help me do my thing?

Eyeing the wall of colors, I reach into my pocket to thumb at my picture: the celebrity in the tight dress, smiling and holding a tiny plastic bowl of nightmare-green mush.

When I finger the corners, I can feel how bent and soft they’ve become from all the sweaty handling. I so badly want to pull the photo out and let her breathe, but I don’t take it out of my pocket. She is for me and my inspiration, not for the couple a few feet away and not for the bearded man near the register. They need their own fucking thing.

This woman is all famous and loved for different things like superhero franchises and divorcing basketball players, but I love her best for being so beautiful while standing near things so tremendously ugly: broccoli, cauliflower ground to pulp, pale yellow tofu with sinister black edges. There were other photos of her standing near other recipes in her cookbook, but when I saw this one I made twelve copies right away. It wasn’t until I flipped to SWEET POTA-TOAST WITH AVOCADO MASH that I knew I’d found my life’s compass.

There are nine copies of these photos hiding in my kitchen and one in my coat pocket just in case. Most mornings, she’s the first thing that I see falling out of my cereal box. I pour my breakfast and there she is, reminding me to pour half of my bowl out before I add the milk. If I unclip my bag of Lays, there she is. If I reach for the cheese, she’s under the plastic wrap to remind me what all of the hard work is for.

Of course I had tried making the mash. At first, I’d thought that it was the answer. I would make it, and the recipe would become mine. I would pass it along and people would know me for it. And once it was mine and I learned to love the taste of this incredible, healthy thing, then I would never need anything else.

I’d gotten up early to head to the food store.

Maybe it was the freshness of her tumeric or how the ghee she’d added was organic and I hadn’t known what ghee was anyway.

The result: a slice of sweet potato half squishy like a foam pillow and half black-burnt, topped with crayon-colored baby spit.

The great tragedy of my life will be how my colors never matched the pictures.

I shuffle the paint chips in my hand one more time. They’re all SCALLIONS and FRESH CAPERS. My thing? This is always the question.

No. Not my thing.

After the paint comes the groceries. This is just how Tuesdays go. This is every Tuesday until I am full and fulfilled. Fulfulled. Quick joke.

At the food store, I stick to the perimeter. This is so important. The perimeter is always safe and the middle aisles are where they hide the goo-fat. Fact. Page 12 of the cookbook. My girl writes about how the middle of the store is where they bury you in Cheetos and choke you with buy-one-get-one. It’s about, like, frosting and smokey peanuts. It’s about fake food packaged in the gross primary colors of kid crayons and Christmas ornaments. This is what they use to trick you into TV snacking instead of honest, healthy living.

First is the produce section, then the organic specialty shelf. I remind myself to buy no vegetable precut. I remember, No worthwhile oat is instant. No honest rice cracker has more than four ingredients. Food is always lying to me and so is everyone else including me and finally, thank God, I have one real true honest thing.

Approaching dairy and its familiars, I stay strong. On page 34, my girl suggests raw, homemade hazelnut milk for use in overnight oats as opposed to store-bought almond milk. This is exactly the sort of thing my beauty girl is always up to: taking the most grizzly little shitball type food and turning it easy, glossy gorgeous. This is a thing you could do, I tell myself. This is just one thing and you could just do it right now if you tried. Making milk out of hazelnuts. Wine out of water. Fat bitch into fit bitch. So many little miracles can happen when you’ve got your things straight and you put in just the teensiest mouse turd of effort. These are the things that I’m learning.

I buy three bags of Hazelnuts in case my first bag’s milk is so delicious that I need more STAT. Confidence is almost as essential as the true, good green.

On page 55 of her New York Times best-seller, my girl describes the importance of a peaceful cooking space, free of clutter or spillage and saturated in colors that make you feel full, calm, and substantial. When I get home to my apartment, I tow in six bags of groceries and four new samples of the wrong kind of greens.




I leave the groceries in their bags on the floor while I get to work on the walls. There is no meat, cheese, or frozen anything to go bad. My bags are filled only with the most resilient leaves and grains. Kale. Powdered peanut butter. Quinoa. Steel-cut oats. Lentils. Bags in hand, I am indestructible.

Today, I tell myself in the doorway, I will make five-spiced vegan muffins from the recipe on 22 even if it costs me two hours and thirty-five dollars. I will consume products made out of ingredients more substantial than my own and shit out the last of my gluten poison. I will burn calories while the paint dries, and coat the walls of my life in a color that suits my chakra and my undertones. I will make my life better while the water boils and figure out my thing.

I unscrew the first jar and pour LIZARD GREEN into my little plastic paint tray. It’s all the wrong kind of hideous. Lizard green is yellow like disease from the future. When I grab my little roller and make to dip it in, I realize how pale, almost blue, my skin looks next to it. It flashes back at me and it only reminds me that I’m dying. I do not feel calm or full when I am thinking about dying. I put a little splash of it up on my wall anyway.

This is how it goes all the way down the list: LUCKY CHARM looks like the color of some little bitch’s prom dress. FOREST RIDGE looks like the vacation I can’t afford to take and don’t deserve to think about. When I uncap MANTIS, I feel pensive, but for the wrong reasons. It reminds me of the advice from page 53:

You have been biting and snacking like an ambush predator. You have been waiting for the good food to come find you. Quit this praying mantis life.

But the color is still off. It’s too light. It’s like what comes through your blinds in the morning when showering, or even just the thought of showering, makes you feel like a car crash. I brush it onto the wall anyway.

When it’s all done, what I’m left with is four new splotches like infected wounds next to the ten old splotches like infected wounds from all the other Tuesdays.  There are certain diseases that can force a dead appetite. I am sure that I’ve read about them. What were they? How do you get them?

I start to put the groceries away: three bags of Hazelnuts, one pound of lentils, four heads of cauliflower to rice, two sweet potatoes, four different flavors of granola, five bananas, apples, protein powder, a bag of spinach, six avocados, a carton of organic brown eggs, rice crackers, low-cal almond butter, a bag of kale, chia seeds, sunflower oil, whole grain mustard, organic chicken breast, lean ground turkey, three boxes of Skinny Miss 80 Calorie Midday Corn Treats, the last of my food budget, a bottle of vodka I don’t want to drink. And with each item that passes from bag to hand to fridge, I make sure to think loud and proud, You are my thing and You are my thing and You are my thing.

And then a tiny cockroach scurries out of a cabinet, circles a plastic bait on the floor, and climbs in. I am sick like the future disease and all the horrible illnesses that cover my walls. The dream of my meal prep is done. I am a nightmare living in a larger nightmare where all they serve for breakfast lunch and dinner are smaller, fattier nightmares.

It all sends me straight to the futon in my living room. It’s all I can do: lie down, open the browser on my phone, and dream of a life with bags full of things already put together for me.
Cara Dempsey is an elementary school teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been featured  online in places like Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and Paper Darts.

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