A wooden spoon with a white substance.

An Inherited Taste

by Nadine Aurora Tabing

The cover of No Trouble At All

Originally published in
No Trouble At All (2023), Cursed Morsels Press
Paperback / eBook

When Felisia was born, Bea wept with relief. The weight of her family’s sorrow had been growing for some time, without anyone to carry it but herself. So, with care, Bea started on her daughter early.

She salted Felisia’s milk and formula with murmured complaints. She pureed bananas and seasoned them with sparkling shreds of spite. She stewed potatoes and peas with stubborn little grudges, acidic—which also helped them keep well in their containers, and made only subtle hisses when she unscrewed the jar lids to ladle their contents into plastic blue spoons.

It was how Bea was raised herself—just a touch of rancor at a time. She’d squirmed through years of spoonfuls droning down her throat, too, and was rewarded with a palate so fortified she could bear even the most bitter grievances with an easy laugh.

Her husband, not so carefully weaned, couldn’t stomach even the smallest disappointments: a bypassed promotion, a coworker who laughed too loudly, the engine light flickering in the car, a stubbed toe, his steak overdone on one end. His troubles made him slow, heavy, tired. On their first date, that first time he grumbled to her across the table about some old ex, she opened her mouth to take a brief, deep breath. The lingering boil of his disillusionment laid a grease on her tongue, which she swallowed alongside a mouthful of wine, hiding any residue behind a smile. He blinked. He straightened, and rubbed his shoulders with obvious awe at their sudden lightness.

You see? her mother had said when Bea told her he scheduled a second date. You’re all set now, anak, for a cheaper price than school, and look—not even your father was able to give me this.

A white house. A white fence. A large white car whose creamy leather seats purred and heated. Even with all that, her husband needed her more, just as Bea’s mother had hoped for her. Traffic, slow internet, delayed work projects, taxes, bills—he couldn’t get through it all alone.

Every day the complaints were different, but they always tasted the same. Bea took them all, gnashed them to a paste while she cooed. Over the years, she became acclimated to it—her throat hardly burned anymore, her stomach hardly ached. She felt only the brush of rattling heat against her teeth, which she made herself bear with a calm smile.

Then, one day, they stopped serving ramen in his office cafeteria. And his bonus didn’t come. And an outside agency was given ownership of his project. And a client side-eyed his tie, which he later found grease on, grease that Bea should have seen and cleaned for him, because what else was she doing all day? Didn’t she care that he could lose his job because of this? His whole career?

Felisia was watching, with wide eyes from behind Bea’s legs. She’d grown tall enough now that her little fingers could curl into the back of Bea's knees.

“Your tie? Oh no, I’m so sorry I missed that! Here. I’ll fix it for you.” Bea held out her hand. He yanked the tie from around his neck, balled it up, and threw it at her, missing her hand completely. Felisia dashed to pick it up, but before she could, Bea snatched it, and Felisia, into her arms. Then she walked upstairs, slowly, calmly, as her husband’s voice swelled and rattled the walls.

“Shhh,” she murmured, but it wasn’t necessary. Felisia’s eyes were dry, her expression pensive, as if puzzling over something new. She’d already learned to swallow her own tears, before her father could hear them and come storming in to silence her with petulant roars about the peace he needed after a long work day.

In the laundry room, Bea swabbed and scrubbed the tie with a thumbprint of pale detergent, then took her time looping it over a hanger to dry, taking as long as she could. Once some time of quiet passed, she led Felisia back downstairs, where she poured a small cup of chocolate milk that Felisia drank without even a flicker of distress at the flung bowls and spilled stew that littered the kitchen.

Bea felt a stirring in her. Something new. A strange little sharpness of hope.

“You are so strong,” she told Felisia, clutching her close once the mopping was done. “Stronger than him. Stronger even than me.”

More than that, Felisia was hungry. She crunched carrots and apple slices as she sat on the counter, legs swinging. As Bea cooked, she spared Felisia the best bites of breakfast and lunch and dinner.

Bea had suffocated her own aspirations for the privilege of this beautiful white house, old hopes for her future that were too big to support alongside her husband’s abundance of calamities. She told Felisia about each one, her own choicest morsels. A degree in Landscape Architecture, a side gig singing, even one saccharine daydream of opening a shop to sell only made-from-scratch macarons—all were pried out stinging, and Felisia was eager to hear each one, her hands reaching.

“Tell me more,” she said, and Bea, indulgent, continued. She told her of the recipes she’d inherited and kept hidden away, because her husband hated the smell of vinegar and fish sauce.

“Tell me more,” Felisia said, and Bea, hesitant, continued. She told her of the friends she’d lost and was forbidden to see again, each name a rancid tang: Gianne who’d said A white house isn’t worth this, Skyler who’d asked And, eating someone’s else’s sorrows—that’s all you think you’re good for?

“Tell me more,” Felisia said, “tell me more.” And Bea tried, she tried. There was so much more yet: the mornings she woke alone, the years of sidelong thoughts she had not been able to share with anyone, the fact that she had always wanted a house that was green. But Bea could not release any of these. She only coughed, struggling for breath around the knot in her throat.

That was the problem with swallowing sorrows—when they were lodged too deep, it was hard to push them out again. Eyes watering, Bea gazed at Felisia, and found she could not disgorge her deepest and first sadness, forced between her teeth and planted in the pit of her stomach soon after she was born.

My mother said this was how it always was for her, and so how it always would be for me. She said this is what’s needed, to survive a world ruled by unhappy men. And I always accepted it.

But now came a newer sorrow.

I don’t want this fate to be yours.

It was slick and sour. The sharpest sadness she’d ever tasted. Even after years of experience, Bea couldn’t make it go down: it kept heaving up, so when her husband came home, fuming about lazy staff members, she could only barely manage to say, “That’s awful, you don’t deserve that, no one deserves that.” She couldn’t make it sound the way it needed to.

His eyes fixed on her immediately.

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do,” Bea said, and then, again, forcing her tongue through a thickness: “I do.”

Felisia watched, silent, chewing her thumb, absorbing—just as Bea had when she was young—hanging on to the tranquil lilt of her own mother’s words, memorizing and tracing the way she bent backwards to every frustration.

She’d survived, and all it took was chewing through years of cleaning, cooking, laughing when no one thought she could understand the muttered gossip about her being nothing more than a mail-order bride, arriving all packaged up and shiny with all the necessary accoutrements: knowledge of how to cook red meat, how to inflate an ego, how to drain depression. She’d survived, in a space small and hard and cramped, no wider than the breadth of a smile.

Felisia would grow up smiling for different reasons. She had to. She had to. Bea would make sure of it. The next morning, she packed their clothes—enough to cover a week on the run. She had no money to bring, but she'd had skill enough to figure out this life—she could figure out another one, couldn’t she? For the first time she could remember, she felt a stab of something in her chest that was hot and hopeful. She was reckless. She pulled out of the driveway and stared at the sky, breathless with how vast it looked suddenly—how endless—and how light she felt, having abandoned in that white house her every anguish and resentment. How many years had she thought her dragging feet and short breath was simply what living felt like? How long had she nursed all of that in her, devouring her and her husband’s misfortunes both, so that only he had the freedom to move like this?

But when they made it to the highway, Felisia began to whine, loudly, and only kept getting louder. She thrashed in the car seat. She clutched her belly. She screamed.

“Mama! I’m hungry!

There was a rest stop not far ahead. Bea peeled into the parking lot and clawed through the luggage, murmuring urgently, unraveling plastic wrap, unscrewing a thermos. But Felisia would not be sated by sandwiches or crackers or petty worry, nor even by the stress that boiled up in Bea’s chest when passersby began to stare. Felisia swatted away the spoon her mother leveled before her mouth, splattering sauce on the car’s leather seats. She continued to sob, inconsolable, starving. She only calmed when Bea’s hands lowered with pained resolution.

Bea turned the car back. She pulled into the white house’s garage, dabbed the leather seats in desperation, unpacked her life back into its cage.

Felisia’s tears dried.

“The car’s parked too close to the door,” her husband said when he came home. Even expecting his suspicion, having spent the past hour steeling herself for it, Bea cringed.

“It’s not grocery day,” he continued, low. “Where did you go?”

Nowhere, Bea wanted to say. But he would have checked the gas level.

She said, “We ran out of steak.”

It was plausible. She was already in the process of tenderizing dinner, to hide her shaking hands.

She had never lied to him before—had never risked it. She buried and armored herself in his disquiet, learned the borders of his temper, retreated when necessary, and never trespassed far enough to give him reason to do more than raise his voice. But now—God, if he made a move toward Felisia—Bea was ready, she steeled herself, she could take this tenderizer and—

“Be sure to buy enough next time,” he said finally. “It’s a waste of gas, and I don’t want to have to keep remembering things for you. I have enough to worry about. God, the day I had...”

He kept going. No shouts? No demands? He was letting her off the hook? Awed, she could hardly listen, and so when he paused and waited for her to dole out her usual comforts, Bea fumbled.

“I’m so sorry, Papa,” Felisia volunteered. “That’s awful.”

Both parents looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time.

“That’s right,” he said. “It is awful. You get it, Felisia,” and before Bea could think of some strategy to stop him, he went on: “You know what else? I’m positive one of those assholes filed a complaint against me.”

“Oh no,” Felisia said, nearing him, eyes wide.

“‘Oh no’ is right! It’s the third complaint on my record now. What do you think that’ll look like on my performance review?”

Felisia licked her lips. “...bad?”

“That’s right. Bad. Fucking terrible. Hideous. I could lose my job. I could lose my whole career. And then where will you be, huh? You and your mom, useless here at home, not knowing anything about how to survive in this world.”

He went on—he didn’t hold back, not even to a child—but Felisia was nodding, and leaning, and reaching out, and then her father took her into his arms, jogging her, pacing, and all the while ranting and ranting and ranting. As Bea watched, Felisia wrapped her arms around his neck, and rested her head against him, eyes shut.

Relishing.

Bea felt her husband’s misery radiate against her lips—that heat, that bite. As she had countless times before, she opened her mouth, and felt his fury coil into the pit of her stomach. Pungent. Salted. Like fermented vegetables. Cabbage or radish or something with crunch, so fresh that when she laid a hand on her belly she could almost feel it squirm. She didn’t fight, as she always had. Took a breath. Let herself relax. Let herself digest.

For just a moment.

“Fucking exhausting,” her husband was saying. “I’m sick of this. I’m sick of feeling this way. God, why am I the only one that ever feels this way? You never fucking lift a finger to help me. My life is a wreck. I can’t handle this. I can’t.”

For the first time, she saw that perhaps he really couldn’t. He was slumping with the weight of it. More sorrows than any one person could possibly bear.

“It must be so hard,” Bea said. “That you’re going to be trapped forever in some miserable company. If not that one, then the next. That no matter how hard you work, you’ll hardly have enough to retire.”

He looked up at her, agape, eyes dark. “W-what? What are you saying?”

“That’s what I hear all the time. On the news, while I’m cooking. A recession coming. All the layoffs. And everyone saying it’s just a way for these awful companies to make you scared enough not just to stay, but give everything for their deadlines.”

He stared at her. Felisia clutched him as his arms slackened, slightly. Bea took Felisia from him, kissed him, held his hand, guided him to the dining table, gave him his steak, his wine.

“But don’t think about that too much. There’s nothing you can do about it. And don't let it go to your head! They’re saying stress is the new smoking, it’s just as dangerous, that it’ll get you sooner than anything else, nowadays.”

His first glass went fast. Bea poured him another, which Felisia helpfully pushed closer to him, until his fist unclenched to take it.

“I can’t handle this,” he said, toward the distance. “I can’t.”

Bea dragged up a chair beside him. Gently, she set Felisia down on his lap, where she leaned against him and set her ear against his beating heart, inhaling, chewing delicately, savoring. Together, they smiled as Bea patted his back, as she murmured into his ear.

“Go on, darling. Tell us more.”