I first watched Ratatouille in Spanish while drinking homemade wine a high school friend, Cesar, had brewed in the back of his toilet. I was 16. I didn’t know Spanish but my friends did. Whenever I watch Ratatouille I feel like I’m doing it a disservice by not imbibing home-brewed, illicit wine while friends rib me over a movie I can’t understand.
“That’s you,” Cesar said. He pointed at Remy tugging on Linguini’s hair, turning him into a culinary automaton.
“Yeah,” I said. I knew my way around a cutting board even back then.
“And that’s your brother,” Raoul said to Cesar, pointing to a scene in which Linguini smiles, his hair and face drenched in rain. Cesar’s brother had Treacher-Collins syndrome, and Linguini did resemble Cesar’s brother—diminished chin, extended nose, wide-spaced eyes.
Cesar’s brother died last year—drowned on his own saliva in his sleep. When I was in the hospital once at 14, Cesar’s little brother was the only person outside my family to visit me. I don’t remember his name.
When I told my brother about Patton Oswalt’s standup he thought I was on the verge of a very, very dark night of the soul.
I’d stopped in my hometown one weekend because I couldn’t stand Lincoln, Nebraska. When I wasn’t attending class at university or working, I secluded myself in my apartment, reading poetry magazines and rewatching horror movies. But recently I’d gotten on a standup kick and that’s how I discovered Oswalt was more than the voice of Remy.
“He has this bit about depression,” I said.
My brother, who was changing the oil in his Pontiac, grunted and shook his head. He never felt comfortable talking about this part of my life—he still doesn’t. My lack of Prozac was troubling to him. Ever since I’d switched jobs and lost my health insurance, he was worried he’d lose me.
“I don’t want to hear this,” he said.
“It’s funny,” I persisted. “It’s like his spoiled pet. He’ll want to do things with his family, but then his depression will start whining like a lapdog. He indulges it—slips on an old bathrobe, rewatches movies, eats nothing but Doritos. And the whole time, he says, ‘Okay, depression, we’ll make this a you day.’”
Some nights I indulge in a beer and cook my favorite dish—mushroom gyoza. I prefer using dried shiitake mushrooms since they possess a strong flavor. I soak them, boil them for twenty minutes, squeeze them dry. I’m a ballerina by then—my limbs act of their own accord, grabbing hold of carrots, nappa cabbage, bamboo shoots, mai-fun, tofu. There’s no rat grabbing my hair, I’m just gifted. I mince the ingredients, mix them.
I portion and roll out the dough—it’s fully rested and ready to be shaped. And when I wrap the dumplings, place them in the hot oil, and splash water on them before securing the lid to let them fry and steam simultaneously, I’m content. Next week’s rent and my various existential crises have disappeared.
“Those dumplings would be better with just the mushrooms and tofu,” my brother said.
“They need balance,” I said. “Without the mai-fun the filling would fall out. And what about the carrots and cabbage?”
“Okay, remove the bamboo then. They taste like morning breath.”
My brother has always been utilitarian. Give him eggs, bread, ketchup and mustard, and he’ll survive on fried egg sandwiches for a week.
“You should try this Sichuan recipe I found,” I said. “It has taro. It’s spicy, salty—you wouldn’t even notice the bamboo.”
“Count me out.”
He ate a Philly cheesesteak an hour later.
Okay, I’ll admit—sometimes I let my depression win. Some nights it’s easier to rewatch Star Trek and eat peanut butter on saltines instead of actually cooking. But it’s the attempt that matters. That’s what I tell myself.
Yesterday, when I found out I’d have health insurance again, I called my brother and he cried.
“I finally have my brother back,” he said.
But I wasn’t thinking about being his big brother again or my new Prozac prescription. I recalled watching Ratatouille for the first time.
Raoul had just made fun of Cesar’s brother. They wrestled on the floor, crimson wine staining their shirts. I fled into the kitchen, found Cesar’s brother at the table eating peanut butter on saltines, watching videos on his dad’s laptop. I can’t recall his name or what videos we watched, but I’ll remember this kid who shared his crackers with me, who never had a girlfriend, never even had a friend, never lived to see his eighteenth birthday. But he visited me in the hospital when I refused to eat that one month. Sorry I can’t remember your name.
Lane Chasek’s work has been featured in Broke Bohemain, Daily Drunk, North Dakota Quarterly, Plainsongs, Taco Bell Quarterly, and others. Chasek’s first non-fiction book, Hugo Ball and the Fate of the Universe is currently only $5 from Jokes Review Press. @LChasek