GLUTEN GIRL • by Nicholas A. White

For years Teresa ate pasta twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, and it had become, she believed, a necessary part of life. She found refuge in a warm bowl of bucatini or farfalle, even after the most hectic days of work. But shortly after her forty-second birthday — after her surgery — pasta no longer agreed with her stomach. At first she denied the symptoms, attributing them to a heavy breakfast, or too many sweets, or stress. But the stomach pains worsened, and after spending her Tuesday and Sunday evenings on the toilet, she realized she had gluten intolerance. No more regular pasta, ever.

Tonight she prepared gluten-free corn pasta for the first time. It looked similar to regular pasta in the packaging, but Teresa wasn’t optimistic. After her surgery last year, she’d taught her son, Godfrey, how to make himself useful in the kitchen. Now she asked him to boil the water, but he slipped while placing the pot on the stove and burned his middle finger on the coils and then started to cry. Teresa applied liquid vitamin E to the burn and wrapped a Spiderman Band-Aid around his finger.

“You don’t think it’s cancerous?” Godfrey asked, showing her his finger.

“Of course not.”

“But isn’t that what the doctor said about your tumor?”

“That’s different. This is only a burn, Godfrey.”

The gluten-free pasta boiled white. Teresa scooped a spoonful of goopy noodles from the water, but even with sauce and plenty of salt, it tasted like shit. God, she should’ve known better. Overcome with disappointment, she poured the pasta in the trash. They ate chicken and rice leftovers instead.

Everyone told her she’d been lucky last year, after the doctors had discovered ovarian cancer early and removed the entire tumor in one surgery, meaning no chemo or radiation or anything. “You’re the luckiest person on earth!” her mom said, as if getting cancer in the first place was somehow lucky. And now… Where was the luck in being allergic to the only food that brought her joy?

After dinner, Godfrey watched his Spiderman movie in the living room. Teresa tried to ignore him. But then he wrapped a rope around a lamp post and pretended to swing around the room and said, “I think this Band-Aid’s giving me superpowers. See? See, Mom? See?”

The words came out before Teresa could stop them: “Don’t be an idiot, Godfrey! Calm the fuck down. Please.”

***

Godfrey stood on the porch. His mom was in one of her moods again. She’d cooked pasta and then thrown it out like a crazy person! His burn still hurt. He stood on a porch chair. Once, his mom was in such a mood that she’d forgotten their nightly routine. Godfrey still hadn’t forgotten. Every night after she tucked him in, they were supposed to say the same thing. He wasn’t sure how it started, but they’d done it forever:

“Night, night, Godfrey.”

“Night, night, Mommy.”

“Love you, Godfrey.”

“Love you too, Mommy.”

Godfrey wondered if tonight would make the second time his mom would forget the routine. He didn’t want to think about it.

Under the chair, he found a black spider, the type with the red patch on its belly that his mom had warned him against touching. He examined the red hourglass on its butt, which reminded him of the spider from Spiderman. He poked it with a stick, eventually getting it to cling to the end, and removed the Band-Aid over his burn, wondering how long the transition to a superhero would take. But the spider wouldn’t bite, and, frustrated, Godfrey tossed the stick over the edge of the porch.

When he returned inside, he asked his mom if superheroes were real.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Okay. But what about superheroes? Are they real?”

His mom paused. “Not necessarily.”

“What about Batman?”

“Godfrey—”

“Superman?”

“Godfrey—”

“Iron Man?”

“They’re all make-believe, honey. Even Gluten Girl.”

Gluten Girl? He’d never heard of this one before. He wanted to ask a bunch of questions but decided to wait until later, until his mom felt better and wouldn’t call him an idiot.

***

After Godfrey fell asleep on the couch, Teresa carried him to bed. She still felt bad about yelling at him earlier. She pulled the covers to his chin before turning to leave.

“Hey, Mom? Who’s Gluten Girl? You mentioned her earlier.”

Teresa imagined a warm bowl of farfalle, boiled to al dente perfection. Earlier she had fantasized about creating her own superhero: an Italian woman capable of digesting whatever she wanted.

“She’s not real, Godfrey.”

“But you said she’s a superhero. Can she fly?”

“She doesn’t have those kinds of superpowers.”

“Well what can she do? Why haven’t I heard about her before?”

“She can eat whatever she wants.”

“Did you make her up?”

Teresa smiled. “Maybe.” She turned off the light. “Goodnight, Godfrey.”

For the first time all day, the pasta seemed trivial, especially when compared to the possibility of her monthly bloodwork for cancer coming back abnormal one day. She almost cried, standing there, watching Godfrey in the dark.

Then she remembered:

“Night, night, Godfrey,” she said.

“Night, night, Mommy.”

“Love you, Godfrey.”

“Love you too, Mommy.”

She pulled the door shut behind her, imagining her son’s snores. The proof she’d brought life into this world. The proof he was still there, still breathing. Teresa’s mom had told her she was the luckiest person on earth. Maybe, Teresa now thought, maybe her mom had been right.


Nicholas A. White earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His short fiction and essays have appeared in places such as Pembroke Magazine, Permafrost Magazine, Atticus Review, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. He lives on the coast of North Carolina, where he works as a civil engineer.


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