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Hamburger Helper Makes The Worst Thanksgiving Ever

The Thanksgiving I was 26, I was living in South Florida and working at a Barnes & Noble and sometimes helping rich kids with their homework. I was pretty much broke. My chief forms of entertainment were reading books I borrowed from the bookstore, observing my roommate's various New Age-y health regimens, having long talks with my cat, and driving around with my closest friend at the time. He was pretty much broke, too. We took in the sights of Boca Raton and Delray Beach and drank black coffee and tea, purchased with his Starbucks employee discount. Sometimes late at night we would hang out in Denny's, which was sort of like live theater. Basically I was living like an overgrown, feral teenager. I must have looked especially hungry during this period, because people kept asking me if I'd had enough to eat and sometimes kindly friends and relatives who were my parents' age would invite me over for meals. I always accepted.

Going home for Thanksgiving was out of the question; my services were required at the bookstore all day Black Friday. I'd been counting on going to my cousins' for Thanksgiving dinner, but about a week before the holiday, they remembered to tell me that they were going to Atlanta to be thankful with their son and daughter-in-law, who were my age but responsible married people with grown-up jobs and a mortgage. Like a teenager, I sulked and felt unloved.

I can't remember why I didn't cadge an invitation to dinner from one of my friends. I think it was because most of them were going to other people's houses and didn't feel they were in the position to bring along another stray. Or maybe I just didn't try very hard. Whatever the case, after a few days of sulking, I decided I would lean into the suck. It would be the Worst Thanksgiving Ever. The prospect cheered me up.

In preparation, I went to Publix (the crappy Publix that was dark and dingy and always made me feel depressed) and bought a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef. There are few processed foods that are more disgusting than Hamburger Helper, especially the varieties that come with cheese. I couldn't even claim it as a comfort food because I'd never eaten it when I was a kid. What could be better for a terrible Thanksgiving dinner?

Thursday morning I woke up late to the sound of my roommate arguing with her mother over the phone. When the fight ended, she popped her head into my room and invited me along to lunch. I suppose if I were really going to get into the spirit of the Worst Thanksgiving Ever, I would have gone along with her on the hour-long drive and sat in the corner smiling stiffly while everyone else fought about things I didn't understand. But instead I politely declined, even after she insisted and said it would be no trouble at all.

My roommate was a grad student, so she was home a lot. She kept the speakers on her computer turned up high. The silence without her was refreshing. I took a long shower, which I didn't usually get to do because I had been working the 7 a.m. shift at the bookstore. My cat and I lounged together in bed and had a little chat. She reminded me I needed to clean out the litter box. We talked about boys; the roommate's cat had an enormous and obvious crush on her, and she wasn't sure if she reciprocated. For lunch, I ate cottage cheese and potato chips. It was the sort of meal that I couldn't bring myself to eat in the presence of others and therefore reserved for eating alone at home.

When I was in my 20s, it was my habit, whenever I was feeling low, to go to a movie and make myself sick on popcorn. There was no reason why the Worst Thanksgiving Ever should be an exception, so I checked the listings and picked the most depressing-sounding movie I could find. This turned out to be Far From Heaven. It was a melodrama set in the '50s, filmed in a grand, melodramatic '50s style, about a suburban housewife who discovers her husband is gay and subsequently falls in love with her black gardener. A whole group of gay men were also at the screening, and they hooted at all the campy parts, of which there were many. I felt a sense of fellowship with them, because if I had been watching alone at home, I probably would have hooted, too. This made it impossible to feel depressed.

November is when the weather in South Florida finally becomes bearable again. There's a brief window between the cooling off and the return of the snowbirds, which happens the week after Thanksgiving, when all is comparatively pleasant and peaceful. It's also hard to feel depressed when it's a November day and it's not gray and miserable as November days usually are in the Midwest, where I grew up. I sat outside for a while on our front porch at my roommate's very ugly wrought iron table, next to a very ugly overflowing ashtray, reading a book about 20th-century Catholic writers. None of the neighbors were around. I realized I hadn't spoken to another human being in hours. I hadn't had to smile. I hadn't had to shelve any books or throw away someone else's coffee cup or face the disappointment and wrath of another person after I told them we were all sold out of The South Beach Diet ("It's on order, but let me see if there's a copy in Ft. Lauderdale"). I could read without feeling sleepy, which is a natural response if you finally get to sit down after standing or walking around for six hours.

My roommate came back after it got dark and I'd moved inside. The food at her lunch was lousy, and it had been hard to eat with all the family tensions anyway. She was supposed to be letting go of her anger and eating better (she'd taken an electromagnetic bath a few months earlier that was supposed to clear out her system; afterward there had been a lot of something in the tub), but it had been an especially trying day. It also happened that she loved Hamburger Helper. Because it was a special occasion, I mixed the cheese sauce with milk instead of water, and I overcooked the pasta because I didn't know any better. We sat on the couch with our bowls of gloppy noodles and oily fake cheese. At least the meat tasted like meat. Well, meat with a lot of salt. Still, there's something oddly comforting about eating food out of a bowl. She turned on That '70s Show. The cats sat and watched, too. They seemed pretty content. (Her cat was usually content when my cat allowed him to remain in her presence.) I realized I was, too. Or maybe I was thankful.

The following year, I was back in Chicago, celebrating Thanksgiving with my family, like usual. I was working at a liquor store compiling an email list of bankers and professors that the store could spam with advertising. This was supposed to be a temporary job, but at least I had insurance. I made just enough to cover rent, utilities, and the bare minimum of groceries. My sister had gotten engaged two days earlier. All my Chicago friends had grown-up jobs and mortgages and children and no time to hang out at Denny's late at night. I no longer felt like a feral, overgrown teenager. Instead I felt like a failure at life, which was far worse. That year I looked back on the Worst Thanksgiving Ever with deep nostalgia. Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, I still do. There is a great deal to be said for, instead of feeling a compulsion to eat and to feed other people and engage in manic thankfulness, doing absolutely nothing besides pleasing yourself.