Deadlines for Bygones

Lately I have been experiencing paranoia about food expiration. I sniff the milk every time. Sometimes I ask my roommates to sniff it as well. My search history includes when does and go bad an inordinate number of times. I always cook meat right away; I never freeze it because I don’t trust myself to defrost it properly. I’m now an expert on the iridescent green glimmers on bacon (not bad) and sprouting potatoes (not bad) and what it means when an egg sinks in water (not bad). I’ll never forget that my father uses different spatulas for flipping the raw and cooked sides of a turkey burger, respectively—and now, so do I.

Belief in expiration dates assumes: things go bad. They simply can’t last forever, even frozen. One day they will float to the top of the bowl of water, and you’ll know that air has penetrated their thin stony shells enough to lift them to the surface, where they’ll bob until you drop them into the sink and mourn the approximately 35 cents that just went down the drain, because they were Carol’s Organic Free-Range.

So, in line with recent paranoia, I am asking, thoughtfully but also urgently: When does a nemesis expire?

Like a good egg, we appreciate a good nemesis. Regina George, Cersei Lannister, Nellie Oleson, Lord Voldemort. A vicious rivalry is delicious to watch, and epic to partake in. A nemesis is a symbol of importance. On a personal level, it is also so goddamn helpful to have one. For what she is, you are not. She wears short skirts, you wear T-shirts, as it were.

“Like the soprano’s boned corset, the built-in restrictions provided both support and something to push against,” writes Ann Patchett. She refers to form, the fourteen lines of the sonnet’s beloved prison. It can apply equally well to your personal enemy.

There are two ways to identify a nemesis: either he is who you wish you were, or everything you hope you will never be (but occasionally fear that you are). As such, a nemesis is a walking how-to guide for shaping a self. Be him or beat him. By pushing against it you figure out what exactly is pushing, and it is you. This is especially true if the rivalry is entirely internal, never openly stated, and with someone you barely know. It quickly becomes more of a Jekyll/Hyde situation. Your nemesis may walk around, have a name, even overlap with your social circles or your close friends, but it’s the idea of him that counts. It’s the opposite of the fantasy lover.

My nemesis corset was uncomfortable at first, and slowly shaped to me until she was skin-tight, useful even. She helped me remember who I was, what I was doing, why I was different.

But, if I may switch indulgent metaphors, I am terrified that she is going stale.

For a long time, I was in a love story. It had its heroes and its villains, including my nemesis, and myself in equal measure. Does it matter whether it ended happily? For these purposes, no. The important thing is that it is over, and I’m still here, not sure what story I’m in.

It is definitely some kind of bildungsroman, though what exactly we’re bildung to is unclear as of this moment, when I put on my thick yellow rubber gloves to take big handfuls of raw ground turkey and ball it up with breadcrumbs and onions and salt.

My father used to make a lot of turkey burgers. It was one of the first recipes I learned when I started cooking, and I was a bit scared of the raw meat. I’ll never forget hearing him describe his favorite non-scientific study, in which raw chicken was tagged with invisible glow powder and prepared in a normal kitchen. Later, UV light revealed that the raw chicken had actually touched dozens of surfaces all over the kitchen, even where it looked clean. My father always clarified that it was a non-scientific study, but he still used separate spatulas for the raw and cooked sides of the turkey patties. The gloves were a recent addition of mine.

It’s almost a relief when things are definitively past their expiration date. No hemming and hawing, no doubts, none of the “Do you taste that? Does that taste funny to you? No?”

There will be relief when my nemesis is gone, for sure. Excitement that I can somehow overcome this visceral hatred of a person I barely know, a hatred which has confounded and disappointed me for several years now. I’m still disappointed that I haven’t forgiven her by the deadline, which I generously extended to this month. It’s a paradox: wanting to move on, because you are getting too old for this—and not being ready to, because you are not quite old enough, and your wounds are still healing. You can yell at them all you want, but they won’t speed up.

For a long time, I’d actually chastened myself for having a nemesis, or a perceived one. It seemed petty. It probably still is. Even more so, since of the competition that did exist, I won, and therefore am gloating and possibly evil. I was the one who expressly didn’t do sports, but I am nonetheless not a good sport. I am a bad sport, I tell myself. I am the Mia Thermopolis who didn’t get over being humiliated by Lana Weinberger, and that is a pitiful princess to be.

Yet I learned to live with the Lana in my mind, and push against her, and if there’s a chance that she is becoming irrelevant—college is over!—I know I will miss her. It was just useful to keep her around, ready to break out if I needed to figure out what I wasn’t. I’d always choose a familiar villain. I know her tricks. I figured out how to win, even when it didn’t matter anymore. The injuries were small but deep, and besides, I didn’t treat them.

Like the good little Protestant-influenced culture we are, we tend to place a premium on forgiveness. But there is nothing worse than saying you’ve forgiven someone when you haven’t, when you aren’t ready, not yet. I think—no, I know—I will need to forgive my nemesis, and myself for having a nemesis, and my father for making turkey burgers in an unfamiliar kitchen after he left my mother. It will be someday soon, but I’m not rushing it. The moment you give yourself a deadline, you will not make it.

Beneath it all there’s also a feeling of deep and pervasive unrest: the disappearance or vanquishing of one enemy signifies the end of a chapter, the end of the adventure, the end of the installment. It is the moment after the track meet when Mr. Incredible turns back to see the evil rat-person tunneling out of the ground on an enormous screw, the newest villain already previewed. And life, like any good franchise film, has a sequel.