I still remember the night I found out. It was fall and our family had just finished dinner. The kitchen was full and bright, infused with a savory smell and the sound of sink water running over dishes.
I was in 5th or maybe 6th grade, in one of those sweet spots of youth where parents’ company can be enjoyed without feeling the need to rebel against their authority. During this time I was happy to help them clean up after dinner, though my weekly allowance was also a nice incentive.
My mom did most of the cooking in the home; everyone liked it that way. On this night she had made a rich, red soup, chunky with vegetables. My dad had contributed with one of his specialties: gooey, grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough. A match made in nondenominational heaven. There was no grilled cheese left after we all filled ourselves, but there was leftover soup, likely enough for two or three large servings.
“Honey, can you find a container for the extra soup?”
My mom didn’t look over at my dad from her seat at the dining room table. As she had done the brunt of the cooking, the age-old, unspoken agreement was she didn’t have to get involved in the early steps of putting things away. She was sitting back in her chair, slowly sipping carbonated water.
I knew this type of storage task should probably be reserved for someone with more experience than my young self. God-forbid the wrong sized Tupperware was chosen, cluttering the fridge with unused container space, or worse, leading to spilled soup during the transfer.
But for some reason, on this night, I felt something. It wasn’t quite a tingle down my spine, but that may be the best way to describe it. A confidence came through me the likes of which I hadn’t yet experienced during my 11 short years in kitchens. It was unrelenting. I knew the size of the Tupperware we needed. Not because I had carefully studied how much soup was left, or put a spoon to the bottom to test its depth. I just knew.
Without saying a word, I went to the cabinet where we stored our food containers. A shimmering void filled my mind, clearing it of distraction. I wasn’t running into the objects around me so I knew my eyes were functioning, but I wasn’t really experiencing eyesight. My vision was coming from somewhere else. I grabbed at one large glass jar and a medium cylindrical thick plastic tub, one in each hand.
I should add here, in addition to being a great cook, my mom is a great collector. And one of her favorite things to collect is containers to hold food. Small, skinny jars that once held olives next to squat, shallow vessels that once held shredded parmesan. Very occasionally you might come across an honest-to-goodness Tupperware that had been purchased new at a store, having never held food, but those containers were the exception, and mostly pilfered from other family and friends.
I walked over to the soup, which was still quite warm. I filled the large jar first, leaving half an inch of airspace so the top could tighten comfortably. There remained a decent layer of stew to store. I poured without fear into the second tub, sensing the level rise and approach the top, though never in danger of overflow. As I had known when grabbing the receptacles, they were the perfect volume for the leftover food. Any other two would not have been as well-matched; they were the correct answers. I knew then I had a gift.
It took a couple more examples before my parents were convinced, but by the third or fourth perfect vessel choice, they also knew I wasn’t like other kids. Soon after they took me out of public schools and put me in an academy for the gifted.
Even there I was treated differently. Many of my classmates were precocious math geniuses, or violin virtuosos, or had already built and sold a successful website. They didn’t quite understand why I was in their midst given their very tangible skills and my vague and, perhaps in their view, bogus reason for admission. But they also gave me a somewhat wide birth; I was the only one who had an unexplainable gift, a possibly magical power.
I would say during this time I worked to hone my skills, to sharpen my craft. But the truth is, I never had any need to. From the moment I discovered my ability, I never missed. Sure, occasionally there would be some extra room in a Tupperware. But that was an issue with the Tupperware options presented, not an issue with my choosing. And occasionally I would eat some surplus food before spooning it into my chosen coffer, but that was always when I was still hungry for a few extra bites of food, and never because I was trying to force scraps into a tight space.
In the years that followed I was wary to use my superpowers too often, especially in front of strangers. I did not want arouse suspicion, or invite questions, questions I wouldn’t be able to answer. I didn’t know why I had been endowed with this capacity to exactly equate food volumes to container space. I didn’t know why I, of all people, should have this great responsibility when cleaning up after a meal.
During college I continued to keep my powers somewhat hidden. During my freshman year I ate at the cafeteria for most meals and had only a miniature fridge in my small dorm room, which was primarily for beer and science experiments. Not only did I have fewer opportunities to fill Tupperware in college, but I also wanted to reinvent myself, to make friends on my own merits.
Eventually, some friends and I moved to live off-campus, but still I didn’t find myself regularly having to store leftovers. There was some cooking in the home but, in the moments after it was prepared, the food was always eaten by ravenous young men. Even when meals were not completely annihilated, extras would often sit in the original pan, sometimes overnight, only to be eaten at room temperature the next morning or, best case scenario, thrown in the garbage.
Even if more food had been prepared and not eaten, and even if the motivation had been there for saving this food, a shared college refrigerator is not the best environment in which to apply my powers of kitchen-based spatial recognition. Our refrigerator was always somewhat of a free-for-all, despite multiple attempts at rules and regulations. To perfectly utilize every square millimeter of a tub’s space only to find the leftover pasta encroached upon by a ravenous, late-night infiltrator, that never felt right. I came to accept the lack of boundaries, the lack of plastic walls and covers; when there is no trust in the staying power of leftovers, there is no value in precision storage.
After college I went right back to my flawless pairing. I had almost forgotten how satisfying it felt to preserve food with such precision. Only now, in adulthood, have I been able to truly appreciate my gift, without any resentment.
Some might say, “That isn’t really a supernatural power,” or, “You don’t seem special,” or, “Even if it is one, that’s the least useful super power there is. I would have picked teleportation.” These people clearly don’t quite understand. I pick the perfect container every time, without having to think about it. I waste no time pondering, no time going back into the cabinet to get another after underestimating the size, no time washing a Tupperware accidentally dirtied by poor judgement. I haven’t added up all of the time saved but I imagine it is quite substantial. One could argue, it basically is teleportation, but a less selfish version.
A few weeks ago I was home, visiting my parents. We had dinner plans. Before any food was on the table, I opened the cabinet holding my mom’s container collection; stunning as always. I picked out a few to feel their heft, to snap and unsnap their tops, to depress the button in the middle of the jar lids. I put them back as close as I could to where I found them, not an easy task given the menagerie. I wouldn’t be selecting a Tupperware for leftovers on this night; we were going out for dinner. But it is always good to see old friends; to remember where it all started.