When I was a baby, my only friend was a cheese grater.
I met him while he was at work one afternoon in Mom’s kitchen. I thought he was very effective at his job. I thought maybe he could teach to be more effective at my job, which was to be a baby.
Overall, I was pretty okay at being a baby. I had a pretty standard set of baby skills. The only thing I had any talent for was crying, but the cheese grater told me I’d need a new gimmick if I wanted to stand out, because every baby was good at crying.
Maybe I could spruce up my appearance a little, he suggested. The cheese grater himself was very handsome: shiny chrome, sharp blades, rubber handle and base. No-slip grip, he called it. He explained that it was a marketing term, and that I would need to get one, too.
The baby market as a whole is an oversaturated market. There are periods of predictable spikes in value — first words, first crawls, first steps, etcetera — but for the most part, babies have come to rely on one sole consumer: the mother. I’d always assumed the mother was a relatively reliable consumer, but the cheese grater told me that nothing stable is ever built on one leg. The key to stability is diversification, he explained — diversifying your product, and diversifying your customer base.
Suckling from Mom’s breast later that evening, I detected a bitterness in her milk I’d never noticed before.
The cheese grater had given me a lot to think about.
* * *
Even though I agreed with a lot of the cheese grater’s points, I had a hard time believing Mom would ever cast me aside for another baby. I don’t know why I doubted this — call it dumb animal instinct. But when I confessed my doubts to the cheese grater, he said it happened all the time — that mothers routinely left their babies in dumpsters, or on the doorsteps of a fire station, or killed the babies themselves.
I told him that seemed extreme. He agreed. I admired his sensible nature.
What’s more likely to happen, he qualified, is that Mom would trade me in for another baby, or have more babies and dilute the stock. Have you seen the babies out there recently? he asked. How could anyone compete?
So when Mom took me on our usual Sunday stroll through the park that morning — her strolling, me being strolled — I paid close attention to the other babies in the park. And it turned out the cheese grater was right: these babies were born to be stars. So perfectly pudgy, so melt-in-your-hands soft. Dressed to the nines and dripping with charisma. Mom even stopped to coo all over one of them, so I cried as loud as I could until she apologized to the other mom and rushed us back home.
I told the cheese grater about the babies right away. He was right, I said. One hundred percent right. Mom was just like the rest of them, forever lusting over the newest, shiniest thing. I needed to regroup, restrategize, rebrand.
How do you do it? I asked the cheese grater. How do you stay so shiny and new?
He said, I have a wide variety of grater/zester/slicer options, a heavy-duty stainless steel construction, and I come at a great price.
I was sold. Mom would never give him up.
* * *
I noticed some changes in mom over the next few days. During naptimes, she’d set me down in the crib instead of rocking me to sleep. During breastfeedings, she’d stare blankly at the TV instead of down at my face. She stopped sniffing the crown of my head, tickling my tummy, nibbling on my toes. I cried more and more to get her attention, but the more I cried, the less she cared.
The cheese grater and I had had a rebranding plan in the works, but market factors were changing faster even than the cheese grater had anticipated. He assured me that our plan would still work, that the only thing we’d have to adjust was the timeline.
We reviewed the plan again:
First, I needed to remake my physical appearance. This would require changes in diet and exercise, a change in wardrobe, and possibly some light plastic surgery. Second, I needed to decide what my new image would represent. Cherubic purity? The elemental chaos of childhood? A second chance at life? An empty placeholder for purposeless purpose-seekers? Then, finally, an aggressive ad campaign to sell my rebranded self on the open market — whether Mom wants to buy me or not.
It felt a bit at times like betrayal — historically speaking, Mom had taken good care of me — but the cheese grater reminded me that this was a matter of life or death. As the product, I was always in danger of becoming obsolete. And what would become of me then?
I appreciated the cheese grater’s counsel and support during this trying time, which he generously continued to offer even as Mom put him to work, grating one block of parmesan after another.
In fact, Mom had started using the cheese grater more than ever. Ever the professional, the cheese grater didn’t complain once. But I could tell his energy was flagging — he’d become distracted during conversation, pause to find his place again. Once, I even noticed his “no-slip grip” rubber bottom slip just a little, but pretended not to notice.
I was worried, of course, but whenever I asked him if he was okay, if he needed a break, he just said, I am made to easily zest mountains and mountains of parmesan cheese. I didn’t understand why Mom would ever need mountains and mountains of parmesan cheese, but I supposed it had something to do with what the cheese grater had taught me: that need was only desire in disguise.
So Mom kept zesting mountains and mountains of parmesan cheese. And the cheese grater grew so tired that he stopped talking entirely. Then one day, the two were so busy with each other that I missed my naptime and my feeding time. I cried and cried but nobody cared. Grating cheese was all the rage. Everybody was doing it. Why calm a crying baby when you could grate some cheese instead?
Mom fed me three hours later than usual that night. I swallowed some milk then bit down hard on her nipple. But she was already asleep.
* * *
I believed that, as a friend, I owed the cheese grater the truth about how I’d been feeling. It’d be difficult, but I couldn’t see any other way. So while Mom took a break from grating cheese to use the bathroom, I told the cheese grater we needed to have a serious talk.
I think Mom might be replacing me with you, I said.
The cheese grater, exhausted, took a minute to respond.
I’m not replacing you, he said. I think your mom just needs me more right now than she needs you.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — need? He was the one who'd taught me all about need. Need was a marketing ploy used to sell products, not to lie to our friends.
I was too angry to speak with the cheese grater after that. Mom continued grating like something real depended on it, ignoring my cries for food and diaper changes. But how could I compete? The only friend who could’ve helped me — my only friend — was too new and shiny for me now. And I couldn’t even blame him. Because this, evidently, was just the way of the world.
I lay awake in my crib one night, feeling hopeless about my future prospects. It was only a matter of time before Mom threw me away. Or worse — the grumbling in my stomach reminded me — let me starve to death. As I cried myself to sleep, I heard the sounds of grating stop. I heard footsteps, the flick of a light switch, more footsteps. Mom walked past my room and into hers, closing the door behind her. I used to hate that sound more than anything, the sound of her going away. Now it didn’t feel so bad.
I snuck out of my crib and into the kitchen. The cheese grater was sitting on the countertop, still dirtied with cheese. He seemed less impressive than I remembered.
The cheese grater spoke first: Don’t come any closer.
I stopped. Why not?
You look great, I lied.
Friends don’t lie.
Looking at him then, I realized that neither of us had won — that neither of us could win, in a way. We were just two used-up once-loveds, standing there in the same pale moonlight.
Let me clean you, I said.
The cheese grater didn’t respond.
I grabbed a towel and a bottle of bleach from beneath the kitchen sink and climbed up on the countertop. The cheese grater was crying softly. It was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. I dampened the towel with bleach and wiped down his blades one by one.
You’ll be good as new, I told him.
And so will you.
His words made me cry, then. And we cried together throughout the night, but also alone.
* * *
I woke to the familiar smell of Mom’s skin, which I held like a blanket over my face. I thought it was a dream, but when I opened my eyes, she was there.
But she wasn’t look at me.
She was looking at the cheese grater.
I felt a brief stir of jealousy. Then I saw what she saw: faint, orange-brown stains spotting the cheese grater’s blades like measles.
It’s over, the cheese grater said. The resignation in his voice pained me.
But, what about your heavy-duty stainless steel construction?
I guess I oversold myself, he said.
I shook my head no. No, no, no. He just needed to spruce himself up a bit, change directions, rebrand. I told myself this until I could almost bring myself to tell it to him.
But I wasn’t buying it anymore.
I cried as loud as I could, but mom had stopped hearing me long ago. She shook her head and picked up the cheese grater. I knew what was coming. The cheese grater said goodbye.
The cheese grater screamed.
I held on.
Mom screamed and rattled the cheese grater back and forth, as though I were only water droplets to be shaken off. The blades of the cheese grater hooked deep into my flesh.
Do you see me now? I asked.
I do, I do, I do, the cheese grater cried, his voice so close it could’ve been mine.
Mom kept shaking the cheese grater.
She wasn’t screaming anymore.
The weight of my body dragged down against the blades. As I sank lower, my skin curled around me in long ribbons.
You did it, the cheese grater whispered. There you are.
Mom held the cheese grater up and looked into my eyes. She reached out and dragged her fingers gently across my cheek, wetting her fingers with new blood.
Then the last of my flesh gave away.
And I was reborn.
Kayla Chang is a Korean-American writer from Southern California. She has a BA in Literature/Writing from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and is currently working on her MFA Fiction thesis at Chapman University.