The Girlfriend and I have a running joke about winning a personal pan pizza. During our childhoods, that was always the iconic, go-to prize for any kind of contest involving kids. Imagine the luxury, from a kid’s perspective. Kevin from Home Alone captures it well: “A beautiful cheese pizza, just for me!” You never get to pick the toppings as a kid, or at least there’s never enough of the toppings you want. In my house, we would always order one with sausage, pepperoni, or both and one execrable monstrosity with ham and green pepper (my mom’s preference). One half of the toppings correlated to one quarter of the family, who tended not to eat a lot anyway — and so I would be stuck with leftover ham and green pepper the whole rest of the week. I experimented with different methods of picking off the green peppers, but before or after microwaving made no difference. It was tainted. The gross green pepper juice had soaked into the cheese somehow, leaving green pockmarks. And years of experimentation revealed there was no “sweet spot” of microwave time that would leave the pizza warm and the ham non-rubbery. It was a struggle.
I remember vividly when I was in line for my first personal pan pizza. I was in sixth grade, and our class was doing a kind of trivia contest over a set list of young adult novels. Reading was basically all I did at that point, so I felt like I was a slam dunk. The actual contest was a big deal. We took multiple days of class for it, and it was a double-session language arts class. I showed up to my first round and answered my first question: which novel features this plot point? I knew the answer without hesitation — but I was disqualified, because I left off the initial “the” from the title. I spent the next several days at my desk, reading, occasionally glancing up at the people still competing for the personal pan pizza.
I don’t know if I even felt disappointed. There was something about the whole proceedings that I just didn’t believe, going in, and losing on a technicality felt right somehow. Better that I lose now rather than get closer and lose then, right? I had done all the work, read all the books, even taken detailed notes, all without any real sense that I would ever win.
And if you think about it, what would I have done if I got the personal pan pizza? How was that going to work? Was my mom going to drive me to Pizza Hut — a restaurant we never went to, not even a single time — all so I could have my precious little pizza? Would we order in, and I’d get my sad little box all to myself? Would there be a mixup on the coupon, and my dad would argue and get mad and then give in and pay the extra amount when the delivery driver showed up? It just couldn’t happen. The personal pan pizza was an illusion, and I saw through it.
I’m not sure where this attitude toward competition came from, but it seems to have been a constant for me. Whenever there was a contest, I knew that I would either lose or lose in winning. I had a piano rival growing up, someone who was my same age and took lessons from Mrs. Miracle, too. We often had back to back lessons. Every year there was a rated piano competition, and we always both got “superior” ratings. Sometimes I would edge him out on points, but that never seemed to matter. The one year he got a mere “excellent,” though, I couldn’t enjoy it — because it was just evidence of how much he had going on, the cool job he had (I bagged groceries), all the friends and activities he could hardly keep up with. No matter how much better I did at the piano competition, he would always be better looking and better liked and somehow more natural and fluid in his whole being, his whole relation to the world. The very fact that I did better, that I could even care that I did better, showed that on a deeper level, I had lost.
The story was the same everywhere. Whenever the science fair came along, I couldn’t be bothered, and my mom had to force me to do something at the last minute. I knew I would never have a cool project, would never have a display that people would be impressed with, would never actually demonstrate anything useful or meaningful. Or when a new kid came to town and started targeting my friend group, with the express intention of pushing me out — he smelled weakness, and he was right. Fair enough. More power to him.
I’m realizing that I’m venturing into the territory of a previous autobiographical post, and I do hate repeating myself. To cut to the chase, then: I have trained myself, somehow, not to want the personal pan pizza, to reject everything within me that wants a personal pan pizza, while at the same time wanting to be recognized as the person who, for idiosyncratic and utterly incommensurable reasons, deserves that personal pan pizza more than anyone else does or could. The personal pan pizza haunts me, as the ladder I keep trying to climb without climbing, which I can’t let myself finally kick away because I have defined myself negatively with regard to the personal pan pizza, as the one constantly let down and abandoned by the personal pan pizza, as the victim of the entire personal pan pizza complex.
Who talks about personal pan pizzas more than me, after all? Who nurses more bitterness toward the personal pan pizza, imagining it burning the roof of my mouth even as it grows instantly cold? Even if I got the personal pan pizza, could I possibly be happy? Would I not spend the whole meal complaining that there was no dipping sauce, or if there was, that it was marinara instead of creamy garlic? Would I not point out, randomly, months later, certain telltale flaws in the personal pan pizza, when everyone thought we were talking about something else? Even in winning, I would lose, as I showed myself to be one of those people who could not handle the personal pan pizza, who was too uptight and particular and awkward to relate to the personal pan pizza in the right way, to receive and dwell in the joy that is peculiar to the experience of a personal pan pizza. To enjoy the personal pan pizza in just the right way — that, for me, is the true and unattainable personal pan pizza.