I was left home alone with the food. It was the first thing I noticed about being out of work -- the dominating availability of food. There was no daily structure upon which to hang a meal. No "lunch hour" to confine the act of eating sandwiches to a fixed point in time. No "coffee break" to separate the time of eating chocolate from the time of not eating chocolate. None of that. Instead there was a blur of open cereal boxes and manic morning talk shows; jars of peanut butter eaten with spoons and a string of gory crime dramas; microwave popcorn eaten with pudding and a parade of reality TV shame-fests. I had been out of work for three months.
I made sure to eat from my side of the fridge. My roommate, Lydia, and I had a system. To the right were her fresh veggies, homemade bread and soy milk; to the left were my Chinese takeout boxes, Reddi Whip and half-and-half. According to a pesky BMI formula I had found online, I was technically obese. It was a category I scoffed at, preferring the more forgiving "zaftig" or "ample." I had an hourglass figure -- if hourglasses came filled with cannoli. Lydia was lithe and athletic, routinely returning from 10-hour business flights to dash out and play a round of ultimate Frisbee in Prospect Park. She was an activist who had written a well-respected book on human rights. Every other week she'd be off to some part of the world that was in trouble, bringing order and sense to places where previously there had been disorder and lack of sense.
Me, I was wandering aimlessly through my 40s, having lost a job I loathed writing corporate training copy. I fluffed tiny ideas into bloated PowerPoint presentations and used heinous phrases like "right-sizing" to describe the process of fellow human beings losing their jobs. In college, I had been a union organizer, following in the footsteps of my grandmother who, as a factory worker in Boston, stuffed union pamphlets into her bra when the bosses did locker checks.
Lydia was on yet another business trip, this time to Zimbabwe. After four days of grazing, I had eaten everything on my side of the fridge. On Lydia's side, there was nothing worth stealing. Lydia didn't eat sugar. She told me that one day she just decided to stop eating it. She might as well have told me that one day she decided that she didn't need a pancreas.
I sat myself in front of the television to watch an episode of "Super Nanny." Super Nanny has superpowers to make spoiled children behave. Super Nanny brings sense and order to families where there is nonsense and disorder. She is like Lydia in that way. But Super Nanny has a feelings box, where you write all your feelings down and put them inside. Then Super Nanny takes a feeling out of the box and reads it. The feelings are things like: "I feel angry when daddy yells at me all the time" or "I feel sad when mommy calls me stupid." Turns out behind every rotten child there is a torrent of feelings. Super Nanny listens to each feeling and the rotten child cries, and the crying makes me feel sorry for the rotten child, whereas before I was just thinking, "What a rotten child."
Lydia and I do not have a feelings box inside our apartment. I would ask Lydia: How do you do it? How do you see what you see? Without breaking down. Without giving up. She'd just shake her head at the question. She was like a well-seasoned trauma nurse, just going about her business. Not letting emotions get in the way of being helpful. I was frequently overwhelmed with emotions, taking to my bed to keep them from spilling out all over the apartment.
I decided to go to the kitchen to gaze into the empty refrigerator. When I opened the pantry doors I saw an amazing thing -- a box of cookies on Lydia's shelf. A box of fat-free Devil's Food cake Snackwell cookies. Snackwells, if you've never had one, are a brand of no-fat cookies that came to market when fat grams were the national obsession and people were buying diapers just so they could enjoy reduced-fat potato chips with Olestra. Back then, Snackwell cookies had a commercial that depicted a near riot in the supermarket as four agitated female customers harassed a meek store clerk, whom they had designated as "the cookie man," for "more Snackwell cookies." There was always a weird sexual undertone as if Snackwell cookies were the answer to Freud's unanswerable question: "What does a woman really want?"
Well, I had desires, too. Desires to express myself in a medium other than PowerPoint, desires for a meaningful relationship with someone other than Super Nanny, desires to manage an unmanageable life. I reached for the bright green box. On the cover was a picture of a Devil's Food cake cookie cut in half, displaying the money shot: the creamy filled center. I imagined running my tongue along the edge of the cookie. I opened the box. One cookie had been eaten. I hesitated. I hadn't actually stolen food from a roommate since I was in college where it was a full-time occupation. Where I denied any knowledge of missing boxes of English muffins and jars of peanut butter and Tang and popcorn, lying with a straight face and expressing genuine confusion about who could have broken into our dorm room and stolen the items. I felt the weight of the box in my hands.
I decided to eat one cookie. I reminded myself that I didn't even like "fat-free" Snackwell cookies, as I found butter fat to be an essential part of the cookie experience. One cookie. I bit into it. It tasted like chalk coated in chocolate wax. I felt a wave of relief. I had settled the question of whether I liked Snackwell cookies or not and the answer was decidedly, no. No!
- - - - - - - - - -
I settled back on the couch for a bout of "Celebrity Rehab." I found the ruined lives of former celebrities to be deeply moving. It made me glad I had never bothered to get famous. Dr. Drew is a good therapist. I wish he were my therapist. He sees the bright little light inside every junkie. I want Dr. Drew to see my little bright light. I watch as Dr. Drew helps one of the celebrities deal with anger issues. I have anger issues. When someone on the sidewalk walks too slowly in front of me, I get an image of stabbing them in the neck. Instead, I smile, and say "excuse me" in a voice that squeaks like a mouse.
I started wondering if maybe those Snackwell cookies would taste better with a glass of milk. It didn't matter really. I wasn't going to have any more. Definitely not. I found myself in front of the fridge pouring a glass of milk. I lifted a cookie from the box and dipped it into the glass of milk. The chocolate coating resisted absorption. I bit into it and dipped again. This time the milk infused the dry innards and, yes, it was decidedly palatable. Each cookie tasted a little less terrible than the one before. I carried the box of cookies and the carton of milk back into the living room.
I started watching Oprah. Oprah and I shared a fondness for cookies. I was with Oprah when she carted out a little wagon full of lard to show us how much weight she had lost on her liquid diet. I was with her when she ballooned up again and started working out with Bob Greene and got muscles and a tiny waist. I was with her as she swelled and shrank over 25 years. She told me it was not about the food, it was about the feelings. So I spilled ugly, mournful, misshapen feelings into a series of composition notebooks, and still I ate. I staged conversations between my "fat self" and my "thin self."
I finished the box.
The next day I returned from the market with a fresh box of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies. I felt a surge of redemption as I placed them back on Lydia's shelf. Maybe I'd look for a job today. Maybe I'd pick up the dirty dishes from my bedroom floor. Anything seemed possible. And then I remembered. In Lydia's box of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies one cookie had been eaten. I needed to eat one cookie to restore the box to its former state. One cookie. I tried to imagine Lydia eating that one cookie while watching the BBC or teaching herself French. I lifted one cookie from the box. I contemplated throwing it in the trash the same way I contemplate doing yoga at 5 a.m. It was a sensible and admirable idea that was never going to happen.
I ate the cookie.
I waited for something bad to happen. Nothing happened. The apartment was as quiet as a tomb.
- - - - - - - - - -
Résumés are supposed to have mission statements. You are supposed to write things like: "Seasoned professional who is a real team player seeks challenging opportunity" Or "Would welcome the chance to delight your customers and make a difference in your organization." You are not supposed to write: "I want to make a lot of money and do hardly any work at all." Or "All my dreams from youth are dashed and now I just want a job I don't hate so much." And you were definitely not supposed to write: "I hope not to die alone and live on the streets with plastic baggies on my feet."
Restless, I returned to the kitchen and picked up the box of cookies with one cookie missing. I sniffed the box. What are the chances she'd miss a second cookie? Not likely. I lifted another cookie from the box. A third? I doubt it. Half the box? Who cares? I sat down on the floor and worked my way through the box. I took little bites at first and then started shoving them down. By the time I had finished the box I was convinced that they were the best cookies I had ever tasted.
- - - - - - - - - -
The next day I returned to the store and bought a gallon of milk and two boxes of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies: one box to eat and one box to replace what I had eaten. I ate my box in front of the television while watching newscasters speak about terrorist threats. I checked the color-coded system to tell me how scared to be each day. I was told by the mayor to be alert but to go about my business. I continued to eat cookies while remaining alert. When I had finished the box of cookies I had bought for myself, I went to the kitchen and grabbed Lydia's cookies. If I left her box unopened she would know. I had to just eat one.
About an hour later, I finished the box.
The next day at the bodega I bought three boxes of cookies. I ate one box on the way home and the other two boxes as soon as I got up the stairs of my 4th floor walk-up apartment. I sat in my living room surrounded by empty boxes. I went in the office and checked for jobs on Monster. I looked at my mission statement. It had phrases like: "self-starter" and "out of the box thinker" and "bring a standard of excellence to everything I do." Pack of lies. My only real mission was to stop eating boxes of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies. But this was a mission I could not achieve. Over the next few days I bought and ate 12 more boxes of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies. After I had finished a box, I would lie on my bed and wait for the stomach pains to subside. Once they did, I would get up and eat another box.
I had to go farther and farther away to get my replacement boxes of Snackwell cookies. I didn't want the man at the bodega to know. One day he looked down at my six boxes and said: "You like this cookies." I knew I had to find another supplier. I ended up at a supermarket that was a 20-minute walk from my apartment. When I saw a man haul a crate of Snackwell cookies into the store and contemplated asking him how much he would take for it, I knew I was beaten. I left the store with no Snackwell cookies.
- - - - - - - - - -
Two weeks had passed since my first Snackwell cookie. My roommate was due back from Zimbabwe the next day. I made one final attempt to buy a single box of Snackwell Devil's Food cake cookies from my corner bodega.
"Good cookies," said the clerk.
"Yep. Good cookies." My ears turned red.
I placed the cookies on the shelf in my pantry.
That evening I returned to the pantry and tore into this last box of Snackwell cookies. I swallowed the cookies whole, like a snake swallowing mice.
The next evening Lydia returned. I heard her come in after midnight and go straight to bed. I lay awake drenched in shame. The next morning she left for work before I had risen. I didn't run into her until two days later. It was dinnertime and she was in the kitchen steaming vegetables and cooking brown rice. I approached her.
"How was your trip?" I asked.
"We got some good work done," she said brusquely. She was checking the rice to see if it was done.
"So, what have you been doing with yourself?" she asked.
I stared at my hands. "I've been eating cookies."
Lydia didn't look up from the rice.
"I ate them and I can't replace them because I keep eating them all."
Finally she looked at me.
I started to cry. It was the deep sobs that hadn't come before.
Lydia turned down the water on the rice and gave me a concerned look. It was the kind of look she might have given a child who needed more than any care package could provide. Then she said:
"Your cookies. The Devil's Food Snackwell fat-free cookies."
"Oh those," she said, dumping her steamed broccoli into a colander. "I forgot I had those. "
We stared at each other from across the divide. We were utterly unknown to each other. I knew I was powerless. The void would not be filled by anything but acceptance.
"Here's the money to replace them," I said, putting $4 on the table.
"Keep it," she said, pushing back the money. "I don't even like Snackwell cookies."
I thought about those bossy green boxes and their relentless demands.
"I know," I said. "Neither do I."