“Finding joy in food that comes from a bag or a box feels like a sin in a society that demonizes it.”
A woman stands behind me in line at the drugstore. We’re in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and just about everybody has the flu. I’m holding Gatorade and ramen noodles. At the last minute, I pick up a chocolate bar. This is an indulgence: I am twenty-three, less than a year out of college, and making eleven dollars an hour working in a high-rise office in Midtown.
“You’re lucky,” the woman says. “If I ate like that, I’d blow up.” We are the same size, and I don’t know what to say. I chuckle until she adds, “All that processed stuff can catch up with you, you know.”
At the register, I forget to ask for a bag, and my purse is too small to carry my purchases. I hold them in my hands for the walk home, and when I get inside, the chocolate bar is mostly melted in my hands. I peel back the wrapper and eat it before I remove my jacket.
That night, my grandmother is not dead yet, but it had been close to a year since I had seen her. When I go home to Massachusetts, she will no longer live in the house I grew up in, and will have already transitioned to the nursing home where she will die.
On the phone that night, she struggles to hear me. I use this as an excuse to keep many things from her: that I am exhausted from my job, that I feel terrified of New York, that I am in love with a woman, that I am ashamed and unsure of how to eat in front of my coworkers.
“Are you eating well?” She asks.
“Oh yes,” I say. “Oh, yes.”
These are some of the last conversations we have on the phone. By the time she moves to the nursing home, she has forgotten how to speak into the receiver. When I do call her, and someone holds the phone up to her ear, I say hello over and over, and her voice is a disembodied giggle at whoever is in the room with her, not hearing me at all.
Once a week, I eat a doughnut. Sometimes I eat the doughnuts in the morning when they are fresh and soft, and sometimes I eat them at night, when they are flaked over and stiff. Every time, I go to the same diner and survey the case: These doughnuts are filled with marshmallow, whipped chocolate, matcha green tea creme. The muffins are gluten-free, sprinkled with almond slivers. There are breakfast sandwiches with tofu-based eggs and sausages made from seitan.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and I am working from home. I establish my usual space: a narrow table in the corner, against the wall, with just enough room for my laptop and a small plate. It is the first of her birthdays to pass since her death, and I challenge myself to bring my grief outside with me.
The doughnut I choose is filled with vegan marshmallow, topped with peanut butter. In the center of the doughnut, a second marshmallow is brûléed. The cashier hands me the doughnut on a plate.
The man in line after me orders a vegan sausage biscuit and an espresso, to go.
“Wish I was eating that,” he says, nodding at my plate. I smile at him until he says, “Sure a whole lot of sugar, though.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” He watches me sit. I bite the doughnut in half. Marshmallow oozes onto my chin and nose. I can feel peanut butter on my right cheek. The dough feels thick and my cheeks puff to hold it all inside. He doesn’t answer, then his order is ready, and he goes out the front door. I watch him leave and new people come inside, and I eat. I eat.
Marissa Higgins is a lesbian writer. Her fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, X-Ray Literature, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Best American Food Writing 2018, Glamour, NPR, Slate, and others. Her debut novel, The Wives, is coming out with Catapult in 2024.