Honey dijon pretzel pieces give me flashbacks to a basement apartment across from Provigo. It was winter, and, by the time I finished work, already dark. My boyfriend at the time, Paul, despised paying for Hydro, and his roommate was usually between welding jobs. All of which is to say that by the time I arrived at their place, it was aglow with the flickering light of three dozen candles and Paul’s roommate’s Himalayan salt lamp.
My night blindness, paired with the general impassibility of Avenue Mont-Royal in February, meant I didn’t do much once I made it to Paul’s.
We could hear the girl that lived above Paul’s room having sex with her boyfriend because we could hear him. In the summer, I thought maybe it was just because the windows were open. But in winter we plastic-wrapped them shut, and I still heard his little yelps twice a week.
Because he was cheap and because he majored in geography not engineering, Paul would only let us use the oven. He mistakenly believed the stovetop used more electricity. And because he lived across the street from Provigo, where produce is grossly overpriced and processed food both varied and diverse, we never really cooked much. We lived on a combination of $2 frozen pizzas and honey dijon pretzel pieces when they ran out of the nacho cheese kind. One time we melted real nachos with his roommate’s welding torch instead of using the oven, to counteract leaving the Himalayan salt lamp on while we were out.
Paul’s roommate was always home because of being unemployed and seasonally depressed. But I hated my apartment because my window faced a very bright streetlight and I’d never managed to remember to put up curtains. Paul taped a packet of photocopied Dorothy Parker poems laying on the floor to my window at an angle that would block the streetlamp. But the packet was too thick and kept falling down, so he ripped the front page off—with the poem “Resumé”—and taped it to the window poem-side out. Then he said I was pretentious and left.
On a Monday, I read on a junk food blog that Swiss Rolls are better frozen. I polished off my second box of Little Debbies Thursday afternoon. The price-per-calorie ratio was in line with Paul’s stingy ethos, so he quickly joined in. For the second half of January, I deep-throated more Swiss Rolls than penises because Paul was too busy gobbling down frozen Swiss Rolls of his own. His roommate never said anything, but I’m pretty sure a stray Roll or two disappeared behind his beaded door curtain.
Walking to work from Paul’s house in the morning, I could still taste the sour film on the back of my tongue, the memory so sweet it made my teeth hurt. The aftertaste felt like a dirty pair of underwear against my skin, underneath all my winter clothes.
I went for long luxurious breakfasts in different diners every weekend. I went alone or with girls I knew from school. We hugged when we met, and I told them things about myself that were personal so we would feel close. One time I went for breakfast with my friend Katya, but she said it was brunch. There were large plastic fish hanging from the ceiling in nets. Alt-J’s “Breezeblocks” was playing in a way that—for the first time—felt nostalgic instead of worn.
“He left right after because he said he was hungry.” Katya cut through her bagel and egg sandwich with a dull knife. It was a shitty bagel, the packaged kind they sell at Provigo that taste like air and never goes stale.
“Did he at least ask you if you wanted any? Food?”
“Well we met at one of those Japanese places where you share dishes. But he played dumb and only ordered octopus balls for himself when he saw the prices. Which was fine by me, I never eat that much when I’m drinking or on dates.”
I went to the bathroom—which had a condom dispensing machine that made me consider the real implications of “Open 24h”—and came back to the table where Katya was still talking.
“So then he acted like I wasn’t letting him get food and he left. But he left his jewelry, so I have to see him again this week.”
“Was I what?”
“Not letting him get food?”
Katya’s eyes expanded like Peeps in a microwave.
“That kid over there is getting a handjob under the table from his girlfriend,” she said, looking behind me.
She didn’t seem very fazed; I think she thought it was funny. I, on the other hand—between this, and the quality of Katya’s bagel, and the condom machine in the bathroom—came seriously close to working up the courage to write my first negative Yelp review.
My inability to write negative Yelp reviews was actually just my inability to voice an opinion, even online. I might even say especially online. Everything was linked all of a sudden: my music selected by an algorithm that also knew my brother and my birthday and the manboy from that networking event I kept stalking on LinkedIn. And how could I not assume that algorithm was silently judging me when Beach House’s “Master of None” came on shuffle for the third time in a week?
Something about the Internet—with its ability to trace something backspaced before the courage to hit send was even mustered—smacked of a permanence I didn’t feel I could hold myself to. It read you while you read It, and It formed an opinion of you.
That winter, I became obsessed with Costco dried mangoes. Actually, living away from home and the use of a Costco card and car, I became obsessed with the memory of Costco dried mangoes. I remembered them as pliable, tart, and easily stashed in various pockets for long periods of time, something I’d set about doing with every Juicy Couture purse I had in rotation when my mom bought them in 2007.
I managed to trade the natural peanut butter Paul’s sister gave us at Christmas for the sugary kind on one of those Facebook swap groups. The tradee’s profile name was JOO Asherton, and they said they were deathly allergic to the rapeseed oil in Jif. They offered to drive me to Costco in their roommate’s car, where they could purchase a one-kilogram jar of the sweet stuff to give to me. Anything else I wanted to pick up I could give them cash for.
I bought toilet paper, Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce, and a giant bag of mangoes. They were a lot more than I remembered ($13.99), and a lot sweeter, too. I didn’t want Paul to ask how much they were, so I hid the dried strips in my jeans pockets, in the outside flap of my backpack, and in a plastic baggie under my pillow.
One day it got warmer and the snow melted a bit, and then it got colder while starting to freeze-rain. By the time I got to Paul’s, a syrupy dribble ran down from my cuffs and into my shoes and gathered in the top of my butt-crack. I was sticky and had the same sick feeling in my stomach as I did after that first week of the Juicy Couture purse mangoes, but had forgotten.
For the same reason I don’t have a tattoo, I was afraid to write a restaurant review or comment on Reddit. My stance was unsure, my belief system shaky, and I lacked the resolve to defend either. And if I didn’t trust my mind from one moment to the next, I trusted my memory even less.
I read a lot of r/TalesFromYourServer that winter because I was in the middle of attempting to lie my way into a server job.
All the retail jobs had shrivelled up in the post-Christmas spending freeze, and I had somehow made it thus far in life without any service industry experience more impressive than Corporate Frozen Cheesecake Shop Barista. I only got that job because the owner was an alumni of the sorority I test-drove second semester of first year.
While Paul passed out within seconds each night, Reddit became my pasture filled with sheep, and I counted them with sleepless determination. Doritos topped with Kraft singles and chicken hot dogs on r/ShittyFoodPorn, people questioning whether their horn-dog partners were cheating on r/RelationshipAdvice (they always were), and Holsteins licking over-long dachshunds with tiny pink tongues on r/Awww.
One night I came across an r/AskReddit about the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had. The near-unanimous response—seemingly by real people, not just TGI Fridays bots—was Applebee’s. Actually, the general consensus was against any restaurant chain that smacked of a Chillibeesback kind of corporate.
There are no Applebee’s in Quebec, but there is one of its upscale cousins—Red Lobster—in Ottawa. I was in the mood to feel disappointed, overcharged, and physically ill, so the following day I called Katya. She was my only friend who had a car. I was already feeling dissatisfied, sexually frustrated, and mentally ill—feelings with similar ingredient lists, liable to be stocked in the same aisle, on a nearby or adjacent grocery shelf.
The morning that Katya came to pick me up, Paul was grating the top of his roommate’s Himalayan salt lamp into his eggs. We had spent the night before consuming a Deep ‘N Delicious cake from the clearance rack in installments, and chocolate always made him crave salt the next day.
When I hugged him from behind I felt a donut of flesh springing from the top of his sweatpants and wished I could make a different part of him grow. I wanted to be the donut.