It is 1993 and I am a full-time college student commuting to a little community college about 40 miles from my house. Given the drive and the inclement winters, once I get to campus, I don’t leave until after my last class late in the afternoon, which means two meals at the teensy cafeteria–basically a soda machine and two ladies in hairnets, standing in front of a griddle, waiting to take your order. Most of the time, I have about five bucks to get through two meals. Breakfast is the cheapest vegetarian fare (and the most delicious), so I usually have a biggish meal between my first and second class and then coast through lunch with a cup of vegetable soup ($1.25) and two pieces of wheat toast with peanut butter ($.50).
On this particular day, I am ravenous and the line is long, with lots of people hanging around waiting for their pancakes, omelets and whatnot. I order three scrambled eggs (one with yolk, two whites), a carton of skim milk, a whole wheat bagel without butter (the ladies, god love them, slop a fake butter substance on practically everything) and then I silently deliberate between choosing peanut butter or cream cheese. Finally I decide and complete the order and yes, that is all, and no, no bacon or hashbrowns with the eggs, thanks.
“So close!” A guy smiles at me from the waiting area.
“Excuse me?” Is he talking to me? What?
“You were so close.” He says again.
“What do you mean?” I am completely confused.
“Oh, the eggs, no yolks. Not getting bacon or any meat with the eggs. The whole wheat bagel without butter. The skim milk. And then you had to go and ruin everything by getting cream cheese!” He groans, like he’s just revealed the twist to an elaborate movie plot.
I don’t know what to say. I want to say that I just don’t like egg yolksbecause sometimes I’m creeped out by the taste but scrambled egg whites just aren’t the same. I want to explain that I have a mild allergy tomilk fat, so the skim milk is an easy way to have milk without getting congested 15 minutes later, and I could then court danger and get away with a little cream cheese on the bagel. And I want to tell him that I already knew what they called “cream cheese” was actually Neufchatel, a very happy low fat soft cheese that doesn’t make me very snorky. I want to ask what makes him think that I want his consolation prize of a “So close and yet so far,” how he has the audacity to make any comment about nutrition whatsoever when the counter lady just plated up his double cheese and bacon omelet with hashbrowns topped with melted cheese and a goddamned chocolate milkshake. I want to ask him if he considers himself some kind of superhero of saturated fats and if so, where are his cape and tights? I want to ask him if he knew that people were saying he had an adorable little penis and say that I’m sure those testicles are going to drop any day now, he just had to keep eating his Wheaties and thinking positive thoughts and being a good little sprout.
I want to say all of these things, but all I can blurt out is a feeble, “It’s light cream cheese.”
He chuckles, shrugs and takes his plate back to the dining area. I fume and wait for my meal, not really wanting it anymore, horrified, terrified. I want to rewind everything, want to throw the cream cheese into the trash. Clearly, I am not to be trusted with food choices if strangers are commenting on my inability to feed myself correctly.
When my order is done, I take it out to the dining area and see that he has joined a group of coed friends. He has clearly just finished retelling the anecdote of the Fattie and the Bagel because after a bout of laughter, someone at the table says “That’s like the girl in front of me at Burger King who went in and ordered a Whopper with cheese, large fries and a DIET Coke.” Everyone groans and nods in agreement that they too have witnessed such a grievous sin against humanity.
I sit down at an empty table and sense that the guy’s entire table is now aware of my presence, because they’ve gone silent and then someone says “So anyway!”. I have turned my back to them, but I know that they are all watching the little packet of cream cheese that sits on my tray, blinking in orange neon with its own ground effects, like a bouncing lowrider at a traffic stop. I am unable to eat and sit there studying Piaget’s theories of development, not really understanding the words, until they all finish eating and leave.
The eggs are then cold, so I defiantly smear the illicit cream cheese on my bagel. After the first bite, my throat closes and I choke and cough and sputter. Some of the heads in the dining area turn, to see if I will be okay or if the fat girl is going to pull a Cass Elliott right there in the damned quad. I realize then that this is how it always is. This is how it always will be. No matter what. I throw everything in the trash and sit in the library. My stomach growls and it is a defeat but also a success.