by Randall Seder
The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked in a donut shop selling macchiatos and breakfast pastries to young office workers in downtown Portland, Maine. I decided to get a job because my best friend Emma wanted a job and we were drunk off the prospect of making money and never having to go back to high school. We promised that the rest of our lives was going to be spent with only each other so we better start saving money so we could eventually live in Paris or New York or somewhere else far away from where we grew up.
Emma started clocking hours at her minimum wage job exactly one week after school let out in June. We toasted to her new employment at the Five Guys on Fore Street by raising vanilla milkshakes in celebration of her first paycheck. Emma worked in the checkout aisle of Whole Foods, standing for six-hour shifts in clogs, using her discounts on foods we both thought expensive like cartons of raspberries and brie cheese, calling me on her lunch breaks, scanning produce, and dodging sexual passes from coworkers who bought her lip balms and beaded bracelets. Most of those little gifts were passed on to me. It didn’t feel odd at the time to be wearing the material bribes given to her by the college boys who folded fish into seaweed rolls, but it definitely makes me uncomfortable now.
My own summer job at the donut shop was handed to me by the grace of God. I had never worked with food before in my life and had the flu when I interviewed. I had been asked if I liked to bake, and I had lied through my teeth. For whatever reason, I was given a black apron and told to flush the flu from my body before my first trial shift or they’d hire someone else. I walked home on water, elated.
My bosses, Abe and Marina, were married. They would sometimes make out in the kitchen as the electric mixer whirled and the faucets spilled cold water onto dishes piled up in the sinks. Abe was a New England guy with beefy baker arms and Marina was a tiny woman with a French Creole cooking background and a severe laugh. I loved them.
Shifts at the donut shop started at 5 a.m. and lasted ten hours. I spent them on my feet, slipping glazed desserts into paper bags, mixing iced chai lattes with soy milk, and mopping until beads of sweat dripped from my forehead onto the black and white tiled floor. I began to wake up before my alarm went off, not because of some subconscious excitement for my work days but because the clock within my body was changing. I drove in squares around the block before my shift started, spilling coffee on myself out of ceramic mugs and listening to Bruno Mars on the radio. Years of playing pity poker with classmates about who was getting the least amount of sleep disappeared when I started working at the donut shop. I was in bed with teeth brushed at nine or ten at night in order to get as much sleep as possible. My own parents stayed up later than I did.
I came home from work every day with my forearms coated in honey and chocolate and powdered sugar from reaching through the racks and trays of donuts. Custard fillings would smear on my bedsheets when I napped after shifts; I would fall asleep with chocolate chips in my hair.
Memories of working in the shop flash in my mind like strobe lights. I know I must have stood for hours behind that wooden counter, breaking rolls of quarters with the mental terror that they would rip from the paper and scatter all over the floor, stamping the business’s logo on cardboard boxes in wet blue ink over and over again, trembling after phone calls, eating entire plates of free donut samples just because they were there in front of me, and sometimes I wanted to move a part of my body after standing for so long, even if it was only the clenching and unclenching of my jaw. I know that hours stretched into days and into months until suddenly the summer was over and my heart was broken, but when I think of working at that particular donut shop, I remember specific moments as definite and pinpointable experiences. The memories don’t stretch, they stampede.
I started to write letters to myself on post-it notes and on the backs of business cards as I stood behind the counter waiting for people to come into the shop. The notes would be collected into the front pocket of my black apron and then transcribed into letters I would send to a boy I had started dating at the end of my senior year of high school. My boyfriend was spending the summer working as a lifeguard at an overnight camp in northern Maine, and I wrote to him about my work because that was the largest thing happening in my life. I wrote about the two city cops who never bought a damn thing but flirted with Marina until Abe came out and crossed his big arms over his chest and they left. I wrote about the first day I was sent across the street to the bank to exchange some twenties for ones and I was so nervous carrying money around that my hands shook as I handed the bag to the bank teller. I wrote about the girls I worked with; one was an Instagram model and the other one was a drummer in a band with a moon tattoo on her left ankle. I wrote about the smell of the shop (honey, coconut, chocolate) and how when I spilled the crate of iced tea, I had yelled “FUCK” and was sure I’d be fired but wasn’t.
The world inside the donut shop existed as an alternate reality. One time that summer, Emma came to visit, and it felt like a slap in the face. She stepped through the doors of the shop beaming, sunburnt and sucking on a smoothie through a straw, and I remember my eyesight blurring the way a camera lens slips out of focus as a movie character falls asleep. She asked me about my day as I handed cash back to customers and answered phone calls, and I realized that she would never understand what it meant to stand behind the long wooden counter of that business, just as I would never know what it was like for her to work the checkout aisle of Whole Foods. I saw the same mild panic in her eyes when I came to visit her at work and yelled her name across a sea of customers buying popsicles and hotdog buns for the Fourth of July season. It was the mutual discomfort that came with two worlds colliding. The unease we felt showing each other what we looked like while working, drenched in sweat and shifting back and forth on tired legs, was a raw and unexplainable sort of shame.
I worked mornings shifts, and Emma worked evenings, so I used to pick her up when her night shifts got out. We spent a lot of that summer driving around in my mother’s sleek silver Camry, named Pam. Emma would slide into the passenger seat teeming with stories from her day. She used to scream about her coworkers, how the boys were pervy and the girls were beautiful, and also about the rich people who came in to buy kombucha and asparagus in bulk. I yelled back, telling her about the bratty blonde middle schoolers who demanded skim milk in their iced lattes and turned their noses up at the offer of sampling a honey glazed cake donut.
At night, Emma and I drove to Five Guys and sat at the terrible red and white checkered tables, sipping slowly on vanilla milkshakes while gushing over how good it felt to have a summer job until our brains soaked up the sugar and we got spacey. Then we drove with the windows down to the East End and parked on the hill that looks out over Casco Bay. We talked for hours parked on that hill, trying on glossy lipsticks in the rearview mirror or sharing songs that reminded us of our boyfriends, giggling about how when they came home from vacation we’d tell them we loved them. Songs that make her cringe now because she’s got a new guy and songs that make me cry because they’ve been ruined forever.
We talked a lot about the boys we were dating. Emma told me about her boyfriend’s absence, how he was just a few miles away but rarely called and never invited her over to meet his parents. All those complaints on her part and reassurances on my part; I’d say, he’s just a boy and don’t worry I know he loves you! and then she’d smile and everything would be okay for a little while.
I told her about how I missed the freckles on my boyfriend’s shoulders. I missed the way he listened to me stutter my way through Wallace Stevens poems even though he had no idea who that was, and I missed making pasta with him in my kitchen. I told Emma how I’d started throwing up my lunches in the employee bathroom next to the walk-in freezer, and we both assumed it was a pregnancy because I’d missed three periods and I’d been gaining weight all summer. We joked about baby names, but it started a whole big thing. Soon I was gagging when I saw babies in the donut shop and having panic attacks in the break room when I thought about my belly growing during the first semester of college.
A change happened around July when a blonde woman’s baby flung a sock out into the shop and we all searched on our knees but couldn’t find it. I located it later while mopping and felt a cosmic reassurance while holding that tiny baby sock in my hands. I kept it in the pocket of my work apron for weeks and brought it home with me after shifts. The weight that hung on my stomach felt suddenly purposeful and my exhaustion seemed justified. I remember staring at myself in the bathroom mirror at home, completely naked, looking at my bloated stomach with actual love. The names I brainstormed with Emma were filed away, and one was even chosen. I planned on telling my boyfriend when he came home from camp.
In mid-August, the lone red line on a CVS pregnancy test, taken offhandedly just to be sure, proved my assumption wrong. There had never been a baby in my belly. I felt like I was dying. I felt stupid and fat.
The donut shop became a place of sickness. The icings and glazes that dripped from donuts sent beads of sweat in vertical lines down the middle of my back. The sight of chocolate sauces hardened on ceramic plates made me nauseous. Those trays of free samples that just sat there in front of me on the wooden counter glared; they made my jaws clench shut. I stopped eating for a little while, to lose weight. By the end of the summer, I had slimmed down considerably.
I choked through my final weeks of work and used lunch breaks to sit in corners of dark places by myself, like downtown parking garages and the basement stairwells of apartment complexes whose front doors were propped open to flush heat from the building. I calmed my nerves by repeating a mantra of memorized customer orders. Man with red beard: small black coffee with a tablespoon of honey, one toasted coconut cake donut and one bière twist in a brown paper bag to go.
It was more than weight gain that made me cling to the idea of pregnancy. There were other signs as well: vomiting, back pains, fatigue, mood changes, and tenderness. All things that could be explained by eating nothing but sugar, working ten-hour shifts, and being in love with a boy that wasn’t around. I was tricked by my own body and mind. Nothing could make a person feel so idiotic as that.
At the end of the summer, Emma and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. The two of us had spent our time relishing in youth, making money, and shit-talking the world. We sang along to syrupy songs like “What A Pleasure” by the band Beach Fossils and said “I love you I love you I love you” while driving down highways at night. August hit and the dream began to disappear. We panicked at the thought of having to make new friends at schools very far away from each other.
Emma and I spent the last week of our summer curled in each other’s arms on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, sweaty from the final hot days of summer and newly single. She had decided that emotional absence was a crime punishable by death, and I had decided that I didn’t want to be touched by another boy for a long time. We ate cartons of raspberries and slices of brie cheese, realizing that we suddenly had enough money to buy them, and crossed our fingers in a promise that the following summer would be better because we wouldn’t have our shitty boyfriends taking up all our headspace.
Now it’s nine months later and summer seems very close. I talk to Emma on the phone every Wednesday afternoon. She has a new boyfriend named Owen who has soft facial features, like a child, and reads poetry to her over the phone. They said “I love you” after only three weeks, and they both meant it. Emma just received her Barnard acceptance letter after spending months on transfer application essays, which means that she’ll actually make it to New York after all. I look at the cars passing and the bank across the street and think about how much they resemble the cars and the banks back home. I imagine myself returning to my small college in the middle of a suburb the following fall, how it could very easily be any other small college in any other suburb. Then there she is, with a healthy new relationship and an acceptance letter to a fancy school in New York with sturdy iron gates and ivy-curled columns. Talking to her on the phone is sometimes difficult. Her growth, her glorious prosperity, immobilizes me. I always choke up and end the call.
At dinner, one friend scolds me for counting calories and another mulls over future baby names. I think of calling Emma, but instead I return to my dimly lit dorm room alone and type out a resume. When faced with the choice of lamenting over last summer or moving past it, I decide with a twinge of discomfort that I will not work at the donut shop again. For the first time in months, I do not dread returning to Maine.
Randall Seder is from Portland, Maine. When she is home, she enjoys walking her dogs at the beach, reading on the couch, and hiking in the Maine woods. She is studying psychology at Bryn Mawr College. This is her first publication.