Why have I bought this cranberry muffin? It sits on a glass plate by the window seat of the Destination Baking Company—a small muffin, the top crunchy with sugar, the berries bleeding into the yellow bread. My action seems ordinary, and yet I am not hungry. The muffin hollows out around the cranberries like a popover, eggy and smooth as a baby's face, so much butter and sugar and white flour—days and days of it at the same bakery, the scream of sweetness in my mouth.
Does psychoanalysis explain this, or capitalism, or neither? I do not like to observe my body making its way to the counter and back without a cause for the transfer of cash. I sit looking out the bakery window at the bougainvillea with their scarlet leaves and tiny blossoms. This muffin has a reason for resting in my hands. What do I believe?
Is it as simple as that my mother's depressions have denied me sustenance throughout my life? The muffin crumbles in my fingers; my mother yields and fills me, a woman with a flat chest, a woman who drinks nonfat milk but craves chocolate malts. She has wispy hair, tennis shoes for contra dancing, skin speckled with moles and red points. Bread reminds me of her. Once, I recoiled from telling a friend about challah—the connection seemed obvious and obscene. Would I use the words "moist" and "soft"? How could I describe a bite, thick and heavy in my mouth, the bump of a raisin against my tongue?
In one of my fantasies, a plump woman with pearls in her braids sits on a white cloth. She massages my back and brushes my hair. She gives me her breast. Did the moment when air came between me and my mother determine everything? Freud taught me this story; it likes to swallow others. What about culture and economics?
"You deserve it. Treat yourself," the ads croon. In this bakery, I have eaten the pecan coffeecake that leaves a pile of sugar on the plate, the Italian coffeecake with pears and bananas, the cheese and green onion scones like rocks, and even a cinnamon roll I knew I wouldn't like. One of my friends had rhapsodized about it. All this in quest of the excitement and private smiling that come with discoveries. Can I live in America and not feed my longings with objects? I need to believe in satiation and pleasure: I work in a concrete tower. The air hangs cold one day and hot the next in my floor without windows and the Office of Buildings and Grounds cannot explain the change. After work, Earl Grey tea in the bakery thrills me. They keep lumps of African sugar in a jar for those in the know; Mona at the counter told me they cost a pretty penny. The lumps are irregularly shaped and slow to dissolve, light brown with a hint of rose. They may taste different, and they may not; I don't know. They complete my pleasure.
The other day I saw a department store dedicated solely to containers. Finally, a chance to control those seething beasts, our belongings. Our longings to be. To exist fully, embraced. Perhaps capitalism and longing for my mother have joined. Consumerism plays on my need for her body.
I feel cozy in the window seat on the worn cushions, watching a golden retriever pant outside. But I only feel cozy with my hands on the muffin, with the muffin in my mouth, quieting a fear that beat into my steps as I walked home. The fear did not surface in language. It was something like a sense that my limbs would come out of their sockets, or a van would swerve, or the sky would fill with lasers. The afternoon would continue for months, and no one would touch me.
Some people say they can stop craving. I heard a folksinger announce at a concert that she was flying to a three-month silent meditation retreat. I try to imagine it there. No "Excuse me" could pass my lips even when I bumped a bowl of soup. I think that they would not serve pastries. I would stare at my cravings until, perhaps, they died. Would this be butchery or release?
There are other solutions. I could become a socialist. I could hike the Pacific Crest Trail and cook pasta in a bag of water in the sun. I could find a therapist and hyperventilate and release the grief about my mother from my cells. I don't think I'll do those things. If nothing else, I could encourage myself to resist muffins. As I sit at the table with the wrapper in front of me, though, I don't feel motivated.
The man at the next table sets down a mug, rocking the whipped cream. He slides his spoon into the cloud and lifts away a tower of foam. I can't see an expression on his face, so I think he must feel content. I ask Mona for a glass of water because my mouth is coated in sweetness. The water tastes delicious. I like to think of reasons why I act and then put them aside.
Mona doesn't notice when I set my plate on the counter and wave good-bye. She spreads custard on a tart with piles of raspberries, kiwi, and apricot ready on the cutting board. I walk out to a gray sky and no traffic. There are magnolia trees with waxy leaves and edges that curl under. There is rosemary I can pinch off, crush, and sniff so I think of chicken. For the moment I float, allied with creation. I fasten the belt of my utility waist pack, and it tugs at my hips as I head up the hill. Full of cravings, I begin to sweat.
**2005 Identity Theory Nonfiction Contest Winner**