I am seven years old, and it is the better part of a year we spend in the Carson Valley, my mother taking a break from the constant reminder of her divorce, from the South, from the women in grocery stores who stare down her nurse shoes, the pale white sneakers always glowing in spite of everything they touch. My older sister, a half-sister though she feels whole, is a teenager delighting in her upcoming adulthood, who walks me with pride from our ugly brown apartment to my school. My breath in the cold before me, my tiny legs aching to catch up. It’s always cold in Nevada, a to-the-bone cold I’ve never known before having grown up in fetid winters that brought tornadoes and hardly any snow. We stop at a halfway point, and she pays for my powdered donut, which spills across the paper plate, white against white. She is explaining to me how we could always do this, how it could always be this way. Just two sisters, mending their way through the small town, as if two sisters in a village in France, on their way always to the patisserie. Merci et adieu.
Krispy Kremes melt at the touch, are tender and loving, are used by my family to perform a wholeness we do not always feel. An aunt is in town. She arrives bearing bright pink lipstick for my mother and a flat iron, to make us less depressed, more stable, with tamer hair as the humidity reaches peak subtropics. My mom says, I’m gonna pick up some donuts. And she does, puts on a pot of coffee, Folgers, both bitter and flavorless. I want to shove every single donut in my mouth, every flavor, even the sticky jelly I am not sure I even like, to achieve the moment where the satisfaction melds with the body like water, holds steady this Saturday morning, in a city in Alabama where the women converge but do not cackle, do not coven. I show little resistance to my favorite sweet and sneak back to the box, guiltily, cutting a donut in half. I eat everything now by half, hoping to become whole.
At the women’s college in the Blue Ridge Mountains, years later, classes are suspended for most of the day, usually after an autumn chill has swept clear the mountainside of snakes. Young women dress, to climb Tinker Mountain, in leotards and spandex, feather boas and glitter, perform skits mocking the administration, eat fried chicken, grow fat on cake. But before they do, Krispy Kremes are served alongside eggs, the kitchen staff having gotten up even earlier to cater to this tradition that cracks dawn and welcomes the sleepy brood. Before this, the students sense it coming, sometimes cruising around late nights before this day, searching out the Krispy Kreme truck’s 4 a.m. proximity to the campus. It’s important to be in the know. It’s important to signal this to one another, to herald the arrival of something important early; a prophet is only as good as her promptness. The donuts are the green light, and they say, ‘This morning the world is more magical than yesterday was or tomorrow will be. We promise you only that.’ Though coffee served tastes like ash, as always, as expected. But for years we choke that down, always with the promise that if we can climb a mountain, fueled on sugar and youth, we can get through anything.
For my thirtieth birthday I invite my friends and my little sister, and also the half-sister who feels whole, to bowl in Koreatown, during my brief trial period living in Los Angeles. Afterwards at California Donuts, I eat a donut styled after the kind Homer Simpson shoves mindlessly into his mouth. I do not perform his drooling like a zombie, thick with love, but I come close. My friend snaps a picture of me, looking pensively out of frame as I cradle my chosen symbol of this new decade: bright pink, covered in sprinkles, comically large. I have turned myself part woman, part cartoon. I am older than ever but look somehow young, small, flat, yellow.
My friend and her brother visit New York, and she hopes I fall in love with him. I do, but only a little and not then. When I meet him I think his eyes are too close together, and he’s too quiet, won’t look at me. He wears white socks too high with his black shoes, whereas I am dressed all in white for the heatwave, fluttering about like an abducted woman in a cult. Later at the movies, he buys my ticket for Sausage Party, a movie I end up hating though I peek at him throughout the film to see he is almost always laughing. The tickets are comp, for what? Being a girl? Earlier we stood in line at Doughnut Plant, around the corner from the theater in Chelsea we were going to, and he picked up the tab for donuts. Peach flavor, and I offered a bite to his sister, who had earlier paid for my dinner. I am on a date with the whole family. She declines.
In Portland, Oregon you have to go to Voodoo donuts because that’s how fame works. When the TV cameras roll in to televise the existence of flamboyance to the rest of America, via Travel Channel, via Food Network, you, the tourist, become the arbiter of good taste. You are there to set the record straight. It will be worth it. It will not be worth it. How long you have to wait in line is determined in part by the weather outside. If it’s chilly and threatening rain, like it is when I go, you will hardly wait. I order the Grape Ape, a yeasted donut, glazed in something so brilliantly purple it can only be the fakest of grape flavors: Concord, which is a real grape of course but only in the fall. Lavender accompanies it, which I pretend calms me, though I am rarely calm. People will ask you to check out Blue Star donuts, hoping to disrupt the mania around Voodoo, so that, too. I do. I enjoy my glazed from there, the faint taste of horchata, but the stronger of the two is the tourist trap, the thing I try to will myself not to love, but I can’t help it. We love so enormously the many things we ask ourselves not to love. I stickied my teeth on both and fell in love, if only a bit.
Kathy, who has been my partner in crime since college, who understands my tastes the way a long term partner might, lives in Philly with her punk-rock husband and their cat, Splinter. Every time I visit, we hang inside watching bad movies from the 90s and eating junk food from Wawa, like we’re the subject of a think piece written by an older generation. We emerge from her apartment, dressed for a role in Practical Magic, only to walk the few short blocks to Federal Donuts, where I feel suddenly at home. The coffee is perfect, by my standards, which means strong but not too strong, not too bitter, clean and bright. I am so in love with Federal Donuts, with their simple decor, the space built like an early donut shop you’d see from the set of film, neither hole in the wall nor sterile franchise. I always think I’m going to buy merchandise there, but the exact shirt or sweatshirt I want is never there when I mean to buy it, so I always leave, feeling as ordinary as ever. I order donuts that are fried up to order, rolled in whichever sugar combination I feel marks my mood. I imagine a life in Philadelphia with cheaper rent, where I’d walk to Federal Donuts before walking a bit farther to catch the SEPTA. I’d say to myself girl you earned this even though I do not think foods are a thing we earn by the miles clocked from one location to another. I imagine a life near my friend, where we meet for donuts like good cop, bad cop, or good witch and good witch.
For my thirty-first birthday one sales director orders donuts from the Doughnut Plant. She sends a link to the other sales director via Skype and says, ‘Look what I ordered for Miranda.’ I catch a glimpse of this because our monitors are giant, our office tiny.
‘Does Miranda even like donuts?’ the other sales director asks, either forgetful or just testing the other.
‘They’re like her favorite thing’, is the reply, with the assurance of someone who will outlast us all at the company, and she’s right. There will be other, less subtle wars between the two sales directors, but this one is my favorite. The spoils of this war go to me.
I am grieving a great loss, sometimes too great for words, so my little sister and stepmom assemble a care package for me. Grief erases the context for the care package; was it to mitigate the ill effects of my older sister’s death, or was it just for my thirty-first birthday? Or just to say hello? Inside the box: a solar-powered Virgen de Guadalupe who bobs and prays like a rabbi davening, yin-yang earrings though my ears remain unpierced, and a Japanese donut-making kit whose bright colors and packaging suggest it is for children. The instructions are in Japanese; I ask my roommate who lived in Nagasaki for four years to translate.
‘You just add water.’
Two friends, who no longer speak to each other, both present me with donut socks from the same brand, independent of one another, weeks apart, for no particular reason, though I suspect both felt sorry for me because I am irreparably sad, it seems. These two friends are like a country that split but still shares the same culture, each side patrolling their borders with intensity, mirrored in their actions but critical of the other. Their offerings the same, though I am no goddess, though my belly rolls out like one, though I am occasionally treated as one, for reasons I cannot decipher, for reasons, it seems, unrelated to joy.
An offering to myself: I buy a silver necklace featuring a donut charm from the fun and fancy boutique Verameat. The charm has sprinkles, which means people mistake it for an everything bagel. I tell folks they’re more than welcome to interpret it however they want, so long as they know my word is final, that when I wear it, it is sweet.
My friend Meghann, an illustrator based in Toronto, draws a pink donut inspired by me and sends it along with another print of hers I order. Later she asks for permission to sell prints of the donut, as if I were the creator. I am only the muse. If we live in a world where a donut still life, inspired by me, can generate income for my friends, then we live in a world better than the one I would have designed. We live in a world full of light. Imagine a hole so big your eye is visible on the other side, blinking with the speed and regularity with which you in particular blink. The person who faces you and the pastry framing your eye like a monocle must be delighted, or a type of dead if not. Holes within holes to let in light. ‘There is a crack in everything,’ say Leonard Cohen, ‘That’s how the light gets in.’ Your iris constricting to keep you safe, to allow you to see the broad range of colors the world has to offer. Lavender, a shocking pink, or the warm khaki of a good glaze.
In Latvia there’s a donut shop I want to go to called Crazy Donuts, though I roll my eyes hard at the name; that trip is still in the works. Next week I head to the Midwest, stopping by in Madison to see my friend whose brother I’m only a little in love with; she has promised something called donut fries, a taxonomy that alarms and intrigues me. I’m Southern but have yet to have beignets in New Orleans, accompanied by chicory coffee and warmed milk, but trust me when I say it’s on my agenda. And do not worry, I have bought a churro from a subway station, in the heady heat of summer. I’ve had my life wrecked and made better by a sour-cream donut at Peter Pan Donuts in Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Polish neighborhood, where if I tried I could probably find pączki, and believe me, I will try. I’ve subsisted off Entenmann’s donuts and live now close to its factory in Queens – my life a series of gas-station-donut moments, the comfort of junk. I think back to my sister buying me a donut before school, which is not the genesis of my love of them, but simply a continuation in the narrative. What is the narrative about any woman’s relationship with food? If you strip it of what gets projected onto a woman’s body, it’s simply joy. I earned this, I want to say, but I’ve nothing to earn. The joy is momentary, but it is there, unearned and unasked for, rising up like a balloon before it disappears. All I can say to this joy is thank you and goodbye. And so I do.
Image © Joel G Goodman