Depression smells like the fries you ate two days ago. A stubborn miasma, smothering claustrophobic spaces, devouring clean air, embedding itself with an incalculable half-life. It persists, second morning in a row, and I roll onto my side. If I can’t escape the smell, the least I can do is unwedge myself from the seat-belt buckle that’s pressing into my kidney.
I’m hungry. Not for fries, but for something fried. And greasy. I toss away the T-shirts and towels that I repurposed as a blanket and I sit up. Loose change is still in the cupholders. My duffel is untouched. Glass shards aren’t scattered on the floor mat; the discarded McDonald’s bag remains by its lonesome self.
Parking in the renovated warehouse district was a smart hunch: yuppies don’t smash windows. Especially if someone’s asleep in the back seat.
I step out of my car and into the sunshine weather—warm and perfect, go figure. A new smell hits me. More so, smells: eggs, coffee, bacon. Breakfast. The source is close, just around the corner—a stout building made of windows, also unsmashed. People come and go through the glass doors, smiling for the most part, ushering along plodding children that dawdle eye level with their parents’ kneecaps.
Funny when youth is that slow.
When I go inside, however, past the receptionist who’s distracted with a phone call, the tortoise-esque toddlers vanish. In their void is a warren of hares, dashing about, shrieking, scurrying up ramps and through plastic tunnels, sliding down chutes and clumsily navigating rope bridges. They ascend six-foot climbing walls that must be mountains to them; they swim through ball pits deeper than the sea. Their Velcro sneakers are stowed in neat, rectangular cubbies.
I can smell their feet, but the breakfast aroma persists as well. I look around and spot a café strangely situated within this play place. Baristas ping-pong between espresso machines and coffee grinders, declaring hyphenated names and concoctions amid their ricochets.
DAVE-FLAT-WHITE. ANNIE-ICED-MACCHIATO. SHAWN-BLONDE-POUR-OVER.
The coffee cup centaurs line up as ordered. They collect their claims and move on. ANNIE-ICED-MACCHIATO breezes by a toaster oven that is graciously unveiling a bagel sandwich. A barista wraps it in crinkling foil and slices it in half, yellow cheese dripping onto the plate. My stomach swells.
I take my place in line, invigorated with purpose, pushing my weak body beyond its limits. Internal pangs and gargles intensify with the angst of a forming mob. My legs are flimsy. The spots on the spotted, vinyl floor wobble. It’s suddenly hot.
The children’s shrills echo off the walls—a youthful cycle of laughter, screams, and tears. I try to tune it out as I take another step forward, staring at the spotted floor in case anyone is staring at me. I don’t fit the standard customer profile: dirty tank top, untied boots, unshowered, without child. I’m sure there’s something else I’m forgetting, too.
Still, I wonder: how am I any different from the other line-waiters? It’s morning. Caffeine is a must. Bagel sandwiches are technically optional, but the fasting of sleep wakens cravings in us all. Plus, I doubt everyone here showered this morning. Instead of staring at me, they should stare at themselves. Poh-tay-toe, poh-tah-toe.
Does this place serve hash browns?
The barista stops smiling when I approach the register. I don’t have time to take offense; I need to decipher the felt-board menu.
“I’d like a bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel, um, a medium dark roast, and … any chance you have hash browns?”
The barista hasn’t written any of this down.
“Would it be possible to see your membership card?”
“Of course.” I pat my pockets but only as a symbolic gesture. “Shoot, I forgot it at home.”
“That’s okay, you can just type in your phone number.”
The barista flips the tablet register so the screen faces me. I try my phone number from growing up in case my mom is somehow a member. I get a red “X” in return. Next, I try my current number, yielding the same result.
“Can I level with you?” I lean in toward the barista so no one else can hear. “I’ve been having a rough go of things—”
“I’m sorry, but—”
“So from one regular human being to another, could you please just help me out? I’ll pay and tip and leave right when I get my food.”
The barista wearily looks around.
“Unfortunately, that’s policy. The café is for members only.”
I anxiously scratch the back of my head. My stomach continues to rumble; my throat is dry. My ears are ringing but not loud enough to drown out the mumbles and murmurs of the other line-waiters.
(“What’s taking so long?”)
(“Shh. They look… you know.”)
(“How’d they even get in here?”)
(“Daddy, I’m hungry.”)
(“Honey, be polite.”)
I raise my hands and surrender. “Fair enough. Rules are rules.”
Backing away, I bow my head at some of the line-waiters. They pull their children closer.
“Wait!” The barista emerges from behind the counter. “Hold on a second.”
“I already said I’d leave. What else do you—”
“The café is for members only”—the barista smiles—“but you can still sign up.”
“I don’t have a lot of money.”
“It’s free. We’ve all done it.”
A wave of positivity sweeps over the crowd.
(“Anyone can join!”)
(“It’s totally worth it!”)
(“And super easy!”)
I try to focus on the barista, but the grinning horde gathers around me. The children stop playing and circle up with their parents. Everyone continues spewing encouragement.
“Okay …” I rub my sweaty palms against one another. “But what exactly does that entail?”
“Just go to the front desk and have your measurements taken.”
“Measurements? For what?”
The barista wags a finger. “For your face, of course!”
(“Don’t be silly!”)
(“Do you live under a rock?”)
The barista goes first, and then the whole crowd follows: one by one, they pull their faces from their heads, taking with them their hair, noses, ears, and lips. Even the kids join in the sequential chain, until the play place is filled with hollow skulls and pale bones.
I knew I was missing something.
I want to run from the vacant congregation, but the room feels atilt. My legs could just as easily give out from under me, and my stomach isn’t quieting down either—it again groans in despair. There’s no fuel in my empty gut.
My fingers touch the stone ridges of my skull—the clefts and fissures, the cracks in what was once smooth and unbroken. I poke the holes between my mandible and molars. It’d be nice to have food stuck between my teeth.
I remind myself that having a face isn’t that bad … It can’t be worse than where I am now, starving without one.
Without saying anything else, I walk to the receptionist. The families slide their faces back on and erupt in cheers. They all watch in anticipation as the receptionist wraps the tape measure around my chin, and there’s a spirited burst of applause when my new face is finally pulled over my head.
Properly outfitted, I return to the café. Everyone moves aside so I can step up to the counter. They all brim with joy except for the barista, who is frowning.
“I have some bad news. We ran out of hash browns.”
I hardly hear this. I’m more concerned with tousling my thick hair. “Oh, that? No worries. The sandwich and coffee are plenty.”
The other baristas work in unison, and my order crystalizes in no time.
Taking my tray, I find an open table beside the windowed wall. The foil wrapper glints daylight as I open my bagel sandwich. I take a bite, and then I take another. Savory, oily goodness bloats my gums to the point that I can barely move my mouth.
On the other side of the glass, it’s sunshine weather—warm and perfect. A not-yet-renovated warehouse obscures the view of my car.
I manage a smile while I chew.
Eugene Schacht resides in Washington, D.C. He holds an MFA in creative writing from American University, and he is a member of the ever-insightful and supportive MetroWriders writing group (obligatory leopard fist). Most importantly, he adores his wife, Rachel, and loves her to the end of the earth and back. He is forever thankful for the home they share with their four cats.