This was a long time ago. Before we met. Before you moved to New York. Before long-distance calls and weekend flights and our Sunday morning trips from Union Square to Bushwick on the L train.
I got the job because my girlfriend worked there. She drove a rust-red Volkswagen Rabbit. It was a stick shift. We took the car once on a road trip to your hometown and she drove the whole way, fourteen hours from Calgary to Winnipeg, while I sat and watched the prairie rushing past. She worked weekend mornings. She would be at the doughnut shop by five thirty, mixing up muffins, serving coffee, and boxing doughnuts. Twelve in a box, paper bags for a half-dozen. She made $4.50 an hour. I’m willing to try it out, the boss said. If you work as hard as she does, you’ll do fine. I tried to stop staring at his moustache, an explosion bursting over his lips of dirty brown fuzz dusted with doughnut crumbs. I was just out of high school and never had a job. I started at ten at night and worked through ‘til six, four days on, four days off.
This was before doughnuts were hip. Before college kids and yoga instructors and graphic designers were willing to shell out four bucks for a single hand-crafted, artisan-designed ring of deep-fried dough. I served coffee and mopped the floors, filled the sugar containers and napkin dispensers, and wiped the burnt-orange countertops, emptied the ashtrays. This was in the days when you could smoke in restaurants and the stale smell of cigarettes rose off the yellowed walls in tiny wafts like the whispers of decrepit, bitter men. Mostly, I was there to decorate the doughnuts.
We made two kinds of doughnuts: cake and yeast. The yeast dough was mixed in an industrial mixer and rolled out onto a wooden table, cut into circles or rings like cookies. The cake mix was wet and cranked from a machine out over the vat of hot oil. The doughnuts bobbed like bottles in the sea. There were apple fritters and walnut crunch bars and chocolate cake and honey crullers, but basically all the doughnuts began as rings or spheres of deep-fried dough. They would come out of the fryer hot, and Bob, the baker, would slide the wire trays into a rack to cool. I lifted them from their trays and tossed them in coconut or powdered sugar. I twisted them gently in warm vats of chocolate or maple or vanilla icing. I showered them with rainbow sprinkles. I impaled doughnuts waiting for strawberry, raspberry, and cream on the hollow tubes of the filling machine. After I finished work on weekday mornings I would drive past my girlfriend’s house if our shifts didn’t overlap. I bought packages of the gum she liked, wrapped them in short notes, and tucked them under her car wipers. I’d arrive home exhausted and crawl straight into bed. In those days I dreamt only of doughnuts. An assembly line of doughy treats going on and on, forever.
Bob was in his early forties I think. He had been baking for years. He looked like Wallace Shawn; a short, balding man with a roundness like a deflated beach balloon at his middle. He had a spritely energy. He would dance on his tiptoes and shadowbox. I dodged fake punches when I wandered back to the kitchen at night. He hummed classic rock songs while he worked. He repeated sexist jokes with his head turned to the side and his voice low, like he was sharing a secret. You could see little wheels turning in his head when one of the late-night regulars made a pronouncement about the economy or politics or what women were like. He lived alone.
Bob told me stories about getting so drunk he’d wake up in his bed without his wallet or any money or any memory of what he’d done in the past forty-eight hours. He said it quietly, not ashamed really, but he wasn’t bragging either. He said he tried not to drink anymore. He looked tired. He was unlike the teachers and parents and the few adults I knew. He wasn’t like my friends either, kids who got stoned at house parties and played video games for hours, punks who puked in the alley behind the union hall and were back in the mosh pit before the feedback faded. He watched out for me once when I was too tired to stay awake during my shift. In the storage room I made a bed from bags of doughnut mix and rolled up my hoodie for a pillow. Bob served the only customer we had that night. Just a coffee to go, no doughnut.
I ate a doughnut or two every shift at first. I liked the walnut crunch or the apple fritter, the dough interrupted by the hard texture of nuts, the watery crunch of fruit. I developed a rash on my hands from the oil. My fingers went numb and then erupted at random in pins and needles. My doctor told me about carpal tunnel syndrome and prescribed a wrist brace. I worked around it. I ate fewer doughnuts.
Bob never told me exactly what happened between them but I could guess. One night he came in when he wasn’t scheduled to work. He asked if she was around. His voice had a soft tremble that made me nervous. A few days later I saw them talking outside. She was shaking her head. No, no, no. She shrugged her shoulders and walked off. He came inside and went back to the kitchen. In a few minutes he started to work, banging the pots together and throwing the dough hard on the table. His eyes were red and puffy. He didn’t talk much. Janice didn’t stay long. Management reworked the schedules so I started at eleven and worked until seven. I mixed the muffins in the mornings before heading home. I stayed at the job a few months longer. Bob was the first person I told that I was leaving.
When you said let’s go for doughnuts, I said yes. I hadn’t been avoiding them but I hadn’t sought them out either. I didn’t expect to love them. I didn’t expect the light in your eyes when they had your favourite kind.
It became something we did, Sunday mornings during my visits to New York. Walking up to Union Square and taking the L train to Montrose station. Watching the pigeons on the eaves of the building across from the doughnut shop and how they made themselves a home in an empty apartment on the top floor.
I kept visiting and you came up to Toronto. We took a road trip through the prairies, met for a weekend in Montreal. We spent New Year’s together and the next day we kneaded raisins into dough and dropped the portzelky into hot oil. We were creating new rituals, new traditions together.
In February we texted our friends and asked if they were free in the morning to come to city hall. It was snowing large, soft flakes when we left your apartment. Our friends were there and we said the words and kissed and there were no rings, not yet. One of our friends knew the owner of a nearby restaurant so we trudged through the ankle-deep drifts to Tribeca. I felt warm and shaky, something calm, and also bubbling, radiating. We bought coffees and opened the box of doughnuts from our friend. We ate and laughed and kissed and I reached under the table for your open hand and slipped my sugary fingers through yours.