My roommate was Chinese and I liked to think it was his Chinese-ness that provided him such a disciplined, confident attitude towards food. When his parents visited one weekend (also Chinese), they brought with them baskets of homemade frozen meals and juice boxes by the dozen. Amongst the litany of irrelevant health food was a plastic cylinder nearly two feet tall labeled ‘party mix.’
It sat unopened on our counter for the first few weeks of summer until one day, a friend of his inquired about the snack and he explained that he didn’t care for pretzels, crackers, cheese puffs and bagel chips; he was unmoved by their cache. He didn’t eat much sodium and encouraged us to have at it.
He offered it as a gift to me, as was his generous and humble way of doing things. Our interactions often left me humbled and ingratiated, and bitterly resenting my parents for not being Chinese. I was surely projecting a racial stereotype, but he served the cliche so gracefully I couldn’t help noticing it.
I tried to react with a matched cultural cliche, refusing the gift and using my Jewish guilt to out-humble his humility. But he insisted that he would throw it out if I didn’t want it, a threat that made my knees sweat. He assured me his non-interest in the party mix and emphasized that I could ration it to myself at my own desired pace. Though he surely meant no harm, I couldn’t help but feel a bit affronted.
It felt like his stoic resistance to junk food was a direct comment on my flaccid, caucasian will power. It had gotten worse in the months since his arrest.
Before the church basement meetings and legal issues thwarted his lifestyle, we had shared a common enthusiasm for malnutrition and the reckless pursuit of chemical stimulation. But the penal system had left him clean, sober, healthy and hard-working. Though good qualities they may be, I found them increasingly difficult to relate to.
He would openly envy my bloodshot hedonism, employing me to get higher and drunker and fatter until he could get a vicarious whiff of the musky indulgence that wafted off my T-shirts like cologne.
Due to my suspicion that this party mix was some sort of test, I begrudgingly ate small portions intermittently throughout the weeks. If I somehow forgot a session, I’d make it up by eating twice the amount next time, all in the interest of hiding from him my rigorous feats of consumption.
He made no comments when the plastic cylinder was gone.
At the end of the summer, we returned to school and his do-good streak continued, spending long hours in libraries while I sat like a grouchy cross-legged wife on the couch, picturing him smoking weed and eating burritos with some roommate he had on the side.
One night in early winter I returned from class to find the apartment empty. After changing my soggy jeans, I opened a beer and smoked two-thirds of a joint. As I sat on the couch, dazed and cozy, I noticed a bright yellow object next to me. It was a bag of peanut M&Ms.
It struck me as strange at first, knowing my roommate’s antipathy for low-brow snack food. But perhaps the bleak grayness of winter had chipped away at his gastronomical fortitude, as it had what remained of mine. I picked up the bag and shook it, listening to the candied percussion inside.
Though the vending machine that produced these treats was only six floors below, I decided to eat the bag and replace it later. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution. I ate them proudly and confidently with a tall beer and a pile of Goldfish, a trio I found to be sonorous in digestion.
Early the next morning, I shuffled down to the basement where the vending machines resided and picked up the replacement pack. I brought it back, dropped the bag casually on the couch and walked away. It was as perfect a crime as I’d ever committed.
The next week, I came home from night class, undressed and got stoned. Plopping my torso on the couch, a yellow bag of M&Ms dropped on the floor. I was stunned.
Surely, I thought, this couldn’t be the same bag.
Who buys M&Ms for long-term consumption? Was he planning to invest them?
As I opened the bag and swallowed three at a time, I began to wonder what exactly this guy was all about. Was he deliberately flexing his will-power in front of me? Was this one of the steps of recovery, to tacitly shame the users around you into sobriety?
I had known a good number of recovering addicts, many of them close friends. Though they spoke of their using days with open remorse, they didn’t seem to make the connection that it was my current situation that they were mourning in past tense. In fact, they were uninterested in the specifics of my lifestyle. They seemed deliberately un-preachy, underlining that I was free to live my life as I chose and that sobriety wasn’t for everybody.
We would catch up over cups of coffee then go our own ways, permitting me to support them while completely contradicting the accomplishment I was commending. But with my roommate it was different. This addict shared my roof and his self-embetterment was something I could not escape, so I ate his M&Ms.
For weeks, I ate the candy and replaced it without his knowing. Day after day, I returned home to see the yellow bag poking out from under a pillow and I’d sigh, accepting that the dance would continue another week.
One night I returned from class in a particularly frowny and grumpish disposition to find the candy, once again, uneaten. I drained the little yellow bag of its bounty and as I chewed obnoxiously, I silently reserved to leave the bag empty on the couch without a replacement. I was tired of living the lie and subconsciously wondered if the candy was ever really his.
The next morning, we passed each other in the hall.
He pointed at me and said, “You ate my M&Ms.”
I punched him in the face.