Cricket Magazine, September 2020
“So…you gonna eat me or what?”
I look down at my lunch. I know my mom would be mad if she knew I only bought a donut. She’s always on about how a growing girl needs good nutrition, how you can’t learn with just sugar to fuel you. She never mentioned this particular issue though: the donut is talking to me. Some people would be delighted about this, I guess. But me? This is the last thing I need.
Long story, but in the 4th grade I was known as the girl who threw up on her hand. It took two years for me to live that down. Now, in the 6th grade, I think most people have forgotten about it. They haven’t teased me in months, plus Callie’s been over my house twice AND she invited me to her birthday party. But this donut thing could set me back. I don’t want to become known as the girl donuts talk to.
It’s tricky. I know I have the cut-rate brand of suede boots, the pink sweatshirt from Costco with the waffle pattern on it instead of the smooth version that Callie has. So I let her copy my homework when she demands it, but I don’t get good enough grades for her to ask all the time. My lunch is usually socially acceptable these days, now that I convinced my mom to stop packing it in recycled plastic bags and let me use some of my allowance at the cafeteria. I make sure to always get a sandwich and a drink, or maybe a donut; nothing weird or smelly, like fish sticks.
I look around. At least it’s pretty clean in the cafeteria; the teachers are always on the kids to put their recyclables in the right place, to put their dishes in the dish bin. It’s loud in here at the beginning of recess, and a lot of times you can’t hear what the person next to you is saying, let alone a donut. But halfway through, most of the boys go to play soccer and it’s easier to think. I saw Callie buy a donut yesterday, so at least yesterday a donut was acceptable. And I have to admit, I love powdered sugar, even though it’s a job to brush it all off my clothing before 5th period. But I never expected this problem.
I look around carefully. Then I let my long brown hair fall around my napkin like a donut curtain.
“Am I going to eat you?” I whisper.
“Yeah. Are you? Because if you are, I’d like a few moments to compose myself.”
“I was going to,” I say. “Until you started talking.”
“It’s okay,” says the donut magnanimously. “What are donuts for? Go ahead.”
Callie, my so-called friend, is in the bathroom. She asked me to sit with her today, probably to help her with her math homework. Her flowered lunch box sits across from me, declaring to the world that I have friends, or at least one friend. If Callie hears a donut talking to me though, she’ll never let me live it down.
“Um…” I say.
“Yes?” the donut prompts.
“I think I’ll save you for later.” He doesn’t protest, so I wrap him in a napkin and put him in my bag just as Callie sits down again.
“Elizabeth. Who were you talking to?”
“Yes you were. Your lips were moving.” She narrows her eyes.
I have nowhere to go but honesty. “Do you see anyone else around? I was talking to my donut, I guess.” I roll my eyes.
She laughs. “Give me half?”
Before I can say anything, she says, “Never mind. I’ll buy my own.” She gets up from the plastic chair and orders a cinnamon donut. Apparently, they don’t talk.
After lunch we have math block. Mr. Margulies paired me with John for a project two weeks ago, which is the kiss of death socially. I don’t know why, really. John has white-blond hair and blue eyes and is perfectly good-looking by official Callie standards. He’s nice, and he doesn’t smell. His grades are okay, but he’s not a genius. He has a great smile, actually. But no one talks to him ever, except to tease him.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Be his friend! Stand up for him!” But I’m not like that. It’s not for me to topple the middle school hierarchy. It’s all I can do to keep my own head above water.
I speak as little to John as possible while doing our math project together. I can’t afford to have anyone think that I think he’s a member of the human race. He’s used to it. He remains perfectly polite, even when I’m borderline rude. He even offers me a piece of gum every day, which I always decline.
“Scared Margulies will catch you?” he grins today.
I snort inadvertently. “Fat chance.” Margulies is strict; he’ll take you down for talking, but he couldn’t care less if you chew gum. He’s weird like that.
“Take one,” John urges. “It’s cinnamint.” He grins again, and something about his crooked teeth makes me do it. I accept a stick of gum from John “The Geek” Murphy. I can almost hear Callie’s gasp across the room. But of course, she’s not even looking at me.
After school I walk home like always. Last year I used to stay late twice a week for math team, but then I realized that it’s only the geekiest kids who do that. It’s a relief to leave them behind, with their buck teeth, their violin cases, and their weird lunches. Even if it means I walk home alone.
At home, I open a can of cream of mushroom soup and settle down to watch Sponge Bob. It’s not rocket science, but I can’t concentrate. I know I have math homework. And my math homework is at the bottom of my bag, with the donut on top. And I can’t explain this exactly, but even though I might not be on math team anymore, even though it might actually make me cooler, I just CAN’T let myself get a zero for math homework.
My bag is in a heap next to the TV. I go to it. Take a deep breath, then pull back the Velcro in one swift motion, like a spy opening the door of the bad guys’ lair. Or something. Nothing happens. Silence.
God, maybe I imagined the donut talking. Maybe my troubles ARE as small as Margulies pairing me with John again, or what color my pencil box should be. Although, if there really was no talking donut, then I may need a psychiatrist. Which my parents just Could Not Handle. I’m almost starting to hope the donut WAS talking.
I peek inside my bag, lift out the bundle of napkins. I half-expect to feel a heartbeat or something, but no. I put it on the floor. Could I just forget about the donut and do my homework? I open my binder and try to start the first problem, but my heart isn’t in it. I have to know.
Carefully, as though it might bite me, I pull back the top flap of napkin. “HELLO!” the donut says immediately. I giggle.
The donut laughs too. It looks a little squashed, but not too bad. I’d still eat it. All else being equal.
“How are things?” the donut says. “You do your math yet? I never got that geometry business.”
“It’s pre-algebra,” I say. Am I arguing with a donut? Why is this my life?
The phone rings before the donut can respond, and I run to get it. My mom freaks out if I don’t answer the phone right away in the afternoons; she feels a lot of guilt about working, not providing me with siblings, etc. Not enough guilt that she’s bought me a cellphone or anything, but whatever. She should chill.
“Hi, Mom!” I say.
“Whatever,” answers Callie’s voice. “Listen, Elizabeth? Are you and Geek Boy finished with your project for Margulies’ class?”
“Almost,” I say. I didn’t want to be seen meeting with him outside school. So we are actually all finished. But I don’t want to seem smug.
“Show off,” she sighs anyway. “Well, what did you do for number six?” And I spend 20 minutes explaining number six to her.
When I get off the phone, I could swear the donut is smiling. “What?” I say.
“Nothing,” he says. “I’m impressed. I told you I never got that math stuff. Until you explained it – and so nice, too! You didn’t even make her feel stupid…somehow.”
“She’s not stupid. She just doesn’t really care about math.”
“And you didn’t tell her the answer either! You’ve got patience. And real whatchamacallit – interpersonal skills.”
“Well, thanks,” I say. I never thought of dealing with Callie as a skill. More like something you’re forced to do in wartime. Maybe most 6th graders don’t think of their friends that way. I don’t know.
“You got a lot of skills, kid,” continues the donut. “You need to start owning that. Get out from under that Callie’s thumb. She’s got you wrapped around her finger, so to speak. You’re a nice person.” He shrugs. Don’t ask me how, but he does.
“How do you know?” I ask. I never really thought of myself as a nice person.
“Look at you!” says the donut. “You won’t even eat your own donut! I’m going stale here!”
“I feel weird,” I tell him. “Eating someone who’s talking to me. Who’s helping me.”
“Glad to be of service,” says the donut. “But I AM a donut. And if I may say, a delicious donut.”
“I’d still feel weird.”
“I understand,” the donut says. “I notice you have that problem a lot.”
“You know. The one where you feel weird about things, so you don’t do them. Even if you want to. You like math?” he says, changing the subject suddenly.
“Sure,” I say. “It’s got rules, steps. You follow them correctly, you get the right answer. It’s clear. I like that.”
“So why dontcha go to math team anymore then? You loved it.” I start to protest, but then I close my mouth. I don’t know how he knows it, but the donut is right.
“And that guy you like.”
“WHAT guy I like?!”
“The math guy. The blond one. He’s nice.”
“I don’t like him!”
“No?” says the donut mildly. “My mistake.” I stare at him for a moment. He continues, “My cousin Annabelle liked him, a lot.”
“Who the heck is Annabelle?” And how dare she like MY geeky math partner?
“Thursday’s lunch,” says the donut. “She looks a lot like me. Ask him.”
I stare at the donut in disbelief. “So you’re not the only talking donut around?”
“Of course not. Most people keep it quiet.” He somehow shrugs again. “Actually, most people just eat us.”
“You really want me to do that.”
“Elizabeth. Sweetheart. I’m a donut. I taste really good. Dip me in coffee, or maybe, you’re a little young, hot chocolate. It’s what I was made for. Do it; you’ll like it. And the sooner the better. Tomorrow I might be stale.”
I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I go into the kitchen and open a packet of hot chocolate. With marshmallows. I put up some water to boil. I pour it in the mug. Then I go back to the living room and get the donut.
“Are you composed?” I ask him.
“I’m ready,” he says. “And Elizabeth? If you wrap masking tape around your hand with the sticky side out, it helps with the clean-up.”
He’s right about that too, it turns out.
Then I get on the phone. We exchanged numbers at the beginning of the project, but I didn’t think I’d ever use his.
“Hey,” I say, when he answers.
“Hey yourself, Elizabeth.”
We talk about math for a little while, then about pizza, and cooking. His dad, who’s always after him to play badminton with him, for some reason. His little sister. Finally, I get up the courage to ask him.
“Just wondering – you don’t have to, but I was wondering…” I pause. “Could you tell me what you had for lunch on Thursday?”
“Chicken salad sandwich that my mom made,” he says without hesitating. Then, “Oh…well, I bought a donut, but…I saved it for later.”
There is silence.
“Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?”
“Just…” If I do this, I know, I can never go back. Callie won’t talk to me anymore; probably no one will anymore but John. Well, donuts might.
What has Callie ever done for me? John smiles at me every day, and gives me gum. And did his fair share of the math project. And makes me happy.
I take a deep breath. “Do you want to go for pizza after school tomorrow?”
“YES!” he says, surprising me with the strength of his answer. “I mean, yes. Sure.” If donuts can shrug, I guess boys can grin through the phone. “Annabelle told me to let you come to me. I didn’t believe it would work though.”
“Annabelle…..how?” I ask, flabbergasted.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I guess we can discuss it over pizza.”
Pizza doesn’t talk. Right?