I didn’t even know how I got there. I looked up and I’d suddenly arrived.

I sat in the drive thru as I had hundreds of times before, bathed in the soft, red glow of brake lights, and quietly cursed whatever part of my brain that drew me there. I studied the menu like I’d stumbled across some foreign establishment, which wasn’t the case at all. I was practically family. I knew Maria, the cashier whose son played trumpet in the band. I’d befriended Anna, who was working there in the midst of her third trimester and wasn’t sure if she’d come back after welcoming her baby boy into the world. I was some weird stranger to them, some guy who was overly polite, some guy who they probably questioned whether or not he had any friends. Point is, I’m familiar with the place.

I struggled with the decision I’d made hundreds of times before. Occasionally, I’d bounce back and forth from one arbitrarily assigned number to another depending on my mood. That’s what I’d become; a number. Would today be a #10, a nugget day, where I’d attempt to portion out the fries so that they’d disappear at the same rate as the mystery chicken chunks? Or was today a #1, a burger day, where I’d let the scraps fall into the box only to get scraped out by my greedy fingers once the main course was done? Either way, the remainder of my afternoon didn’t look promising.

I decided on the nuggets, whose successful nugget-to-fry-ratio ritual let the air out of some deep, dark OCD balloon that fills inside of me. This was my way of getting some structure into my life. The fries and drink were large, and the drink without ice, because I have some of that at home, and I consider myself to be thrifty. You lose almost half of the volume of your drink to ice. It’s really a waste of money. But what about the meal accompaniment? This item falls into two categories: one for the drive home, and one to enjoy with the main course. My go-to nugget accessories always came off of the value menu, items lauded for their affordability and flexibility to pair well with whichever sauce I chose to drown my sorrows in. I went for two value double cheeseburgers. The cheeseburgers were a stark contrast to the nuggets, and since life is all about balance, it seemed fitting.

I pulled up to the first window and gave my card to the young woman who was multitasking between ringing me out and taking the next order. That was the problem with ordering during lunch; no chat time. This young girl was too busy ringing in a fish filet sandwich to engage me in conversation. That was part of the experience, the greetings, the salutations, the hollow words we’re bound by social contract to say to one another. She hid her disdain for me behind a pretty smile while I shielded her from the air of superiority that blew onto me from the vents in my car. Both of us were secure in that we knew something the other didn’t. She knew the deep dark secrets of the restaurant and I knew how the sunshine felt on my skin.

The second window was a relief. It was the physical manifestation that I was almost there, that I was almost ready to put out this fire that was growing inside of me. Time slowed down when I was waiting for my food. 15 seconds felt like a minute, a minute, like days. I was worried that the cars behind me were judging me for my order; silently commenting from their vehicle about how much food I must have gotten, how that was why it was taking so long. I had a thought about the guy behind me in the luxury sedan loosening his tie, getting out and aggressively approaching me, as to inquire about why I had to order so much food that he’d be kept from an important meeting. He was angry with me. He was loud with his words and violent with his movements. Everything bad happening at that moment was my fault. The woman working the window interrupted my fantasy with a large white bag and heavy Styrofoam cup and sent me on my way.

I pulled away from the window only to stop short of turning out of the parking lot. I reached into the bag and pulled out one of the burgers. It felt so hot, so fresh in my hand. I was fortunate to find myself in the cheeseburger sweet spot. The burger was nice and hot, and the cheese was cold. I could feel the metamorphosis happening in my palm. There’s something to be said for a fresh cheeseburger. I contend it’s one of those things that can’t be topped. I unwrapped the burger, closed my eyes, and immediately took a bite. It was the perfect melange of temperature, flavor, and texture. Everything melted away, my serotonin levels rose to an acceptable level and I smiled for what felt like the first time that day. All was right in the world.

I drove home in bliss, and even finished my burger in the car in front of my apartment, because a song came on the radio that I suddenly liked. I hadn’t liked it before. Food does that to me. It just makes everything okay.

I headed into my apartment and sat on the couch. I emptied the contents of my bag onto the table, turned on some Netflix and grabbed some ice from the freezer. I poured my tea first, so once I got my food organized, the drink would be nice and cold. I resumed the season of Hell’s Kitchen I’d been watching and settled in for an adventure. The nugget box got opened and the fries dispensed into the vacant side. The bbq sauce cups had their lids removed and were stuck to the inside of the now empty fry container. All of this was set on the wrapper of the other double cheese, but not after I’d removed the cheese from the paper. My preferred method was to take the tiny crispy fry and separate the cheese from the wrapper, letter opener style. Then I ate the cheese and that bullshit baby fry all at once.

From this point on, the rest of the meal is a blur of meat, cheese, and carbs, all coming together with surgical precision. I didn’t taste, I barely inhaled, and in a short few minutes it was all over. I came out of the experience with no memory of what had just happened, only remnants of the act; empty dipping sauce cups, crumpled paper, melted ice in the bottom of a cheap dollar store tumbler.

I immediately felt dirty, disappointed in myself, so unaware of why I did what I just did. I wasn’t even hungry and I just consumed enough food for one person for a single day. I didn’t savor it, I didn’t appreciate it, I didn’t enjoy it, not really enjoy it. What I did was mechanical and emotionless, a process executed to appease some primal urge and I was none the better for it. I was used to this feeling and knew better, but went back like I was some jilted lover seeking to set things right. The cycle has been completed: anxiety, anticipation, joy, regret.

I was overwhelmed with an intense urge to fall asleep. My eyelids felt heavy and opened slowly. My body begged me to go lay down so it could process what had just happened. I crawled into my bed, exhausted at three in the afternoon. With each breath, I drifted lower and lower into the abyss. The last thought I had before falling completely asleep was “This is the last time. Tomorrow is a new day, a new start”. Some part of my brain laughed in defiance, as it had heard this shaky promise before.

All I’ve learned is that I’m weak, a weak #10.

Written by Aaron