Joyland

Montreal |

Gluten

by Max Smith

I stop eating gluten. I read labels on packages at the supermarket. Standing for too long in narrow aisles, my eyes squinting at lists of ingredients. I have no idea what gluten is, but I decide it is the root of my problems. Of insomnia, and dry skin, and forgetfulness. My friend says, “Do this cleanse — eat apples, just apples for an entire day.” I can’t remember what the cleanse is for, but I am sure eating apples all day will create its own slew of issues. So I decide to begin with gluten. I buy corn flour and rice crackers. I eat a lot of cheese, and carrots, and dark chocolate. I smoke more. Begin to consume whiskey on a regular basis. Once I cut gluten out, it becomes easier to cut other things out. It begins on a date with a man named Andrew. He’s nice enough, but I pick a fight anyway. I say things like, “You don’t fucking get it,” and “You are so small.” That last one I whisper for greater effect. He’s unimpressed. As he should be. I am not discriminatory though. I begin picking fights with everyone. I sleep sounder without gluten, without men, with two shots of whiskey before bed.
I walk everywhere like I am on a mission. Like I am late for something important. This may include racing strangers on the opposite side of the street, or beating the bus to its next stop. It might be because I hate walking and I want it to be over with as soon as I have stepped outside. Strolling is a strange concept, I think. My roommate, Tom, did a lot of strolling. He was a pothead. He did everything in slow motion. It was painful to watch him butter toast and form sentences at the same time. I found myself grabbing the knife and finishing his sentences. Before he could protest I had left the apartment. I was down the block and moving at mach speeds to another destination. I came home one evening to boxes stacked by the front door and Tom’s insipid-looking girlfriend standing beside them, combing her bangs straight with her fingers. “What’s going on?” I asked, sure she was moving in. I was instantly planning an escape and a fight at the same time. “Waiting for Tom to come back with the truck.” “Truck for what?” “For Tom’s stuff. It’s too heavy to carry it all.” “Carry where?” I was beginning to sound panicky, but I couldn’t keep it out of my voice. She gave me a look that would scare young girls into submission, and I realized she didn’t like me. For some reason this surprised me. “He’s moving in with me. You’re a real bitch, you know?” And there it was. I was a real bitch and my roommate was leaving. And then I recalled a conversation I had with Tom in the kitchen one morning last week. He was pulling things out of the fridge and then leaving it open when he went to do something else. I closed it twice and then I slammed it the third time. When he said, “I-uh-am-well-uh-going—” I interrupted to say, “To stay home and hot box the house.” I was wrong. Tom was, in fact, going to leave it. He had finished that sentence himself.
I didn’t want another roommate. I wanted to cut roommates out too. I decided to make Tom’s room into a music studio. Which meant one guitar, a songbook of Elton John, my tuner, a seashell of picks and a capo. It’s a small room. I start recording myself on an old tape deck I’ve found. I make up words as I go. None of it is good, so it doesn’t matter that I can’t remember the chords later.
“Oh, you’ve become all healthy and shit, I see,” my boss at the deli says when I decline his offer of donuts and tell him I don’t eat wheat anymore. “You got it,” I say. “You women and your wheat,” he says, and I nod. “Yeah, tell me about it.” My boss wears a red apron everyday even though he doesn’t do any work. He hovers around us and plays the exasperated card. When we cut ourselves on the slicers and the blood is gushing over our fingers he takes the time to inform us of our mistakes. But sometimes, if we are really good, we are allowed to be cashier for a couple hours.
On a Saturday night in January, the guy next door comes over to borrow my vacuum cleaner. He has a cowlick in his dark hair and sleepy eyes. He says he is sick of sweeping the carpet. I am wearing a T-shirt Tom left behind that has a picture of Magnum P.I. on it but reads Magnum P.I.G. I have my guitar slung over my chest. I am drinking whiskey. The guy invites me to his weekly poker night. A girl who drinks whiskey is hot. “I have a lot of dust bunnies,” he says and then laughs awkwardly. Probably because of dust bunnies. I am stoic because I am trying to remember how to play poker, not because I think I am either too hot or at all cool for things that end in bunny. I watch him drag the vacuum cleaner down the hall. And then I go inside and Google poker on my computer. I try to remember his name. I debate changing out of Tom’s shirt and put on deodorant instead.
At eight I walk next door. My neighbour introduces me to his three friends whose names I forget immediately. I wait for one of them to address my neighbour. Decide his name is possibly “Buddy” after ruling out “Dude.” “You a performer?” The one with the side-swept bangs asks. “I don’t perform anything,” I say. “But you sing,” he says, and I wait for the question. There is a long silence at the table. I can hear the kitchen tap drip and then he says, “Dan’s heard you so I thought maybe you were some kinda singer.” “Dan?” “Me,” Dan says and then he blushes so deeply I not only know his name, but know I am the one who should be embarrassed. The third friend, who has shot-gunned two beers begins to sing quietly, “Hold me closer tiny dancer.” The three of them begin to snicker. Or whatever is worse than outright laughing because of the attempt to suppress it. I look at the wall behind Dan’s head. My music studio is behind that wall. I put my cards down slowly on the table. “I fold,” I say. “We haven’t begun playing yet.” The side-swept bangs say. “You are so small,” I say, but this time I don’t whisper it and it comes out crazy sounding.
The incident with my neighbour helps me cut back on neighbourly interactions. It means I don’t get my vacuum cleaner back, but then I am able to cut back on cleaning as well. I begin experimenting with baking. I have never liked to cook, but without the white dust of flour in my kitchen and on my pants I enjoy it more. I don’t substitute the wheat ingredient; I just omit it altogether. My brownies never solidify. They burn rapidly and form a hard edge around the sides of the pan that take me three days of soaking to lift. But the gooey dark centre I eat out with a spoon. Pancakes are essentially scrambled eggs with sugar and vanilla, so I add some chocolate chips to the mix. I throw things into the blender and smoke while it purees.
When my boss calls from the deli to find out where I am, or more accurately, where the hell I am, I tell him I have cut out work too. That I don’t want to do it anymore. That I am tired of feeling degraded by meat slicers and crazy ham eating customers. That I am finished with all of it. He doesn’t believe me. “I’ll give you one more chance if you show up for your next shift.” “Yeah, okay then,” I say.
Dan comes by with my vacuum cleaner a week later. “I—” he says. “You’re sorry,” I finish. “It’s fine. I’m over it. I don’t really like Elton John anyway, or poker for that matter. Besides, I was so drunk from the whiskey I don’t remember any of it.” “Right.” He raises his eyebrows and then lifts the vacuum cleaner towards me. The cord is resting on his shoulder. “I was going to say I thought you sounded pretty good singing Elton.” “You were? Huh.” “And that you should start singing again.” “Interesting.” The vacuum cord is still resting on his shoulder and I am clutching the base. “Do you want to come in for some pancakes? I make them with chocolate chips. They’re not really pancakes at all, but I’m working on it. The goal is definitely to make them the consistency of pancakes without having flour.” “I have flour,” he says. “I’ll go grab it, you could have just asked me. I’ll be right back.” I am about to talk gluten with him. I am about to, but I am nodding instead.