Sweet distraction: charting a summer in loss and Milk Bar cookies

It starts with the cherry pie cookie.

I notice its butter has stained the bottom of the small paper bag as the barista hands it to me. I haven’t planned to stop into Milk Bar’s Logan Circle flagship store, but there I am on a steamy July afternoon, the grease-blotched, bright-pink-logo-emblazoned paper bag in hand.

My date looks on as my face contorts into expressions of, “Oh, my god, this is amazing.” The butter that had streaked the paper bag melts into a glorious, fatty puddle on my tongue. There is the momentary bliss of creamed butter and sugar, flecked with the tart pop of cherries. I break off another chunk and once again ride the rollercoaster of cookie-induced bliss.

There’s a routine to the way I eat a cookie. I break off one piece at a time, starting with the edges. I always save the center for last, and I do my best to avoid covering myself with crumbs.

Never bite directly into the cookie, an instructional pamphlet might say.

With each morsel of the cherry pie cookie, I am farther from the exhaustion of 3 a.m. work wake-up calls. Distant grows the collective ache of my family, which only two weeks prior had lost its matriarch — my grandmother, Mary. I no longer notice the strange chafe of a new relationship that never really hits its stride.

It is just me and the cookie, carefree. We are Thelma and Louise, flooring it toward the cliff’s edge. I hold onto every single bite, tipping the bag skyward at the end to let the last crumbs slide into my mouth.

The Compost Cookie, eaten on a Friday afternoon, is a treat after another brutal 4 a.m.-to-noon shift editing the newscast and an even more brutal SoulCycle class. The cellophane packaging makes a little too much noise as I pull it open. No one in D.C.’s City Center, with its trickling water features, pricey condos and high-fashion shops, takes notice.

In between pages of a book and sips of iced coffee, there is the crunch of pretzel and potato chip bits, combined with the comforting sweetness of chocolate chips and unexpected butterscotch pieces. There is no feeling of exhaustion.

I phone my mom to say hello, to see how things are at home…and mostly to tell her about the cookie. You can’t talk about baked goods with just anyone, after all. No one appreciates the pure, simple happiness of a good cookie like the woman who taught me to bake.

She fills me in on life on the farm, on how she’s faring with my dad so often on the road for work, on how my grandpa is faring without his partner of more than six decades.

Hurt bubbles up from some unknown place. Its unwelcome warmth simmers around the edges of my face. After we say goodbye, I call back the joy of the cookie. I take a deep breath and go for a long walk.

Peach cobbler has been, for as long as I can recall, one of my dad’s favorite desserts. Fluffy and brimming with butter (as the best desserts are), peach cobbler is unfussy and comforting. It is best eaten piping hot with gratuitous scoops of vanilla ice cream that soften into half-melted mountains and protect your mouth from second-degree burns.

It has never been unwelcome at the McCall family table. “Your grandma was the one who taught me how to make it,” my mom tells me.

So when a peach cobbler cookie appears on Milk Bar’s menu, a familial duty sets in—I must try this cookie. It is the cookie I want most. It’s another toasty July afternoon, and I dial up my faraway cookie companion.

I pace the Milk Bar parking lot, recounting an argument I had with my so-called boyfriend just earlier that day. “Try to see his point of view,” mom tells me. Our remaining days as a couple are few, and I never do see his perspective.

A riptide of butter and sugar carries me away from the island of my frustration as I taste the peach cobbler cookie. Adrift in the waves, I imagine my late grandmother preparing the dessert in her kitchen. The butter’s wrapping glistens in the yellow light. Granules of white sugar are scattered across the countertop. The television atop the refrigerator plays the evening news.

I envision my mom in a similar scene. In our Concord house, set on its cul-de-sac, dad watches TV in the living room. Mom fixes his favorite dessert in a too-small kitchen.

All that’s left of the cookie is the center, dotted with bright orange peaches. This will be the best part—the grand finale—but still I hesitate to take the final bite. If I can preserve this last bite, then perhaps I can preserve my family as I’ve always known it. The magic of the cookie’s plain, everyday ingredients will permit me one more moment to soak it in.

It’s not long enough.

For better or worse, the fruity marshmallow cookie somehow mirrors the Saturday I select it. It is sticky like the stifling D.C. humidity. It is salty like my sweat-slicked skin. It is uncomfortably sweet, as if it has something unpleasant to hide.

But that comes as no surprise. It’s already been the theme of the week. When my boyfriend asks to talk before I go to the grocery store to fetch ingredients for dinner. When, concerned about the effects of my dad’s constant travel on my mom, my sister and I confront our parents and ask, “What’s wrong?” When my dad admits that something is wrong, but he doesn’t know how to tell us yet. So we wait.

Even inside the over-air-conditioned shop with a cookie in my hand, I’m boiling with anxiety.

With each bite, I hope for the magical moment of the peach cobbler cookie. This cookie has no such power. I stare at my failed coping mechanism and acknowledge the twist of nerves turning inside my gut.

I finish the damn thing anyway.

Mom sits on my sofa, watching the finale of The Bachelorette, while I pick at a Compost Cookie. It breaks not in the picturesque, routine way I so adore but in an ugly mess.

My family, it would seem, is coming apart in similar fashion. We’ll no longer be disparate ingredients mixed into a somehow-perfect cookie. The butterscotch chip will strike out on its own. The chocolate chip would like to remain at home. Confused by the cookie’s sudden, unexpected crumbling, the pretzel and potato chip are salty but will diligently try to piece it back together.

My tastes on this cool New York evening prove to be as fickle as the breeze. It comes in bursts, slicing through the last bits of dense air lingering after the afternoon’s storms. I was going to get a milkshake. Or so I thought.

But it might be nice to have something sweet to nibble during the three-and-a-half-hour train ride home, I’ve decided after listening to two women bicker about cookies in the line at the Chelsea Milk Bar. A reunion with an old, reliable friend is in order.

I collapse into my seat on the Northeast Regional, legs sore from riding bikes that go nowhere and nearly 10 miles of walking across lower Manhattan. Pushing aside the plastic bags full of sweaty clothes in my bright blue-and-yellow gym bag, I fish out the chocolate-chocolate cookie as we leave Penn Station.

Don’t you see how sweet life is, even when it’s an uphill climb, even when the resistance is turned up?

The woman across the aisle yells into her phone about how sitting is the new smoking. I wedge myself a little deeper into my seat and pop another piece of cookie into my mouth.


“Milk,” the flagship’s bright neon-pink sign beams into the fading twilight.

Humidity and anxiety, giving up their attempts to suffocate me, have instead hired grief to get the job done, hoping he’ll be more effective.

But the joke is on all three of them because I am, essentially, the neon-pink sign. I refuse to dim my light simply because the world grows dark once in a while.

It is a Friday night — nearly two weeks after my SoulCycle audition, nearly three after the news of my parents’ separation, nearly eight after the loss of my grandmother—and here I am again, awash in the neon sign’s glow.

Splitting the lopsided round of the peanut butter pretzel cookie down its center, I watch the middle wilt. The first bite is a crunch, then a chew: a pretzel piece surrounded with creamy, salty peanut butter.

I sit on a bench outside the store. A group of girls eats soft serve ice cream, and mosquitoes bite my ankles. The flavors of the cookie delight and surprise. I regret having expectations for this cookie. I’m just along for the ride. Maybe life is better that way.

The delivery was free, and that seemed like a good enough reason to order cookies to the office—as if you really need a reason to order cookies. Life is too chaotic, too unpredictable, too temporary not to eat the cookie when you want it.

“I ordered cookies. Come get one,” I tell my friends. Sharing brings me joy, and their smiles pack the best one-two punch. I devour a cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow cookie at my desk while on deadline for All Things Considered.

A corn cookie is the only leftover of the bunch. I take it home, instinctively sticking it in the refrigerator. When I open the fridge in a post-happy hour haze the following evening, the corn cookie is right where I left it, staring back at me.

Hello there.

Joy rushes through my body alongside the sugar. Sometimes it is fleeting, other times it lingers. Like grief, it comes and goes without any real, discernible pattern. Sometimes the cookie breaks in the way I like. Sometimes it disintegrates.

But even when it all falls apart into a dozen messy, difficult pieces, I have to believe those pieces can be just as sweet, just as fulfilling.

And I’d like to try to savor them all the same.

Alexander W. McCall

Written by

Writer. @NPR Producer + Editor. Find me with a book, a cup of coffee or a camera. I'm known to say y'all.

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