The Unbearable Lightness of Craving

flash fiction by Phil Benton

After a night of little sleep, the twenty ounce Red Eye at Betty’s Coffee Shop was nectar for his soul. The cool air was still and the morning sunshine promised a warm day. John lounged on the wooden deck of the coffee shop peering over the slatted railing at the pedestrian commuters strolling on the sidewalk below. His stomach growled as he spied a middle-aged woman hurrying past with a box of donuts in her hands. He salivated at the thought of following her. It would be so easy to snatch the box from her hand, duck in the nearest alley, and feast on the ill-gotten treat. No one would ever know. What would be the harm? The woman and her hungry co-workers could go without their fattening treat for a day. Hell, he would be doing their waistlines a favor. John’s was on his third chocolate custard filled delicacy when his fantasy was interrupted by a group of older gentlemen who were chuckling loudly over an interesting piece in the Style Weekly. They sat there sipping their coffees, joyously munching on a plate of hot cheddar biscuits. Anger rose in John’s chest as he watched the delicious crumbs fall from the lips of one of the men as he attempted to converse with a full mouth.

John was thirty days gluten free. He absently rubbed the chip between his fingers. He had received it the previous evening from a group of cheering supporters at the local Gluten Anonymous, or GA meeting. This was his reward for white-knuckling thirty excruciating days without wheat. He studied the shiny plastic coin in his hand. On the token’s face was a hand holding a sheaf of rice. Deftly flipping the coin between his fingers he read the simple inscription on the back: Life is Neat Without Wheat. Pocketing the coin, John glanced furtively at the groups of happy patrons around him, all enjoying some type of glutinous delicacy. His cheeks burned with the fire of self-consciousness at the lone cup of coffee in front of him. Do they know? Is it obvious? Fighting the urge to bolt, John opted for a smoke instead. Leaning back in his chair, John, with all the nonchalance he could muster, lit a Pall Mall and waited for his morning coffee companion to arrive.

As the cigarette smoke swirled around his head, John’s thoughts turned to the past. He used to frequent this place with laptop in tow, enjoying a coffee and the pastry du jour. Sipping and munching like a man possessed, he would write for hours while the caffeine and toxic GMOs coursed through his veins. Back then, although aware of the abstinence craze sweeping through places like California and Colorado, he remained blissfully ignorant of what lurked on the horizon. Little did he realize the extent of the guilt and misery that would come from his dietary indiscretions. It began with subtle digs from his then partner Annie. She would berate his weakness when he arrived home with pizza on his breath. From there it progressed at an alarming rate. Many nights of sleeping on the sofa followed. Annie could no longer stand sleeping in the same bed with a man so weak as to succumb to the temptation of fifty- cent wing night at the bar. Self-consciousness and guilt began to plague him in his social life as well. He recalled the horror on the faces of his friends when he arrived at a pot luck dinner with a dish of lasagna. The negative notoriety surrounding his misdeeds finally spread to his workplace. He found himself ostracized at office functions, standing alone with an untouched box of Krispy Crèmes on the credenza. His thoughts turned to Thomas Wolfe and the book You Can’t Go Home Again. Suddenly, he found himself saddened by the parallels of the story and his own situation. His thoughts were, thankfully, interrupted by the clacking of an old Saab as it rolled to a halt at the curb in front of the coffee shop. Out popped his old eating buddy, Marty Rosenberg. A wisp of hair stood at attention against the soft breeze as his disheveled friend climbed the steps of the patio searching for John. Shielding his bespectacled eyes, Rosenberg spotted his friend and offered a wave before ducking inside to score the morning fix.

With a cup of coffee and a large cinnamon roll in tow, Marty joined John on the deck. They exchanged awkward pleasantries. John tried unsuccessfully to ignore the gooey treat placed on the table in front of him. The smell of cinnamon and warm dough made him lightheaded.

“You sure you need that coffee and sugar Marty? You look like you’ve had your limit already.”

The humor was lost on the paunchy little man as he attacked his cinnamon bun. “I got a late start this morning and haven’t eaten.” Suddenly aware of John’s attention to the pastry, he sheepishly adds: “Uh, sorry man, I didn’t think…uh..if this bothers you…”

“It’s OK dude. Don’t worry about it. It’s my problem, not yours, right?”

Marty looked up from his cinnamon roll and stifled a cough. “I guess so, yeah. Hey, how’s this abstinence thing going for you?”

“Great man” he lies. “Never felt better.”

Marty put the roll down and sat back in his chair. He looked at his friend with searching eyes. “Dude, this is crazy. Your wife isn’t coming back. She’s got that Bikram Yoga instructor now. Your so- called friends will drop you like a hot rock if you eat a triscuit. You don’t write for that hippy-dippy new age magazine anymore. You go to meetings with a bunch quinoa crunching kooks, and you avoid hanging with all of your normal friends like we got the plague or something. Fuck it man! Have some fun.”

“I’m not ready to have this conversation Marty. Trust me man, I’m trying to avoid what my GA sponsor calls the power of flour. If I start thinking about sneaking a side of rotini or a saltine with my salad, I’ll be back on the fried chicken before you know it. I’m a gluten junkie my friend.”

“Whatever man.” Rosenberg shook his head while cramming the last bite of cinnamon roll in his jaws. He grabbed his coffee and slid away from the table. “I gotta go to work man. Meet us over at O’Toole’s for a beer this afternoon.”

“Beer’s got wheat in it Marty”, he called to his friend already heading for his car.

John watched his old friend as he drove away in a disgusting cloud of exhaust. Sipping his coffee, he couldn’t help staring at the empty plate across from him. With an audible sigh, he reached for a copy of the Style Weekly to peruse the restaurant ads. A piping hot pizza stared back at him. Damn that looks good, he thought.

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