I stormed into Bagelmania like a one-man invading army. I was rushed, late for work, but what had I had for dinner the night before? Steamed kale and mushrooms, my date's idea, something about a no-carbs diet. It had been less a meal than a leafy appetite suppressant. Now I needed starch and fat, and I needed it portable.
I got to the counter. "Plain bagel, strawberry cream cheese," I told the girl behind the counter without looking up from my smartphone. The office was sending me panicked emails; some big trade was going south. "Make it two."
"That's not what you need," she said. I glanced up in confusion, into the face of a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, with gently curled black hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her large eyes seemed to laugh at me. "Try this one with sundried tomatoes and garlic. Thank me later." She held a bagel in thin wax paper between three well-manicured fingers.
"Just give me a plain bagel with strawberry cream cheese."
Her look challenged me. "This one is forty percent off."
"But I asked for--"
"Sir, there's eight people behind you. You can't take advantage of their patience forever."
I slapped down my credit card. "Whatever. Can't believe they haven't fired you."
She gave me a strange half-smile as she swiped my card. "I'm very good at my job. Do you have a Frequent Bagel Muncher card?" I shook my head, and was surprised when she let this oversight pass without comment.
She put the card and the bagel on a plastic tray. "Could I get this to go?" I asked.
"Eat it here."
Almost in defiance, I snatched the bagel off the tray and tore off a large bite with my teeth. As my mouth closed, it was as though time tripped and stumbled, then caught itself. In that disoriented moment, the whole universe swelled with the taste of sundried tomatoes on chewy starch, mixing with the platonic ideal of garlicked-kissed cream cheese in a manner both playful and sublime. Galaxies of flavor spun through my head, touching off supernovae of sensation.
I staggered, grabbing the nearest chair and seating myself, oblivious to the confused stares of the people waiting in line. "Mmmmm," I groaned, clutching the table as another wave of delight washed over me, overwhelming my senses. I couldn't just taste it, couldn't just smell it. I could hear the rustle of spring air blowing over the tomatoes, and see the sunlight that ripened them. And the texture, chewy, rich, creamy all at once, was transcendent, beyond description. Every yeasty air pocket in the single, precious bite crackled and sparked as the bread melted over my tongue.
At last I swallowed, taking its perfection into my body, suffusing my unworthy soul with the essence of the divine baked good. My breath came faster, and soon I found myself weeping openly, wondering what I had done to deserve such bliss, cursing every heartless or foolish thing I had ever done in my life and swearing then and there to strive to be worthy of a world which had such a bagel in it.
I spent several minutes sitting there, staring in total incomprehension at the seemingly unremarkable bagel between my fingers. I glanced at the girl at the counter, who only smiled and nodded at me as she prepared a mixed dozen for her next customer. Not knowing what else to do, I took a small second bite. As my teeth cracked through the crunchy outer surface and bit off a chunk of doughy interior, I was carried away again, away from a life that seemed now to lack all taste and texture.
Minutes later, as I approached the last bite, I began to fear. What would happen afterward? Would I rush to the counter, screaming for another bagel? Would I hand over my entire wallet in the hopes of getting another taste? Had the woman at the counter hooked me on something? What would Nancy Reagan do if she were here?
But as my throat gulped, taking in the last bite, I felt something unexpected: completeness. I was finished eating the bagel, free of any desire to eat a single crumb more. No stomach-bursting Thanksgiving dinner had ever left me feeling so truly satiated. It wasn't that I was full; nothing was threatening to come back up and spew across the brown tile floor. Instead, my stomach had achieved an unthinkable, zenlike state of non-wanting, non-seeking egolessness.
But I expected that such self-mastery couldn't last long, not for an organ whose sole function was to extract nutrients from the world around it. In the absence of eating, did it have a purpose?
Did I have a purpose?
I walked back up to the counter. The breakfast rush had long since died out, and the black-haired woman was wiping down a counter. "Can I have a dozen of those sun-dried tomato bagels to go?"
The girl shook her head sadly. "It doesn't really work that way. They have to be fresh from the oven."
"You mean, by the time I got them home, they'd just be ordinary bagels?"
"Ordinary? Hah. No, they'd be really damned good bagels. But I don't think that's what you're looking for."
"Should I have another now?"
"Do you want another now?"
I thought a moment. "No, not really."
"Come back tomorrow," she said, her voice consoling. "Ask for the egg sandwich on a sesame seed bagel. You'll understand when you eat it."
"Who are you?"
She flushed slightly, looking away. "I'm the girl who makes the bagels." Another customer walked up, and I walked out the door, feeling regret and anticipation in equal measure.
That day creaked along the way my grandmother drove her '63 Buick Skylark, moving slowly, hesitantly, pulling to a complete stop at the first sign of a pedestrian. I was listless, distracted. Though I did some good damage control and made some great trades, I didn't get the usual gambler's tingle when the payoff came in. That night, instead of going out for drinks with my team, I headed home and slept poorly. I dreamed I'd been lured to the Castle Anthrax by a bagel-shaped beacon. Women swarmed around me, entreating me to attend to their years of pent-up need, but all I could do was open door after door, apologizing to the sexy nymphs behind them. Because what I was really looking for was that damned bagel.
I was bleary-eyed when I stumbled into the bagel shop at six AM, meeting her as she unlocked the door. I may have barged a little. "Egg sandwich on sesame seed," I said, a little too quickly.
She gave me a pitying look. "No, I haven't been up to much, just hung out at home, watched movies with my roommate. What about you?"
"Polite smalltalk," she said, moving behind the counter. "Just roll with it."
I tried, stumbling through a couple of lines about work the day before. I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for it. As my mouth ground to a halt, she picked up a bagel and handed it to me. "Egg sandwich, sesame seed bagel, as requested."
I took it with both hands, lifting it toward my face to inspect it. "It seems so normal."
"That's part of the magic, isn't it? Enjoy." I held up my credit card, but she waved me off. "On the house."
I muttered my thanks and sat down. I took my first bite. It tasted like... egg and cheese. It was warm and chewy, but in a commonly delicious way no different from thousands of other morsels that had passed through my life and my intestines over the years. "I think this one's broken," I said aloud.
"They're all different," she said, not looking up from her book. Fifty Shades, I noted, feeling a little disappointed. And I thought I was falling for her.
I lifted the bagel back toward my mouth, but as it approached it began to slow, then stop. My body and the world around it were frozen. In a long, agonizingly slow motion, I glanced up at the girl, who appeared destined to spend eternity whisking a few stray hairs away from her face. Impossibly tiny shavings of seconds were scraped off, each one dancing away on the breeze as I watched.
My mind felt faster, and yet every thought seemed leisurely, like it was taking an idle swim through the depths of my subconscious. The slow churn brought a lot to the surface.
I'd made things hard on my parents as I grew up, more than I'd realized. They'd loved me even while I shamed them for being poor, for dropping out of college, for failing to leave their mark on the world. In my teenage mind, I thought they owed me that. Provincial was the word I used, just because I knew if I said redneck, they'd understand the insult, and they didn't deserve to understand.
I'd chosen a college a thousand miles away just to get away from them. They couldn't support me financially, and I didn't want support of any other kind.
Frank had been my first boss, an elderly stock broker with white hair and a quiet, thoughtful way about him. His brokerage was small-time, to say the least: a few small-business pensions and a whole lot of little old ladies who would otherwise be hiding their money under their mattresses. Like my parents, he was kind, but provincial, inconsequential. Working for him made me inconsequential.
The whole time I worked for Frank, I'd been sending out a flurry of resumes, finally landing a position at Morgan Stanley after six months. When I told Frank I was leaving, he only nodded and said, "Congratulations." I could see it in his eyes, though: I was supposed to rejuvenate the company, inject "fresh blood" and "new thinking." Something like that. But there's no room for sentiment or loyalty on Wall Street.
I'd come to New York in pursuit of money. I'd found some, but now I realized that what really kept me going was the thrill of the chase, of making the big bets and seeing them pay off. More than that, I had this sense of myself that said I was the sort of clever, lucky person who deserved to have those big bets pay off. I knew deep down that it wasn't enough for me. It didn't mean anything. The work that had filled me with pride two days ago, I looked at with fresh eyes and felt... nothing.
I was still stuck in time, but it wouldn't last. As soon as the bagel unstuck me, I knew what would happen: I'd walk to the subway, take the train to work, ride the elevator up to the thirty-ninth floor, and type up a brief resignation letter.
No wonder the bagel had been on the house. It was gonna cost me millions.
I came unstuck, and practically knocked the sandwich into my lower lip. I dropped the bagel onto the plastic tray.
"I have to go do something," I said, and rushed out the door, walking with purpose. The world didn't need another mediocre junior trader or another stock analyst.
I knew what the world needed.
The world needed more bagels.
"So, how does this work?" She and I stood in the alley behind Bagelmania, leaning against a brick wall covered in grime and grease.
"Bagelmancy is more an art than a science," she said, taking a long drag on a cigarette. "You listen to the bagels. You try to understand what they're looking for, learn to see what the ignorant masses really need. From there, you just match bagels to eaters. Think of it as an eldritch speed dating service."
"And you think I can learn it?"
She nodded. "You have the gift."
"Do I get an apron?"
She puffed on her cigarette again. "One step at a time, young padawan."