Some of the simplest things in life can make us so happy if we let them. Case in point: I’m 17 years old, and I’ve just left home for college. I am attending my first semester at an extremely conservative Baptist school. Sex is forbidden and to tell the truth, ants have better social skills than I do, so it’s not as if I can go wild and cause all of my dreams to come true. We aren’t even allowed to go to the movies or drive cars. My freedom means one thing. My mom can’t tell me what to eat any more. No more couscous. No more steamed broccoli. No more watery spaghetti.
The dining commons offers new things that most students lament over. To my delight, things like cauliflower swimming in salty cheese sauce inhabit my compartmentalized tray. There is Hungarian goulash. And green bean casserole. And rice sparkling with gravy that is ladled from huge vats by girls my age wearing aprons. It’s the good, salty stuff. Lots of it. Grease, too. It is wonderful. Sometimes I wait in the salad bar line just to fill a plastic bowl full of carrot shavings and then dump fresh Ranch dressing all over it. It’s the Ranch dressing with fat in it. Freshly made. It feels decadent.
Other students brag about getting to eat meals off-campus. I don’t get it. I’m thrilled right where I am.
Even better, the basement of my dorm offers me a vault full of treats that I only need a few quarters or dollars for. On the days when I have no lunch plans and don’t want to be seen eating by myself in the dining commons, I treat myself to the machines down stairs. Mom doesn’t need to hear about it. It’s grand! I can’t wait to taste the things that have always been forbidden to me. I decide that honey buns are the most exquisite snack available. I find them naughtily heavy in my hands, and disgustingly soggy. I lick my fingers and type my papers, barely hearing my roommates giggle and tell secrets in the bunk next to me because I just want to nail an ‘A.’ I’m happy.
Weekends mean taking the bus to the grocery store. Hot pots are the only cooking device allowed in the dorms, so we all learn to “cook” creatively, attempting our own renditions of Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, and steamed vegetables. My favorite is steamed brussels sprouts with salt and pepper. Because we have no refrigerators, I eat as much as I can of them for the next two days until they rot in the heat of the dorms and I have to toss the little buds into the waste basket on top of all of our hair.
Three years later, I’m at a private art school after I’ve begged my parents to not make me go back to the Baptist university. At the art school by the beach, no one cares what I wear or where I go. And still, mom doesn’t have to know what I’m eating. Totinos Pizzas, mixtures of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum and Diet Dr. Thunder, and whatever I can steal out of my boyfriend’s take-out box from the cafeteria are my diet. Still no sushi. No recipes. No dinners out. But I am pleased — pleased with the pizzas from Papa Johns that we all pitch in on. They smell heavily of garlic, and I can eat four or five slices if I want to. I eat bags of Swedish Fish in the library. I hoard my fudgesicles in the freezer.
My pleasure was uncomplicated. I enjoyed simply what I had access to, which was more than I’d ever had access to in my life, not thinking to ever ask for more or challenge my own comfortability. I didn’t want or need a gourmet meal. I had nothing to prove, and no one to impress. I had the final say on what filled me, and the right to fantasize about what I chose. In a certain way, my heightened excitement was because I was experiencing a fundamental freedom for the first time.
That reminds me: we’re freer than we think. All of the time. Suppress any of the basic notions of life, and the simplest things — sight, the ability to ambulate, the dollar to spend, the alternate route to work, the food in your freezer, the numbers in your phone, even that vending machine… represent opportunities. Suppression elevates simple choices into actual freedoms, the relationship between which a privileged society has a hard time understanding. Freedom not understood is a choice we hold without grasping.
Honey buns? Sure. I wouldn’t eat one today, but my former childish appreciation for them reminds me to remain insatiable in that exact way, acknowledging something’s substance, weight, and taste as an occasion in and of itself. In the fall-out from my very suppressed childhood and early adult years, I find myself logging the details of some rather trivial things, honoring them as freedoms. My tendency for this continual, absurd autobiography has become a running joke among friends. But it remains the most natural expression I know, and I honestly don’t ever want to kick it. In fact, I want nothing more than to share it. A lot.