In the back half of 2011, I was 21, super depressed, sleeping on a mattress without a bed frame, and waiting tables at the local Taco Mac to support my Shakespeare habit. So, this one time, I ate a mozzarella stick from a trash can.
It must have been a slower shift at T’Mac to allow me time to pull off my deep fried mini-heist. I passed through the kitchen doors, and hung a left to deposit some plates at the dish washing station. And there it was. Alone and abandoned in its cheesy perfection, left to rot like a common French fry.
Now, I had walked past the tragic sight of trash mozzarella sticks plenty of times already in my time as a holding-it-together-by-a-thread peddler of buffalo wings. I don’t know what was different about that day, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’ve still never encountered a mozzarella stick that I didn’t love, that I didn’t desperately want, that I wouldn’t at least consider murder over. I was so sad all the time, and I knew that the only thing that could soothe my heart for a fraction of a second was the gooey, glue-like cheese that lurked inside a bread crumb-covered sarcophagus.
My window of consideration was a tight one. I weighed my pros and cons.
“Dani. DANI. It’s in the trash. That’s so gross.”
“Fair. But it’s also at the very top of the trash. It isn’t really touching anything else nasty.”
“Yeah, but you have no idea why someone wouldn’t eat a perfectly good mozzarella stick. I mean, sure, maybe the table was full, but isn’t it more likely that someone sneezed on it or something? Just hold out and get your own for your shift meal, okay?”
“Dani. Come on.”
My heart pounded. I helplessly wiped my sweaty palms against my hideous, salsa-stained khaki shorts. Someone could walk past at any minute, eternally cementing my status as a gross, chubby weirdo.
Reputation be damned. I couldn’t leave a good mozzarella stick behind. I liberated it from the top of its stinking refuse prison, and shoved it into my mouth.
It was cold.
“Sigh. All right. Gross. Can we go get Table 30’s lemon pepper sprinkles now, please? Jesus Christ.”
When I was a little kid, an order of mozzarella sticks signified something special. My first conscious mozzarella stick memory is of my Dad and I at a Red Lobster when I was 4 years old. We had tickets to an early screening of The Lion King, and only we got to go. Not my mom. Not my baby brother. Just me and Dad. That night I was introduced to both gloriously deep-fried cheese and the best film to come out of the Disney Renaissance, and there was nothing wrong with the world.
My family didn’t order appetizers all the time. Watching joyfully as a server delivered fresh mozzarella sticks to our table meant that something awesome was happening. We were on vacation, I graduated high school, or everyone was just really happy and pleased to be around everyone else. Mozzarella sticks are the “Hakuna Matata” of the chain restaurant appetizer menu. Mozzarella sticks mean that everything is good and that there’s nothing to worry about. Mozzarella sticks mean that somebody loves me.
I couldn’t bring myself to love 21-year-old me. Honestly, I still can’t. I cannot fucking stand that nightmare. I hated myself so much. My Shakespeare apprenticeship had barely begun, and I was already confident that all of my fellow apprentices hated me down to my toes. Even in a space where we were told to be open and truthful about our emotions, a teacher asked me in front of everyone else whether or not I had sought out professional help.
Besides hate, disgust was the only other emotion I could conjure for myself. My hair fell down to my waist, and I didn’t know how to do anything with it, so I just walked around with a dull, greasy curtain following me. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been, and suffering the great injustice of working a part-time job that forced me to tuck in my T-shirt. I was almost certainly wearing the wrong bra size.
My forearms still showed off the tiny scars that I’d earned when I tried to cut myself during my junior year. I didn’t understand how to use a razor to do it, and I’ve always been unnerved by looking too closely at the veins in my wrist. So, I sat on the couch of our college apartment while all my roommates were out, and I sawed into my left forearm with a pair of purple craft scissors.
The asshole in me couldn’t help but note, “Wow. You even suck at self-harm.”
I didn’t know about yoga or therapists who operate on a sliding scale at the time, not that I could have afforded them anyway. Coloring books weren’t really a thing yet. That trash mozzarella stick was the only outlet for self-care that I had. The taste of a mozzarella stick took me back to a place where I felt safe and loved. Where I had a bed frame and dolphin wallpaper. Where I knew who I was, and who I was felt okay. The metaphor of a mozzarella stick was my life raft at a time that I couldn’t articulate any of the painful things going on in my brain.
Stealing that mozzarella stick from the garbage was stealing a moment of love for myself. Yeah, it was really, really gross, and definitely against T’Mac policy. But it’s also now kind of a litmus test for how I’m doing these days when it comes to self-care. I’ve felt a depressive episode coming on since Saturday morning, so right now I have a yuzu & lime-scented candle lit while I listen to The Beatles, which I’d argue is loads healthier than a potentially disease-ridden lump of oil and cheese.
So, here’s my problem-free philosophy: The next time I want a mozzarella stick, I’ll care about myself enough to know that I deserve a fresh one that was sitting only on top of a plate before being inside my mouth.