Oh, hello, nice to see you, have a seat — let’s stress-eat some chips together. Let’s turn ourselves, briefly, into dusty-fingered junk-food receptacles. This will force us to stop looking, for a few minutes, at the bramble of tabs we’ve had open on our internet browsers for all these awful months: the articles we’ve been too frazzled to read about the TV shows we’ve been meaning to watch; the useless products we keep almost impulse-buying; the sports highlights and classic films that we digest in 12-second bursts every four days; that little cartoon diagram of how to best lay out your fruit orchards in Animal Crossing. Eating these chips will rescue us, above all, from the very worst things on our screens, the cursed news of the outside world — escalating numbers, civic decay, gangs of elderly men behaving like children.
Please, sit down. I’ve got a whole bag of Cool Ranch Doritos here: electric blue, plump as a winter seed, bursting with imminent joy. I found it up in the cupboard over the fridge, where by some miracle my family had yet to discover it — it had slipped sideways behind the protein powder, back near the leftover Halloween candy — so now I’m sitting here all alone at the kitchen counter, about to sail off into the salty seas of decadent gluttony. The next few minutes of my life, at least, are going to be great.
Join me. Grab whatever you’ve got. Open the bag. Pinch it on its crinkly edges and pull apart the seams. Now we’re in business: We have broken the seal. The inside of the bag is silver and shining, a marvel of engineering — strong and flexible and reflective, like an astronaut suit. Lean in, inhale that unmistakable bouquet: toasted corn, dopamine, America, grief! We are the first humans to see these chips since they left the factory who knows when. They have been waiting for us, embalmed in preservatives, like a pharaoh in his dark tomb. These chips might have even been produced in the former world, in the time before the plague, when people gathered in sports stadiums, filled concert halls, touched one another’s faces, high-fived, passed around bottles and joints and phones and cash. But now they have been born into this world, into our doomed timeline, and they have absolutely no idea.
That is the great virtue of chips: They are here for us to eat them. So that is what we will do. I will put the first chip, now, into my mouth. I will set it delicately on my tongue like a communion wafer. Instantly, the flavor snaps against my taste buds — that earthy, cheesy tang — flashing like a firecracker, lighting up the whole wet cave of my mouth and radiating out, further, to fill my whole head, my whole being. These chemicals are transcendent, Proustian, as powerful as any drug: They trigger nodes of memory that stretch back years, decades, back to old Super Bowls and family reunions, back to the outside world that I am trying to forget. Another chip. Another chip.
What is the comfort of junk food? Why do we experience these very empty calories with such passionate sensual absorption? It is a question that predates the pandemic, of course, and probably has a prosaic answer — some proprietary formula hidden under fluorescent lights in a flavor laboratory in New Jersey. But even minor questions take on outsize importance these days. A pandemic, it turns out, produces a curious paradox: It not only creates a shrieking worldwide drama of existential dread — it also puts relentless pressure on the most mundane aspects of our everyday lives. For nearly a year now, many of us have been locked in a controlled environment, a closed lab of selfhood: the Quarantine Institute of Applied Subjectivity. Our homes have become biodomes designed to study the fragile ecosystems of Us. All our neuroses and addictions and habits are under the microscope. Willpower, productivity, resilience, despair. We have turned into scientists of ourselves. And so I watch myself eating chips.
The chips don’t have to be chips, of course; they could be anything you binge in order to self-soothe. Maybe you do jigsaw puzzles instead of answering work email. Maybe you trade options all day on Robinhood. Maybe you walk counterclockwise around your home, over and over, tightening all the screws on every fixture. Maybe you read Twitter.
For me, a bag of chips is a way to defeat time. It brings temporary infinity: a feeling that it will never end. A chip. A chip. A chip. Another chip. The chips come like ocean waves, like human breaths, serial but unique, each part of a huge eternal rhythm but also its own precious discovery.
I hate to say this, to risk breaking the spell, but I have just noticed that my arm is reaching deeper and deeper into the Doritos bag. What used to be just my fingertips turned into my whole wrist, and now, although it seems as if it’s been only five seconds, my whole forearm is disappearing into the bag. It appears that I have eaten one half of an entire bag of chips. Three-quarters, if we are being honest. Well, seven-eighths. The remaining chips are very small, just fragments, resplendent with flavor dust. I believe we have reached the point, in fact, where it would be shameful to leave only what’s left. So we keep going. We must keep going. A chip. A chip. A chip. Keep going. A chip. If we stop, it will end, but if we keep going, it might last forever.
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