They were happy-go-lucky women, middle-aged moms working on minimum pay — or maybe even volunteering to fill up their time.
Their blond hair bobbed lightly around their face as they moved, and their flashy smiles and cashmere sweaters were all the same. As they held the pen and made a perfectly round signature on my tardy slip morning after morning, I noticed that even their perfectly trimmed and lacquered nails did not have a touch of uniqueness. Same old, same old … day in, day out.
This was life every morning in the PPO Annex, a minuscule, windowless front office on the side of the building, greeting you as you walked in. There was a narrow space for you to stand if you were waiting — and if you happened to have stopped in the Annex, trust me, you were always waiting.
The wait times meant you were forced to listen to the women’s senseless banter. It was the kind of chat that was pleasant, calm and predictable, and I often felt my mind turning off under the soothing drone. Sometimes they spoke about their kids, other times about new recipes they’d tried out last night. This is it, I thought then. The apex of life in the suburbs.
Or perhaps that thought didn’t cross my mind then, as a young impressionable 10th grader, but rather I ascribe it now to my then self, now that I’ve moved out of those suburbs and into the city and cannot imagine life back there again. And so I make it up.
Either way, there I was one morning, waiting for Peggy Sue or Grace to sign my tardy slip so I could head to class with an excuse, and their topic of choice that day was gum. “Can I have a stick?” one asked the other. Her wish was granted. As they chewed noisily, one noted how gum makes you hungry. “Why is that?” asked the other. “Well, probably because it gets the stomach juices going, and then you want to eat.”
I’ve always remembered that sentence, because even as I stood there quite accustomed to their thoughts and only half-consciously listening, I wondered if that was true. Of course, as a high schooler, I couldn’t care less when it came down to it and didn’t think twice about it when I left the Annex a few minutes later. I had bigger fish to fry back then … or bigger issues to resolve.
But I’ve always remember that moment. My thoughts have drifted back to it multiple times over the years as I’ve felt the gnawing for sustenance coming from my own stomach after chewing a fresh piece of gum. Is that really why? I wondered.
You’d think I’d have looked it up by now, but I never did. Instead, I stumbled into the answer by chance last night, while I sat at my kitchen table reading up on more nutrition last night at 3 a.m. And now I know better.
Were one of our fellow humans to discover a time machine one day, I’d probably choose to go back to that day one afternoon when I had nothing else particularly interesting to do. I’d walk in the Annex then and stand in the narrow space once again and wait for to Grace go on about the stomach juices. And right when she makes her infamous remark, instead of standing meekly in the corner half-lulled by the commonplace conversation, I’d step forth and raise my hand. “Actually,” I’d offer,”It’s not the stomach juices. Have you checked the label? More likely it’s ‘aspartame,’ an artificial sweetener that causes your pancreas to release insulin, readying the body to receive some kind of sweet. That’s why you feel hungry.”
At their dumbfounded expressions, I’d step even further, take the slip from under their fingers, and say, “And when your body doesn’t receive the sweet it expected — because you’re just chewing gum and not about to wolf down any food — the high insulin levels stay in your body, leading to a condition called ‘prediabetes’.”
And before turning on my heel and walking out of there for once and for all, I’d say: “So, for your children’s sakes, ladies, skip the gum and chew on almonds instead. Good morning.”