“Do you still have the goat’s milk yogurt?” the man in front of me asks. He’s wearing a graphic t-shirt that says, “FEMINIST,” the letters stretched tight across the soft orb of his belly.
“I don’t think…” I start, uncertain.
“We’ve never had goat’s milk yogurt,” my coworker says, curtly.
I’m back home in Brooklyn after just graduating from college.
“I’m going to work at a restaurant or a bar, save money, write,” I tell people when they ask what my post-grad plans are in that endless, shiny way that people do. I’m moving to Thailand in October to teach English, but I have four empty months and a worryingly empty bank account between me and that nineteen-hour flight.
I spend a week sorting through my belongings and donating at least a third of them, take all the possessions out of my bedroom and paint the walls white, listen to true crime podcasts for hours every day. Once I’ve pulled myself out of that strange hole, I print my resume and hand it out at every place I can find with a “Help Wanted” sign. Only one place—a frozen yogurt store—calls me back.
At my Northeast liberal arts school, I’d half accidentally, half on purpose cultivated a very Brooklyn aesthetic—working at the campus literary magazine, living in the arts-themed house, wearing loose pants—but during my first shift I get the sense that this job might be a little much even for me. Nannies push strollers that cost more than my car; people buy their children eight-dollar organic froyo with flax on top; one woman brings in glass jars each Saturday that we fill by hand with Greek yogurt; everyone is pregnant.
There is no way I will get any material from this, I think. This place is a caricature of itself.
Katie, the storeowner, has me train for a couple hours with Natalia. They teach me the spiel about our local yogurt, show me how to swirl the froyo into cups, and watch me interact with customers. “Now Natalia is going to come out and pretend to be a customer, just to see how it goes.”
Katie disappears into the back. Natalia is tiny—barely five feet in her Crocs. It’s late June, and Pride is this weekend. She has on a baseball cap that says HUMAN in rainbow letters, a pride flag around her neck like a bandana.
“Hey, baby,” she says. “Don’t be nervous. Don’t worry if you forget something.”
I give her the spiel, and Katie comes back out.
“She was terrible,” Natalia says, laughing. I like her right away.
I leave work every night smelling like yogurt and lemon Pledge and bleach. I go home and shower it off and return the next day ready for the spoiled, chemical scent to leach into me again. Parts of the job are easy, enjoyable. I like talking to the customers—something about the scripted, transactional conversations we have satisfies the compulsive part of my brain I spend most of my time trying to tamp down. I love being able to say, “Have a good one,” because working in food service makes me feel that I have the authority to do so. I love dropping the coins I get from tips into the old milk jug I keep on my bookshelf.
There are parts of it I don’t love—specifically, I’m terrified of the frozen yogurt machines. They beep and groan and refuse to dispense yogurt if you don’t prime and grease and clean them perfectly. One day, I spend a catastrophic shift at our Manhattan location: The machines decide not to work, I forget to wash a bucket and the guy who works in the back yells at me, and a friend stops in to visit me and accidentally smashes a glass bottle of kombucha on the floor of the shop.
The summer was never destined to be an easy one. I have just left the comforting embrace of school; it won’t start back up in September the way it has every other year of my life. I have moved back home, where I sleep in my old twin bed and I have to text my mom every night when I get home so she doesn’t worry. I am falling in love with one of my best friends from college—a boy whom I have known, coincidentally, since I was a baby—but he is mostly far away, back home in the Midwest or looking for jobs up and down the East Coast. I babysit in the afternoons and work at the frozen yogurt store in the evenings. Most of my friends work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs, and so I spend the majority of my days alone, running the loop around the park and sleeping late and writing. I am unmoored. I can’t help feeling like I’m waiting for something, but I’m unsure what that something is, exactly.
At the end of August, I work three shifts with a lunatic high school senior named Alexander. He’d been doing an internship in London, but now he’s back and working for a few weeks before school starts up again.
During our first shift, Alexander offers to clean the topping station, something that we do every night before closing. Rather than taking the toppings out row by row, wiping them down, and cleaning beneath them, Alexander removes all thirty-six containers from the case at once. They’re strewn about the store: blueberries perched on top of a yogurt machine, mochi beside the cash register, chocolate chips crowding out the spoons. He leaves them where they are because he can’t stop chatting.
“Do you taste the elderflower in this?” he asks every customer, shoving a sample of Strawberry Elderflower into their hands. We have a bet going—Alexander says it’s just strawberry, but I insist there’s a floral note at the end. The toppings remain out in the open air, in what I’m certain is a blatant health code violation.
“They didn’t have any almonds in London,” Alexander says, eyeing the slivered almonds like a lion eyes a gazelle. “I didn’t realize how much I liked almonds until I couldn’t have them.”
I’m ringing up an older couple when Alexander says, “Julia!”
I whip around, and he’s holding up one of the disposable plastic gloves we wear when serving. Its fingers are bulging with slivered almonds.
“Almond glove,” Alexander says, and there’s something like wonder in his voice. “Watch this, though.”
He twists off an almond-filled finger and throws it back like a shot.
“The perfect snack!” he says, through a mouth full of nuts.
Behind the counter, when the store is empty, my coworkers tell me their secrets.
“I wanted to go away for school,” Elaine, a woman with a long braid who has just started at the store again after a few years away, says, “but my parents wouldn’t let me. They wanted me close. But now my brother’s away for school.”
Her voice is almost inaudible under the buzz of the machines, but I can hear the anger behind it.
“The girl I was hooking up with this summer got roofied by someone while we were out at a bar,” Alexander tells me, looking suddenly big-eyed, younger than his seventeen years.
“My boyfriend and I just broke up. He’s in the army,” Lexie tells me.
Jeanine and her boyfriend are supposed to go camping this weekend, but she’s never been camping before. Still, she says that she wants to be a park ranger: “Move out West, where the sky’s big.” This cowboy-eyed Brooklyn girl has never pitched a tent.
“My girlfriend and I broke up.”
“I hate this yogurt.”
“I’m ashamed that I’m here.”
“I don’t know if I should take back my ex.”
“I hate the customers.”
All these secrets whispered over the rows of fresh fruit, set to the music of the air conditioning unit, undercut by the smell of artificial citrus.
Peanut Butter and Jelly
During our second shift together, Alexander is about to leave to get dinner when he makes a triumphant sound and fishes a Ziploc freezer bag out of his backpack. It’s full of sandwiches, at least a half-dozen.
“Why do you have so many sandwiches?” I ask.
“My friend was on a road trip, and he eats a lot, so he made these, but I guess he didn’t eat them all so he gave some to me,” he says.
A thirty-something guy walks into the store, orders a yogurt, and then spots Alexander and his sandwiches.
“That’s a lot of sandwiches,” he says.
“Yeah, well, my friend was on a road trip, and he eats a lot, so he made these, but I guess he didn’t eat them all so he gave some to me,” Alexander says, repeating his earlier sentence so perfectly that I wonder, for a moment, whether it’s a lie.
“What kind are they?” the guy asks.
“Peanut butter and jelly. Want one?” Alexander responds.
I laugh, certain that this man will turn him down, but he says, “Yeah, thanks,” and munches on the sandwich as he leaves.
Natalia and I like King Princess. We like Jorja Smith and Lizzo and Bishop Briggs. She plays music loudly in the back while she makes the Greek yogurt—a mysterious concoction of highlighter-yellow liquid and chunky cream that becomes fluffy as if by magic—and I play the Clean Pop playlist, reluctantly, in the front. She’s twenty-three to my twenty-two, I learn to my surprise. She seemed older to me: She makes the yogurt, and she is allowed to let me leave early if business is slow.
I go into the back to rinse out the blender and she’s playing Cheap Queen and I say, “Fuck, I love this song,” and she says, “She’s exactly the kind of lesbian I want to be.”
Later that week I’m sweeping under the tables and she’s leaning against the doorjamb of the silver swing door into the kitchen. We’re talking about Euphoria, the HBO show.
“I’m in love with Fezco,” the boyishly freckled, heart-of-gold drug dealer on the show, I tell her. “I made my Instagram public because I realized I should be DMing more celebrities,” I say, only slightly kidding.
“Seriously?” she asks.
It’s only later I realize that this is the exact moment she decided she wanted to be my friend.
I went to one of the best liberal arts schools in the country, and only one person I work with has ever heard of it.
“Why did you go so far?” another one of them asks.
She asks where my sister goes, and I tell her Bowdoin.
“You go to weird schools,” she says, laughing.
In a few weeks I will be in Thailand. This coworker has never been north of the city. Sometimes I feel like an imposter, like a girl playing at “work” before leaving on an adventure her parents are helping her to pay for. This place will be a blip on my timeline; for some of my coworkers, this will be their lives. Some of them feel stuck—I know, because they tell me—while I am here for a moment, free-floating, lucky and leaving soon. Maybe that’s what makes us like a family, though. Maybe leaving and being left behind is what family has always been.
Alexander is out of sorts during our last shift together. He keeps groaning and walking into the back.
“I might have to leave a little early,” he says.
“Why, what’s up?” I ask.
“I ate a whole box of Honey Nut Cheerios in two hours today, and I don’t feel so good.”
“Why did you do that?” I ask him, laughing.
“Well, I was in a car,” he says, as if this answers my question.
“Did it make you feel good?” I ask.
“What are you, a therapist?”
He plays Guy Fieri’s Summer Cookout Spotify playlist at a deafening volume for the rest of the shift to “distract himself,” and asks, “Isn’t this great?” every other song.
“I feel like the word raspberry is gaslighting me,” I tell Natalia and Elaine one evening as I’m cleaning out the frozen yogurt machine and labeling the buckets of yogurt for tomorrow. “Like, there’s really a ‘p’ in there?”
They are tipsy, draped across the tables in the half-dark of the closed store, eating pizza from a nearby shop where the price changes depending on who’s working. They’ve come to pick me up and take me to the bar down the street once I’ve finished closing. I didn’t think that going out with my coworkers would happen—there are rarely more than two people here at a time, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of place that fosters that sort of camaraderie, but here we are, closing up and walking together to the gay bar down the street where the bartenders are named Jerry and Perry.
Inside the bar, it’s dark-paneled and close. Natalia and Elaine order me drinks, and I think about how few of my friends from college, many of them trust-fund wealthy, would buy me a drink without Venmo-requesting me for reimbursement later. Natalia is telling us about the girl she’s seeing, and she says, “I’m crazy, though. You knew that.” She nods to me.
We recently realized that we are both Aries who take Zoloft, so we are bonded for life.
“I was in the psych ward,” she says then. “I tried to kill myself.”
“Yeah, and you ruined my fucking birthday,” Elaine says, and they both laugh. I try frantically to keep a hold on the threads of the conversation.
The two of them have known one another since high school, and there are histories there that will remain unfamiliar to me, but they are gracious, making space for me within the conversation.
“She’s like Veronica,” Elaine says to Natalia, jerking her head at me.
“Who’s Veronica?” I ask.
“The other white girl who worked with us who we liked,” Natalia says, grinning.
“Her family was all so hot,” Elaine sighs.
“Nah, they were just tall and white,” Natalia says.
We stay at the bar until the two of them have to leave to catch their bus. I bike home alone through the orange-purple Brooklyn night, past a young woman walking a snuffling bulldog, past a group of teenage boys taking pulls from a plastic handle, past people tucked into sleeping bags on park benches.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie
The Alexander-shaped hole in my life is filled by Cameron. He lives around the corner from the shop and is there almost constantly from the moment he gets hired. He’s twenty-four, Mormon, and formerly homeschooled. He plays Jesse McCartney during every shift we work together and knows all the words to “Beautiful Soul.” He stays late a few times after his mid-shift ends, watching me close because, in his words, “It takes me a little bit longer to learn things.”
One evening, the store is dead and Natalia is making yogurt in the back. I push open the silver swing door and lean against the kitchen counter. Adele is blasting.
“I’m in my feelings,” Natalia shouts over the hum of the giant blender and then continues singing along to “One and Only.” I love her voice—it’s completely lacking in any sort of musical tone, but always perfectly on pitch.
Cameron meanders into the kitchen, a bucket in one hand. He goes to the sink and sprays down the bucket, tiny droplets beading on his face. I watch his lips moving silently.
“Natalia, Cameron knows all the words,” I shout, and he turns to me, grinning.
“Can you play ‘Set Fire to the Rain?’” he asks.
I queue it up, and when it comes on Natalia and I twirl around the kitchen, belting out the lyrics; Cameron sways in the corner, singing along, beaming, and I can’t help but think that there is no other place in the world where these three people would be together, scream-singing Adele. The froyo machine beeps insistently, its contents over-frozen and forgotten.
It’s almost October. I have less than two weeks left until my last shift. The online schedule says that I’ll be alone in the store, but when I get there I hear Natalia singing loudly in the back. She’s done at 9:30 p.m., and I ask her what she’s doing after and she says, “Nothing.”
“Wanna hangout?” I say.
She stays until I close at 11 p.m., puts on her Spotify playlist in the front and mops while I clean out the machines. She locks up with her own keys, and we walk to the bar down the street. It’s a Monday. The sidewalk is almost empty. It’s finally getting cold out, and I realize that tonight is the fall equinox. I’ve started having dreams about Thailand, convoluted stress dreams that take place inside unfamiliar houses and, once, strangely, in an Urban Outfitters, where the actress Sophie Turner and her husband Joe Jonas were in the midst of breaking up.
Natalia’s parents are pastors, she’s telling me.
“My mom cried when I told her I was gay,” she says. “But, weirdly, I know that it’s because she loves me. Like, she’s just worried I won’t be with her in heaven.”
Jerry is bartending tonight, not Perry. He leans across the bar to kiss Natalia on the cheek.
“I’m not religious,” she says, “I think religion is basically the worst, but I can’t not think that there’s some sort of creator. I can’t think that it’s all just random chance.”
Normally I’d look down on these sorts of conversations, so often faux-deep. Statements like “I can’t think it’s all just random chance” call to mind concave-chested men smoking cigarettes on the porch outside the arts-themed house and wanting a woman-shaped object to expound at, comically-stoned freshmen, or the kid who talks too much in philosophy seminars. But Natalia’s sipping her ginger ale and Jameson and her forehead is scrunched up as she talks, thinking hard, and it doesn’t feel forced.
“I read this thing once online about Van Gogh,” she tells me. “It was about how, like a hundred years after he died, they found a painting and they could tell that it was by him because they can analyze the brushstrokes and the paint and whatever.”
Humans and snails have mostly the same DNA, she says, so how is that different from Van Gogh’s brushstrokes? How is that not just another mark of a creator? The idea strikes me—helixes of DNA like whorls of paint, hands with habits and tendencies behind them both.
Fall is here in earnest; little pumpkins are set out on the tables, their waxy skins growing more yogurt-speckled every day.
When I’m gone, things will mostly remain as they are. The machines will whir and hum, and the one on the left will likely keep beeping every ten minutes for no discernible reason. The kids from the middle school across the street will continue to treat the place like a cafeteria between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and no one will really mind. The regulars will come in daily, spend baffling amounts of money on frozen yogurt for children who are too young to appreciate it.
Cameron will figure out how to close up by himself, how to get into and out of the store without setting off the alarm. Or maybe he won’t. Alexander will pop by to chat, to taste the yogurt or eat sandwiches or bother Natalia. He will apply to college and leave New York. Jeanine will learn to pitch a tent. Elaine and her boyfriend will get back together.
A new girl has just gotten hired, the replacement me, I think. She’s from California, easy and relaxed. She wears thick fake eyelashes that make her look sleepy and beautiful, and has fine-lined tattoos crawling up the back of her right arm. I see the way Natalia looks at her, face softening, when she’s turned around, and I wonder. I hope.
Natalia will keep chopping strawberries into tiny, uniform pieces. She will keep making yogurt bloom from strange combinations of powders and liquids. She will keep playing her music in the back, singing along so loud you can hear her up front. Or maybe, she’ll leave too. I don’t know. They will stay with me, swirled up inside my memories of this time, curling like strands of DNA. I won’t be able to make sense of it, but I’ll know that it’s beautiful.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.