Freeze the Day: Heartwarming memoir of a Cafeteria Icebox


Elle Chan

FINDING THE SP(ICE) OF LIFE: An unexpected ‘cheese’y encounter.

Annabel Tiong, Junk Editor

Saudade. A word derived from the Latin solitas, or“solitude”. It was first used in the Great Portuguese Discoveries, by the women and children left to mourn those who disappeared in shipwrecks or died in battle. It is a constant feeling of absence, a wistful longing to be complete and my favorite word.

I am like the Portuguese children, watching the waves of faces pass, year after year, their crooked smiles replaced by identical blue screens and carefree gazes replaced by worry lines, leaving nothing behind for me but a sinking feeling of loneliness. And mold.

Everyday, at exactly 12:56 p.m., the cafeteria ladies breathe out their hitched sigh of relief while shuttling trays of leftover pizza together. Bags of oven-baked Lays and discarded wet bean burritos (upon closer examination by the hungry student) are strewn all over the counters, some even beginning to ice within my recesses.

Trapped by glass walls and the commotion of passing period, I feel an empty ache. I have fulfilled my duty for yet another day. And tomorrow and the day after that, I will do the same.

In the searing post-lunchtime rush silence, I preoccupy my thoughts with how I would write my obituary, if I had one. What was the point of my high school experience? Did I make the most of my time at Northwood High? Well, at least I can say with certainty that the sophomores—particularly the ones that unwrap cones, break off the chocolatey bottoms then try hiding them as if my dark corners will conceal their sins—have a special place in my nicely flame-decorated ending credits.

But besides that, I hate school. Every afternoon feels like an annual inspection by an overeager dentist. Hands picking off shards of ice, swirling around in smug indecisiveness, chunks of stray food finding their way along my edges. This unfulfilling misery couldn’t be all my life was meant to be. I must be missing something.

At least, that’s how I always felt, until this fateful summer break.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m aging, or if the pandemic isolation just hit me a year late or that I got a fresh shipment of ice (this seems unlikely), but I just felt… colder. There was a pit of solitude burning through the tips of my stainless steel tops.

I would never admit it to the chip racks, much less the hot food containers. I’ve always believed high school life was pointless, so why did I feel such despair this summer?

The clear windows seemed particularly menacing as they reflected my embarrassment in counting each passing hour. I even began missing the sophomores, the clammy fingers, the leaky drips of chocolate.

One afternoon in late August, the door suddenly clicked open and the lights flickered on. It was too early to be anyone who worked at the cafeteria. I peered cautiously across the aisle.

Standing before me was a grinning kid with a camera set around their neck. “Let me just… get one quick shot.” And with that, they took a picture of me (notably, without consent) and ran off. For the first time in 12 years, I laughed. Only Howler kids.

Just like that, my life’s frustrating puzzles seemed to click together.

The students would carve out my insides like greedy vultures, leave, and new ones would come in next year, and the year after that. I’d continue to scoff at the freshman, wince at the sophomores and dream about my obituary. I would continue to be a cafeteria icebox, just as I always had. But that was enough for me.

My saudade now takes on a new meaning: “a longing for longing itself.” As a famous poetess put it, “I long for the longings I don’t have.” No longer do I feel incomplete, as I am where I am meant to be. I am saudade, for all the things I no longer wish I had.