My Strange Addiction

In seventh grade, I had an addiction.

Many afternoons, I stayed after school to work on the yearbook and the newspaper. Our staff worked simultaneously on both and each month, our newspaper (a packet of regular paper stapled in the top left corner) was handed out in the hallways during lunch. We were each charged with writing something and though I can’t remember a single topic I wrote about, I very much remember sitting at a boxy Macintosh computer typing my articles. We had three Macintosh computers in our classroom, a big deal in 1995, and I loved nothing more than hearing the chorus of the clacking keys as I wrote about whatever was on my little developing brain.

I’d joined the staff at the behest of my mother who knew it was something I could excel at and though we had a designated class every day in which to work on the publications, there was always more to do. With my teacher’s blessing, I self-appointed myself as the one to do it, sometimes staying after the final bell rang to hammer out articles which would entertain and inform the masses at Coppell Middle School West. I loved those afternoons.

My mother was less enthusiastic about my after school ambitions. It wasn’t that she didn’t want me to be involved or that my finding something with which to be excited irritated her, rather, it had everything to do with the fact my school was across town and if I didn’t make it onto the bus which would conveniently squire me to our street corner, she had to come get me. This meant right before dinner, right before my dad got home from work, and right as my two younger siblings were arriving home from their school days, she’d have to stop everything and drive across town. To call it an inconvenience would be to minimalize it, it was a pain in the ass, but in my prepubescent brain, I felt I had no other choice but to be there to get the articles done. If not me, then who?

In reality, I wasn’t alone. There was one other kid who tended to stick around after school as well and our routine was fairly simple. We met in the yearbook room after the final bell, dropped our backpacks off in the chairs of our preferred Macintosh computers, and then walked together to the empty common area outside the cafeteria where the soda and vending machines were located. I then proceeded to purchase a can of orange soda and a Hershey’s bar with almonds to chomp on while I worked.

Every afternoon, a can of orange soda and a Hershey’s bar with almonds.

One such afternoon, I got to the yearbook room before my cohort and began sifting through the pica paper on which the hand-drawn yearbook spreads were outlined.

If you were a yearbook geek like me, you remember pica paper. It’s basically graph paper but formatted to the measurements of a yearbook spread, and we had to hand-draw and outline every box where a photo should sit or text should be input. No computers, no Adobe Suite, just hand drawn designs in the shape of rectangles. It seems as archaic as darkrooms and travel agents now but in the mid-90s, it was just how that sort of thing was done.

As I flipped through the pages, a commotion rang out in the hallway. Moments later, a student ran by our classroom shouting, “The soda machines are going crazy!” Well I needed to see that, so I dropped those pica pages on the floor and chased after him in a dead sprint.

Pushing my way through the crowd of overexcited adolescent insecurities, I saw a girl pressing the Sprite button over and over as fast as she could and as she did, three shiny green cans came toppling down the chute.

Oh, it’s on.

By that point, so many students had been tipped off to this heavenly glitch that most of the sodas had orangish-red lights illuminated next to their large buttons to signal they were sold out, but as luck or providence would have it, the light next to my beloved orange soda was not lit. I began furiously pressing the button without having put any money in the slot and as I did, the machine began making the low, angelic hum of a work-in-progress. With the ferocity usually reserved for playing Whack-a-Mole at Showbiz Pizza, I repeatedly pressed the button like my life depended on it.

Clang, clang, clang, clang.

I looked down as four cans of cold orange soda landed in the chute below. Nectar of the gods, it worked! I heard a few students wowing in astonishment as I reached down and grabbed all four cans. Cradling them like the precious gifts they were, I turned to walk back to the yearbook room. As I did, the crowd parted like the Red Sea and I, it’s soda-bearing Moses, walked through with my head held high and the light of God in my eyes. I smiled a Grinchy smile as I entered our classroom and boasted of my good fortune to my cohort who was now sitting at his Macintosh computer. I handed him a soda, gave one to my yearbook teacher and kept the other two for myself.

My mountaintop experience felt eternal as all things do when you’re in junior high but it didn’t last long. The soda machines were out of order for the next few days due to whatever turned our lowly Coca-Cola machines into a benevolence committee just giving it all away. Thus began what became known as The Great Soda Famine of 1995 (perhaps known only to me but still, it was a dark time). The next afternoon I stayed after school—again, something that was hyper-inconsiderate and irritated my mother so profoundly she began to retaliate by making me wait outside the school for however long it took for her to find a pocket of time to come and get me—I walked down to the common area and was met with disappointment. No orange sodas. Sure there were plenty of Hershey’s bars with almonds, but without the orange soda, none of it seemed to make any sense anymore.

I sat at my Macintosh, typing away, but couldn’t I focus. My routine had been cracked in two. How was I to write a brilliant op-ed piece about the upcoming spirit day when I had no fuel, no reason for going on? I mentioned to my cohort how I wished the soda machines were working because I really needed the resurrection of an orange soda. I needed it. I was existing, if you can even call it that, in a state of withdrawals and was merely seconds away from gaining a twitch or a second personality. Where are you, Lord? Was the soda my golden calf to be struck down? Why have you forsaken me?

My cohort said we should go to the other campus to get one.

The other campus! I hadn’t even thought about that!

My middle school had once been the high school of our town and as such, there were two distinct buildings on either side of the property. Connected by a long, uncovered sidewalk, I only had one class in that building: science with Mr. Higginbotham. On rainy days, you just had to make a break for it because middle school kids don’t think to bring umbrellas with them to class, and on more than one occasion, my homework arrived soggy from the downpour of a green-skied Texas thunderstorm.

Mostly, that building was for the eighth grade classes but it’s also where the auditorium and the good gym were located. That gym had hardwood floors and a large windows near the ceiling; the sort of gym where “Baby One More Time” could’ve been filmed. It was the site of school dances and pep rallies and it felt entirely grown up compared to the newer, non-wood-floored gym on our side of the campus.

Outside the auditorium, a place I revered like a cathedral, there were two soda machines, both functioning and full of sugary orange sludge. We got our sodas, I breathed a prayerful sigh of relief, and walked the long sidewalk back to the yearbook room. The Great Soda Famine of 1995 had come to an end. It only lasted a day or two but it was touch-and-go there for a minute.

I didn’t think anything of any of this addiction as a seventh grade dumb-dumb. Sodas and candy were just what we ate then (and cheese fries from the cafeteria, the sheer perfection of which I haven’t been able to find since but that’s a whole other story). However, a year later, once we moved across town and I transferred to a new school, I was sitting in my new yearbook room after class, clacking away at my new computer working on my new school’s new yearbook when a conversation between the staff stopped me in my tracks. Eavesdropping has always been my most pronounced spiritual gift after all and one of the girls across the room say to another, “I stopped drinking sodas and lost five pounds in two weeks.” Interesting.

Around that same time while at a restaurant with friends from church, someone asked the coolest person I knew, Josh, why he only ever ordered water to drink. Drinking water is such a foreign concept to the young. Now, it’s all I want to drink but as a teenager, the thought of drinking plain ol’ boring water by choice was an inconceivable idea. He responded, “If that Coke can clean off the oil and guck from my car engine, it doesn’t need to go in my body.”

I began weening myself off of soda that day. That all-consuming quest to find orange soda at my middle school illustrated how dependent I’d become, not just on sodas but on sugar in general. I relapsed a few years later with the invent of Vanilla Coke but luckily, I didn’t spend 40 years in that desert. I did, however, relapse in the grandest of fashions when I was in college.

Though it was no longer an elective, I spent my afternoons in grad school working on the yearbook. As the editor, it was now my full-time job and after a long day of super-sized grad classes, I needed a pick-me-up to get anything done on the yearbook. I turned to Monster energy drinks because they were far easier to get my hands on than going all the way across campus to Common Grounds for iced coffee and what flavor did I turn to? Orange. It was orange soda after school all over again. I even had a small refrigerator next to my desk where I stored them. It was after another similar conversation in the yearbook room, heard because I was once again eavesdropping, about how terrible those energy drinks are for us that I gave them up again.

I’m a bit ashamed of having repeated such a toxic habit in literally the exact same setup and execution as I had in seventh grade. It had been well over decade since The Great Soda Famine of 1995 but I was repeating the same behavior all over again. After class. In the yearbook room. Orange soda. I’m also ashamed it’s taken another decade to recognize this eerily exact repetition. It’s been ten years since I worked on that final yearbook while guzzling energy drinks that could’ve very well stopped my heart (or cleaned the engine on my SUV).

The cyclical nature of our being—of the seasons, of the tides, of fashion, the whole “circle of life” thing—it pops up in the strangest places. The world is fascinating in that way. This, however, is one cycle I’d prefer not to come around again.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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One Reply to “My Strange Addiction”

  1. Really a matter of great joy.Something which you did from your heart, that’s the spirit of a great author.Your pride and joy enabled you to reach this moment and greater moments yet to come.Thanks for sharing. 🙏🌹🙏🌹

    Liked by 1 person

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