Best by 9-18, by Ashley Jensen
I gagged when I opened the bread drawer. Scooping out my fancy 24-grain loaf with both hands, I glared through the thin plastic. The clear spaces between the print seemed to have fogged up like the windshield of a warm car in a cold rain. I coughed pathetically. The light gray-green growth and the subtle but appalling smell meant this bread had to go. I pivoted on the spot and deposited the loaf—flumph—in the kitchen trash, but I hacked and muttered for at least a minute after that. My outrage was ridiculous, and I knew it, but the stamp on the plastic clearly said the bread was best by August 26th, and there were two days to go. A scam, a cheat. But I know bread grows mold. I remember my ninth-grade biology experiments and hand-drawings of bread mold growth. I can’t be mad at the mold. The anger was because I had been lied to. I was gullible. I had been trapped by a faulty label. Shouldn’t that label have the responsibility to tell me the truth? If bread tells me it expires on August 26th, it should expire on August 26th, and no sooner. A best-by date is something sacred. If I can’t trust a label to tell me exactly what I need to know, why have one?
I had a lot of fun with a label maker when I was younger. It was the retro kind, and my dad had pulled it out from the saw-dusty garage. That was when I took it for my own purposes. The thing was fascinating. It looked like a pizza-cutter-ice-cream-scoop-hole-punch-tape dispenser. The dark red ribbon fed into the workings of the machine and came out the other end with words I had recently learned to spell. I chose letters and punctuation by carefully rotating the dial. The letters were white, but I realized on close investigation that the plastic tape just looked white in the places where it was stamped or bent. In short order, I labeled everything in my room and a great deal of things outside of my room as well. Most of the labels included especially insightful information, like my name. Some items received their own names. My bed, for example, was “bed”, and my toys all got labels too. I was happy to make such a meaningful contribution to my family, who would now know the names of everything from my stuffed animals to their books. My sister and I covered our arms and our faces with labels. The adhesive pulled at our stray hairs and impeded the range of motion of our cheeks and mouths. I wanted as many as I could make, I wanted more.
Here’s a brief list of labels that have been stuck to me, in chronological order.
• Band geek
• Sister Jensen
• That one feminist sister
My youthful enthusiasm for labels is probably best explained by their similarity to stickers and a budding bent for organization. But I actually don’t like labels, not now. I don’t want them to have power over me. There are a few that I can live with, and some that make me writhe in discomfort. I hide. I don’t want to be pinned down, and I don’t want to be one of them. If I use that label, it will change everything. I would rather be difficult to figure out. I can’t have anyone know that maybe I’m different. That I don’t—that I’m—I can’t even think about it.
Sirens flip on in my head, and I’m briefly blinded by flashing mental lights. Shut it down. I can’t even think about that, I don’t have those thoughts. I’m holding my breath and the sirens just keep going, and they get louder and more intense and I wish they would stop—and I realize I should maybe start breathing again. When I let out my breath it’s shaky and I shiver along with it. No one can know. I don’t want that label. Who am I? Is there a way to find out? Would I want to?
My feet stumped heavily and automatically down the cement stairs. My backpack jostled. I waited for a response, and I looked out at the sloping green ground, the trees. Breathe. “So,” she said. She smiled, almost grinned. “You’re gay.” It wasn’t a question. It was the confirmation I didn’t want, and I sped up a bit. Maybe she was the one person in my ward who told me she was a lesbian, but that didn’t make her an expert. “Don’t you think, though, that sometimes straight people can just randomly fall for someone? Maybe it doesn’t mean that.” My words hurried to keep up with my feet. She started to laugh but stopped. “Maybe,” she said seriously. “Good, because I’m still straight,” I finished, and she let the subject drop. I wanted to plaster that label to every surface of myself.
Labels are useful. They tell us what things are and let us understand the world. But there’s a dark side to them too. The dark side includes deceitful best-by dates, so that, in our fallen world, we sometimes run out of sandwich bread before lettuce and cheese. And there are more serious consequences. Constructivist approaches to social science argue that labels, once assigned, create stigma and can color, control, construct, and command the way that a person behaves in the future. I don’t think most people like being labeled, in the negative sense. That means being judged. When we wear a label, we are grouped unfairly or painted with a common brush. In childhood, I was painted with the Good Kid ™ brush, and I’m sure that had farther-reaching effects than those teachers could have guessed. And for me, it was good. I didn’t make trouble, and the positive bias that came with my label probably helped my performance as well. I could even capitalize on the “good” label, like when I cut class in high school and no one stopped me to ask why I was strolling down the north hall without a pass. The labels we give people stick, and they have real consequences. Give me a different label, and I might have had a very different story. Labels are impactful enough to affect recidivism rates, medical diagnoses, and our love lives. Flip on the news, and you’ll hear pundits arguing over how long the label of a decades-old offense should stick. Labels can get heavy. Church leaders have talked about how we shouldn’t label ourselves, and labels can be bad. People I know quote obscure churchy articles in Sunday school about how it’s bad to use labels. They irk me with antiquated talks where the use of labels like “gay” or “lesbian” is denounced in favor of the strictly descriptive term “same-sex attracted”. But I think I get the point. If a label could upset the balance of my life, I need to search out what really defines me. The only identity I’m sure of is that I have loving, Godly parents.
Sometimes we need reminders of our labels. We need to reinforce the labels we want to keep. When I’m driving, for example, and someone cuts me off. A rude gesture would be so easy, so inconsequential. I’m Christian, I remind myself. When I stand in a store and stare at the price of something I want, but don’t really need. I’m a student, and I need to pay tuition in a few months. When a girl’s eyes light up in a smile and my gaze shoots to her like a magnet. I’m straight. Her face floats in front of my eyes while I’m trying to focus on something else. I’m straight. She—I’m straight.
I preached Jesus as a missionary in a far-off land, but I didn’t wear the iconic black label.
I wore my nametag a few times, in church on Sundays, if I remembered, but we weren’t supposed to anywhere else. One time I forgot I was wearing it as I rushed out of the chapel. I hopped on the teeming bus and clung to the yellow bar above my head. People stared. The turns and stops in traffic shook me and I stiffened, trying not to smack anyone with my bag. People gave me filthy looks. Someone actually snatched their baby out of my way. My mistake jolted me when I finally looked down. With my free hand I slid off the tag and dropped it in my bag without looking at it.
A small black label, and a whole different reaction.
Since wearing tags was against the rules, my companions and I tried other ways of making ourselves look like missionaries. By far the easiest substitute was to visibly hold the holy scriptures. In Eastern Europe the books that missionaries like me handed out were only available in hardcover, a few inches larger both ways than their paperback English counterparts. My first companion told me the general agreement was that they were produced that way for a reason— so we could defend ourselves if it came to that. I ran my finger along the sharp corners, thinking she might be right. Those special books, the word of God, served a triple purpose: to edify, defend, and identify. Even though I didn’t wear Jesus’ name pinned to my coat, the words “The Book of Mormon” were prominent and legible. I liked to hold it proudly, in the crook of my arm, where no one could miss it, but sometimes I shied away from even that. I worried about scaring people if I sat down next to them on the bus with the bright golden letters facing up. I knew then that the worst outcome would be someone walking away from me, but I still worried. I didn’t want people to judge by the label before they knew who I was. I feared the ancient prophet’s name would make me look cultish or brainwashed. I couldn’t convey on a cover of a book that I knew I came to earth with a divine purpose or that I stressed about the spiritual good of everyone I met. I wanted to switch the gold embossing out for a different title, maybe: “We Are Children of God.”
I braked tensely as I approached the stop sign. I was about to find out if this had actually been a good time to bring it up. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard those familiar sirens a few streets away. The heat had sucked all the oxygen out of my car. Still, I told myself it had to be safe. We just worked together, so she didn’t know most of my friends. I put on my blinker and tried to focus on the road. “Oh, are you pan?” came her response. I shrugged and snuck a look at her face as I checked for oncoming traffic. “I am too, I think,” she admitted, “But I married a guy, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” Doesn’t it? I wondered. I just said “I guess it doesn’t. So, like, maybe, but you can’t tell anyone. Please.”
I’m sitting sideways in my desk, knees in the aisle, listening absently to a lecture, and picking at the many stickers (buy used and save!) on my Plato book. Some of them peel off without leftovers, but others leave sticky tracks and grey gunk. Some of them tear. My fingernails pause when I realize I’ve torn off part of the glossy blue cover. The fuzzy white paper underneath looks vulnerable, wounded. I quickly smooth it down and try to pretend nothing happened. Some labels are meant to stay on.
After class on Wednesday, my oldest friend invited me to go grab lunch. This would be a good time to tell her. The thought popped up unwelcomed and streaked across my mind almost lazily, like a paper airplane. This time the flashing lights flipped on in my head, but the siren stayed off. Progress. I still wrestled with my thoughts all the way through the line for food.
Maybe if there’s a good time for it. I relaxed. We found the least sticky table, set down our lunches, and chatted about class for a few minutes. Then our conversation went quiet. I can do this. I breathed in deeply. But how do I say it? I’m not even sure who I am. “I’m pregnant.” I stared, my head suddenly empty, and it took a second before I realized she had spoken, and I had not. My breath came out all at once in a clap of laughter. “That’s awesome!” My news would wait.
I’ve been avoiding buying bread. I’m thinking about making my own. My parents used to
do that almost every day. The whirring and pulsing of the bread machine heralded the delightful, homey scent that breathed through the house like a sigh of relief. Those loaves rarely lasted past the next morning, so they didn’t need an expiration date.
A part of me just loathes expiration stickers. They’re frustratingly logical, unfairly limiting, and pretentiously bossy. I’m sick of being told when to eat my food. Maybe I don’t want to know what’s what at the store and if I’m being healthy. I don’t want to know at first glance if that avocado is from Peru or if I need to eat my pitas before next week. The information we put on those labels has little bearing on the quality of the product. What if I refused the best bread experience of my life because it said it expired a day too soon? My latent bias could be stopping me from enjoying the most delectable of produce. Labels have been manipulating my life the whole time I’ve lived it and I want to be done with it. I could pick one up that stops me from making spiritual strides or liking who I am or having the future I want to be in. I shouldn’t leave my life in the grip of a label.
And I also still I know that I can’t fully be done with them. Those expiration stickers have their value, and I’m glad I don’t routinely buy stale bread. I know I need labels. I’m almost beginning wish I had a label to name when I let my secret go. I might miss out on a set of people who understand me. Maybe I only hate the labels that aren’t genuine, and I can run down the bread aisle and rip them off. I can scrape off and scrap the untrue labels. Maybe I can learn to trust the remaining labels, maybe I can be okay with keeping some.
Here’s a brief list of the labels I know for sure I want to keep.
• Child of God