OUR STORY by Rhea Ramakrishnan

OUR STORY by Rhea Ramakrishnan

I’m not trying to compete with Annette. I respect what she does. Annette is in grocery stores. I’m a one-woman show. You can’t compete with a magnate. I’m just trying to find my own niche. 

So I wake up. I watch some of those YouTube videos called “My 5am Morning Routine.” I stare at those women in their matching silk pajama sets brushing their long, shiny hair while looking into their bathroom mirrors, their startlingly soft voiceovers telling me that, in order to wake up at 5am, I need to know “my why.” Then, I type annettesgranola.com into the search bar and click “Our Story.” There she is. She’s wearing a plastic hairnet. She’s holding a tray of fresh product. Calm, keen, hydrated. She’s smiling at me. 

Several years after my short stint in culinary school, I spent a summer waiting tables at a diner on the coast of Maine, reads the text beside her image. Too burnt out on the industry to cook for anyone else, I made myself fresh granola each week

I try to imagine Annette burnt out and can’t. I have seen only that one image of her, but in it she looks effortlessly healthy. And hygienic. The hairnet, the biodegradable gloves. Even her eyebrows, thinner than mine, must contribute to that aura of cleanliness I crave.

I’m tired. Tired all the time. I work at the Dukes Valley Country Club. I’m a caddy. Sometimes they have me on coat check at events. That’s part time work, though—it shouldn’t tax me like it does. I should have time for my entrepreneurial pursuits. 

Whenever I tell someone I’m starting a granola business, they go, “Oh, hey, have you tried that one lady’s? What’s her name…” and I say, “Annette’s. Yes.” 

She’s the best in the business. When I was a kid, my dad would always say to me, “It doesn’t matter what you do, but whatever you do, be the best.” I played soccer competitively through high school and, when I looked at my dad in the bleachers, he’d salute me and he’d mouth the words, “Be the best.” 

Sometimes, you simply are not the best. 

I’ve been a caddy for four and a half years. I sell my plasma every winter. I once signed up to be a participant in a medical study where they inject you with malaria and see how it goes—I didn’t qualify because I was anemic. It doesn’t mean I’ll never find my niche. 

It started when I saw a flyer at the farmers market in search of granola vendors. I thought: Why not me. If you want something you’ve never had before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before. I’d heard that said in a video once. It was called, “My New Workout Split: Leg Day.” 

I built a makeshift pantry along the kitchen wall that extends out into the living room and I bought these big plastic jars at Target to keep all my materials in. I love to look at all those jars lined up so neatly along the wall. Jars of steel-cut oats and sliced almonds. Jars of turmeric and elderberry. Brown sugar and flaxseed. 

My friend Kelcie said, “You should make a recipe with turmeric and ashwagandha. Align the brand with your culture and give it a personal touch.” 

“What culture,” I said, “I’m from Catonsville.”

“But that’s not where you originate from,” said Kelcie, “Besides, what matters is what people perceive as personal, not what actually is.” 

After I look at the jars on my wall, I search “homestead canning” on YouTube and I watch one called “Homestead Pantry Tour,” which is actually a tour of two pantries—one at room temperature and one a cold room—both decked from floor to ceiling with big jars, glass ones, filled brimming with black beans, roasted red peppers, corn, pickle relish, tomato sauce. Strawberry and apricot preserves, preserved lemons. Lavender. Wooden crates of potatoes, cabbage, butternut squash. Garlands of red chile peppers and garlic. A whole row of sliced, dried apples. And the woman who narrates the video wears a practical cotton zip-up sweatshirt with a black base layer beneath. Merino wool? I think. And she gestures to each of the jars and crates with her long, thin fingers that have seen and felt each season and a small curly haired child trails her like an asterisk, blue-eyed and ruddy-cheeked. 

Why do I think there’s a certain type of person whose family rents an RV in the summer and drives it to the Grand Canyon? We never did that. Never really went on road trips at all. I never saw the world’s largest ball of yarn or the birthplace of the modern American hamburger. Why do I think the child in the video has seen the Grand Canyon? Why does he seem both rooted and vulnerable to me? I look at him. I think he’s one of them

But actually, his childhood must not be all that different from mine. Aren’t they all kind of the same? A string of events in which we have no say and could never prepare for. A feeling of everything spinning, always. My mother and I midway between the top of a hill and the bottom. I’ll be Pooh and you’ll be Tigger. The back of my father’s head in the driver’s seat as he drove me home from after care, saying I think maybe McDonald’s tonight

After I have assessed the wall, I pull up a spreadsheet of my inventory. It’s a comprehensive list of each and every one of my ingredients, a textual representation of the plastic Target jars. Beside each item, I’ve written its quantity, where I sourced it, and its price. I’ve color coded the price points I think I could cut by finding a different source and the materials it’s cost-effective to buy in bulk. Some people will tell you that breaking even is the most a small business can hope for in their first year, but I think that’s the old thinking. And besides, I can’t really afford to go into the red. 

Kelcie said I need to make at least twenty batches before I sell it, but every time I change the recipe, I restart the count at zero. I keep changing the recipe. 

It’s not like the caddying is a bad gig, at least not pay-wise. Twenty-five an hour, free lunch, and a key to the golf cart with my name engraved into it. I take it all pretty seriously. I wear a plaid headband and slacks. When the patron says, “Lob wedge, sweetheart,” I don’t waste a breath. When he says, “How’s the old man?” I say, “Can’t wait for retirement.” I make sure the course is immaculate. But it gets pretty slow in the winter months and when it rains, forget about it. Granola’s a four-season business. And the best part is: If it’s profitable enough, you’re not just selling product, you’re selling shares

Anything’s possible. When my dad first moved to this country, he didn’t have a car. He hitchhiked to a job interview as a house painter. When he got the job, the other painters called him Steve because they couldn’t pronounce his real name. He tells this over and over. Now he owns that painting company, a maid service, and a motel in the city. Or at least “within city limits.” The neighborhood’s newsletter called him “The New Face of the American Dream.” When I was a kid, he was like Paul Bunyan to me. 

There had been other parts in between. We moved out of the condo and into a rancher. Out of the rancher and into a bigger place. Dad kept saying it had “good bones” because he’d just learned what that meant. We had the deck converted to a sunroom for the resale value. The neighbors got a dog so we got one too. Dad came to Grandparents’ Day instead of Grandpa, who couldn’t afford the flight and then died two months later. When we discovered P.F. Chang’s we went on the first Friday of every month and I ordered the Chang’s Spicy Chicken so fast each time the waiter didn’t even have time to pull out a pen. I went to college, read a book about wine, and learned what it felt like to be tipsy. When I brought home a bottle of merlot over winter break, Mom tried to mix it with Diet Coke because she said it was “too bitter.”

And then there was the time Dad got a call from USCIS. They said they’d found errors in his identity information and he needed to pay a fine to Immigration and that fine was five thousand dollars. And they said that if he didn’t pay that fine, his immigration documents would be voided and he’d be deported. And they also said that if he told anyone, same deal. He’d be deported. So Dad went to the bank and had five thousand dollars wired to an account he thought belonged to USCIS. He didn’t tell us for weeks. And when he did, Mom said, “Are you an idiot?” 

We don’t talk about that. But I still think about it. 

“You always tell the same stories,” I said to him once. “Tell me a new one.”

This is what he told me. That when he had gotten his first real job, before he’d come here, he’d needed to go on a business trip and had stayed at a kind of hostel. He was only in his room in the evening and kept to himself. Midway through his trip, he came back to his room to find that the person in the room next to his had hammered a hole into the wall large enough to squeeze through and had stolen everything he had. Both of his suitcases. Hadn’t even left the toiletry bag. 

At the end of the story he laughed a little. The way one can when enough time has passed that it seems like the story belongs to someone else’s life, a stranger’s. Or maybe it hadn’t even happened at all. It seemed like he had reached back into some other part of his life to tell me that one. I can’t often get him to do that. And for some reason, when I imagined that hole in the wall big enough for a body, I imagined him on the other side of it, turned so that his face was in profile, looking at something I couldn’t see.  

I wanted to tell him it’s not so bad to lose everything because it means you get to start from nothing. You get to reshuffle the deck. It’s like this video I watched once about affirmations and manifestation. You can tell yourself anything you want about yourself, even if it’s not true yet, and eventually it will be. Maybe. 

But sometimes it’s just easier for me to pretend I’m someone else. And specifically, to pretend I’m Annette. Or to imagine Annette and then pretend I am the person I imagine Annette to be. Color-coded spreadsheets and biweekly nail appointments. Toothpaste and coffee and toilet paper pre-calculated to ship from the Amazon warehouse at just the moment they’re needed. Digital photos of her family on the beach edited black and white, bulk ordered from Shutterfly, and framed beside the staircase. 

I’m Annette and I’m in an interview and the interviewer says, Just a small-town girl from Western Massachusetts—could you ever have imagined becoming the national brand that you are today? 

Well, I laugh. The truth is I never thought about the brand. I just thought to myself, Annette, what do you need? And I made what I needed. I made it from scratch. 

Rhea Ramakrishnan is from Baltimore. Her essays and poems have previously been published in swamp pink (formerly Crazyhorse), Ploughshares, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others.

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