An anonymous narrator describes how he pedals his old bicycle from Monument, Massachusetts to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. We find out in a later chapter that the narrator's name is Adam Farmer. Adam leaves home that morning without saying goodbye to anyone. He stalls his journey because of his fears—he has claustrophobia and a fear of open spaces. Most of all, Adam is scared of the dogs he thinks will attack him on his bike route. After he decides to leave, he wraps up a gift for his father, and packs warm clothes for the trip, such as his father's old woolen cap. Adam also takes his savings, about thirty-six dollars, which is enough for a bus trip to Rutterburg. He chooses to ride his bike instead of the bus because he wants to control his direction on the "open road."
Adam wants to call someone named Amy at her school before he leaves, but he decides against it and instead thinks about Amy and something called "Numbers," and their romantic times together. He also does not take some pills before he leaves, and throws them down the garbage disposal. After several miles on the road, Adam is already tired, but soon he reaches a hill and sails into the town of Aswell.
Tape OZ001 is the first of a series of taped transcripts that feature conversations between Adam and someone who introduces himself as Brint. The dates of these conversations have been deleted. Brint, who is "T" on the transcript, asks Adam to try and remember his earliest memories. He alludes to one night in particular. Adam describes this mysterious night as if he were born that night and became a human being. He mentions the sensory impressions of lights and his mother's perfume.
The narrative then switches to a third-person account of Adam and the night. The chapters that are titled "Tape" include conversations between Brint and Adam, and also sometimes have a third-person account of a memory from Adam's past. In this memory, Adam lies in bed in some kind of pain. He tries to listen to the sounds outside his door of his parents making love or cuddling, but this night he hears urgent whispers and they try not to wake him. Adam's father walks to the door, pauses, and then moves on.
The chapter returns to the conversation between Brint and Adam, and starts off after Adam has conveyed the memory of the night to him. Brint questions Adam about the memory, but Adam can only remember that his parents were discussing what to do with him and where to send him. Adam recalls that his family took a long, exhausting bus trip. He finds it odd that he was always aware of two smells—his mother's perfume and his father's scent of tobacco after he smoked—but after the bus trip he never associated his father with cigarettes anymore, as he does not smoke. Adam feels that the trip's purpose was to run away for some reason. They ended up in a different house and, although the family was still together, everything felt different. Since it was winter and still cold at their new house, Brint suggests that they did not move far, and that perhaps his father got transferred in his job. Adam says he is not sure what happened.
The chapter switches to a third-person account of Adam's inner thoughts. We learn that Adam does know what happened, but he does not want to confide in Brint, a doctor, even though he seems friendly. Adam considers telling Brint about the clues, and the narrative jumps back to the taped conversation. Brint asks him "What clues?" In his mind, Adam wonders if the doctor read his mind or if the medicine is just playing tricks on him, making him believe he is thinking when he is actually talking. In the taped conversation, Adam asks to go back, but we do not know where.
Adam narrates, and describes how he gets directions to Rutterburg, a town seventy miles away, from an old man at a gas station. The man does not think Adam will make it to Rutterburg in one day, and Adam tells him he can stay at a motel in Belton Falls that he once stayed at with his family. The man warns him about the "bad guys" in the world, to be wary of his phone being tapped, and to always ask for identification, which may even be forged. Adam tells the old man that he is visiting his father in a hospital, but fears the man will ask him more about his father and mother. Adam is happy when the man does not question him further. The man gives him a road map before he leaves.
The opening of I Am the Cheese is shrouded in mystery. We do not understand why Adam is traveling to Rutterburg or what the chapter's odd title means. Robert Cormier has expressed an admiration for the mystery novel, which he said gives the reader a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. I Am the Cheese contains these three parts within its narrative structure. Although there is no mention of dates, it is clear that Adam's memories with his parents constitute the beginning of the story, his bike ride seems to be the end, while his conversations with Brint seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, all three narratives have their own mysteries. Why did Adam's family leave on the bus that night? Why is Adam disturbed by other discrepancies, such as his father's tobacco smell? What are Amy's "Numbers"? Who is Brint and why is Adam talking to him but withholding certain information? What are the "clues" about which Adam speaks? Lastly, why is Adam visiting his father, and what is in the package?
An air of paranoia also pervades the opening of the novel. The old man at the gas station is paranoid about identity crimes and lack of privacy. Adam does not even share his name with us until later on in the novel. We learn in the third- person narration that Adam is paranoid that Brint can read his mind. Adam's disdain for Brint's medicine implies that Brint is a psychiatrist and Adam is in some kind of hospital.
Additionally, Adam reveals that he harbors serious fears, the most disturbing of which is his fear of both closed and open spaces. His desire is to ride his bike and to control his destiny. Adam's confidence is buttressed by his love of the wind. Adam always feels powerful and fast in the wind, a symbol Cormier will develop in upcoming sections.
I Am the Cheese also fits into the genre of the "orphan quest"—the illicit journey, usually of an adolescent male, to search for his identity away from his home, in the style of Hansel and Gretel or The Catcher in the Rye. Cormier may even have added a direct allusion to The Catcher in the Rye. Adam's father's woolen cap is similar to the red hunting cap Holden took on his journey. In this novel's orphan quest, Adam is seeking his father in an attempt to end his status as an orphan. Adam runs across other father figures early on in his journey—Brint is his fatherly "guide" and the old man talks about his son who died in WWII. Right away, Cormier sets the tone for a darker orphan quest, in that the father figures are shadowy and mysterious.