After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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When I was twelve, my parents put me in a Swiss boarding school. It was the year my breasts appeared, the year I read True Confessions under the covers with a flashlight, the year I first received letters from a boy, the year I finally caught up with my more precocious friends and began to bleed. It was also a year of chocolate — the world’s best chocolate — and I was living right at the source. We went on field trips to chocolate factories; there were no laws to keep little girls from buying tiny foil-wrapped chocolate bottles lined with crystallized sugar and filled with strong, sweet brandies and schnapps. At night, after lights out, we would risk all to slither out of our beds and down the halls to a predetermined room to gather in the dark, hide under the beds, and eat our chocolate. We smeared our hands and faces in rum raisin, hazelnut-cream filling, pralines, and bittersweet chocolate — my favorite — while stifling our giggles and praying the lumped covers we had so carefully sculpted in our empty beds would fool the matron.
We knew there was something daring and voluptuous about chocolate. Nothing else was so sweet and yet still gave that bitter jolt, slightly nasty beneath the silky taste, so grown-up like coffee, so languidly melting on the tongue like parts of our bodies become newly hot and fluid to the touch. Not one of us ever ate our chocolate quickly. We nibbled it, savored it, sucked on it; we tried to make it last.
If I were a tree, there would be a broken, empty ring for that year — my body, in need of nutrients for the great change of puberty, got only sweet, empty promises. Instead of receiving a real initiation into the fullness and sexuality of womanhood, I took pleasure where I could find it, deepening the connection between pleasure and shame.
I didn’t get it as a child, and I still don’t. My family used to tease me. When it came to ice cream, they liked coffee and chocolate; I liked vanilla. When a box of chocolates arrived as a gift, everyone else was excited; I was indifferent. I picked the nuts out, wondering why anyone would want to bury them in that sticky brown mess. I liked the truffles — not for the chocolate, but for the layers. The chocolate chips always got in the way of a nice chewy cookie.
Now I am forty, and I still don’t get it. Chocolate? When it’s hard and cold, it tastes kind of dusty. When it’s warm, it melts too quickly to savor. And it has a bitter aftertaste, no matter how sweet they make it. Now, sucking on a twig from a licorice plant, that I understand. A mouthful of fresh mint leaves, chewed slowly. A banana, the moment before it turns black.
Brooklyn, New York
I don’t remember any chocolate in the sixties. I don’t remember any of us with chocolate smeared in big gooey rings around our mouths like hypoglycemic clowns. We were too skinny and too stoned. Much later, I discover that such innocence is lethal. Here I am on the choppy waters of middle age, feeling guilty about white sugar, insufficient roughage, and red meat. Suddenly, chocolate is on a par with cocaine, meth, and Wild Turkey. I hunker on tiny furniture, my knees up around my ears, and feel wicked with an éclair in my hand. It happens so fast. One minute I’ve got bright auburn hair down to the small of my back, I’m riding on a motorcycle, and doing speed with a really dangerous guy; the next minute I’m a pleasant-enough lady in her forties biting into a gooey dessert and settling my broadening butt onto the couch with a couple of cats. Well, go ahead is what I tell myself when buying a sack of Hershey’s Kisses.
Chocolate has more quirks than a new lover. There’s cheap chocolate covered with the faint bloom of staleness; it’s best discovered in off-season chocolate bunnies, and consumed while reading true-crime paperbacks about Midwestern families slaughtered by thrill-hungry no-goodniks. The perfume of it, that frail, chalky smell of lousy candy, throws me right back into Abingdon Day School, staring hopefully into my lunch box. A Baby Ruth could make my day.
Up in the spice cabinet, like loot from Fort Knox, my mother kept a big slab of baker’s chocolate as dark as a panther. She grated it in hairy peels over black-bottom pie while I whimpered for a taste, never believing it was as rich and bitter as unrequited love. In my own spice cabinet, stuck in the back, wrapped in greasy wax paper, florid with advertisements, I’ve got cooking chocolate, too: light brown and gritty with sugar, Mexican cooking chocolate bought at the mercado. Never mind that I never use it. It’s sweet. I won’t be betrayed again. Not even by chocolate.
There was a time when I considered myself something of a tootsy. I wallowed in thick-scented bath oil, wore fake diamond earrings, and slipped on lacy teddies with loose shoulder straps. On Valentine’s Day my husband handed me a pound of Godiva and took a slide of me pointing a maroon-lacquered nail at a bonbon the size of an apple. We lived in a carriage house then, the only part of a loony estate that ever got built. The top bedroom seemed like a tower after five years of tiny apartments; I took two days and sprawled on mismatched sheets wearing my nylon lace, gobbling Godiva chocolates, and sharing them with no one, no one at all.
About five years later none of it mattered: taste, texture, scent, or love. My mother began her lively rot: cancer chewed termite holes into her bones. My memories from that time are dark; I must have colored them in with a black marker. For those moments were white — the white of bandages, hospitals, cocaine. I woke to white light glaring in my face on various floors and in many cars, my mind blank as a sheet of paper. I dyed my hair light blonde, and mornings I drank vodka from a white coffee cup. The day I knew I’d die, I looked out at the yellow sun which gleamed stickily through my dirty glass patio doors and decided, nope, I wouldn’t die. Not today. And so I went to a meeting.
They sobered me up with candy bars. There was always candy in the middle of the table. Eat lots of chocolate, a cheery lady in a velour jogging suit told me, patting my khaki cheek on her way out the door. I took her advice. I remembered having my periods in the hot Oklahoma summers while Granny dosed my cramps with Whitman’s and coffee. Strong medicine, chocolate. Stuffed with candy, it was hard to think about the bite of vodka. But then it was hard to think about much at all. It’s as if I did nothing but drive for two years: going to meetings, coming from meetings, always with two Hershey’s Bars in my pocketbook, one on the passenger seat, one in the glove compartment. My husband bought chocolate bars in big packages and handed them to me like sugary juju whenever I looked jumpy — waved them at me like melting crucifixes. I’ve still got brown stains in my Big Book.
It’s been five years since that day of certain death, and on my way to a treatment center I’ll sometimes gnaw on a chocolate bar. The fat, buttery taste smears in my mouth like burn ointment, and the landscape outside goes by fast, like a good movie. There’s a fine humming in my head: thoughts circling like bugs. I’m still trying to figure it out so I can sound good to a bunch of strangers. I’ll tell those jittery folks something when I get there, something like: you never know when a chocolate bar might save your life. I’ll tell them what I know: it’s the little things that become big things if you just give ’em enough time. Or maybe it’s simply better to watch the traffic, feel the air, know I’m breathing in and out for one more day. Now — it’s as precious to me as a won war.
At twelve, I started working in my father’s grocery store. We had one big rule — no candy! What a terrible rule for someone who loves chocolate. All through my high-school years I looked forward to the time I’d be on my own and have the freedom to eat a candy bar any time I chose.
But when I was finally in college and out on my own, a voice inside me said, “If you’re ever going to get your share of those gorgeous college men, it means — no candy!” I did attract some very nice boyfriends and finally picked the one most suitable for me.
At last, I thought, freedom — chocolate here I come. But soon, I had five special little spirits depending on me for strong bones, good teeth, and sparkling eyes. Being a responsible mother, I diligently studied nutrition. So again — no candy!
With the children gone, we were finally just husband and wife, content and happy. At last, freedom: Milky Ways, Hershey’s Bars, tender, moist chocolate cake with thick, gooey fudge frosting; Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait; snow white marshmallows slowly melting into thick rich hot chocolate; absolute, utter pleasure.
Now, however, I’ve lost the freedom to sit comfortably in a booth at a restaurant; to sit in a wooden chair with arms; to wear shoes with laces; to run up the stairs to answer the phone.
I’m back where I started — no candy!
Mount Vernon, Washington
Chocolate is my name. People invariably ask, “Is that your real name?” I reply, “My mother was in a sweet mood.”
When I first meet people, there are some who can’t resist countering with “Yeah, and I’m Vanilla,” or “I’m Strawberry,” or “I’m Butterscotch Pecan.” They don’t mean to be unkind; often it masks their embarrassment, shock, disgust, or confusion; how do you deal with someone who goes by the name of your favorite flavor?
There are at least five other Chocolates in the world (and probably more). One is a man who used to work as a dishwasher in an East Village restaurant; two more are entertainers in New York; another is a telephone linewoman in California. Then there is a man called Chocolate Dan, whom I met in a bar in Central City, Colorado, when I thought his friends were addressing me.
I am, however, the only Chocolate I know whose last name is Waters. An editor of a feminist newspaper in Arizona refused to run my byline because she was afraid readers might consider my name obscene. And just last week, when I was trying to make a withdrawal at my hank, a new teller eyed me suspiciously and asked, “What is a Chocolate Waters?”
“A Chocolate Waters,” I replied semi-sweetly, “is me.”
New York, New York
Even when there was very little else, Mama made sure there would be a bit of chocolate. It was the special treat for Mama and me. So many times we didn’t know whether or where we would have a home, or Mama another cleaning job. But somehow, Mama always knew how to get us some chocolate.
She would save it until the day was over and then break it out. I swear, I could hear the foil wrapper from a chocolate bar a mile away. She’d hold me in her lap, tune in “Gunsmoke” on the radio, and then whisper, “Chocolate time.”
Later, when we got a TV, I played with the foil wrapper, making it flicker in the blue glow. Mom and I would huddle together in the darkness to watch “I Love Lucy” and enjoy the comfort of our chocolate together.
We didn’t think about tomorrow. Maybe we’d have to wait hours in line at the welfare office. It could be a day we took in a mountain of dirty sheets to wash. More than likely, I’d have to lug many gallons of smelly, dirty stove oil for a dime a trip.
It never seemed to matter because the evening would come, and we’d be together to have our chocolate. The smell of chocolate always gave me some sense of solace, and the taste, a feeling of comfort and security.
Perhaps that’s why, so many years later when my mother was lying in a hospital dying of lung cancer, I sought out chocolate again. She could no longer speak, and I was having trouble finding any words. She had just been through a particularly painful medical procedure. Tears welled in her eyes as she gripped the bedrails.
In desperation, I ran down to the cafeteria vending machines and bought two chocolate peanut-butter cups. When I returned, an old “Perry Mason” show was beginning on TV. I turned off the lights and as I opened the wrapper, she opened her eyes. She motioned for me to help her sit up. Then I gave her the chocolate and she gave me a wink, and a frail but definite squeeze.
She soon fell asleep. I took the chocolate from her hands, and kissed her goodnight. As soon as I arrived home, the hospital called to tell me Mama had died just ten minutes after I’d left her. As I put on my coat to head back to the hospital, I found the half-eaten, half-melted chocolate cup in my pocket. I sobbed loud, angry sobs for quite a while. This gave way to quieter tears of gratitude. They said she died quietly, in her sleep.
Hyde Park, Massachusetts
Chocolate brings with it an interesting economic quandary: is one succulent morsel of expensive chocolate preferable to several durable over-the-counter chocolates for the same capital outlay? Economists refer to this as the Godiva vs. Hershey dilemma of cocoa-based consumption.
Resolving the dilemma requires supply-side economics and, hopefully, eating your words later.
Given considerations of supply and demand, you must focus on whether others will be asking for bites of your chocolate. If you are alone in a candlelit room wearing a silk robe and reading Ellen Gilchrist’s latest book, you can afford the luxury of a Godiva. But if you sit in a crowded den watching “Taxi” reruns with several people under the age of consent, you’re much better off with Hershey’s Kisses for everyone.
Every Saturday night, my father bought a half-gallon of chocolate, chocolate chip, chocolate-fudge ripple, or rocky-road ice cream in preparation for our weekly ritual in front of the television. We watched my father’s favorite show, “Gunsmoke.” As Matt Dillon challenged evil, we lifted spoonful after spoonful from the cardboard tub. My mother finally stopped setting out serving bowls; we preferred to pass the carton around and around until it was empty, our fingers sticky sweet.
In high school I would devour an entire box of hand-selected See’s chocolates while reading Jane Eyre or Gone with the Wind. The fact that my face broke out seemed a small price to pay for such unadulterated pleasure. At the cinema, my friends and I ate bars of Milky Way, Snickers, and Three Musketeers while watching the doomed lovers in Splendor in the Grass. Afterward we sat at the Woolworth’s counter, drying our tears and consoling one another with creamy chocolate malteds in frosty metal tumblers. After heavy petting sessions with my steady boyfriend in his midnight blue ’57 Chevy, I would order a hot double-fudge sundae from the carhops at Bob’s Big Boy. Sex was sinful but chocolate did more to assuage guilt than ten rosaries after confession. When my dress size went from nine to thirteen, completely bypassing eleven, I swore off chocolate, determined to curb at least one of my rampaging appetites. My resolve lasted until I experienced my first marijuana brownie.
Later, it was the forbidden bodies of men I craved: their skin glistening in the hot sun, their dark bodies melting on the white sheets of my bed. Their mouths soft, sweeter than a hundred Hershey’s Kisses.
Amber Coverdale Sumrall
Santa Cruz, California
I flew back to New Orleans to try a reconciliation with my workaholic husband whom I’d left three months earlier. From there we flew together to Milwaukee for counseling. The shrink specialized in broken marriages among corporate executives.
We stayed for two nights in a hotel near the doctor’s office. We spent eight to ten hours each day in counseling. It was useless. I don’t remember anything about that time, where we stayed, not even the doctor’s name. But I remember the candy store next to the hotel.
During the last few years Ian had come to Milwaukee many times on business. He always returned with the loveliest chocolate I’d ever tasted. Even though Ian and I were living with the awful knowledge that our marriage was slowly deteriorating, he always brought me chocolate.
That day in the candy store in Milwaukee, I realized it was the same chocolate he’d been buying all those years. I also realized that the store owner was the secret lover he’d had all this time.
I bought a lot of bittersweet chocolate before leaving Milwaukee, and I took a long, long time to finish it. But when I did, I was done.