by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
The general condition of the soul, therefore,
is stoic hunger, stoic loneliness.
– Stephen Dunn
Step one, chop the chocolate, the recipe begins, so you unpeel the gold foil from two large bars of Ghiradelli semi-sweet, snap the glossy brown-black bars into squares, and stack the squares like dominoes. Then you choose your biggest knife, a discount store find, and your widest cutting board, because you know from experience the chocolate will shard. That is always your struggle with this recipe, the recipe you otherwise believe to be perfect: the way the chocolate shards. You stack the squares. You lift your knife.
Step one, chop the chocolate.
For a long time, you did not like chocolate. You did not like chocolate when you were in college, and the women you knew were forever confessing the chocolate they’d eaten: the HoHos, the Hershey’s, the cupcakes they’d peel icing from. From their lips the all-American list sounded exotic, an easy, guilty love you did not share. Your boyfriend then, a short Israeli man, called you un-American for your dislike. The vowels came out all wrong, but that didn’t matter because he loved chocolate and you did not and in some essential way that made him American and you not. This became a joke between you, a fine joke because it took what belonged to him—the world—and gave it to you, and took what belonged to you and gave it to him. The Towers wouldn’t fall for three more years still; New York, where you lived, hadn’t yet erupted in a rash of American flags; and the word carried no suspicion, just his gleeful claiming. And for you, when you heard it, a kind of pride. Three years later, done with college, the boyfriend long gone, you still wouldn’t like chocolate. But no one would call you un-American for it then.
As a young child you had loved chocolate. Then your mother, alarmed (the story goes) at the size of a glass bowl of chocolate pudding your father’s mother had brought to the house, told you that you were allergic. You can imagine this: your mother’s quiet, nervous parsimony then, her fear you would be fat. Maybe she really was that afraid you’d eat the whole bowl. More likely, though, she was just sick of the woman who’d worn white to her wedding to your father, insisting that the wedding wasn’t really a wedding because everyone knew that second marriages (your father’s) didn’t count. More likely she did not want to grant that woman pleasure. So she said, Oh, she can’t have that, she’s allergic. Just one sentence. But you believed her, and even now when you so much as look at chocolate pudding your mouth grows slightly itchy and starts to crawl with richness. Which is maybe where the whole chocolate thing started. But you hate that idea because you’re a grown woman now and ought to be over psychosomatic responses to things your mother told you.
Step one, chop the chocolate.
Once you took a woman to an all-chocolate candlelight dinner. You didn’t love the woman, but you were sleeping with her because you were no longer welcome in the bed of the woman you did love, and for now that seemed good enough. (You couldn’t know yet that “for now” would last longer than intended. “For now” always does.) The restaurant was known for themed dinners, amongst them the chocolate, and when your siblings had given you a gift card to the restaurant you’d thanked them but later cried on the phone to your mother because you had no one to bring. You couldn’t tell that to your siblings, who all did have someone to take for romantic dinners, because by this point you were out as gay and while no one had ever said that they were uncomfortable, not exactly, no one much liked hearing about your dates. Especially not your mother, who was the only one you ever told.
The woman you were sleeping with had recently enrolled in acupuncture school, and when the night of her first exam approached, you thought it would be a perfect chance to use the gift card. (Actually, you thought fuck it, because you were tired of having the gift card and no one to take. There would be other gift cards, you reasoned. There would be other dinners. What exactly were you waiting for? The woman loved chocolate.) You called the restaurant. You made the reservation. When the night came you picked up the woman at the acupuncture school. She’d brought a dress to change into, and when she walked to the car in the white cotton slip-dress you admired her slender, cool limbs and her grassy blonde hair. She ducked her head and smiled at you with those upturned lips that were either a smirk or happiness, and you had no idea what she was thinking because with her you never did, but you still wanted to slide your hand up the inside of that long cool thigh, because with her you always did. You closed the car door for her, moved to your own side, trailed your hand up her leg and asked her about the exam. She was still a beginning student and they didn’t let her use needles. Instead she had to take a small white donut sticker, the kind you used as a schoolgirl to reinforce loose-leaf paper, and she had to place it on her exam partner’s skin so that the acupuncture point was inside the hole. If the point was covered she failed the question.
You loved hearing about this, every time. Picturing her, with her long and slender fingers—fingers she would someday use to pierce, to make bleed, to find the relief latent in pain—delicately placing the white sticker on her partner’s smooth, papery (you imagined) skin. The circles were tiny. To place them properly seemed an impossible feat of perfection. True, needles were smaller, but you’d always imagined acupuncture to be a looser art. But the woman, she had to place them perfectly or fail!
You kissed her then, in the car, your hand on her cool perfect thigh. You lived in a world of words, of messy imperfection, nothing ever in the circle or out, all things perhaps possible, which means that they felt impossible. You loved this the way you loved math homework when you were a child. You loved this the way you loved checkers. You loved this.
Dinner was venison with cocoa, dark and murky-tasting and if not delicious or surprising at least fine. The salad was dressed with cocoa nibs, a better combination than you would have expected, a bit spicy. To start there was savory chocolate soup, with shallots and orange.
That soup is the only thing that has ever made you want to wash your mouth out with soap. (And you have had fermented soybeans so sticky with rot they form strings in the air! Once you ate a fish eyeball! You’ve eaten Marmite! But nothing in your memory compares to the soup.) It tasted like dirt, like drinking liquid dirt. It looked like a bowl of hot chocolate and it felt like hot chocolate on your tongue and lifting it to your lips you thought of your cousins in France, and the way that, when you were children, you were jealous to hear them say that in the morning they drank bowls of hot chocolate. But this, they could have this if they wanted this. (They would not want this.)
No way to know that years from this moment you will have a girlfriend whose mother woke her every childhood morning with a bowl of hot chocolate into which she’d stirred six teaspoonfuls of sugar, a number that will make you shake your head when you hear it but will also make you think, that is love. To forego what is responsible for what is delight. To choose to give another such soft happiness. When the girlfriend tells you this story for the first time, you will remember the soup, the soup that was thick and murky and challenging as a bog. You didn’t just not like the soup. You were offended by the soup.
The soup will make you realize that you finally, again, like chocolate. Because you hated the soup for what it was not.
Step one, chop the chocolate.
You are thirty-four and you have hips that cry out for children and a heart that cries out for children and you still do not have children. You are a long way from having children. As you stand at the counter alone, knife in hand, preparing to chop, the girlfriend with the taste for sugar is still months away in the future, and whether the two of you will ever have children is further into the future still. No way of knowing anything, really.
Like you cannot know what she will, someday, be the one show you: your knife is sharding the chocolate.
The future day you learn this she will stand at her own kitchen counter and in front of her will be your handwriting. Step one, chop the chocolate, the paper will say. Her hand will snap the squares. She will lift her knife, and it will gleam, sharp and shiny as yours is not. As you watch her, and watch the clean way the blade glides through the chocolate, finally cutting it into equally measured squares, no shards, you will consider telling her where this recipe came from. You will consider the question of how longing sounds.
Because longing is what you have now, standing at the counter alone. And you have this: A recipe that you found on the Internet when you decided to make a batch of chocolate-chip cookies because you realized that you had never made a batch of chocolate-chip cookies and to you this seemed an unconscionable absence. Too close to your childhood. A failure to comfort, perhaps. A failure to love. You are American, after all. Isn’t this the cookie you should offer?
And in that way that some find overbearing, but that someday, if the God in whom you cannot quite convince yourself to believe is willing, someone will find charming, you dealt with the chocolate chip cookie problem the way you deal with most other problems, spending night after night over the blue glow of your laptop screen, trying to find the one perfect recipe for chocolate-chip cookies. You could not hurry the arrival of someone to love, you figured. You could not sate longing. But what you could do, you decided—all you could do, you decided—was have the cookies ready, the chocolate chip cookies that would became the ones you made. The chocolate-chip cookies that would become the cookies your children knew.
Will you tell her this in the future, standing in her kitchen, watching her and wondering if the children you hope will someday be yours will be hers, too? No. But you will let her bake. She will chop. She will stir. You will wait.
And then you will laugh. You will have to. Because it will turn out that the shards of chocolate, the imperfections introduced by your dull for-now knife, they are what make this recipe something you love. They are what elevate it, spreading the taste of chocolate throughout. Cleaved of the shards by her sharp, perfect knife, it is only an ordinary cookie.
So standing at your yellowed counter alone, in the eventual past that is now the present, you lift your dull knife and prepare to try to cut cleanly. You will fail, you know. But that is okay, you tell yourself. The knife is only the one you have for now. For the now that will last until someday can begin.
You do step one, which is all anyone ever can do. You chop the chocolate.
|Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s essays appear in The New York Times, Oxford American, TriQuarterly Online, Fourth Genre, and other journals, as well as the anthology TRUE CRIME (InFact Books, 2013). She lives in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston and teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in the Memoir Incubator program at Grub Street, Inc. (and bakes a lot of cookies). Visit her online at: www.alexandria-marzano-lesnevich.com.|