Literary Salt  
 fiction | Christiana Langenberg | issue 5
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Chocolate Revel

The first thing I think of is I've taken a wrong turn, headed left when I should've headed right, taken the south freeway instead of the north. Prophetic, don't you think. You probably weren't even half way up the stairs getting back into the middle of your day, and I was instantly lost.

The second thing I think of is my knee, my denim-covered, ordinary knee against yours with its long scimitar scar, under the table in the restaurant. I made X's with the silverware and drank your ice water through your straw. You asked the waitress if there was a word for the way vinyl upholstery sticks to the backs of thighs.

Maybe 45 miles later when I am back on the right road, I think of a third thing. Yes things are adding up. I see you in your living room, lifting the gold lid to that fancy box of chocolates and finding all the pieces with a little corner missing, the imprint of where my mouth was before I left you. You said I could do that. You said if it wasn't what I was looking for — and I was looking for the sweet tart taste of lemon — that I could put it back. I kept tasting and returning. I liked pillaging your chocolates with your say so.

It is the number of the next mile marker going by in my side view mirror that reminds me. I need to do long division. I need to carry the one. It's the only way I've ever been able to get the right answer.

When you first opened the chocolates, you looked at all the unmarred shapes in the box. Chocolate geometry. Glossy and logical. You looked up at me with your sweet brown eyes and said there are few angles here, what you see is what you get, some dark, some light. I asked if I could look at the second layer to find the exact one I wanted. You looked amazed. A second layer? You said you would have thrown out the box whenever you put your hand in and it came back empty.

What were you thinking? Did the chocolates not seem awfully high up to you? Think about it. How could there be nothing underneath? You said when they're gone they're gone. I told you think again, there's more where that came from. Take some with you, you said.

I see you now, thinking about which ones are left, which individual you want in your mouth. Choices don't trouble you. You don't look back. Yet at this point there is no way you can consume one of those chocolates without thinking of me. I am all over them. They are expensive. Think of that.

Here comes the long bridge over the river. There is one broad sign in the middle. It says Welcome on the one side and Come Back Soon on the other. If I get out of my car at the borderline and put one foot in your state and one foot in mine I will feel exactly the way I do right now. There is my one chocolate sitting on my passenger seat. That is where I put it. It doesn't mean anything other than that. You'd think it would've melted by now, hot as it is in this car this time of day. It is beginning to sweat. Chocolate sweat. How good that must be.

Caramel spills on the back of my ring as I lift a thin strand of it to my mouth. It's been sealed in chocolate confinement. One nibble starts the leak. A small puddle of burnt sugar in my hand. Gossamer, translucent, diaphanous, crystalline. These words make me want to murmur. Luscious. Liquefy. I'll have to lick it off. If you were here you would want to watch me do this. I've seen you. The look on your face as I peel my thigh from the vinyl, the way you hang back and watch me walk away.

I want this to take a long time. My tongue digs under the edges of my ring long after the caramel is gone. A man in a car next to me who is driving much faster than I have ever dreamed of driving slows down and peers at me with my fingers spread taut against my face. I wave and smile at him and give him something to think about, ease up on my gas pedal and watch him create sudden distance without meaning to.

I don't like chocolate cake or chocolate ice cream. Hohos you can keep. It's the absolute thing I want. Chocolate in its pure form. The thing itself.

Just before I left you, I saw a pink thing on the sidewalk. It tripped my eye. It could have been someone's piece of saltwater taffy, spit out to dissolve in the rain. But it was not. It was a tiny, very tiny baby bird, so small it should still have been in an egg. The skin was transparent, the head turned to the side, wing nubs bracing the cement, blue-black bulges where there would have been eyes. You didn't see it. When I mentioned it to you I told you it was an omen. I took two steps forward. You took one step back, your eyes scanning the sidewalk for something you were never intended to notice. I pulled you by your sleeve, away from this thing that had already happened, that I could do nothing about.

I should've done something. I should've taken the edge of the envelope of the card I gave you with the caption that, ironically, is the thing we always say to each other, and I should've lifted up the fetal bird, and removed it to the grassy section of the boulevard where there were blood-red tulips blooming. The things we think of later.

Like one time over lunch you told me your greatest fear was to become paralyzed or lose your sight. I told you I have no greatest fear. I have ransacked my brain to think of one since then, and all that comes to me is a hum, a kind of wordless harmony, the low-pitched tones of serenity. Or denial, you'd say. Sometimes they feel the same.

My watch fell off in your car. I'd wanted to say something corny about wanting to stop time, but that's too obvious and I wanted to say something about it being an omen, but I already did that with the baby bird and I don't want another omen. I just want you. So I reached for the time that had fallen between us, and you said "What?" because there was no way for me to avoid brushing my hair on your arm on the way down to it, and I just said "My watch fell off. Even the safety chain is undone." And you looked at me straight-faced and said, "It's an omen."

Enough is enough. I am giving up on love. There is nothing about this relationship I understand. Who are we again? I need out of whatever this is. I swear eastern Montana by nightfall is looking good to me. I no sooner decide this, than my muffler falls off my car and drags itself, bucking and sparking. I can feel the racket through the floorboards. It sounds like a trawler. I am driving a tuna boat and there is no ocean within a 1000 miles. I can't even hear myself think. Clearly I have to do something, but I have no jack. This strikes me as funny. I have no Jack. I have to bend over from laughing.

Maybe it's the chocolate. I'm a junkie. You're my cocoa bean. This may be the stupidest thing I've ever said. This is so stupid I can't believe I just thought of it. I must be no I can't be. I'm holding back too much to be a goner. I pull myself together. You expect that of me. You expect me to be smart.

I am standing on the shoulder of the highway, and I'm going to have to slide under this car and fix something I know nothing about. Well then. Here goes nothing.

The tail pipe is steaming. I stretch a bungee cord around the whole mess. A regular do-it-herselfer. Then I merge into traffic, my arm out the window, bracing itself against the wind coming at me. I pretend I'm a back-up singer. Stop in the name of love. It's only my concern for waking strangers with a loud, unmuffled roar that keeps me from breaking the speed limit. Otherwise I'd be out of here in a heartbeat. Know that.

I want to go Alaska. I want to glissade on glaciers. I want the Kodiak bears eating right out of my hand. I have convinced you that I'm brave. I'm a regular Captain Courageous. That'd be me. A 007 kinda babe. Give me something I can't handle.

A car with too many children in it drives alongside me for a while. The woman behind the wheel looks anemic. She is gazing at the open road ahead of her like she is seeing something else. More small heads than I can count are watching one of those TV's that plugs into the cigarette lighter. I'm thinking too bad the woman can't have a cigarette. Maybe she's got a flask of apricot brandy in her pocket. I nod my head and she gives me a slow-moving kind of smile like she might.

Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner without the good sense to give it up. He has just run off the edge of a cliff and is hanging poised in mid-air in that abyss he finds himself in time and time again. Beyond vulnerable. He turns his head and looks at the viewers with familiar shock. He knows he's in trouble.

This is the part where I always close my eyes. I know what that free-falling is like. But this time I'm driving. This makes shutting my eyes against the world something of a problem. Imagine falling up instead of down, I think. Imagine doing this with so much force that you leave a hole in the ozone. Talk about vision. Talk about will.

Somehow I get off the freeway and find myself in a town where the pavement gives way to gravel in a hurry. How this happened, I couldn't tell you. There is a red fruit stand set back from the road, its porch ashy with gravel dust. Vertie's Vegetables and Eggs. I have an unexplained hankering for those brown eggs. Not that I want to eat them, I just want to see them in the carton, especially if they still have bits of straw stuck to them. I just want them in front of me. I want their warm, fresh fragility in my hand.

The screen door resists me with its rebounding spring. I pull harder to get in and it slaps shut behind me, pushes me into the vague smell of raw potatoes, apple cider and dirt. The thick scent of musk melon about to turn bad hangs close to the ground. Help yourself, says the sign. Potatoes .10 / lb. Eggs .75 Apples whatever you think. Put your money on the table. In the box.

I am standing here completely alone, in some stranger's abundance and I am breathing in the cool, dank smell of earth. This is where you are not. You are nowhere nearby. A wasp buzzes close to me. A car drives by with its kite-string of dust behind it.

I cannot decide what apples are worth. I think of Eve, the first woman, ever. She knew. I think of you.

I rub one against my jeans and eat it. I take my time. I'm guessing Vertie would want me to know what I'm buying into. Tastes good to me. In fact, I am doing that thing where your mouth starts foaming when the rush of saliva meets the tart flesh under the skin. I'm slobbering all over myself. This is one hell of an apple. I gather all the front of my shirt can carry and let them roll and tumble onto the floor of my car. Then I leave Vertie an indeterminate amount of cash. You make me feel generous.

I am not normally like this. Just so you know. I am stingy with my heart. Nobody gets the whole thing. And I don't like to pussyfoot. The shortest distance between two points is always a straight line.

In about 30 miles there will be a scenic overlook. It's a little out of the way but it's worth it because it's nothing I ever expected. A valley in the middle of the prairie. An inverted plateau. The first time I saw it, after the first time I left you, there was dust in the air, it was sunset. I had not planned to stop. I had no idea that in the middle of a prairie I could drive up to an edge like that and the world could simply fall away.

You should've been there. All that sudden space. The colors so high, they took up altitude. Pink, peach, umber. I'd never seen a sunset rise like that. Purple, mulberry, mauve. It was huge; the horizon so wide there seemed no point of attenuation.

I did the thing you showed me. Tactile imagery. Hold your arm straight out in front of you with your thumb pointed up. Close one eye. See how it seems you are touching what's just behind it? Suspend disbelief. It doesn't get any easier than this. Believe me; I touched the end of that day this way. I touched as far as my eye could see.

You were folding laundry. You were out of breath. I was out of the shower. We were out of time. You were patting your dog Baby's mammoth head. Your dog who weighs more than I do. Where's the ball? Where's the ball? You repeat yourself when you talk to the dog, just like people do when they talk to little babies. Maybe this is something you haven't noticed. Go after it. Go after it, Baby. Oh Baby.

You've told me several times, but you always think it's the first time, that Newfs are bred for their swimming ability. I went to the library. They also have hip dysplasia. And the affliction of unparalleled loyalty. There is every likelihood that someday your dog will have trouble walking, I want to tell you, as you are patting her head in that tender way you have. Such adoration. Baby will never leave you. Your hands love the dog. Your hands with the freckles on them that once you let me connect with a permanent marker. I made an abstract design. It looked like nothing I'd ever seen before. I'd recognize it now. Anywhere.

We cut rhubarb out of your garden and ate some of the newest stalks right then and there, puckering. I cut the red juice of strawberries onto your white counter and showed you how to make the crust and told you how to pat it into the bottom and up the sides so that there's still enough pastry left for the lid. We agreed on the tart-to-sweet ratio of fruit to sugar. You liked my suggestion of a little lemon zest. "Oooh wee," you said. This is not the sort of pie that should be eaten hot, but it was so beautiful when we pulled it out of the oven that we couldn't help ourselves. And besides, I needed to get going. I cut through the top, along the vents you had crafted to look like an abstract angel.

Eve was thrown out of paradise for wanting to eat knowledge. I was hungry for more than pie. I dug in. As soon as I got the first piece out the guts flooded together, a scarlet mess. I told you if we let it set, if we weren't so eager to indulge ourselves, it would pull itself together and congeal. Just like a real pie. Want a plate or a bowl, I asked. Fork or spoon? A plate, you said, a spoon so I can get it all, and give me lots of guts.

If you only knew. When we were finished you looked at me expectantly. You raised your eyebrow as if there was something on my mind and you could see it on my face. I was wondering if maybe we should pretend we'd never met, but I didn't say a word. I put my tongue on the plate. You followed.

I'm a little over halfway home when my car stereo eats the tape you made me just before the chorus of one of my favorite songs. I roll down the window and sing it a cappella because I have to. I need to hear the whole thing.

Let's go driving down the boulevard
Wake up some dogs to barking
In their sleepy backyards,
Let's make some noise
Let's let somebody know we've been here
Let's pretend that nothing changes
And there's nothing to fear.
Let's drive on.*

I drape my wrist over the top of the wheel. I can steer with my knees, too, while applying hand lotion. How about that? The wind is clamoring into me and licking my hair all over my face. It's a wonder I can see at all. If you were here you would want to reach over and pull the strands away from my eyes. I used to walk backwards into the wind sometimes because I knew it would lead you to touch me this way. Then I would lose track of where you were in your sentence.

It smells like rain coming. The kind of humidity that makes the dust as fluffy as mohair. I feel close. If you were here you would reach back over the front seat and roll down every single window and the wind that started somewhere in eastern Montana would have come all this way to be swirling around us. You would lean one arm along my headrest and hold my hair back with both hands. Let's go driving. My hair is even longer now. There is more to hold back.

I am a good driver. Normally safe, but aggressive. You like that about me. Still, I nearly lose control just now. I am looking at the remote keyless entry thing swinging from the ignition. It looks like a flat black lozenge. Or a square of unsweetened chocolate. I turn my head sideways to read the little buttons and it seems strange that my only choices on it are Lock, Unlock and Panic. I am going too fast and suddenly I am in the middle of a curve with at least two wheels airborne. My knees lock, my mind lets go. I can't handle this, I think, this is it. I will rise up over the cement barricades, flip over, and land on my head. My bones will splinter and shard like really good glass. The car will crumple. Everything will be crushed and that will be the end of that.

But this is not what happens. I bring it back down. I'm still here. What's up with that?

It is getting on toward dark. I like saying that. It is getting on toward dark. You have no doubt taken Baby to that place by the river. Baby loves the water. Sometimes when I am in the tub, Baby sits beside me, watchful. She laps at the edge or plunges her enormous paws in and displaces the water with her mass. I wonder if Baby misses me. I used to tease her when she'd come to me with her leash and whine. You big Baby, I'd say. Come here, baby.

I am very close to home. My backyard neighbor Fiona set her coffee mug on the fence yesterday morning before I left. I can see from this distance that it is still there. This is her signal. Good fences make good neighbors; this is the only line I remember from "Mending Wall."

Tomorrow I will lean over the fence and talk with her. Fiona is someone to count on. She will have something she just baked she wants me to try. She will ply me with rhubarb. She will ask after you. She will lean on her side of the fence where the ledge is and she will say, "Well?" I will hook my armpit between the pickets and rub the body oils from my fingertips into the rough spots in the wood. I will think of how to answer her this time.

Tonight you will be in your house and I will be in mine. You will be eating the bread I made for you. I see you holding what I kneaded in your hand, re-warmed in your oven and bound for your mouth. I see you unwinding the twisted rolls that I pulled tight around my fingers before letting them rest a second time. Or a third. I forget which. For you.

I will think of how the dough rose on the counter, swollen in my favorite bread bowl, growing, taking up more and more space all by itself. It rose so well I swear I could see it inch toward the rim. I wonder about this kind of chemistry. The dormancy of a living thing. The house smelled fragrant with wheat and warmth. The difference between a place to live and a home. And in all the years I've been making bread, I've only recently learned that if I make a small, deep slash in the center of the roll it'll turn itself inside out just to bloom in the sudden heat of my oven. So I did that this time.

Yet I wonder how long it'll take you to forget me. If you are at the point already where you can go a whole day without the mention of my name to anybody. Then there's me. I find reasons to work your name into mindless conversations. The teenage girl with the pierced eyebrow who works the produce section at the grocery store now knows you have never eaten guavas. Or Yukon gold potatoes. And that I want to teach you the one way to peel a mango. She raises her eyebrow at me. She is guessing. She is not wrong.

My widowed neighbor Ivy has a t-shirt that says, If I could remember your name I'd ask you where I left my keys. I cannot forget your name. I never lose my keys. They unlock everything. Yet you are so well-guarded I lose you every time I drive away. I think your exact words were, "This distance between us seems cruel."

I said, "You mean when we are apart or when we are together?"

I have all sorts of things I want to tell you. My tongue is tied up. This is not one of them. She sells sea shells by the seashore. Rubber baby buggy bumpers. The black bug bled blue blood.

Wait.

It won't always be this way, but this is all I have for now. Everything else is in a vault somewhere in my head. For safe-keeping. Still I know it's yours for the asking, for a song, even. But you don't ask. You simply wait for me to keep coming back. The way you wait for the right song to come on the radio. As if it's just supposed to know to come on. You never call it in. You don't ask. And if you get to where you're going right when something good is coming on, you turn off the car because you're there. I don't understand that.

I want to be home. Somewhere. I want to sleep in my bed. I want to spoon with you. Connect the dots again. The very idea. Think of the chances of anyone connecting. Slim. Think of the chances that it'll actually matter. Slimmer.

See you next week.

Christiana Langenberg

* from "Let's Drive On (Jackie Says)" on BeJae Fleming's cd Red Cross Woman, Trailer Records, 1996.

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