Thursday, November 09, 2006

One from the vaults... it's long...

I wrote this in 2003 - it prints out as nearly six full pages, but it's easily among my favorite works. Since I won't make tonight's meeting, I thought I'd post this... I would like to considered for publication.

The Chocolate Story

She came to my office on a snowy winter afternoon. It shouldn’t be that simple, but like all major life events, nothing seemed amiss at the time. My assistant had given me her patient form and I grazed through it briefly. Her name was Sandra, a single bank teller in her 20’s with no history of mental disturbances. Great. A fresh one.

One of the nice things about being a shrink is that the forms are really short, so there’s not a lot of reading to do on my end. I had my assistant call Sandra in and I noticed absolutely nothing remarkable about her on sight. Her dark brunette hair was slightly longer than shoulder length and feathered slightly at the ends. She wore a mahogany skirt suit, tall black winter boots with those stupid fuzzies at the top and a ¾ length olive wool trench coat. I wouldn’t have noticed her if she had stood in front of me for ten minutes yelling at the top of her lungs.

"Hello, Sandra. My name’s Jane," I greeted her with my patented faceless benevolence. We’re all taught to do that in college so we don’t threaten anyone with gregarious behavior. It also keeps me at arm’s length from most of my patients, which is very useful after I leave the office. I sat her down on the sofa and took a chair nearby. The tape recorder kicked on and I did some standard chit chat, how’s the weather, gee, isn’t the price of gas high right now, that kind of everyday commonality crap to make me seem like her best friend.
"So, Sandra, what are you here for?" I ask, breezing into the line.

"Well, this is going to sound really dumb, but…" she paused and blushed. Now I see why she’s single – she turns red like a dying asthmatic.

"Go on," I urged gently. Another nice thing about being a shrink is that, after a few years of practice, the patter gets mastered. I can make anyone confess anything. I got a man to fess up that he sold his wife’s underwear on Ebay after having written stock predictions on them. He claimed that her panties made him lucky and he wanted to share the wealth. Because of this and similar successes, I have the utmost confidence in my abilities to humiliate anyone in my presence. It’s all therapeutic, of course, but I get a kick out of it sometimes. I knew, however, that this would be a fairly low key admission. She was spending too much energy justifying its stupidity.
"I…. I…. Oh hell, I’m addicted to chocolate!" She buried her face in her hands, breathing in gasps and hitches. "All kinds of chocolate! Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, nibs, beans, truffles, grand cru, au lait, God, even syrup in a pinch!" She was talking faster than an auctioneer, and it took me a moment to register what she had said.

Chocolate? Who gets addicted to chocolate? Worse, who cares? Geez, pick up another Hershey bar and get on with it. Chocolate is chocolate, right? But I was not in a position to tell Sandra this, because she was not in a position to do anything more than throw up or fall asleep. If she wants to call it an addiction, fine by me. I still make my money.

Sandra’s addicted to chocolate. Okay. Chocolate has caffeine. It’s an upper. It releases serotonin. But it’s extremely mild, fairly cheap, available everywhere and generally socially acceptable. Should I treat it like a cocaine addiction or like a smoking addiction? I’m not sure it matters, because I have no doubt the medical literature hasn’t had to deal with anything so petty. I decide very quickly it’d be best to treat it symptomatically because that way I might be able to stop laughing long enough to get something accomplished.
"Do you have any chocolate on you at the moment?" She rummages through her enormous Louis Vuitton overnight bag and pulls out three cases of chocolate with hard to pronounce names.

"All bars. I go through about seven a day." I grab all three cases and throw them in the garbage. Sandra goes pale. Very pale. Call an ambulance pale. Then I tie up the garbage bag and place it behind the radiator, making the act as violent as possible. While I know I’m obviously overacting, the act achieved its desired effect. Sometime within the next fifteen minutes, she returns to something approximating a normal color.

"The first thing you have to do is remove yourself from the source. Go home, gather all your chocolate together and get it out of your way. Throw it out. Give it away. Smash it. Drop it off a balcony. I don’t care what you do as long as it’s no longer in your hands. Do you think you can do that?" I stare at her in my best boot camp manner. She nods without assertion.
"Here’s my pager number. If you relapse for any reason, call me. I want you back in here in a week so I can trace your progress." I gave her my card with the helpful appointment lines on the back and she shuffles out. Her folder gets a few scribbles carefully placed on it so it looks like I did some actual work. Ten minutes later, I greet my next client and repeat as necessary.

In my training I was told I tended to make my observations brusquely, with combat boots on. Sure, I get a little harsh, but I don’t think coddling really does much. I don’t believe in protecting anyone from reality. While I’m aware that reality is a very individual thing due to everyone’s various perspectives, there is this general "real world" out there. The world of shopping markets and speeding tickets and vacuum cleaners. We all live, at least in this culture, with these things and lots of others like them. My job is to reorient my patients with that world, however tenuously they hold onto it afterward. I believe that most people’s problems are summed up as a lack of focus, and I act accordingly. They can hold whatever beliefs they want, keep their particular kinks and continue to do whatever they’ve discovered to be essential to their existence. I could care less. As long as they’re functional, I’m happy. Hence, most of my practice deals with addictions and phobias, people running away. I view success in terms of relapse rate, and I’m proud to say mine is fairly low.

The end of the day rolls up. The sky gets dark early in winter, and the snow stands in drifts along the edge of the abandoned cars. Even in Birmingham, that fashionable little district, we’ve got our share of vagrants and layabouts. I’m looking down from the 6th floor of the 550 Woodward building, into the shopping district illuminated by the last of the Christmas lights. There’s a four lane street rolling through the overpriced boutiques and clothiers. The marquee for the art theatre is missing two lights. Not for long; they’ll fix that tomorrow. The parking Nazis aren’t rushing out too much tonight, probably just as cold as everyone else. The furrier is displaying a blue fox coat that I’d love to own but have no earthly reason to purchase. And my last appointment decided I was too expensive and went on to someone else. Heal thyself, bitch, if you think you can.

My foot hits the bag of chocolate and my thoughts went back to Sandra and her ridiculous admission. I couldn’t help but think the girl is delusional, but that’s not my problem. By the same token, I had no problem opening the bag and snatching a bar for myself. Michel Cluizel, 55% amer noir. Whatever. My French sucks and I really don’t care what it means. I know it’s chocolate – good enough for me.

It’s dark chocolate. Ick. I break off a piece and munch away. Since I opened it, I may as well finish it, so I take another piece. The bar’s scored nicely in twelve tiny squares, so I can eat it in small doses. Each square is stamped with Michel’s name and the announcement that the square is, in fact, chocolate. Fine chocolate. The second square goes down much like the first.

It wasn’t until I’d finished a third one and went back for a fourth that I started getting a feel for this stuff. The bite was acrid but smooth, like a good whiskey. The color was rich, lustrous and impervious to light. Each piece snapped off sharp, with angles harsh enough to slice paper. Four more squares later and I was in love. I found myself using words of passion I didn’t think even the most awful poets ever pulled out of their asses. That first bar was quickly reduced to a small box wrapping and some gold foil. And I dug into the bag for another bar. This was heavenly! I was in awe of what my mouth was currently ingesting –Venezuelan cacao beans ground and roasted into silk, with just a hint of bourbon vanilla lending a sweet butter touch. I stayed late at the office – I don’t allow myself many indulgences, and I saw no reason to stop at that moment.

I drove home after 10 PM. It was late and the streets had another dusting of snow. As far as I’m concerned, any time it snows, the salt trucks should be out in full force. But I, of course, am in the minority, and I don’t work for any municipal public works department. I slide home and go directly to bed. My dreams are disturbed by dark brown fragrant walls rising slowly above me. Since I’m not a Freudian I have no idea what that means, so I wake up the next morning thoroughly undisturbed. And hankering for a bit of that chocolate. No breakfast, quick shower, two Evian bottles thrown hastily in the passenger seat, a stop at Tim Horton’s for a small coffee, sugar, no cream and I get to the office looking like something the cat dragged in. That’s slightly better than normal and I compliment myself.

My first patient of the day is an obsessive compulsive. He’s pretty much coming to me as maintenance, and I’m not sure if that’s reinforcing his problem or not. It isn’t doing any harm, and he seems to like the process, so I let him do his thing. He sits loosely upright in one of the two chairs I got dirt cheap from a La-Z-Boy clearance center, talking away at nothing in particular. My job at this time is to sit attentively, nod in the right places and come up with some therapeutic sounding statement at the end of it all.

But first, I need some chocolate. The first case has five bars remaining, and I take one out. My patient notices it and asks very politely if he can have a bite. I allow him a small square, and I detect a severe reluctance on my part for even this little morsel. Cautiously, almost gingerly, I hand it over. He swallows it in one gulp. What crudity! The shock to my system was worse than a shotgun blast. I mumble to myself that men like this should not be allowed to live and finish the bar before I give myself a chance to notice he’s got another 45 minutes to go. I am certain I have started to develop my first grey hair. All he does is talk and talk and talk and nothing remotely interesting comes out of him, ever. I need more chocolate. But I can’t – he’ll just take some more and swallow it like he would a shot of bad vodka. While I, I would savor it. I would cherish it – I understand what it’s like to love such a thing. Aromatic, blissful chocolate. The delight of all travelers on this road of life. My first true, sweet relief. I must have more, but not until he’s away. I must resist. I must wait. I must at least feign attention. I must not reach for another bar.

Ten seconds later I have the rest of the case dumped on my desk. Four lonesome bars. The first one loses its box immediately and the chocolate is mushed to a squirmy pulp between my teeth. I’m about halfway through the bar when I note my patient’s discomfort. He looks at me as if there’s something wrong. No, there’s nothing wrong, I have my chocolate and I’m alright. He quietly states his apologies, he forgot he had something scheduled at the same time as this appointment and he is frightfully late. I wave him off and plunge into the rest of the bar. Oh, life!

I don’t remember any of my other appointments coming in that day. I don’t remember getting home that night. I don’t remember anything at all – it’s as dark as the flecks on the edges of the wrappers of my beloved confection. I only know that, three days later, I’m out of chocolate. I buy a case of Hershey’s, but it doesn’t do anything for me. Nestle’s is no better. I go to the upscale mall and purchase a box of Godiva truffles, which takes the edge off but the desire lingers patiently like cigarette smoke in a boudoir. Then, suddenly, I get a page from Sandra. I call her immediately.

"Jane! You were right – I put aside all of my chocolate and it’s been four days and I feel great!" Her exuberance was wonderful for whatever was left of my professional self to register. I snap to attention for a few minutes. She, after all, would know exactly where to find this chocolate.

"That’s great. I knew you would. I hope you don’t mind, but, uh, I tried a little of that chocolate you had, and I want to give some of it to a girlfriend of mine for her birthday. Where did you find it?" A plausible excuse.

"Papa Joes, right around the corner from your office. They’ve got all kinds in there." Her needlelike perkiness was drilling holes in my brain. "Hey, listen, I need some advice. I’ve got to get rid of all this chocolate. Would it be okay if I threw a chocolate tasting party?" Her voice sparkled. Her voice flirted Shit, if it was capable of singing and dancing it would be the next American Idol champion.

"This is your recovery, remember. You can do whatever you want, as long as I’m invited."

"But of course! Next Thursday night, 7:30 PM. Dress nice! It’s at my apartment; ring the bell twice so I know it’s you. See you there!" She hangs up. Five minutes later I exit Papa Joes with five cases of Michel Cluizel bars – three 55% amer noir, one 50% lait pur java and one 66% cru de Hacienda Venezuelan just for kicks. 24 bars to a case, each bar priced $3.99. It set me back close to $500, and I hope I make it to their next shipment.

I didn’t go to work for the next four days. I think I slept – I don’t remember. The days were mechanical – three amer noirs to wake up, lait pur java to keep me going, a Hacienda if I needed an emergency fix. I didn’t leave my house. I don’t think I left my bedroom. And suddenly I was looking forward desperately to the chocolate tasting party. It was in five days. Just five days. All the chocolate I could ask for in just five days. My hands were trembling as I unwrapped another lait pur java. This was my third of the day; I was running out. I would have to find more.

A run to Papa Joes resulted in only six bars of lait pur java. But the manager was kind enough to recommend Flyer #4 in its place. I bought a case of the Flyer as a backup, at the bargain price of $48. I also bought another case of amer noir and happily sucked on a bar while driving home.
But I’d finished the bar before I made it home, and I needed another one. So I let go of the wheel, reached into the back seat, dove into the case and took out another. Nothing happened while I was reaching - I didn’t hit anyone. The police officer didn’t see it that way, however, as he pulled me over and wrote me a ticket for reckless driving. Now I found this remarkably stupid, and I gave him hell for it. Then he wrote me another ticket. Well, shit, why doesn’t he just throw my ass in jail at this rate? He finally let me go with just the two tickets and a scowl that would peel pavement. Fuck him. I couldn’t get home fast enough to indulge in my new purchases.

I stumbled through the next few days, worked when I could concentrate, slept when I couldn’t. My face was developing acne patches of remarkable size and depth. I hadn’t seen anything like them since I was a teenager. I pull Sandra’s record to get her address, because I am definitely going to her party tonight. She said dress nice. I’m not going to bother asking how nice – I’m wearing my drop neck black velvet wraparound and running out into the cold night air to seek chocolate redemption.

I climb the three flights of stairs to her apartment. It’s a tasteful two bedroom, with a wide front room that could only be used for entertaining. Liadov is playing unobtrusively in the background. And everyone is dressed to the nines, holding thimble glasses of sherry or demitasse cups of Kenya AAA double roast. And right in the center of the room is a table with twenty seven different varieties of chocolate. There’s Joseph Schmidt from San Francisco, Fran’s from Seattle, Dan’s from Wisconsin, Valrhona from France, Israel’s Max Brenner, Belgian Callebaut, Fazer from Finland and others for which I wouldn’t even begin to attempt a pronunciation.

We are hushed to a standstill by a middle aged man of some authority. "Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to announce that this party is being held in honor of someone who is leaving our prestigious ranks. Let us thank Sandra for her generous gathering of us members of the Chocolatier Society and wish her the very best." Polite applause follows and everyone mingles back to their respective cliques. I catch a little of the conversation, talk of breaks and crystallization and bottom notes, but my eyes are riveted to the table. I take a small piece of Valrhona, and it has a decidedly berry-like tone. I don’t like it and move on to Fran’s. The sea salt topping enhances the flavor in a way I would have never expected, and I think I finished the tray. I see Sandra, in a small black beaded dress, glowing with perfect health and no worries whatsoever.

"Oh, thank you for coming! I wasn’t sure to expect you, but please, do sit down!" Her chipper attitude was intolerable, but I sat next to her and grabbed for an incomprehensibly titled dark mound. Delicious. I reached for another, but Sandra stops me.

"Only one piece. I’m warning you," and shakes a mocking finger in my direction. Her smile is broad and cheery, as if she was June Cleaver by way of Snow White. I sullenly fell against the back of the chair and people watched for five minutes. Everyone was beyond effete – they were fashionably ambivalent to everything. My rage seethed at these bunchers, because I knew their devotion could not be so deep as mine. They indulge in chocolate usury. I, however, am one with the chocolate. So it won’t hurt anyone if I take another piece. And another. And a few more. I knew people were staring, but I didn’t care. Russet flecked drool was running down my chin as I packed in one piece after another. I barely stopped for air between takes; I wanted something… orgasmic. I knew I could get it here. The purity, the refinement of these chocolates was beyond even my most explicit expectations.
Then many strong arms were pulling me away from the table. They were physically lifting me onto a gurney, separating me from my experience.

"No! You don’t understand! I NEED THIS! I need to be here! Please, stop!" I pleaded for what felt like hours, but there were too many of them. I was thrashing like a rat undergoing electroshock therapy. I felt a sting in my right arm, then some pressure. My mind drifted off after that.

I awoke in a bed in a small building with daffodil yellow walls. The rails were up. The sheets were rubber. My evening gown had been replaced with a cotton backless romper. I was full of nervous energy, but my mind was still deadened to much of anything. I lay motionless and groggy as a man in a turtleneck sweater and a fading mustache came up to me and held my hand.

"You’re going to be okay, Jane. I promise. Now this can be a very scary place sometimes, but I promise you, we’re not here to hurt you." I recognize the tone as the one I attempt to use with my patients.

"No, Doc, you’re wrong. I’m here by mistake. You don’t understand." I don’t sound very convincing, what with my head fuzzier than a barbershop floor. My tongue does not want to cooperate much.

"You have a problem, Jane. It’s okay. We can face this, you and I." I am not hearing this. I do not have a problem. Repeat: I do not have a problem. He continues anyway, as if he’s talking to an average dopehead. "Chocolate is a very volatile substance. But it doesn’t master you. You can take control. Now get some rest. I will be with you again in the morning." And he leaves. I’m sleeping on fucking rubber, for Christ’s sake. I’m not going to choke on my own puke and I’m not going to piss all over the sheets. I’m very much okay. Just get me some goddamn chocolate. Now.


Jenny said...

I haven't read all the way through it, but on a first glance, would the shrink react so harshly/suddenly to Sandra's addiction? Perhaps she might first ask some questions, size up the situation, take some notes, ask Sandra what her chocolate habits are, why she feels she needs choco, how she got addicted, stresses in her life, etc. You know, you don't need to spend forever on it, but adding a couple more paragraphs wouldn't hurt, and it would give you a chance to develope Sandra's character and problem more, not to mention the shrink's. It would also slow the whole scene down a little, which as it is now, feels rushed. Don't be afraid to let this thing get long if it needs to. Maybe you don't end up submitting it to the mag, but I'd rather it be good and not in the mag than not as good and in the mag.