The Prevalence of Chocolate
Maria has jowls. How the hell did she let that happen? That weird thought jangled through me when I spotted her. She’d snagged Faraday Fine Foods’ most secluded booth, the one we used to reserve for our weekly working lunch and girl-talk session. I was late, but she wasn’t watching for me. Instead, her eyes were fixed on the creamy chocolate brown of the only blank wall in the place. I felt a squirm of pleasure at her imperfection, along with a little worm of uneasiness in my gut.
She rose to greet me, giving me a hug and an almost-kiss on both cheeks, and I noticed a hint of chocolate on her breath. “It’s so good to see you, Cathy,” she said.
“You too, Maria - you’re looking really well.” I had to say it, didn’t I? At least she was still extremely well-dressed. I used to wonder what time she got up in the morning to do that every work-day. She wore a tailored black wool suit, a frilly white blouse, pearl earrings, and a small gold cross; and she looked even more conservative than she had before she met Malcolm Meech. That so-called, “born-again” weasel, Mal, had courted her furiously, married her, convinced her to give-up the job she loved, and moved her north two years ago. Away from all her friends. Her huge, square-cut, yellow-diamond engagement ring and wide jewelled wedding band were the only flashy things about her and they shouted married, very married. Somehow her face nagged at me, it didn’t fit the Maria I used to know. Her flat Hershey-brown eyes skittered past mine and there were more than a few new wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, more than I had, and she was big, verging on fat –a strange new development.
We settled in, preparing to catch up on our lives and when the waitress came, we ordered salads and coffee. The restaurant was almost empty, and maybe there would be time to talk, without interruptions.
“You haven’t changed at all,” she said.
I laughed. “Do you mean I’m the same old slob I always was?” My outfit couldn’t be called classic, unless you meant classically tacky. The jeans I wore bagged at the knees and my burnt-orange chenille sweater clashed with my always-tangled wiry red hair. Maria’s hair was a suspiciously even cocoa-brown with none of the auburn highlights I remembered.
“You’re not a slob,” she said. “You just work hard, and looks aren’t a huge priority for you. You’re lucky you know.” She looked down at her just-delivered salad, played with a piece of radicchio before trying to give me one of her patented thousand-watt smiles but - the switch was off, and all her mouth could manage was a slight upward curve.
“Yeah, lucky, that’s me - lucky to have my low-paying, but let’s not forget oh-so-rewarding job, my crappy apartment, and my part-time lover,” I said, but I only meant some of it. I’m too picky to share my life with any of the men I’ve met so far. Maybe I should worry about spending my life alone, but I can’t seem to yet.
It was different for Maria; she’d always talked about what she’d do when she got married. Hell, she’d pined for it. We’d spent many of our lunches together, analysing our love lives. Mine was erratic and she didn’t have one. Then she met Malcolm, a forty-five year old bachelor, who was ‘in sales’ and she told me he was her dream man. The first time I met him, he’d insulted me, implying I was promiscuous because I was divorced and had a lover - I didn’t bother asking why he’d never married. Looking at my friend now, I thought about Mal and got that twinge in my mid-section again - I let it ride. We made small talk as we ate. I filled Maria in on the latest funding crisis at the agency and told her the government cut the grants to the program she’d started for Somali women. We’d finished our salads when I asked the first real question.
“So, how is life in the boonies?”
“It’s busy. You know I’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work at the church, and working part-time. I’m a little tired, I guess. It’s so hard sometimes.” She looked away for a moment, and then dragged her eyes back to mine. “Malcolm thinks I should stay home. He thinks that’s why I’m …” She stopped talking and tried to pull her lips into a firm line, but they were jelly.
“Maria – what’s wrong?” I kept my voice low. “You know you can tell me anything.”
She wouldn’t look up. She fumbled with the clasp of her necklace and spoke “I’m not pregnant.”
“Well, so you’re not pregnant yet. So what? It could still happen. You’re what, forty-two now? There’s still time. Look at all those movie stars having kids in their forties and even fifties for Pete’s sake.” I wanted to swear, but Maria hated profanity.
“I d-don’t know if there is, Cathy. It’s really hard on Malcolm, he wants children so much. He keeps telling me how disappointed he is.” She looked around the restaurant, as if she felt someone watching her. There was no one.
Malcolm! Bloody Malcolm! “Is this all about him? What about you?” I clenched my teeth. Maria would spook and run, like a draft horse confronted by a locomotive, if I didn’t stop.
The sun was directly on her face now, and I could see what her skilfully blended make-up was designed to conceal, the dark purple under her eyes, and the real size of her sagging jowls. “You know how much I want children. I think I’m starting menopause though. I’ve had some signs. My mother had her change-of-life at thirty five, so it could be too late for me. But that’s not the worst thing.”
“What is then?” I asked.
“It’s how he’s changed.” Her hands couldn’t be still as, with her eyes fixed on her mocha coffee, she stirred it until hundreds of bubbles floated on the surface. Before I could find out what she meant, our waitress reappeared with dessert menus.
“Would you like more coffee, or a dessert?” She asked.
After a brief guilt-filled pause, Maria said, “I’ll have your chocolate cheesecake.”
That shocked me as much as her changed appearance. Maria used to call herself a reformed chocoholic, and like many reformed addicts, she practiced total abstinence.
“I’ll have the same,” I said, more to make the waitress go away than because I wanted anything. What I did want was to hear the rest, all the rest. That little knot in my stomach was tightening, grinding away, and I wanted to know why.
“Tell me how Mal’s new job is going.” I knew he’d had just changed jobs, again. It was probably his seventh one since their marriage; I wasn’t sure, because Mal always listened to Maria’s phone calls.
“It’s all right so far I think. He hasn’t started to complain yet anyway. He’s focusing on me instead. He wants me to stop working, but I can’t. We need that money to pay for the house and everything. He’s getting more insistent all the time. You know, I love our little house, making it a real home was important to me.”
“I know how much you love your home, Maria.” I’d been to their house two months after their marriage and I remembered its sterile perfection. Everything, and I mean everything, matched. It made me look at my shabby old apartment, and my succession of female roommates who helped pay the exorbitant rent, with new eyes. I’d decided I liked the eclectic look of my place and would keep it. Good thing, because I didn’t have any choice.
The waitress brought our desserts while I was trying to think of a tactful way to frame my next question. “What’s Mal doing to make you this unhappy?” I worried that my words were too blunt, but she answered.
“Oh Cathy! It’s a lot of things. I really want to be a good wife. I want to honour him as the head of the house. You know that’s the way I believe it ought to be between a husband and wife, but I just don’t know how to deal with this.” She leaned toward me and whispered. “It started about six months after we married. He’d leave a chocolate on my pillow, except when I was – you know - bleeding, and I’d know that he wanted to … make love.” She paused for breath and I nodded agreement. Someone turned on the restaurant’s sound system and a string-drenched version of ‘Behind Closed Doors’ came surging at us, drowning us in treacle and almost making me snicker. “At first, I thought it was sweet and charming. Well, wouldn’t you? I mean, it seemed like a loving thing to do. Then, about six months after that, when I still wasn’t pregnant, five pound boxes of chocolate started arriving by messenger.” She took a dainty furtive bite of her cheesecake. “I ate them, I ate them all. I couldn’t help myself. You know how I am about chocolate – it’s why I never used to buy any. Malcolm knows it too. He knows, but he keeps on sending them”
My perverse sense of humour was urging me to say – get him to send me some, no one ever brings me chocolate, I’m deprived., and I’m depraved enough to eat it. But I didn’t.
Maria looked at the restaurant door, then back at me before she spoke. “Then there’s the other thing.”
“Can you tell me about the other thing?” I asked. That’s when I noticed the two tiny chocolate-brown flecks on the black lapel of her suit jacket.
She leaned closer. “It’s like, the more chocolate he brings, the more he wants to … okay … I can say this to you because you know me so well. He wants sex, everywhere, all the time. He doesn’t even think about whether I want to or not. He doesn’t try to please me at all, and I don’t know what to do about it! ” She blushed and stared down at the remaining half of her cheesecake.
Now, I knew what the knot in my gut was there for. I just didn’t know if I could handle what needed to be handled. I’m not big on instant prayer, usually it’s sent up by people who want something for themselves, but I said a silent one. Please help me, help Maria. I leaned forward too and spoke in almost a whisper. “I know you care about your marriage and you want it to work. But, he’s not treating you with respect, is he?” I wanted to say – Mal’s being a bastard and why are you putting up with it? You had a great life before you got married and now he’s taking everything from you, including your salary, and giving you nothing.
“It’s just so hard for me to understand him right now. He was always so tender before, you know.” She looked at me as if I could explain his behaviour in three sentences or less. I probably could, years of counselling women gave me a good idea, but she wouldn’t want to hear it yet.
“I’m sure it’s not easy for either of you. Have you and Mal had fertility testing to see if there is a problem?”
She sighed and pushed her half-finished dessert away. “We both have the same doctor. He says, I’m probably starting menopause, and Mal doesn’t need to be tested since all his brothers have children.”
“Jeeze – Maria! Who is this doctor anyway?”
“He’s one of the elders at our church.”
That didn’t surprise me. “I see. I guess Mal’s not willing to be tested then?”
“He won’t do it. I asked him and he stormed out of the house, and then he sent another box of chocolate. A ten-pound box. He’s sure it’s my fault and he’s probably right.” She brought out her lace handkerchief and dabbed at her tears with care, trying not to smudge her make-up.
“Maria, you know it may not even be you. It’s nobody’s fault. There are lots of couples who can’t have children. Sometimes they adopt.” I had to mention it, although my gut was stewing ferociously and I suspected there was more bad news to come.
“He doesn’t want someone else’s child. I only asked him once. That was when he raised his hand to me.” I was about to interrupt but she didn’t give me the chance.
“He didn’t hit me. Honest, Cath, he didn’t. But he scared me. I know … I know what you’re going to say. He could have.” She tugged the cross on her neck.
I smiled at her. “Hey kid, you always know when I’m about to lose it. It’s one of your many talents.”
“I’m beginning to wonder about that – about myself I mean.” Maria said. “I remember I used to feel pretty good about my life, some of the time anyway. I wanted more though, didn’t I? I wanted everything. If wishes were horses, my mother used to say. I don’t know what to do Cathy. I’ve tried talking to our pastor, and I’ve tried praying about it, but I don’t know what to do.” She tried to smile as if she were making social conversation.
“Well, it certainly sounds like you’ve been trying everything to make it work. Have you talked to Malcolm about it?”
Maria didn’t answer because the waitress had materialized again. “Could I get you two anything else?” She asked.
“No, we’re fine, but we need a little more time to finish our business. Could you come back in about twenty minutes with the cheque? The tip will be worth it – I promise.” I answered.
“Sure, no problem.” The waitress hurried away.
“Oh Maria! - All this must be so hard for you. Have you told Mal how you feel?” I was leaning practically half-way over the table, trying my damnedest to connect with her eye-to-eye. God, if you’re paying attention, let me get somewhere with this one- because if you don’t, Maria’s going to gallop out of here, and my gut’s going to need surgery.
“I tried to tell him last night. I started, but he wanted to watch TV so I left it till later, when we were in bed.” She grimaced. “That was a mistake. He said I was a useless, used-up good-for-nothing waste of his time and his sperm. But he’d stay with me anyway because he keeps his promises.” More tears emerged and her tiny hankie couldn’t catch them all, so I pulled a wad of clean squashed tissues from my knapsack and passed them over.
After she’d carefully dried her face, she spoke again. “I know how that sounds, but he didn’t mean all of it. He couldn’t. He’s just so frustrated, because I can’t get pregnant, and he can’t hold a job, and it’s not the way he wants his life to be.” Her voice was slowing with every word. I knew she wanted to believe what she was saying, but she didn’t, not really.
“Maria, you haven’t done anything wrong.” I held her hand “You know that, I know you do.”
“Yes, I know. We took the same theory classes, and disagreed most of the time, remember.” Her smile was a ghost. “It’s just that I feel guilty. Like I failed the big test, and now I’m being punished.”
“It isn’t your fault, Maria. You know it isn’t.” I was absolutely sure she knew what could happen. After all, in her work with women, she’d seen the pattern many times.
“I tried - I really tried to be everything he wanted.”
At least she’s using the past tense I thought. “I’m sure you did. You’ve always been whole-hearted about anything you commit to.” Why I mentioned commitment then, I’ll never know. It was the worst thing I could have said.
She grabbed the word. “That’s me. I said the words in the ceremony and I meant them. Did you know I said love honour and obey? Oh! Of course you did, you were there.”
Maria’s wedding festivities had lasted three days and been paid for by her parents. “Yes, I remember.” I remember being appalled that she agreed to include ‘obey’.
She looked away from me. “I really should get going; Malcolm will be expecting his dinner at six.”
I wanted to yell at her or shake her, anything to make her respond with the truth. Of course I didn’t. I searched in my wallet for enough to cover the meal and a very large tip. Peanut butter would definitely be on my menu next week.
“My treat this time, you can treat me the next time” I said, thinking there probably wouldn’t be a next time, visualizing the worst. She’d never call me again. She’d stay with Mal, chocolates would keep arriving, and she’d keep eating and eating until she became morbidly obese, like her mother had, or, maybe Mal would beat her senseless before that happened.
Maria had put her good-woman face back on and was ready to go. “Well, okay, thank you. Thanks for listening too. I know things will get better, they have to.”
“Maybe you could give me a ride to the subway?” I suggested. Perhaps in the car, I could take one more stab at connecting, seeing if I could catch the reins. No point in giving up until the horse had run away.
“I guess I could do that. It’s on my way.” She was anxious to go now. It was plain in her every movement as she gathered her purse and her driving gloves. “The car’s at the back of the lot, if you don’t mind the walk.”
“No, I don’t mind,” I said. She had parked the car at the rear of the lot and I meandered along after her, looking at the ground and searching for some more persuasive words to use. When she unlocked the car an overpowering sweetish stench rolled out - Maria shot backwards away from it, nearly knocking me down. Her cherished little red Honda was crammed with boxes of chocolate. Many were open and the heat had turned their contents to gelatinous mush. Worst though, was the box on the driver’s seat, Maria’s seat. The chocolates in that box were covered in a gluey grey-white substance. Malcolm’s semen – I was sure.
“Oh God! It’s Malcolm. He did this. He … he knew I was meeting you here.” She was shaking from shock, I thought, but that wasn’t it at all.
“Shit, shit, shit!” She yelled. “I can’t take this anymore. I don’t care if I’m a bad person. I can’t take it. I won’t.” She began pummelling me, the door, anything she could reach with her fists.
I put my arms around her and pulled her close to stop her. “Maria, Maria, listen to me! It’s going to be okay. You’re okay now. You’re safe.” I almost crooned the words as I held her and repeated “You’re safe.”
She was precariously calm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Sniffling a little, but not crying.
Her emotionless face disturbed me more than her futile fists had. “I’m okay,” I said. “You know me Maria. I’m a tough old broad. I work out at the gym every day. Hell - that was nothing! Don’t you know I’m Popeye the Sailor Man’s first cousin?” I flexed a non-existent bicep. Who knew those would be the magic words?
Maria started to laugh. She laughed and cried and nearly peed herself, and hugged me so hard I couldn’t breathe. At last, she let go of me and spoke “Will you help me Cathy? I want to get rid them - and him.”
I threw all the opened boxes into the near-by dumpster, and then stacked the sealed ones neatly at the edge of the parking lot closest to the street. Maria wouldn’t touch any of the boxes. She stood, at a distance from the car, watching.
After opening all of the car’s doors and the hatch to let the breeze blow some of the evil smell out, I walked over to her. “If you want, you can have the spare bedroom at my place for now. I’m between roommates.” Mal would guess where she was, but I had two deadbolts on my door, a wide-angle peep hole, and thanks to my job, good connections with the local cops.
She nodded and gave me the genuine quirky smile I remembered. “Thanks Cathy. We should probably get out of here.” She lowered herself gingerly into the driver’s seat and waited for me to get settled on the passenger side. As she started the engine she turned to me, “You know, I’ll bet he put all those chocolates on my credit card. It would be just like him.”
I had a sudden vision of my Oreo stash, in the cupboard over the stove. I’d have to move them to my bedroom. “You can call Visa and cancel your card tonight.” I suggested.
Maria put the car in first gear and turned toward me. “Yes, I guess it’s some place to start.”
Diane Girard is a native of Windsor, Ontario, now living in Kitchener. Her essays have been published in Adbusters magazine, The Western Producer newspaper, and on the well-respected Web site www.seniorwomen.com. She recently returned to writing fiction after a forty-year hiatus.