Ladies Chocolate Night
by Wynne Hungerford
One minute, Homeboy is tracking dirt through my apartment and rubbing his temples and saying I’m an impediment to his personal success. He’s putting his things in a trash bag. A beginner’s harmonica songbook, an unopened package of plastic combs, a terrycloth bathrobe of rich brown, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a little handmade broom. I can’t count the number of times he told me about cutting broom corn with his grandfather, using twine to tie all those bristles in a stiff bunch. He picks up the trash bag and moves toward the door, saying, “I’m dropping you for good. You’ve done nothing but jeopardize my personal success. Don’t try to win me back.”
One minute, Homeboy is practicing harmonica in my kitchenette. The next, he’s pulling out of the parking lot in a wheezy Pontiac. I haven’t moved from my chair. Sunshine falls warm on my lap from the window. “Fine,” I say aloud. “I’m sick of you anyway.” I spit on the door. I open the window and reach onto the second-story ledge, grabbing one of those goddamned patina-necked pigeons and say, “We don’t need him, do we?” I throw the dumb bird back outside.
This cramped apartment is the only thing I can afford while I live off a shallow savings account and look for work. It’s a three-story stucco building surrounded by palmetto trees and fake grass. Chiggers nest in the spanish moss. There’s no gazebo for romancing but there is a small pond fringed with snail-infested reeds. Being newly dumped in this sweaty place makes you thirsty for rum.
There’s a knock at the door and I want to say, “Get out of here, Homeboy! You’re a troll. An oily troll. I’m sick of those plastic combs piling up between couch cushions and all your pacing that wears down the rug. Go stand outside the oceanfront realtor’s office and pick up some Yankee tourist who mistakes bullshit for Southern Charm.” Then I want to say, “Is that you, Homeboy? Was it all a mistake? I can cook dinner tonight and make punch with bourbon, citrus, and nutmeg. We can go to the beach and remember every funny thing we’ve ever said to each other and watch the moon swell like a grapefruit over the ocean. Are you coming back for good?” There’s nobody waiting for me, though, just a yellow flyer:
LADIES CHOCOLATE NIGHT IS TONIGHT
APARTMENT #11, KNOCK LOUD
It’s almost six. I decide to visit this meeting so I can let it be known that I don’t want anymore flyers, and I don’t want anymore of this ding-dong-ditching. That’s not okay. You shouldn’t tease a fragile spirit. I reach under the sink where I keep a few bottles of liquor, maraschino cherries for when my nephew visits, and moonshine in an old strawberry jam jar. I take a sip of that moonshine, which raises the hair on my arms. I slide into a cheap pair of flip flops and as I move down the concrete stairs, I step on a lizard’s tail. The lizard is gone in a flash and its severed tail sticks to the bottom of my shoe. A bad day for us, buddy. No doubt about it. Today, all us animals are broken up.
Marching past the ground-level apartments, I don’t see flyers on any other doors. I don’t hear any signs of life until I’m right outside #11. Yipping and shrill voices and some kind of grumbling machine that makes the ground vibrate. Nobody answers the door, so I burst into a room full of women ranging somewhere between thirty and sixty, skinny and jiggly, smooth and prickly. The apartment is small like mine, but all of the furniture is upholstered with the same tiki-themed fabric and a cuckoo clock hot-glued with seashells hangs on the living room wall. The muted television plays a fuzzy Bollywood movie. For a moment, the women stare at me mystified. Then their faces soften and the cooing begins.
The youngest of the bunch gestures toward an empty seat on the couch, flashing a small army of French-manicured nails. She says, “I’m Masuma and this is my home. We’re glad you got the flyer.”
“I’m not staying,” I say, hands on my hips.
Masuma flips a black braid over her shoulder. She wears a piece of coral on a gold chain. “You shouldn’t be alone after a breakup,” she says. “It can be a difficult time and even if you don’t feel like talking much, friends can provide much-needed distraction. Even if they are new friends.”
At this, one woman silently clapped.
“How do you know that? About the breakup?”
“If you’re tuned in to your environment, you pick up on energy changes.”
I move away from them, feeling the door against my back. The time comes to reconsider my entire living situation. Sometimes the vents carry noises, what sounds like heavy breathing. Sometimes a shadow appears on the curtains, what might be a human form lingering outside my apartment. Sometimes I hear a booming radio preacher late at night, coming from a direction I can’t pinpoint, what might be proof of something terrible. Maybe there is no such thing as privacy in the Windswept Apartment Complex. If I can hear the radio preacher’s cautionary tale of a girl who snuck out of her parents’ house one night to booze-cruise with a boy, how a whitetail deer darted in front of the car and those lovey-dovey children rolled down an embankment, turning like handkerchiefs in a washing machine, then what do they hear of me? And if that girl was meant to be baptized that very Sunday and tumbled to death without ever having dunked her head in sweet water, what happens to my soiled soul?
I reach for the doorknob and say, “I don’t want you spying on me, I don’t want you judging how I live, and I sure as hell don’t want anymore of your flyers. I don’t have time for your bullshit chocolate parties.”
Masuma approaches, grabs my shoulders, and maneuvers me to the empty space on the tiki couch. She’s like a dark heron and if I was blindfolded, I’d guess that her knees bent backward. She snaps her fingers and a pair of teacup poodles emerge from a dog bed behind the television, which I notice for the first time, and they trot into the kitchenette. Toenails click against ancient linoleum. The white poodle stands beside the grumbling refrigerator and the cream-colored poodle jumps on its back, paws open the fridge, and grabs a bag of chocolate from the upper shelf with its baby teeth. It leaps to the ground and scurries to Masuma’s feet, pom-pom tail trembling. All around me, they murmur, “Precious pups, precious pups.”
Masuma opens the bag of individually wrapped chocolates, noting that a powerful fridge is the only way to keep it from melting. She reads from the back of the bag: “Let this dark chocolate transport you to a place of luxury and tranquility. We only use Ecuador’s finest cocoa, known worldwide for its unique flavor and the ability to arouse primal nature. When you embrace the dark side, prepare to unleash the sensual prowess within.”
The lady with the double-chin says, “We’re sort of like Russian dolls. Inside, we’ve got sex kittens and kinky school girls. People might look at me and think they’ve got it all figured out but they’d be wrong. In some of my dreams, I’m wearing a tight French maid costume.” She looks at her pudgy hands. “I know how I look.”
Masuma takes a piece of chocolate and passes the bag around. There’s a flurry of tinfoil wrappers, shreds and tendrils reflecting light on their downward paths, and as if the whole ceremony has been choreographed, they pop chocolate squares on their tongues one by one. It’s my turn to dip my hand in the bag, but I try to push off the couch and head for the door. The lady beside me grabs my arm, holding me in place. Based on the blurry tattoo, I judge her to be the oldest. There’s an anchor and a banner reading BIG DIPPER. She unwraps a piece of chocolate and hands it to me. The entire group watches. This is proof that mystery flyers never lead to anything good. I walked into the trap. I’m cornered. I’m beaten.
The cold chocolate is hard to chew and a leathery-skinned lady says, “Careful. Once, I lost a filling.”
Eating that chocolate is a mistake because after I swallow, they force more and more on me. The tattooed woman grips my arm harder, keeping me close like another little circus dog. They own me now. The Bollywood dancers have crimson and burnt orange costumes with sequins glinting like fish scales, and they twist like young sharks reeled from the surf. I look to the television for comfort. A way out becomes clear. I stuff my mouth, licking the dark dribbles that escape, and hope that the meeting ends when the chocolate is gone. They are encouraging, saying how their hearts swell for me and my situation. I nod and keep packing my cheeks. One lady twists around in her chair, facing away from the group, and she whispers into a cellphone. She slips outside, although no one pays her any attention. Finally the bag is empty and my mouth is coated with chocolate slime that swallowing can’t fix. Tinfoil wrappers make silver snow on my feet.
Masuma says, “The aphrodisiac powers will kick in soon.”
“Your boyfriend is gone and you feel worthless. You need to be reminded that you are indeed a desirable creature.”
“I’ve been single for one hour.”
“One lonesome hour.”
“You people are crazy. The heat’s gone to your heads. Turn up the air conditioner in here for Christ’s sake. Pop some pills, have a drink, or hook a motherfucking rug. Anything’s better than this.”
“Good, very good. I can see passion in your eyes.”
They ask me about my ex-boyfriend and I only tell a few details, because I’m afraid they grow more powerful with more information. Homeboy wants to be the harmonica player in a blues band. He idealizes train-hopping. He wears his grandfather’s seersucker suit. They say I can do much better. I will do much better. It’s only a matter of minutes. Anger morphs into fear and I wonder if I’ve walked into my last room and eaten my last meal. I’ve always preferred savory to sweet.
Masuma jumps to answer an aggressive knock at the door, and it swings open to reveal my first vision of the outer world in what seems like a hundred years. There’s the eastern sky, all powdery blue and purple and pink, and there’s swirls of gnats and a few seagulls streaming out of sight. Palmetto trees look like tired soldiers. In the doorway stands the secretive woman who whispered into a cellphone and played an essential role in my set-up, and who stands beside her but the rebound man who is supposed to remind that I am a desirable woman, a woman of sensuality and substance, and any man who gets to the heart of my chocolate mystique is a lucky man indeed. Rebound man has a faint mustache.
“I’m here to pick you up,” he says. “Well, I can’t actually drive us. My aunt Georgie is going to be our chauffeur.”
“I can’t do this.”
Masuma strokes the piece of coral around her neck. She says, “You’ll go and you’ll thank us for it later. You don’t have a choice.”
I sit in the backseat with Rebound Harry. Georgie drives us to the beach and has the radio quietly tuned to a nonexistent AM station, although she doesn’t realize it. Rebound Harry openly admits that we have to walk on the beach because he lives in a strict half-way house and the only excuse to get out for a while is exercise. Walking on the beach is the only exercise date he could think of on short notice. Putt-putt doesn’t really count, or else he would take me to Gilligan’s Family Center. He can’t be gone for more than two hours and my first thought is two hours! and my second thought is half-way house! Georgie is the only family who’ll have anything to do with Rebound Harry and she’s always happy to sign him out in a thick logbook and serve as his designated chaperone. Sometimes I look out of my apartment window and see Georgie in the parking lot, taking big cases of water out of the trunk and stacking them on top of a skateboard, which she rolls to her apartment. Our tap water will put white spots on your teeth.
Georgie sits on the boardwalk steps. If the plan is for me to sleep with Rebound Harry, then I guess part of the plan is for Georgie to supervise from a short distance. Almost respectful. She sits on the boardwalk steps and offers advice. She tells me to embrace my dark side and presses a single piece of chocolate into my hand, which she saved in case I needed a pick-me-up. She tells her nephew to do me a hearty service, then flicks her tongue. I can barely look at Rebound Harry, though, as he insists on carrying my flip flops like a gentleman. Every few seconds, he pulls on his baggy cargo shorts. I think about running away, which would be easy since those shorts would fall to his ankles, tripping him up, and I could dart between two shacks, over a crushed shell path, and emerge on the main road. Close by, there’s a restaurant with good shrimp and a famous Pink Pearl with an inch of sweet, biting froth on top.
Homeboy might be there, sitting at his favorite table on the patio beneath a Coca-Cola umbrella. He might be drinking beer with his friends, the deckhand and mosaic artist and the lap steel player, and maybe he’s saying how much he misses me. He could be spitting peanut shells on the ground and crooning, “What have I done? What was I thinking? What will I do without my homegirl?” But I couldn’t handle it if I saw him on the patio with his friends having a decent time. What if he was happy? Relieved? God forbid. It isn’t worth the risk, so I stick with Rebound Harry for now.
One minute, the sand is warm underfoot and the last swimmer is heading inside for a shower and the pelicans are flying in an endless line. The tide goes out and leaves patches of shells. Lettered olives, ladyfingers, fossilized shark teeth, baby cribs, sand dollar halves. The helix of a whelk egg case. One minute, I’m wishing Homeboy would chase me down the beach with his seersucker pants rolled up and say, “I’m gonna getcha, I’m gonna getcha,” and me saying, “You already got me, you already got me.” The next minute, the sand’s cooled off and the sky is seared orange and Rebound Harry is looking into my eyes. Our clothes whip in the wind, revealing the shapes of our bony bodies. We stop walking.
“How’d you end up in the half-way house?” I ask.
He squints into the orange and pink. “Kid stuff.”
“Come on,” I say. “Since I was dragged all the way out here, you owe me. Those women don’t know anything about my life and they pump me full of chocolate, the Pagan bitches. They threw us together, hoping the stars would align and we’d fuck in the dunes and everybody would be happy. If I’m supposed to a part of all this craziness, you owe me a little information. How’d you end up in that place? It couldn’t be that bad. You seem nice enough.”
He drops my flip flops in the sand, saying. “I told you, it was kid stuff. I’m working through it.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
Rebound Harry rubs his eyes. “You’re not very nice.”
“For your information, I’ve been through a lot today.”
He says, “You’re not the only who’s been through something, alright? Some people learn how to control their feelings and learn from their mistakes, instead of yelling at everyone. Acting like that makes you look spoiled. You can’t criticize people for trying to help you, that’s what my house counselor told me. There comes a point when you’ve got to be your own referee, but maybe you don’t understand that.”
From the boardwalk steps, Georgie hollers, “Y’all better work up a sweat.”
Rebound Harry picks up my flip flops and keeps moving. We walk for ten minutes in total silence. I feel embarrassed and guilty and even a little spoiled. He reminds me of those carved rock heads from Easter Island, and the sunset throws burnt orange shadows across his face and he blinks and his spirit looks rehabilitated and radiant, more than mine ever will be. His institutional haircut doesn’t blow in the wind. His Carolina Panthers t-shirt has a hole in it. I know what he’s trying to say. I’m saying it, too.
“I want to be normal.”
Further down, past the last house, there’s a bottlenose dolphin on the beach that must have gotten stuck during high tide. We approach slowly, as if it could lash out and hurt us, and Rebound Harry goes, “Shhhhh.” The dolphin remains still in the sand, its slick pale belly facing us, and as soon as I convince myself it’s dead, the dolphin wriggles. Its desperate mouth opens a little and I see the tiny teeth inside, the tongue. Fiery ribbons of sky are reflected on the shiny skin, wrapping around the dolphin’s rubbery gray-blue body like blazing strips of mummy cloth, preparing the body for death with the most beautiful swaddling light. My heart is scorched and I want to hold the dolphin’s face in my hands and apologize for everything I’ve ever done.
Rebound Harry says, “I bet someone went to call this in already.”
“Who do you call?” I ask.
“Maybe animal control or the police. I’m not sure.” He pauses, looking at the dolphin and then at me. “I want to ask you something,” he says. “I don’t want you to judge me. I live in a house with a bunch of guys and my aunt Georgie hasn’t introduced me to anybody worthwhile in the past. My counselor says I need to learn the difference between good risks and bad risks. I’ve taken a lot of bad risks in my life. I think this might be a good one.”
I have a strong urge to touch the creature. My hands tremble and my heart beats fast and I ask, “What it is?”
“Can we get on the dolphin?”
“I just had this vision of us doing it. I can’t explain why.”
I circle the dolphin, examine the smooth curve of its dorsal fin, the blowhole, the kind eyes, the long beak. The creature seems to have given up and I wonder if sitting on it, maybe like sitting in Santa Claus’s lap, will bring some unexpected joy. I don’t care if it seems childish. I touch Rebound Harry’s bony back and push him forward, letting him know this thing is about to happen. He pulls up those baggy cargo shorts and swings a leg over the dolphin, who doesn’t seem the least bit afraid, and when he’s sitting on the dolphin’s side, he reaches for my hand. His eyes are the blue-gray, too. I take his hand and breathe deep and know everything about this moment is exceptional. It will never happen again this way. I sit behind Rebound Harry. We’re not putting much weight on the bottlenose because it might cause discomfort and both of our legs shake a little from squatting. I wrap my arms around his hard stomach, hugging him close as we straddle this motorcycle of a dolphin.
He says, “It’s funny.”
I rest my head against his back.
The dolphin whistles and clicks beneath me.
“It’s funny,” he says, “because we’ll never be normal.”
We stay that way until our legs begin to hurt, and leave before anyone has the chance to discover us in such a position. We decide to run back to the car because we’re supposed to break a sweat during our encounter. The sky darkens and it doesn’t matter that we left our shoes beside the dolphin because the sand feels good and cool. We find Georgie asleep on the boardwalk steps with pyramids of sand on her feet. She wakes up, smacking her mouth, and winks at me. Let her think whatever she wants.
It’s nearing dark when Georgie pulls into the Windswept parking lot and the headlights shine directly toward the little pond surrounded by reeds. She parks but doesn’t cut the engine when we see two red eyes glowing in the grass, right in front of the pond. I say, “Alligator,” and it turns around, parting the reeds, and slides into the pond water. Rebound Harry and I get out of the car to say goodbye, shifting our weight until we find comfortable places for our bare feet, and we stare at each other for a moment.
“If I loved you, would it be okay to tell you?”
“No, you shouldn’t do that,” I say.
A piece of hair is stuck to my salty lip and he brushes it behind my ear. “You’re right,” he says. “Maybe we’ll exercise again soon.”
He gets in the passenger seat of the car, so Georgie can drive him back to the half-way house where he sleeps in a bunk-bed, keeps a journal, and does thirty pull-ups a day. I walk toward the concrete stairwell but someone calls me. Masuma stands in her doorway and the rest of the ladies gather behind her. It looks like all of their heads come from the same body. I don’t walk over there to talk with them. I won’t go in that apartment again. I’ll never let myself close to these ladies. She whispers loud and hoarse, “Have you seen my poodles?”
I think about the alligator on patrol and say, “I haven’t.”
The women say, “Poor precious pups.”
Masuma drags out each word when she asks, “Well, how did it go?”
“Good,” I say.
“Did the chocolate work its magic?”
“You should thank your new friends.”
“It’s the polite thing to do.”
I don’t want to deal with their games anymore. I say, “Thanks,” and walk upstairs. I move slowly, already aware of oncoming soreness in my legs, and shake my head for the bottlenose dolphin and the chocolate swamp in my stomach and Harry’s half-way house. I hear the women whispering, “Goody, goody, goody,” and also the light outside my apartment, which buzzes louder than all the rest. One minute, I am walking up those concrete steps and feeling light-headed and wondering if Homeboy will be waiting for me outside the door, slumped against the wall, half-asleep and dreaming that our break-up never happened. I am believing in second chances and the powers of rehabilitation. I am sorting through my life, all of the good and bad risks, and it seems I don’t take many risks at all. When Homeboy packed his things in a trash bag and left, I didn’t say a single thing to keep him from leaving.
One minute, Homeboy is a warm presence. He sweeps the floors with his little handmade broom and tells me about cutting broom corn with his grandfather. He wears a brown robe in the morning and runs a wet comb through his fine hair. He dabs mosquito bites with cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol. One minute, Homeboy is practicing harmonica in my kitchenette. The next, there is no one waiting for me and there is nothing to do except reach under the sink cabinet, fingers seeking the cool strawberry jam jar, and remember the last time Homeboy and I showered in the communal downstairs stall, leftover from the days when Windswept had a pool, and our feet sunk into ancient beach sand on the floor and spindly insects clung to the walls, and some electrical problem made the metal faucets electrocute our hands and carry a current through the jet-stream of ice water over our heads, filling us with unknown power.