Chocolate and Sunshine

December 3, 1999

He cupped the hot chocolate in his hand and smelled deeply the sweet aroma. He held the cup to his lips and sipped the sweet warmth, letting it fill his mouth, his throat, his entire chest cavity, then his soul.

The morning had started early, out the door at just past five. The sky had broken from stars, with pale blue and wisps of white clouds dancing among the slowly appearing shades of orange. He had heard the newspapers being delivered, the strange mix of "Vrooom" and "Thwap" coming first close, then receding, then returning and passing right by his driveway.

On the way to the airport he had left his window open, letting the cool and moist air fill his lungs, letting the sound of crickets fill his ears. It had been so still that morning that even directly staring into the overhead trees in the greenbelt along his subdivision exit, he could not detect even one leaf moving.

But that was nearly two hours ago, and the pale blue sky now laid over a bed of soft white cottony clouds. At times the sunshine was blinding, forcing his eyes to shut, letting hands, still gripping the warm mug of chocolate be his only connection to the human world.

The chocolate was sweet and warm, in his hands, in his mouth, in his very being, and it smelled so familiar. The taste on his tongue, the sweet stickiness with the roof of his mouth, the lightness in his head barely being able to keep conscious thought, the tired aching feeling in his chest, and slowly he was back there, transported across the 30 years and 2000 miles, drinking the chocolate and holding the warm mug in his hands.

They had met in 9th grade, in May, when spring broke forth and everybody and everything was lost in the fever. They had been in science class together, forced outside that day to sketch flowers from the beds alongside the gymnasium, the ones planted by the PTA that faced the sun from early morning until it set at night. He had been comfortable, drawing and identifying the stamen and pestles, and she had been forced to do the same, seated beside him in the happenstance arrangement of 9th grade advanced scientists, each with a regulation clipboard on his lap.

The sun had been so bright that day, and so warm on his back as he sketched. She had broken the silence. "You have a gift for drawing" was all she said and "Thanks" was his only reply.

But his eyes had danced from his picture to hers, then back to the beautiful flower, then without his nose betraying him, his eyes danced over to her hair, sprinkled in sunlight, red but filled with blue and green and amber and white, all from the warm spring sun.

That day he had waited, non-chalantly, and left for home accidentally at the same moment as she. He held the door and it was her turn to say "Thanks". They walked home alone together, each avoiding their friends. He was the first to talk, not about school but about spring. Her laugh was infectious, and her smile irresistible. Somewhere along the way he was holding her books, and talking about the sun and the flowers, and the smell of spring.

It was on their third day walking home that he brushed, then touched, then held her hand. What marvelous spring, and memorable summer, riding bikes together, reading books at the library, her coming over for dinner with his parents, him returning the treat with hers.

But summer came and went and winter arrived, so cold and white and blue. It was the day they had been tobogganing, covered from head to toe in wet snow, freezing in every extreme. They had gone back to his house, and his mom had made them hot chocolate, and they had made a fire in the basement fireplace, the one that nobody used anymore. They had changed into the dry clothes, him upstairs and her down, and she had on small shorts and a giant sweatshirt. They both laughed at her white socks but her legs had suddenly looked so smooth and silky. They had sat on the old basement couch, and stoked the fire, and his mom had brought down the hot chocolate in a thermos, with two empty mugs. He had kissed his mom, and thanked her, and she had made her secret signal to him, that he was to be the 'gentleman' that she had lectured about now nearly five months ago. He had made his secret signal back.

He had set aside the second mug and poured the warm cocoa into only one. Then he held in both hands and let her drink first, eyes staring into eyes, noses only inches apart. He sipped seconds, and he saw each freckle on her nose, and could still smell the gum that she had been chewing all afternoon at the park. She drank third, and then they both drank together, nearly spilling it on themselves and the couch and silly shag rug that had sat in front of that fireplace since the day he was brought home from the hospital.

They laid together on that rug, and tasted each other, the rich flavor of chocolate, and the warmth of the drink, and the fire, each other.

"Please raise you seatbacks and return you cup", transported him again, and his eyes slowly opened to see the smiling face of the young flight attendant. Was she old enough to vote? Or was he suddenly that old. She was smiling the smile of a morning person, and he was smiling the smile of a man that was still fifteen years old in his heart. Even if she had to move away that February, when her dad got a job out of town. They had traded pictures, and letters for a year or so, but was it her or him that was the first to stop writing. The flight attendant wore small pearl earrings, wrapped in gold, and her smile was both slow and natural. It was her turn to say "Thanks", and his to shut his eyes but remain, this time, squarely in his chair.

The airport was packed, with people going every direction, each with purpose, but together with total randomness. It was like the nonsense of ants in a hill, or bees in a hive. Everybody going somewhere, everybody but him.

Then his eyes saw her, among the crowd, and where was she going? With the near mandatory black rolly bag, she wore back platform sandals and loose shorts. Or was it a skirt? A blue denim vest covered a smart white blouse and gold hoop earring peeked out from under her rich and full auburn hair. And she was walking toward the train, then onto baggage claim.

Definitely shorts ... no a skirt ... is that a hem? She stood across from him in the nearly empty shuttle train and he tried to be discreet in his now staring effort to discern this most confusing situation. No hem, but .... when she finally turned around he saw the inseam. Aha! Definitely shorts and the train door opened and she passed by him, and he followed her onto baggage claim. Definitely shorts, and the shoes were too tall.

With babies crying (at barely 9am) and people shoving him aside to get luggage, he waited for his to stroll slowly passed on the carousel. Old men, big men, nervous women, fidgety businessmen (talking on cell phones) all lined up like baby robins waiting for regurgitated worms. But it was his bag that came out first, and they eventually cleared him a berth, when he followed his tradition of hoisting his bag and swinging it out in a small half circle. People dodged and scattered like pigeons in a churchyard as a 4 year old runs and laughs out loud.

He walked to the rental car shuttle post as his bus was pulling up. By now, the rushers and the fidgeters and the nervouses had fetched their bags and beaten him to the waiting area. As he stood back, they had lurched forward and made sure they were first onto the bus. He had paused and made sure he was last.

He sat across from a woman, beautiful in her simplicity. A white blouse and navy blue jacket. A small gold chain across her chest accented her perfect tan, and she knew it. She wore black trousers and black pumps and as she crossed her legs across the aisle, the cuff raised and revealed a small gold ankle chain, accented the perfect tan on her right ankle, and she knew it, and she knew he knew it. And he just looked at her ankle and then closed his eyes, and then looked again, and closed again.

"Preferred customers may exit the bus now, if you are holding a contract, please stay on the bus for our second stop. This stop is only for preferred customers."

Here we separated the fidgety businessmen (still on their cellphones) from the nervous retirees, wearing polyester pants and spring jackets, eyes protruding and huge from their eyeglass prescriptions. He motioned to the perfect tan to go first, then hoisted his regulation small black rolley bag and followed her down the bus stairs to stare for his name on the display sign. How classy, just a hint of jasmine.

The car was too small and the mirrors misadjusted, it must have been shuttled out by somebody five foot two. It smelled of the sick sweet fake strawberry that is used to mask the disgusting burnt tar smell of old cigarettes. He knew the route to the client by heart, and the car now drove itself. The station was quickly set to AM, to talk radio, and a brassy pseudo-psychiatrist was telling a woman that her husband was cheating on her and that she "had to decide". He could never tell if callers like that really existed or were just voice actors, reading from some soap opera script. Did people really live lives like that?


The office was not quite in the worst part of town, and the building had been renovated from its natural world war dingy mismatched brick facade. The sign was definitely 50's, the glass doors were definitely 70's, and the security system was definitely 90's.

The gravel lot always crinkled under his feet, and the dry dusty smell of dirt kicked up by his own car filled his nose, then his throat until he had to cough and sniffle. He clipped on his permanent visitor badge, stopped to say good morning to Gloria, the 60-ish receptionist with the new grandbaby picture on her desk. "A new picture?", he asked, "Yes I brought it in on Friday" then it was up the stairs and trough the maze of cubicles and past the restrooms (smelling of sickly strawberry scent) and past the kitchen (catching a cup of bleak coffee, with whitener) and to his permanent temporary cubicle. His watch said 9:55 sharp, and he needed to unpack again, repeating his Monday ritual and exactly the opposite of his Thursday night.

He had booted the PC, checked for voicemail (none!) and connected to the LAN, then E-mail, then the application. His dayplanner reminded him of the 10:30 kick-off meeting, the one that happened every Monday for the last 18 weeks like the 2:15 Thursday wrap up meetings. Nothing every happened between Thursday afternoon and Monday morning, and he was now nearly 80% done with the development, this week would be special because of user review and signoffs, time with people!

At 10:25 he refilled his tepid coffee and readjusted it with more whitener, then took his usual seat in conference room #5. Just once he imagined sitting in a different seat, but it would definitely be bad fung shui. Everybody entered, on schedule, 10:26 (Raji), 10:28 (Jim), 10:30 (Suzi), and 10:35 ('sorry I'm running late today', Ken Short). After 20 minutes of deep discussion, they established that nothing had happened since Thursday afternoon and that user review and signoff would be that week. He returned to his permanent temporary cubicle, and launched the editor, and picked up exactly where he had been on Thursday at 2:00.

Lunch was a yogurt, out of the machine (ooooo, berry berry mix this time) and more raunchy coffee. At 4:30 he was done, on schedule, and started the 4:30 ritual, logging out of the editor, the application, e-mail and the LAN. His bag was packed and he was past the kitchen, through the cubicles, down the stairs and out though the empty lobby at exactly 5. Crunched back through the parking lot, and into his car just in time for the blinding May sunlight to force his eyes shut. The car stank of cigarettes and strawberry, and concrete gravel dust, and was boiling hot. He rolled down the windows and started to drive only to have the air exchanged first for the sewage smell of the small creek that ran along the parking lot, then for the acrid refinery smells coming from the adjoining tank farm. At night, in the winter, the perpetual flame was the deepest blue. At rush hour, during late May, it was reason enough to roll up the windows and hit the A/C to max.

It took almost six full minutes to steer the rental car 'across the tracks' (now long abandoned) and up to the mall. The hotel was in the out parcel, and a chain. A predictable place to stay in a predictable world. The cookies were fresh and smelled wonderful, but he checked in without them. The desk clerk was new. She was petite and Asian and dressed in the blue blazer, and maroon bowtie, matching the outfit worm by the normal attendant, the obese middle aged black woman with the contagious smile and wonderful song in her voice. Today's clerk was efficient, but did not recognize him. In less than a minute he had his key. "Have you stayed with us before?" She asked him, unaware of the incongruity of the question. "Yes, I know my way" was his simple reply.

He was changed into bluejeans and polo shirt, and the air conditioner was blasting and noisy as ever. The room was already chilly and very dark with the curtains pulled tight. He had already unpacked, had brushed his teeth and washed his face when he laid back on the bed fully made and shut his eyes.

Why did he choose this life? Or did it choose him? Why did it have to be so easy, and pay so well? Why did every project have to be in the wrong end of a dumpy little town? These were life's mysteries that could not be solved.

He picked up the newspaper from the box in the lobby and headed the car to the restaurant around the circle, in the outparcel on the opposite side of the mall. The music was always so loud, and everyone one of the 26 television sets was pointed a different direction and set to a different station. Baseball highlights were soundlessly playing on the giant projection screen across the darkened room. But he asked to be seated in the greenhouse area, lit with full sun, but unfortunately facing the busy mall parking lot. He liked to be there at this time of evening, as the sky turned first to brilliant orange and then slowly to ever deepening shades of blue. He frantically did the crossword puzzle (eleven minutes twenty – a little slow but it was a travel day), then the cryptogram, then the word jumble. What do people see in the stupid "Scrabble" puzzle, he always wondered, as once again he could get no word longer that dog/dogs and eat/seat/sat/tea/teas. What a stupid puzzle.

His waitress was new, and probably 19 years old. She was cherubic and pale, with moppish brown hair and a smile that came easily and revealed painfully misaligned teeth. Her oversized and striped hat made her look silly, but she was oblivious and happy and both walked and talked with a song in her heart. The meal was unmemorable, at the moment he ate it and hours later when he tried to remember what it was that he had eaten. He left a generous tip, and disappeared quietly.

His car took him back around the mall circular drive back to his hotel and the elevator took him back to his room. He had picked up an apple from the bowl on the desk as he passed by, and placed it now on the desk in his room. More often then not, there would be five untouched apples sitting on his room desk when he checked out at the week's end.

The room was dark, and dank, and musty, but at least he was spared the weeks old legacy of a cigarette smoker. From time to time he would partake a cigar, unable to say he would 'enjoy' one, but cigarette smoke was foreign, disgusting, and brought to him a week of discomfort, starting in his sinuses and usually ending in a full-blown headache on his flight home.

He fell on the bed fully clothed, and could feel the definite sensation of his conscious mind shutting down, just like his PC at the end of the day. His consciousness would first disassociate, like a large room, shrinking down into a small cloud of thought surrounded by total blackness. Eventually shrinking again to the size of a coffee cup, then the size of a button, and then nothingness until morning. WAIT! Still in his clothes he sat up and called down for his wake up call, tossed his clothes on the 2nd double bed, then crashed on the bed, lacking even the energy to pull back the shiny thin bedcover.

He was shivering, and tried to focus his eyes at the red digital clock readout, 3:37. He rolled over and pulled back the covers, crawling into them like a soldier crawls into a foxhole. And then the telephone rang at 6:15 sharp. The light was already streaming in through the window, barely slowed down by the shear curtains. The room came equipped with heavy, thick, cave-darkening curtains, but he always left them open just so the morning sunshine would blast him into consciousness. There was no better way to start a day.

Copyright, 1999, All rights reserved

Written: December 1999
First Upload: February 4, 2000
Last Update: April 22, 2001