Death by Chocolate
Two weeks after her parrot flew away, Rose put the cage in the shed. Looking at it, a huge empty hulk of metal wire, plastic toys, and star shaped cookie treats, just became too sad. She had raised Yankee from a baby, hand feeding him with a special syringe full of baby bird food, carefully filling up his crop. For 7 years they shared morning cups of tea, evening bits of carrots and string beans, and the occasional midnight nightmare. Then, in a split second he was gone.
She wiped up the bits of birdseed, feathers and empty shells. Now she would never have to do this chore again. She would never have to scrape bird poop off the side of the refrigerator, never have to check her shoulder for tell tale bird marks before leaving the house.
After doing that, reading a romance novel probably wasn’t the best idea; every protagonist was consumed by desire and passion, weeping with longing or swearing undying devotion and loyalty. To Rose it all seemed foreign, as if she had never read a book before, never watched a romantic movie, never fell in love. It was a reaction that puzzled her, and she tried to explain it to her longtime friend, Alison.
"That’s love by the book," said Alison. "You know, a fantasy, an escape, it bears no resemblance to real life." She took a long sip of her unsweetened iced tea and clunked the glass down emphatically. "If anyone knows, it’s you and me!"
Rose nodded silently. The two women were mall hopping and taking a dinner break at one of the overly-cheerful chain of bar and grill restaurants that populate suburban New Jersey malls. To others, they might have been mother and daughter, even though Alison looked at least ten years younger than 62. And if she was meticulous about covering her gray roots, Rose didn’t look her age either. But at 44, Rose was feeling the pangs of middle age - if not physically, but emotionally.
"You and I, we know the truth about love," Alison was saying. "It’s just a way for them to get you. Get you in bed, get you in the kitchen, get you in the laundry room. I don’t even know why you read that stuff."
Rose smiled. The truth was, despite the age difference; the women had shared similar lives. They originally met each other because both their husbands were cops on the same force. As a young mother, Rose had looked up to Alison, who, years ahead of her had already run the gauntlet of being a cop’s wife. But it wasn’t long before the nasty little secret of Alison’s life was revealed. A secret, it turned out, that was pretty common knowledge.
"Coffee? Dessert?" the overly cheerful server had returned from out of nowhere and was gesturing at the plates in from of Rose and Alison.
"Let’s do it, what the hell," said Alison. The server disappeared into the crowded, dim room and returned with two cups of coffee and the dessert menu.
"I’ll give you a few minutes to decide," he said.
Alison reached into her purse and took out a pack of cigarettes. It was Alison’s worst habit, an addiction that meant any time they went out they would be seated in the smoking section, forced to breathe in noxious smoke. Rose had forgotten how much she disliked the smell of cigarettes, how her eyes burned and her throat felt like sandpaper. It seemed to bother her more now, after spending ten smoke-free years with Sean. Ten whole years had passed since his heart spasm, his hospitalization and his doctor’s dire warning. Ten years that gave his lungs a chance to purge the toxins, ten years for the effects of second hand smoke to fade from nasal passages of their children. And now, he was smoking again, the idiot. The kids came home from visits with him reeking of it - sometimes they would jump into the shower right away to get the stench out of their hair. Their clothes, put in the laundry hamper, soon contaminated everything with the smell. A smell she had never noticed for the first ten years of their marriage - years in which Sean smoked upwards of 4 packs a day and the condensation in their bathroom would often run yellow down the wall from the accumulated layers of nicotine-laced smoke.
Rose realized that she had been staring so hard at Alison’s cigarette that she hadn’t heard a word.
"Look, I know you’re a writer and all that, but somebody ought to write about what men are really like," she was saying. No one was surprised that Alison was bitter, after all her husband, now her ex-husband, had carried on with numerous other women throughout their 24-year marriage. A friend to everyone, he was constantly out doing "favors" for others, while Alison sat home, washing diapers, ironing uniforms and cooking dinners that often were left uneaten.
In the small town where they lived, it was hard for the very visible police officer to hide his indiscretions, and after a few years he seemed to make no effort to do so. There were the casual women, those attracted to and fascinated by the uniform, who were all too willing to listen to his stories of a cold marriage and even colder bed. These were the women who knew theirs was a fleeting affair, some of them were married also, running away from their own chilly homes.
But at least twice, there was talk of love, commitment, an ethereal "someday" when the miserable trapped cop would be free of his domestic obligations, and hand in hand with the love of his life, would start over. The usual plan was to move out of state, and there were many not-so-clandestine trips to Virginia to scope out the territory and dream big dreams. And all along, Alison quietly raised her three children, kept a clean house and walked around town as if nothing was wrong. For more than 20 years, until the day she found a lump in her breast.
The doctors all congratulated her on finding it, reporting it, and taking care of it so quickly. The performed a lumpectomy, gave her a course of radiation, and told her they were very optimistic about her prognosis. Everyone, doctors, nurses, friends, family was encouraging and supportive. Everyone except John, who came from a family that ordered caskets the minute cancer was mentioned.
He refused to go to the doctor or hospital with her, ignored her discomfort, and left her lying in the bedroom alone the day she came home - by taxi - from the hospital. It was hurt more painful than all the years of infidelity. Alison swore to get a divorce as soon as she got stronger, and that was what she did.
"Can you believe who knocked on my door this week?" said Alison. Jolted back to the present, Rose hoped she could pick up the thread of the conversation.
"Umm, who?" she asked, hesitantly.
"Who the hell have we been talking about?" Alison waved her cigarette impatiently. "John! And you are just not going to believe what he wanted."
Rose looked around at the other diners sitting so closely. She wondered if they would all turn to stare if she blurted out the word "sex." But Alison was there before her.
"Not, THAT," she said, pointing her finger at Rose. "Not exactly. He wanted to move back in with me. Apparently, things are not going so well with Miss Virginia Is for Lovers."
Rose could hardly suppress the gasp. "Can you even believe it?" said Alison. "He said we could be partners - roommates or some kind of nonsense like that!"
"Oh no, not that ‘partners’ crap!" said Rose. Alison nodded knowingly.
It was "partners" that Sean wanted to be. He saw no reason for a divorce, a displacement of the children, a public airing of their discord.
"We could just live here, but live our own lives," he said to Rose. The idea infuriated her.
"That means YOU live your own life, and I stay here as domestic help!" she shouted. "No, if living your own life is what you want, I want out!" Sean shrugged, not even caring enough to press his point.
So, the divorce was over so quickly, that even the rumor mill in the small town had trouble keeping up. When the moving van showed up to take Rose and her children to their new home, it created quite a stir. For weeks afterward, as Rose slowly weaned herself off the town, returning library books, transferring prescriptions, she constantly ran into people who would bluntly ask her what the hell had happened. Some of them wanted verification that the rumor wasn’t true, others seemed to take a perverse delight in hearing it from Rose’s own lips. In a way she didn’t blame them, after all the years spent working in the town, she knew there were some who didn’t appreciate her community involvement. Some who thought she was way too involved with her husband’s work, some who envied the accomplishment of their children and some who were waiting to see the perfect couple fall on their faces.
Alison was intently examining the dessert menu, holding it out at arms length. "Why do they make the print so small," she grumbled. "Just to embarrass us?" Rose realized that the print on the menu was beginning to look smaller to her too. Another gentle reminder that she had crossed the border into middle age. Cashiers in the grocery store were calling her ma’am and she had begun examining her face for wrinkles and double chins. Thinking of the "baby weight" she still carried even though the baby was 12, she turned the menu face down.
"Just coffee for me," she said.
Alison shot her a disgusted look. "Come on, we hardly ever go out, have yourself a treat." It was easy for Alison; she was still as slim as the day she got married.
"Well, maybe we can split this Death by Chocolate thing," said Rose. Alison smiled triumphantly. "There you go," she said, reaching for another cigarette.
"So, I’ve been monopolizing the conversation," said Alison as she lit up.
What’s been going on with you, any sign of the parrot?"
What’s been going on with you, any sign of the parrot?"
Rose shook her head, then answered. "I’ve been reading a lot, trying to take my mind off of it. You know Sean hated it when I read anything." Alison nodded.
"How you ever got involved with him, I don’t know. You with your writing and all, we know the only thing he ever read was dirty magazines!" The two women laughed conspiratorially. It was true that Sean’s collection of "erotica" rivaled Rose’s shelves full of classics.
"Yeah, out of all those magazines he probably read three words!" Alison laughed so hard she choked on the smoke she was inhaling.
Dessert arrived, a huge plate covered with chocolate confections of several types. The smiling waiter brandished two dessert forks and ceremoniously placed them, along with two cake plates, in front of the women. "Death by Chocolate, for two!" he declared.
As he walked away, Alison stubbed out her cigarette and stifled another laugh. "What is he on?" she said, nodding her head in the direction the waiter had gone.
"You know," said Rose, "I’ve had this really strange feeling that losing Yankee was bound to happen." Alison looked at her expectantly.
"I mean, it seems as if all the males in my life have deserted me, I guess the dog is next."
Alison burst out laughing. "The dog is the only one you did right with, you got him fixed."
Rose started to choke on a mouthful of Death by Chocolate. Dark crumbs flew everywhere, as she gasped for breath - tears running down her face. She pounded on the table unable to breath. The waiter came running over, yanked her out of the booth and clamped his arms around her stomach.
"OK! OK!" panted Rose. "I’m OK!" The entire restaurant full of people was looking at them.
"I saved your life!" the waiter shouted. His fellow servers crowded around and clapped him on the back. Rose picked her napkin up and tried to clean the chocolate mess off her clothes. Alison was also holding her napkin - up over her face. Finally she peeked over a corner and giggled.
"Now that is what I call a dramatic exit!" she said. "And its time to make ours."
The two women walked out, leaving a generous tip and a chocolate mess. They hugged each other goodnight in the parking lot and drove home, smiling. Once you survive Death by Chocolate, you can survive anything.