Lit Cafe: Sugarcoated
UB MFA grad student Melinda Cianos meditates on food and love — and confesses a very salty secret.
1985. He is eye candy, there is no doubt about that: tanned and Greek and serious. He is Friends School educated, an all-metro athlete, a Scorpio. He is 28 years old and I am 18.
He picks me up for our first date in a ’73 red, convertible Corvette. He doesn’t walk up to the door to get me or meet my parents, but instead honks the horn. My father is sitting in front of the television and shoots a deprecating look my way as I grab my purse; I seem to receive that look often, even when I am just making a sandwich, which is probably the reason I am looking for somewhere else to be.
Hershey’s Big Milk Chocolate Bar
Michael and I live together for about two years.
He comes to bed at about 9:30 p.m. with the chocolate bar in his hand and finishes it while watching an episode of “Miami Vice.” He wonders why he is having such difficulty sleeping, and why his sheets and pillowcase are soaked with sweat. He can’t figure it out. He eats a seven-ounce candy bar and then snuggles down into the bed, pats and tucks the comforter around himself, and waits for sleep to arrive. His heart pounds and his forehead seeps, which is “perplexing since I’m not doing anything but lying in the bed,” he says. I’m perplexed that he’s perplexed. I remind him about the “everything in moderation” approach with which I am sure he is very familiar given his Greek roots, but his brow is furrowed as he works to recall this concept.
He squashes and squeezes the silver wrapper between his fingers while we talk, and I say that in addition to this candy bar fetish I think he is taking too much medication.
Panda Black Licorice Bites
Planned Parenthood gives me the news. It is about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I am the only one in the office; the office that is sun-streaked and warm and quiet, housed over a barbershop on York Road. The woman working there speaks to me in a hushed tone; she is delicate and kind. Every side table or hard surface is covered with soft-colored pamphlets: on the outside the faces of smiling, content women and on the inside lengthy lists that cover places to get formula, where mom can find food for herself if need be, where to get a car seat.
When I tell Michael I am pregnant he just looks at me. He doesn’t say anything. He is not in the habit of making decisions so I do not expect that he will offer a plan. A little while later, maybe three days, he says he thinks he isn’t ready. I say that I am going to have the baby whether he wants me to or not — that I will go home if it comes to that. I am 22 years old, working as a receptionist at an advertising agency. I am not the least bit afraid, and I am certain that I want the child.
I continue to flat-out ignore the pill bottles that are lying around that have the names of friends and neighbors on them, and we marry on June 25, 1988. I am three months pregnant but still svelte in a beaded white gown, even though I have been giving in to my craving for black licorice on a daily basis.
Mike and Ike
Candy lifts his depression and satisfies his craving for sugar. He acknowledges that he has always had a sweet tooth, but it has gotten worse since he went on the methadone treatment plan that is helping him combat an addiction to pain killers. We are two years into our marriage and parenting, both of which he stands on the sidelines of, and I am happy as a clam in this co-dependent arena.
Right now the candy of choice is Mike and Ike. The large green boxes, with the multicolored candies pictured on them, are everywhere — in the drawer by the phone, on the coffee table, in the bedroom; I am thinking that his sweet tooth is out of control, but that’s the least of my worries since he is between jobs and we have no money. While he is home and relaxing in front of the television playing video games, I can hear the candies slide inside of the box like a rain stick filled with marbles. Our daughter is two years old. I am in the kitchen and they are sitting in the living room; the only other sound is the virtual golf ball hitting the inside of the cup.
Later that afternoon the pregnancy test strip reads positive.
My co-dependency is flourishing; it has found the most fertile of fertile ground in which to grow, struck it rich, hit the jackpot. Michael never stops moving. He is a recovering addict, has ADHD, OCD, and is bipolar. I am now parenting him as I am parenting our children, although the children are a lot less needy. A chart on the refrigerator with star stickers or dry-erase board with a black-marker list keeps the kids focused; for Michael I am reminding him daily that he can only open and shut the door four times before he leaves, needs to use his inside voice when he gets up at 4 a.m., and should go easy on the Twix. Every day is like the day before never happened.
The Mentos give him enough in the way of activity to stay happy, and his breath stays minty-fresh even after one and a half packs of cigarettes. His chewing helps satiate his oral fixation and his need to fidget; that’s helpful. There is sugar involved; that works. He is on his tenth job as an insurance salesman. On days when he has no money for lunch he gets Mentos from the vending machine. I pick him up in the evenings and he has a papered stack of Mentos in his hand with his thumb placed under the top mint — always ready to pop one in his mouth. He gets into the car and holds the stack toward me: “want one?” He’s quick on the draw and prides himself on being able to offer a mint at a moment’s notice.
There are 27 individually wrapped Reese’s Cups in our freezer. They used to be my favorite, but not anymore. He is working at the mortgage company and can have as many Reese’s Cups as he wants because we have a lot of money. I go to the grocery store and have a light and airy conversation with the cashier without worrying that my check-writing privileges have been revoked and I will have to leave my groceries at the front of the store while I go find the money to pay for them.
The bedside table is littered every night with tiny orange paper tents and brown ruffles. I dump them in the wastebasket in the morning. He still ponders why he has difficulty sleeping; I have given up on explanations and instead focus on my own tossing and turning that often lands me on the sofa.
He has taken to carrying a backpack to and from his job as a tennis and squash pro. In that maroon hand-me-down backpack that our son, Andrew, gave him, I can always find a pack of Starburst Fruit Chews. They take a little more time to handle because they are wrapped so tightly, but they last a lot longer than a Mento. I seldom see him — at 5 a.m. when I am dropping him off, or 7 p.m. when I am picking him up — without his mouth moving in mid-chew.
The Starburst wrappers are crumpled in small origami-like formations, and find their way to the floor of our car. Not all of them, just a couple: the ones that fall out of his hand while he is trying to open another one.
Chester Cheetah keeps me company beginning with my second pregnancy and throughout my marriage; I develop quite a thing for him. He is savvy and salty. At lunchtime I put a pile of Cheetos on my plate next to my turkey or peanut butter sandwich—they go with everything. I dole them out to myself so that I don’t overdo it. But at night I keep the whole bag with me, opened on my lap and use a cheesy thumb and forefinger to grab one, most times before I’ve finished chewing the one before. So indulgent, and there is no sweetness involved, only salt. It’s just me and Chester; Michael admits he can’t understand the attraction.
Mentholated Cough Drops — Honey
Giant brand cough drops in an amber-colored, resealable bag. This is a candy stretch. He says the mentholated drops keep his nasal passages clear and he likes the honey taste. The little oblong nuggets are wrapped in an ordinary white paper that is gathered and twisted at both ends. Each time he unwraps one it’s like he’s opening a miniature gift. But the wrappers, when left behind on the kitchen counter or the bureau in his room, are not gift-like at all and just look like small crumpled swatches of white tissue paper.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and we are in the car; I’m dropping him off at work, and he is already on his third cough drop. He moves it around in his mouth; it knocks against his teeth. I turn the radio up to drown out the sound and ask that he please get done with that cough drop. I turn up Steely Dan just a tad more as he complies and chews what sounds like ice cubes.
But he reaches into the front pouch of his knapsack and grabs two more cough drops for when he gets out of the car. He leans toward me:
“Want one?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say, a little struck by the fact that he is still willing to share. I stash the Cheetos behind the Chex Mix so that no one can find them but me.
Melinda Cianos is currently teaching creative writing at the Community College of Baltimore, Essex and working on an MFA at University of Baltimore. She adores Baltimore, and has never wandered far. A husband and three children seem to be fond of her…for now.