Le Saloon de Chocolate. It’s a little shop in the empty-calorie heartland suburb where I grew up. Clearly the owners never learned proper French, though they have a space in the upscale mall, the one with more pretensions than the other three. I was wandering around there on a morning in late May, home from my junior year of college and still in a daze from finals. But in a rush to taste a different sort of life.
Girls like me, raised in places with malls and nothing else, have to plan ahead. My plan was law school, and I’d already rustled up two professors who’d said okay, keep reminding me and I’ll write a recommendation by November. I was on a quest for modest offerings –reminders, really, or maybe bribes—to say thank you for the verbal agreement. That morning I browsed through verbena-green-tea soaps and terrariums of colored sand, things someone must have invented just to make East Coast professors sneer. But Le Saloon de Chocolate would do; they had chocolate objects for every frame of mind. I marched in, prepared to take my Visa to a precipice.
One box of chocolate something-or-others for Professor Ellsworth Hornblower. He told our European history class that Mother England spread civilization where it conquered, and that French women spent centuries cultivating the power of sex. In his office I told him I was born to study positivism and precedent, and felt his eyes probing under my blouse. He’d given me A-pluses, though, and he said I like your qualifications.
In a case on the right were dark chocolate battleships with espresso bomb centers. A dozen of those would be just right for Hornblower.
For Professor Margo Demetri in women’s studies, truffles seemed too tame. She’d told me define yourself and then become. She took me to a women’s shelter and said here are twenty reasons to be a feminist lawyer. She gave me an assignment, send her an essay over the summer on six patriarchal laws anywhere in the world that ought to be overhauled, then she’d write a recommendation.
Discreet in a corner, they had chocolates in the shape of plump bittersweet petals, lush with pink sea salt. The sign above said “Furious Vulva.”
“A dozen of those,” I said to the girl behind the counter, who had two rings in her nose and a slow-motion affectation that cried out this-is-only-my-summer-job. “And a dozen battleships. And do you have gift cards?” I tried to exchange smiles because I knew about summer jobs; in a few days I’d be waiting on tables just half a mile down the highway.
She inched two embossed cards across the counter.
“In celebration of powerful sisters everywhere,” I wrote on one.
“Greetings from the wasteland,” I wrote on the other. “Thank you for teaching me that it isn’t where you come from that counts, but where you aim.” On both cards I crossed out “Saloon de Chocolate” and wrote “Salon du Chocolat,” because I’d learned a few things in college.
“The battleships go to this address. The vulva to that one,” I told Ms. Noserings.
“We ship around the world,” she proclaimed. Her eyes challenged me as if to ask have you been that far from home?
She mixed them up.
Or someone did. I found out a week later, when Professor Hornblower’s e-mail came.
“Well, well…” he wrote. “The things a clever artisan can do with chocolate.”
Horrors—he didn’t even seem to realize it was a mixup. I didn’t put names on the cards, so neither would be sure of the intended recipient, and they most definitely wouldn’t have a conversation because they hated each other. It was even worse that Professor Demetri got the battleships; she’d think I was either a warmonger or an idiot. Was I ruined so early in life?
I sent Professor Demetri a long message. “I’m so sorry, two gifts each went to the wrong place,” I wrote. The I went on about laws in Afghanistan. “As a lawyer I’d try to get The Hague to try rulers who persecute women,” I wrote.
She didn’t write back. Not even about The Hague.
Could it have been me, ditsy with finals fatigue, who made the mistake? I wondered about that all through the summer. Especially on those clammy July days I spent in my air-conditioned room that still had the pepper-pinkish walls left over from high school, searching my computer for injustices against women. August came. I skipped work and stayed away from the beach. The chill interior felt like a prison for girls who screwed up their lives with one swift mistake. The night of Labor Day, I sent Professor Demetri my essay, with another plea: “The chocolate war weapons weren’t supposed to go to you.”
First week of school, I checked out her office hours and knocked on the door.
Her hair was grayer than last spring; it seemed deliberately gray and wavy, her plumpness earthy and somehow glamorous. “Funny thing,” she said. “I didn’t get it at first, then I thought I did. My kids were all excited about getting chocolates, but when we opened the box my daughter laughed and said ‘battleships for you, Mom?’ Then I thought, but of course, this could only come from a student who’s destined to be a brilliant world peacemaker. I melted the battleships down, every one of them, and we had a feast of chocolate demobilization fondue.”
She looked at me as if I were a suspect on trial. “By the way, did you hear about Ellsworth Hornblower?”
I shook my head.
“An uproar. Ridiculous, but that retro buffoon went too far this time. He showed up with a box of chocolates in the shape of penises. He thought it would be amusing, apparently, to pass them out around the history department. Somebody complained. He’s on a forced indefinite leave.”
Jan Alexander is the author of a novel, Getting to Lamma, and editor-at-large for the Neworld Review. She lives in New York.
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