Pass the Sugar

· 1st place prose, Lauren Wake ·

April 11, 2017

My dad always knew how to find me. Be it nestled in the highest crook of the apple tree, wedged alongside the few strands of grass between the shed and the back fence, or shielded by five or six cardboard boxes of unused toys under my bed, no hiding spot was secure. This time I had opted for my bedroom closet, crammed into the far corner in a cocoon of blankets and misery. It was the best I could do within the limits of my bedroom, where Mom had sent me to await true remorse or further punishment. I don’t remember with which of my siblings I’d fought, but I’m sure they escaped scot-free. I could muffle the sound of their voices with my blankets, but neither fabric nor closed doors blocked out the wafts of sweet goodness coming from the kitchen. Cookies. They were making cookies. They were laughing and making cookies and I was left behind.

But I had not been forgotten.

In darkness, I heard the creak of hinges and a few measured treads. He paused. Was he lifting up my bedspread to check for a shape that didn’t belong? His next steps were quick, and then light streamed into the closet, illuminating the edge of my huddled mass.

“Lauren, here. Take this.”

It was little more than a whisper, passed from the empty room alongside something cool and smooth I couldn’t quite make out. Extracting both my hands from the blankets, I cupped the gift, fingers extending to support the spoon that jutted out of the porcelain bowl. As soon as the offering exchanged hands, Dad straightened from his crouch and partially closed the closet door, leaving me a slim column of light as he crept back towards the hallway. My bedroom door clicked shut.

Alone, I shifted towards the light. Two scoops of vanilla ice cream nestled inside the bowl, uneven and half melted beneath the heat of a single chocolate chip cookie. Dad had taken it off the rack before it could harden properly, leaving glimpses of ice cream between the detached chunks.

I imagined him divvying up the ice cream. One scoop went into Dylan’s bowl. One scoop for Brendan. One scoop for Anne. Then, as they bore away their treats, he secreted two scoops into a fourth bowl, slid it behind his back and crept slowly from the kitchen.

I licked the bowl clean.

****

In some ways, we can’t help the draw of sweets. Our bodies literally link sugar to survival and happiness. The human race evolved to crave sugar because it provides quick energy. Once sugar is ingested, the brain releases opioids and dopamine, creating a sense of happiness and calm. Chocolate mimics serotonin, causing the body to release estrogen to combat the increased production of cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone. This reaction has led some psychologists to believe that this reaction is why menstruating women crave chocolate.

Outside of bodily processes, sugar has left its imprint on human thought. Many Enlightenment ideals were formed in newly established coffeehouses, where scholars and idealists gathered together to share ideas while sipping coffee sweetened by the newly formed sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Eve did not eat the forbidden bread, water, or vegetable. She ate fruit. When describing the Promised Land, Jehovah did not mention mineral deposits, fields of grain, or prospering cities. Instead, he called it a land flowing with milk and honey.  

****

My freshman year in college, I kept a supply of chocolate chip cookie dough balls crammed into a one-gallon Ziploc container on the bottom shelf of my freezer. My initials were scrawled across both sides, warding away any poaching from my roommates. Usually, I’d detach a single dough ball before a difficult homework assignment. As I struggled through physics, linguistic shifts, or qualifying the differences between mild, moderate and severe disabilities, the buttery dough would begin to thaw. When the edges took on a translucent sheen, I knew it was time to throw quality to the winds and finish the assignment. As soon as I hit the save button, the ball went into my mouth, and I’d grin as the sweet flavor filled my mouth and shot the glad tidings of sugar and butter up to my brain.

Some homework sessions necessitated two or three frozen dough balls. While the occasional project caused me to down half the bag, I seldom ate more than four balls in one sitting; I had no desire to gain the infamous freshman 15 pounds. Besides, rationing sweets had always come easily to me. I had been the child who stood proudly to the side as my dad threatened the rest of my siblings with impending obesity and diabetes if they didn’t back off their sugar consumption, who gloated over her siblings when, halfway through the month of November, I still had Halloween candy to spare. It was comforting for me to know that I always had a stash of sweets for times when the rush of pseudo-dopamine overcame the satisfaction of healthy eating.

****

Sometimes, sweetness is not enough. Our tongues are covered with thousands of microscopic taste receptors, which pick up on the balance of seven basic tastes of food and transmit the to taste centers in the center of the brain. But more important than the tongue’s taste receptors are the odor receptors in the back of our nasal passage. On top of the seven tastes provided by the tongue, the odor receptors pick up on anything from 350 to 400 distinct scents, which, due to the origin in our nasal cavity, are perceived as taste. Because of this, people who lose their sense of smell also lose their sense of taste. Such people describe any type of eating experience as flat: all they experience are hints of sweet, bitter, and smooth. They find eating to be a chore, and take no enjoyment in the process. One cannot look forward to a bland experience.

Try it yourself. Pinch your nose shut, close your eyes, and have a friend feed you Skittles. Your tongue will shoot up the message that the food in your mouth is sweetHuzzah! But without the odor receptors, you won’t know if the Skittle is lemon, strawberry, or apple flavored. Can you imagine the rest of your life restricted to this limited scope? Release your grip. Strangely enough, once you let go of your nose, not only will you taste the flavor of the skittle, but the sense of sweetness will increase.

****

The promise of a “good,” “pleasant,” and “desirable” experience overrode the appeal of all other trees in her garden home and convinced Eve to disobey a direct order from God. I doubt that Eve acted solely out of self-gratification. She must have felt the lack of variety in her life, the bland monotony of a bower of thornless beauty. Could she imagine the rush of love that would set off the pain of childbirth? I wonder how soon after her teeth broke through the fruit’s skin that she felt the influx of knowledge. Perhaps it came instantaneously, like the Skittle experiment. If so, was the first feeling sweet wonder, or worry about the consequences of her actions?

Adam only had to be presented with the fruit to eat. Could he taste the trickle of sweat from hours laboring in the field or the flavor of his first harvest of crops? As he looked at his now mortal wife, did he catch a glimpse of wrinkled leathered hands, clasped together through years spent laboring together? How long after the flavor had faded from their memory, after the taste and odor receptors ceased transmission, did they hear God’s voice and hide?

****

Indulgence seems entwined with degradation and death. As a child, I was told that too much sugar would cause my body to shut down. I’d become fat, perhaps even diabetic, and spend the rest of my life injecting insulin into my body to control my blood sugar. As I grew older, I learned that there was more to obesity than sugar consumption, and that diabetes caused by poor health could be cured. I also learned that fatigue and pimples inevitably followed my sugar binges.

I want a healthy, slender body. I do my best to exercise, eat well, and stay away from the junk food aisle at the grocery store. And yet moments come when reason and logic are shoved into a closet. My brain cries out “Dopamine!” and my body echoes with “Energy!” and I carve my way through an entire batch of chocolate chip cookie dough in one sitting. Health is swept away before the promise of a sugar spike to carry me through to the next deadline.

****

I once shared an apartment with a woman determined to remain on the pinnacle of health. Amanda’s personality was barely contained inside her slender 5’8 frame. Laughter and firmly held opinions spilled from her in equal measure from dawn until dusk.

Every morning at 6:10, her alarm would charm out a few cheerful notes before she turned it off, sprang out of bed, and headed for a fifty-minute workout. Breakfast was a green smoothie and some form of egg and vegetable combination. When my parents sent me a box of candy, she quickly exclaimed,

“Oh, the kids at church will love that!”

Amanda believed that a happy life sprang from healthy living. Amanda believed that dessert was for the weak, alongside elevators and sick days.

I wanted to ascend to her level of disciplined perfection, but my zeal collapsed at the first scent of anything sweet. So, I joined in her workouts, shared her smoothies, took the stairs, and ate her portion of any sweets passed our way. She called it the first step towards a healthy lifestyle. I called it moderation.

One morning, still damp from a shower, I leaned around the bedroom door, and a request to borrow one of her scarves froze behind my lips. Amanda was crouched next to her dresser with half a chocolate bar clutched in her hands. For a few moments neither of us spoke. She chewed frantically. I battled down a burst of laughter, twitching despite my effort to appear nonchalant. Once I was sure my voice would sound calm and considerate, I spoke.

“You know, you can eat that whenever you want.”

She nodded once and slid shut the bottom dresser drawer.

The silence held until I retreated from the room, humming the first song that came into my mind to fill the void. I never had the courage to go back, slide open the drawer, and see how much candy she had stashed underneath her socks. Although she occasionally indulged in post-dinner desserts, I never saw another piece of candy pass between her lips. We did not speak of the incident.

****

The night before his death, an angel found Christ kneeling amid a grove of olive trees. Like Eve, he stood on the brink of the unknown, with the promise of death set before him. He was alone. In darkness, he had called out to his father, asking, if it be right, that the bitter cup of suffering be taken from him. The incoming pain raged against every genetic and psychological predisposition in his body. He chose to suffer.

Loneliness. Grief. Pain. Guilt. Shame. Heartbreak. I think of all the times my father expressed his wish to take my pains away, stroking back my hair and promising that things would get better. God the father could not rescue his son. But he could send an angel to comfort his suffering child. My father cannot command angels. Instead, he brought chocolate chip cookies to a closet, left an ice cream bar in my car, or packaged a generous slice of cheesecake in ice, using same-day delivery to make sure it was chilled to perfection when I took my first bite.

****

When my little sister was hospitalized with Type 1 Diabetes, our family took up residence in the local hospital. There was no genetic propensity for the disease, so the fact that Anne’s pancreas had ceased all insulin production came as a shock. For weeks, the amount of glucose in her blood stream had slowly risen, unable to be broken down and absorbed into her cells. Her weight plummeted from the lack of nutrients, while the abnormally high blood sugar brought on headaches and sleepiness. By the time she was sent to the hospital, it took the special ultrasound technician several tries to locate a vein large enough to fit an IV.

All I could do was be near her. I skipped work, classes, and canceled plans with friends. But on her second night at the hospital, Anne said it would be too cruel for me to bail on a date, and insisted that I go out for ice cream, if only to entertain her with the story afterward.

Of course, I killed all chance of romance when my date asked how my day had gone. A spoonful of ice cream wavered halfway to my mouth, and I lowered it back into the bowl before answering.

“My sister was hospitalized last night. We thought she had a bad virus, but she has diabetes. I’m actually going there right after this date so my parents can spend the night in their own bed.”

She almost died.

He didn’t hear the thought, but he must have seen how my shoulders hunched halfway to my ears, heard my laugh cut off abruptly, and noticed how infrequently my spoon lifted the ice cream from the cup to my mouth. Stilted conversation lasted a half hour before he walked me to my car, then faded down the dark street.

The ice cream served as my dinner. It twisted knots inside my stomach as I hugged my parents, then curled onto the hospital bed with Anne. She too had eaten ice cream, alongside a hamburger and fries. They were cramming as much food in as they could, now that her cells had begun to absorb nutrients. Her cheer over the food dissolved into tears as she started to recount the past day. Her blood sugar was still too high. Nurses were still coming in every half hour to draw blood and inject insulin. They promised it would get better, that she would learn how to monitor herself, that she would be able to eat whatever she wanted and live the life she dreamed of. But at the moment, she was propped up in a hospital room with two sets of IVs and machines monitoring each heartbeat.

In the following days, our family learned how to act when confronted with the highs and lows of blood sugar. A nurse gave me a mock needle and I practiced stabbing it into the nearest bit of fatty tissue. Mom stocked the kitchen cupboard with snacks containing fifteen grams of sugar – the dosage needed to slowly bring low blood sugar up to normal. I called it our new form of food storage. Months later, Anne pointed out that a disaster large enough to force us to eat through our food storage would likely stop her access to insulin. Without injections, the amount of glucose in her body would build uncontrollably. She hypothesized it would take about a month before she died. Her doctor later clarified death would come closer to one week after injections stopped.

She talked of her death as she tucked away her insulin pen and reached for a milkshake I had bought moments before. She smiled away my promises to find a way to keep her fed and alive as, beneath her skin, the insulin swept the grasshopper ice cream induced rush of glucose through miles of vein walls into the awaiting cells. She was safe. Death by sugar remained in the hypothetical lands, and we turned towards the comforting topics of college and boys as we carved our way down through the milkshake.

****

In our family, birthday desserts are the premeditated choice of the recipient. Over the years, requests for ice cream, pies, cupcakes, and sweet breads have been honored alongside every flavor of cake imaginable. Six months after Anne was diagnosed with diabetes, my dad turned 55. During that time, a gradual transformation had occurred in my parent’s kitchen. In the freezer, space that was once occupied by cartons of ice cream held bags of frozen vegetables. Salad could always be found in the fridge, and at least two types of fruit nestled in the wire basket on the counter. Traumatic experiences carry incredible motivational power, and it seems that Anne’s illness had given our parent’s the necessary motivation to stick with healthy eating. They kept their indulgences small: one pint of ice cream, an occasional dessert after dinner.

Perhaps that’s why Dad requested his birthday dessert to be chocolate chip cookies, made as a family.

Dad waited until Anne and I charged into the house, ten minutes late, to mix the dough. Normally, such tardiness would earn a disparaging remark. Instead, Dad steered us into the kitchen. Softened butter sat on the counter, and Anne immediately reached into the far- right kitchen cupboard for flour, sugar, and chocolate chips. The oven was preheated to 375° and Anne was beating two eggs into a mixture of butter and sugar before Mom realized we were home.

I ran to the store halfway through the preparations, re-entering the kitchen to find my entire family inside, shameless and laughing as they ate spoonfuls of cookie dough. Grabbing a spoon, I entered the flow of conversation, mindless of odor receptors or cravings. This taste of sweetness was no reward for finished work, no craved chemical rush, no covert indulgence. This time, any pseudo-dopamine release caused by the chocolate only enhanced the joy of the moment.

When the time came to serve up the cookies, Dad stepped up to the counter. He dropped a single scoop of ice cream into each of six small bowls and covered them with a cookie before handing the diminutive creation to each family member. I cradled the smooth porcelain in the palm of my hand as I watched him pass the next bowl to Anne. Only after we had each been served did he allow us to jam a candle through his cookie into the vanilla beneath, light the wick, and begin to sing.

April 11, 2017

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