Authors: Gabrielle Zevin
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To the ones with the porcupine hearts, who believe in love but can’t stop wanting other things, too.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road
to come so far, to taste so good.
—Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness”
I MOURN AGAIN
THE AGE OF CHOCOLATE
I BECOME A RELUCTANT GODMOTHER; ON THE BITTERNESS OF CACAO
HADN’T WANTED TO BE GODMOTHER,
but my best friend insisted. I tried to demur: “I’m flattered, but godparents are supposed to be Catholics in good standing.” In school, we had been taught that a godparent was responsible for the religious education of a child, and I hadn’t been to Mass since Easter or to confession in over a year.
Scarlet looked at me with an aggrieved expression that she had acquired in the month since she had given birth to her son. The baby was beginning to stir, so Scarlet picked him up. “Oh, sure,” she drawled in a sarcastic baby-talk voice, “Felix and I would positively adore a fine, upstanding Catholic as a godparent, but
, the person we are stuck with is Anya, who everyone knows to be a bad, bad Catholic.” The baby cooed. “Felix, what could your poor, unwed, teenage mother have been thinking? She must have been so exhausted and overwhelmed that her brain stopped working. Because no one in the entire world has ever been worse than Anya Balanchine. Just ask her.” Scarlet held the baby toward me. The baby smiled—it was a happy, apple-cheeked, blue-eyed, blond-haired creature—and wisely said nothing. I smiled back, though truth be told, I was not entirely comfortable around babies. “Oh, that’s right. You can’t talk yet, little baby. But someday, when you’re older, ask your godmother to tell you the story of what a bad Catholic—no, scratch that—bad person she was. She cut off someone’s hand! She went into business with a terrible man and she chose that same business over the nicest boy in the world. She went to jail. To protect her brother and her sister, but still—who, when presented with other options, wants a juvenile delinquent for a godparent? She poured a steaming tray of lasagna over your daddy’s head, and some people even thought she tried to poison him. And if she’d succeeded, you wouldn’t even be here—”
“Scarlet, you shouldn’t talk like that in front of the baby.”
She ignored me and continued chattering to Felix. “Can you imagine, Felix? Your life will probably be ruined because your mother was so thick as to choose Anya Balanchine to be your godmother.” She turned to me. “Do you see what I’m doing here? I’m acting like it’s a done thing that you’re going to be the godmother, because it
is.” She turned back to Felix. “With a godmother like her, it’s probably straight to a life of crime for you, my little man.” She kissed him on his fat cheeks, and then she nibbled him a bit. “Do you want to taste this?”
I shook my head.
“Suit yourself, but you’re missing out on something delicious,” she said.
“You’ve gotten so sarcastic since you became a mother, you know that?”
“Have I? It’s probably best if you do what I say without argument then.”
“I’m not sure I’m even Catholic anymore,” I said.
“OMG, are we still talking about this?
You are the godmother.
My mother is making me have a baptism, so you’re the godmother.”
“Scarlet, I really have done things.”
“I know that, and now Felix does, too. It’s good that we go into this with our eyes open. I’ve done things myself.
.” She patted the baby on the head, then gestured around the tiny nursery that had been set up in Gable’s parents’ apartment. The nursery had once been a pantry, and it was a tight squeeze, containing the three of us and the many items that make up a baby’s life. Still, Scarlet had done her best with the miniature room, painting the walls with clouds and a pale blue sky. “What difference does any of that make? You’re my best friend. Who else would be godmother?
“Are you honestly saying you won’t do it?” The pitch of Scarlet’s voice had shifted up to an unpleasant register, and the baby was beginning to stir. “Because I don’t care when the last time you went to Mass was.” Scarlet’s pretty brow was furrowing and she looked like she might cry. “If it’s not you, there’s no one else. So please don’t get neurotic about this. Just stand next to me in church and when the priest or my mother or anyone else asks you if you’re a good Catholic, lie.”
* * *
On the hottest day of summer, in the second week of July, I stood next to Scarlet in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She held Felix in her arms, and the three of us were sweating enough to solve the water crisis. Gable, the baby’s father, was on the other side of Scarlet, and Gable’s older brother, Maddox, the godfather, stood beside Gable. Maddox was a thicker-necked, smaller-eyed, better-mannered version of Gable. The priest, perhaps aware of the fact that we were about to pass out from the heat, kept his remarks brief and banter-free. It was so hot he did not even feel the need to mention that the baby’s parents were unwed teenagers. This was truly the boilerplate, no-frills baptism. The priest asked Maddox and me, “Are you prepared to help these parents in their duties as Christian parents?”
We said we were.
And then the questions were directed to the four of us: “Do you reject Satan?”
We said we did.
“Is it your will that Felix be baptized in the faith of the Catholic Church?”
“It is,” we said, though at that point we would have agreed to anything to get this ceremony over with.
And then he poured holy water on Felix’s head, which made the baby giggle. I can only imagine that the water must have felt refreshing. I would not have minded some holy water myself.
After the service, we went back to Gable’s parents’ apartment for a baptismal party. Scarlet had invited a couple of the kids we had gone to high school with, among them my recently crowned ex-boyfriend, Win, who I had not seen in about four weeks.
The party felt like a funeral. Scarlet was the first one of us to have a baby, and no one seemed to know quite how to behave at such an affair. Gable played a drinking game with his brother in the kitchen. The other kids from Holy Trinity chatted in polite, hushed tones among themselves. In the corner were Scarlet’s and Gable’s parents, our solemn chaperones. Win kept company with Scarlet and the baby. I could have gone over to them, but I wanted Win to have to cross the room to me.
“How’s the club coming along, Anya?” Chai Pinter asked me. Chai was a terrible gossip, but she was basically harmless.
“We’re opening at the end of September. If you’re in town, you should come.”
“Definitely. By the way, you look exhausted,” Chai said. “You’ve got dark circles under your eyes. Are you, like, not sleeping because you’re worried you’ll fail?”
I laughed. If you couldn’t ignore Chai, it was best to laugh at her. “Mainly I’m not sleeping because it’s a lot of work.”
“My dad says that 98 percent of nightclubs in New York fail.”
“That’s quite a statistic,” I said.
“It might have been 99 percent. But Anya, what will you do if you fail? Will you go back to school?”
“Did you even graduate high school?”
“I got my GED last spring.” Need I mention she was starting to annoy me?
She lowered her voice and cast her eyes across the room toward Win. “Is it true that the reason Win broke up with you is because you went into business with his father?”
“I’d rather not talk about that.”
“It’s complicated,” I said. That was true enough.
She looked at Win, and then she made sad eyes at me. “I could never give up
for any business,” she said. “If that boy loved me, I’d be,
You’re a way stronger person than me. I mean it, Anya. I totally admire you.”
“Thanks,” I said. Chai Pinter’s
had managed to make me feel horrible about every decision I’d made for the past two months. I pushed out my chin with resolve and pulled back my shoulders. “You know, I think I’m going to step onto the balcony for some fresh air.”
“It’s like one hundred degrees,” Chai called after me.
“I like the heat,” I said.
I opened the sliding door and went outside into the sweltering early evening. I sat down in a dusty lounge chair with a cushion that was bleeding foam. My day had not begun in the afternoon with Felix’s baptism, but hours before at the club. I’d been up since five that morning and even the meager comforts of that old chair were enough to lure me to sleep.