In the Age of Love and Chocolate
Birthright - 3
by
Gabrielle Zevin

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

it’s traveled

to come so far, to taste so good.

—Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness”

THE AGE OF CHOCOLATE

I
I BECOME A RELUCTANT GODMOTHER; ON THE BITTERNESS OF CACAO

I 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 malheureusement, 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 totally 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. Obviously.” 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?”

“Maybe.”

“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.”

“So it is true?”

“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 that for any business,” she said. “If that boy loved me, I’d be, What business? You’re a way stronger person than me. I mean it, Anya. I totally admire you.”

“Thanks,” I said. Chai Pinter’s admiration 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.

Though I have never been much of a dreamer, I had the oddest dream in which I was Scarlet’s baby. Scarlet held me in her arms, and the feeling overwhelmed me. All at once, I remembered what it was to have a mother, to be safe, and to be loved by someone more than anything else in the world. And in the dream, Scarlet somehow transformed into my mother. I could not always picture my mother’s face, but in this dream, I could see her so clearly—her intelligent gray eyes and her wavy reddish-brown hair and the hard pink line of her mouth and the delicate freckles sprinkled across her nose. I had forgotten about the freckles, and that made me even sadder. She had been beautiful, but she didn’t look like she took guff from anyone. I knew why my father had wanted her even though he should have married anyone but her, anyone but a cop. Annie, my mother whispered, you are loved. Let yourself be loved. In the dream, I couldn’t stop crying. And maybe that is why babies cry so much—the weight of all that love is simply too much to bear.

“Hey,” Win said. I sat up and tried to pretend I hadn’t been sleeping. (Aside: Why do people do that? What is so embarrassing about being asleep?) “I’m leaving now. I wanted to talk to you before I went.”

“You haven’t changed your mind, I suppose.” I did not look him in the eye. I kept my voice cool and even.

He shook his head. “You haven’t either. My dad talks about the club sometimes. Business continues, I know.”

“So what do you want, then?”

“I wondered if I could stop by your place to get a few things I left there. I’m going to my mother’s farm in Albany and then I’ll only be back in the city for a bit before I leave for college.”

My tired brain tried to make sense of this statement. “Leave?”

“Yes, I decided to go to Boston College. I don’t have a reason to stay in New York anymore.”

This was news to me. “Well, good luck, Win. Have a fantastic time in Boston.”

“Was I supposed to consult you?” he asked. “You certainly never consulted me about anything.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“Be honest, Anya.”

“What would you have said if I had told you I was going to ask your father to work for me?” I asked.

“You’ll never know,” he said.

“I do! You would have told me not to do it.”

“Of course I would have. I would have told Gable Arsley not to work with my father, and I don’t even like him.”

I can’t say why, but I grabbed his hand. “What things of yours do I have?”

“You have some of my clothes and my winter coat and I think your sister might have one of my hats, but Natty can keep that. I left my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in your room, and I might like to read it again someday. But mainly I need my slate back for college. It’s under your bed, I think.”

“There’s no need for you to stop by. I can put the stuff in a box. I’ll bring it to work, and your dad can take it to you.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“I think it would be easier. I’m not Scarlet. I don’t crave pointless, dramatic scenes.”

“As you like, Anya.”

“You’re always so polite. It’s irritating.”

“And you always keep everything inside. We’re a terrible match, really.”

I crossed my arms and turned away from him. I was angry. I wasn’t certain why I was angry, but I was. If I hadn’t been so tired, I feel quite sure I would have been better able to keep my emotions in check.

“Why did you even come to the launch party for the club if you weren’t going to at least try to forgive me?”

“I was trying, Anya. I wanted to see if I could get past it.”

“So?”

“It turns out I can’t.”

“You can.” I didn’t think anyone could see us, but I wouldn’t have cared anyway. I threw my arms around him. I pushed him into the side of the balcony and pressed my lips against his. It only took me a couple of seconds to notice that he was not, in fact, kissing me back.

“I can’t,” he repeated.

“So that’s it. You don’t love me anymore?”

For a moment, he didn’t reply. He shook his head. “Not enough to get past this, I guess. I don’t love you that much.”

To restate: He had loved me, just not enough.

I couldn’t argue with that, but I tried to anyway. “You’re going to regret this,” I said. “The club is going to be a huge success, and you’re going to regret that you didn’t stand by me. Because if you love someone, you love them all the way. You love them even when they make mistakes. That’s what I think.”

“I’m meant to love you, no matter how you act, no matter what you do? I couldn’t respect myself if I felt that way.”

He was probably right.

I was tired of defending myself and of trying to convince him to see things from my point of view. I looked at Win’s shoulder, which was less than six inches from my face. It would be so easy to let my neck drop and ease my head into that cozy space between his shoulder and his chin, which seemed designed specifically for me. It would be easy to tell him the club and the business with his father were terrible mistakes and to beg him to take me back. For a second I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what my future would look like if Win were in it. I see a house somewhere outside the city—Win has a collection of antique records, and maybe I learn to cook a dish besides macaroni and frozen peas. I see our wedding—it’s on a beach and he’s wearing a blue seersucker suit and our rings are white gold. I see a dark-haired baby—I call him Leonyd after my father, if it’s a boy, and Alexa, after Win’s sister, if it’s a girl. I see everything and it is so very lovely.

It would be so easy, but I would hate myself. I had a chance to build something, and in the process, to do what my father had never been able to do. I couldn’t let that go, even for this boy. He, alone, was not enough.

So I held my tired neck erect and kept my eyes fixed forward. He was going, and I would let him.

From the balcony, I heard the baby start to cry. My former schoolmates took Felix’s tears as a sign that the party was over. Through the glass door, I watched them as they filed out. I don’t know why, but I tried to make a joke. “Looks like the worst prom ever,” I said. “Maybe the second worst if you count junior year.” I lightly touched Win’s thigh where my cousin had shot him at the worst prom ever. For a second he looked like he might laugh, but then he repositioned his leg so that my hand was no longer on it.