Photo: Paris by mouth

Our Chocolate, Ourselves

Generally speaking, I don’t put stock in aphrodisiacs that aren’t high-proof whiskey or MDMA

Generally speaking, I don’t put stock in aphrodisiacs that aren’t high-proof whiskey or MDMA. Oysters and figs, skink skin and Spanish fly — the lunatic world of natural love drugs is one of human history’s more embarrassing flights of fancy.

Still, there’s an ancient kinship between chocolate and sex, sired by centuries of misinformation and spread by everyone from Aztec emperors to lip-biting ladies in Peppermint Pattie commercials. I came by it honestly. For me, the affinity between these two pleasures crystallized the first time I loosed an edible penis from a candy mold.

I was fourteen and working at a chocolate shop tucked inside a garden center — a family-run place that had kept my hometown in perennials and deer netting for a quarter-century. I didn’t know about the shop’s reputation for X-rated confections when I came in to ask about a job. But I knew that working at a chocolate shop seemed cuter than gnawing Big Red behind a customer service counter at the A&P. And at the time — innocent and inexperienced, with a cruel halo of frizzy curls that acted as a kind of psycho-sexual electric fence — I was desperate to be cute.

It was my first job. I joined a little team that included the owner’s daughter and a girl named Kimmie, with over-waxed eyebrows and hair dyed a raspy orange, ashy as scorched earth. She (like me) wore bright tees printed with the names of long-forgotten Jersey hardcore bands, layered over long sleeves and jeans that were frayed where her heels would catch the cuffs. We were fast friends. And in the grand tradition of teenage girls, we developed a dense web of inside jokes and our own inscrutable patois — a squeaky vernacular influenced, probably, by episodes of Sailor Moon.

It was at the shop that I took my first wobbly steps into boy-girl repartee. The guys who worked in the garden center would spend their cigarette breaks leaning on our counter and sweet-talking free scoops of ice cream from us, advances I navigated with twitchy discomfort. (“Navilla? I mean lavilla? I mean vanilla? Vanilla!”) As work wound down in the evenings, Kimmie and I would bring boxes out back and crush them for the dumpster, dissecting these flirtations as we stomped and ripped through the cardboard.

If the tempest of my teenage hormones wasn’t enough to keep me in a constant state of manic and gawky arousal, the pounds of chocolate I’d consume on an average work day were. At the shop, I cultivated a permanent and rather deranged kind of sugar high. Boxes of chocolates would come in several times a week, and Kimmie and I would nibble indiscriminately as we arranged them in neat trays for the case. Coins of nonpareils paved in white sprinkles, porous malt balls, and nutty turtles with caramel so gluey that you’d find evidence of it in your teeth days after eating one; there were bitter rounds of dried orange and apricot dipped chastely in dark chocolate (only old people ever bought these), pretzels and grahams and jelly rings and marshmallows dunked in cocoa. The truffles had their own case and we weren’t allowed to snack on them. But that only made the treasures more appealing to me, as I slowly emerged as the shop’s bottom-line–threatening Augustus Gloop.

We did a roaring trade in this mail-ordered treacle, and made very little in-house. But we did have a little workshop out back, with a sticky tempering machine, big bags of chunk chocolate and tall, crowded shelves full of molds for special orders. We’d do personalized hearts for Valentine’s Day, flocks of bunnies around Easter, and all manner of festive green spruces and ornaments for Christmas. And we’d fill custom requests, which Kimmie would take over the phone, with the headpiece cradled in her shoulder and a spare finger wound around the spiraled cord as she took notes.

Some of these calls though, were different than others. Kimmie would turn her back to the shop when the weird ones came in, and I’d listen in keenly, trying to divine some meaning from her side of the dialogue.

Yes, we do things like that... We have many different sizes... We can mix flesh tones... We will pack it discreetly.

She’d hang up, rip a page from her scratch pad and leave it face down on the owner’s desk. I lacked the imagination and experience to speculate about these mysterious callers. I had grown attached to the equal-footed harmony of our twosome, but Kimmie knew something I didn’t know, and this ate away at my sense of belonging. I got the feeling I shouldn’t ask questions. After a particularly chatty box-crushing one evening, I finally worked up the courage.

You don’t know? Kimmie said, letting the oh cartwheel through a range of quizzical inflections. About the dicks?

A word on dicks, as I might have understood them at the time. It should go without saying that I’d never seen one. It would be years before I’d let (or, more accurately, coax) any boy into my jardin secret. Suburban sex-ed had failed me, and while the world wide web had just begun to beckon with its promises of bootleg centerfolds, I was never alone with the family computer long enough to let the smut finish loading. And so my sexual world was a narrow one, limited to gazing upon the crinkled pages of Playboy and Hustler my brother kept (predictably, as luck would have it) beneath his bed. Dicks didn’t feature much in those high-class periodicals. And so at fourteen, with no frame of reference, I had an awfully skewed notion of reality vis-a vis-dicks. I imagined they were roughly the length and thickness of a forearm (the genesis of a lifetime of disappointment), and that an erection functioned as a kind of fleshy divining rod, pointing the way towards its desired destination.

All of this is to say that when Kimmie pulled the cardboard boxes full of erotic chocolate molds from their hidden real estate high on a shelf, they might as well have emitted a golden light, like the briefcase in that Pulp Fiction scene. There were tons of them: bite-size dicks and aspirational dicks; dicks on sticks and anthropomorphicized dicks. And the dicks weren’t alone. There was a full range of human genitalia, and frieze-like captures of men and women caught in creative coitus. This was eye-opening. Jaw-slackening. A watershed moment in my sexual education. Not only had I never seen such puzzling sex acts, I’d never even heard of them. I didn’t know, for instance, that dicks were allowed in the squishy space between a woman’s breasts. The acrobatics alone seemed staggering: Legs opened that wide? Mouths could explore those regions? Butts were in play? News to me.

In the ensuing months, work became my favorite pastime. I treated those molds like contraband. In my spare moments, I’d retreat to the workshop and flip through the boxes, a pubescent pervert, wide-eyed and piqued. I was in the club now. I knew things. Soon, I was taking the special orders too, and there were plenty of them. It’s only in hindsight that I can appreciate how uncomfortable it must have been for the customers, asking after edible testicles and articulated money shots. I was, after all, still a very young girl, with a falsetto closer to Shirley Temple than Kathleen Turner.

I was good at putting the nervous callers at ease, though. Bachelorette parties were common, but we got couples too. The earnest lovers looking to spice up their sex lives were my favorites. It felt like a noble thing to make them comfortable — to help normalize their low-level kink.

And really, this new trove of knowledge was empowering. The years I spent working at the shop were transformative for me, as my proximity to erotica helped me grow comfortable thinking about, talking about, and even (eventually) engaging in sex. This was quite a positive way to learn about lust. I don’t remember unfurling a condom over an unripe banana in the company of a sex ed teacher. I don’t remember any whispered love-making mythologies passed among the ears of adolescent kids. But I do remember selling boners and heavy racks of chocolate boobs to folks who were having fun with sex — who saw it as a thing worth celebrating.

But when you’re a kid, sexual scholarship isn’t the kind of thing you keep to yourself. I wasn’t satisfied to simply have this insight into the adult world of love-making — I spread it more quickly than mono at a Jewish summer camp. At the shop I was fond of dyeing white chocolate a perverse shade of pink and setting up a sheet of tiny vaginas, each the size of a silver dollar. I’d wrap them in poly bags tied with elaborate ribbons and distribute them among my friends at school. Maybe this aggressive mode of play was just another way of unpacking my complex, and still very youthful, feelings about sex; stamping out the shame of not knowing, rejecting the implicit gag order, forcing a conversation where before there had been none.

And it worked for awhile — until the day I made a choice to show my mother my handiwork. She and I had never had a heart-to-heart about sex, but one afternoon, in typically blunt-force manner, I parked on a stool at our kitchen counter and fished a bag of cocoa smut out of my knapsack. With arms crossed and lips curled into an unshockable smirk, I pushed it towards her and watched as she inspected the chocolates. She held the bag up in a ray of late-day light filtering though the window slats and squinted at it. Finally her face flushed with recognition. She laughed, drew the bag of vaginas towards her and made a big, sloppy show of kissing one of them. She looked back at me, took in my now-horrified face and revealed her error:

What? It isn’t a mouth?

Hot with humiliation, one-upped by my own mother I ran to my room and buried my face in a pillow. I had cracked into the hermetic world of p-in-v antics, but all my posturing crumbled to pieces in one uncomfortable moment. I spent years walking that high wire just like everyone else, wobbling between sexual blowhard and easily-embarrassed naif, betrayed by my own chastity. Even now, the memory of my mother tongue kissing a honey pot hits me like a gale wind, threatening to undermine my progress as a mature adult.

Chocolate, it turns out, can only take a girl so far.

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