by Joesph Cambonga
Editor's note: 'Craving' was the first piece published in our Morning Breath II series in February 2017. The series also includes 'Lines' and 'Not the Same' by Sabrina Sanchez, 'Wedding Invitation' by Dean Graham, and 'Ownership' by Abbie DeHaas.
She wants chocolate. Some candy bar you never heard of. She doesn’t know where to get it either. But it’s the only thing that will make the cramps go away.
You’re watching Finn and Jake fight the Ice King in this week’s Adventure Time, slouched on the couch you bought off eBay last week. It has a couple tears, but it beats sitting on the wood floor. You turn up the volume every time she yells for you.
“Remember the pie!” she says, shooting you in the head with a pillow.
It was Thanksgiving. You were begging her to go to Costco because they have the moistest pumpkin pie ever, and you didn’t want to take the two-hour trip to Red Hook because the Broncos were holding on to a touchdown lead against the Giants. They lost. But when she came back past midnight, you both ate two whole pies. “Damn right,” you said.
So you promise you’ll get the candy bar. Not because she is pregnant and going through mood swings, or because you’re doing it out of a commitment lasting for five years and some months, but because you haven’t had any action since your honeymoon in Jamaica. Maybe, if you do this one thing for her, then according to logic, she’ll do the same for you. Isn’t that what marriage is about?
You pick up the pillow, scream in it, and go over to the bedroom. You place it under her head, but she turns away from you. You kiss her on the shoulder. On the nightstand, you see the ring you proposed to her at graduation, and you place yours right beside it. Everybody has their urges, but you’re glad you didn’t follow yours last night. That run away from Boston at the bar last night, with the dead tooth but eyes like honey, was not worth it.
You turn off the TV, got to the kitchen and drink some water, staring out the window at a girl in an oversized t-shirt smoking on the fire escape across the street. You toss the plastic cup into the sink and leave.
When you close the front door, the black plastic number nine falls off. You don’t stick it back up because no one comes over anyways. Your frat brothers haven’t reached out, so you stopped poking them on Facebook. They all wear suits and work in the Financial District as consultants and lawyers, with their roof-top parties and skyline penthouses. What would they want with a Philosophy major who makes lattes at The Standard, unless it’s to sell insurance.
The hallway smells like piss. The stained green carpet and torn wallpaper make the place a set for some cheap 40’s noir movie. On your first step, there is a squish. Since you moved in, you kept telling yourself you will set aside $40 of your bi-weekly paycheck, and sooner or later, you’ll move out into some brownstone by Prospect Park. But if you don’t stop going to the Dizzy Pig on Houston street, drinking more than three beer-and-shots, then might as well be buried here in Chinatown.
You flinch when the light bulb flickers. Cats meow in room six. The old hag probably didn’t feed them yet. You remember how one of her cats got stuck in your kitchen vent. How you used a piece of string to lure it out but its claws got stuck on to your hand. You hope she hasn’t flatlined yet . . . for their sake.
You shield your face from the sun. The humidity blitzes, and you choke on your own salvia. You cough, pat your back, and realize you forgot your backpack with the red Camelback water bottle. Should you go back up those creaky stairs? You’re not trying to fry like an egg on these streets. Screw it. Having to go back into your piss-stained apartment, only for your wife to see you without her fix. No. Screw that.
A young man walking a pack of dogs passes by, and they sniff and bark at you. You smile at them, remembering when you asked your mom for a Rottweiler. She said no because she cleans your shit already. So you got a brother instead.
You cross the street, and a delivery bike swerves around you. He flicks you off, but crashes into the back of a taxi. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. You enter the corner-store, where you get a Marlboro for 50 cents, and ask the clerk if he has the candy bar. He just stares at you. You look at his gray mustache and crow’s feet, and break eye contact, staring at the condoms behind him. You ask again, but nothing. And you ask again . . . and again.
“What?” he screams, “what, what?” and points at the rubbers, “Huh?”
“No!” you say, “forget it.”
You go to the back of the store, grab a bottle of orange juice, drop a dollar off at the counter, and walk out. You go to Columbus park, sit on a bench, and drink your juice. You watch a chess game. For starts, you know she spends $30 on organic wine and gourmet cheese at Vending Mike’s near Union Square. You don’t understand the appeal of the place. Why anybody likes guacamole ice cream is beyond you. But it’s where she gets Israeli-made olive oil. If she came across anything food-related, it would be there. Besides, their recycled toilet paper is soft.
You head to the 6 train at Lafayette street, swipe your Metro card, pass the turnstile, and look at the marque. Four minutes. You lean on the green metal pillar, hovering your foot past the edge of the platform, and looking down at all the garbage on the tracks. There’s a fat rat running around with its head stuck in an empty Cheetos bag.
You remember your last job as an usher at the Angelika Film Center. You watched people throw full bags of popcorn on the floor when the credits rolled, and you had to wipe the condiments station every half-hour because it was never not covered in ice and butter and salt. You also saw a hobo, with vomit all over himself, passed out by the gate you closed after your graveyard shift. You propped him up against the wall.
After that night, your boss Dick, who you saw on camera smacking a microphone in the box office (he has a short-temper for employees who don’t make customers sign the receipts), gave you a mop and told you to clean the mess up. You went to the basement of the theater, took some bleach and dish soap and window cleaner, mixed it all up in a bucket, and poured it over the dry food chunks. Dick then tells you take graffiti-remover and scrub off the racial slurs and penis drawings spray-painted on the gate while you’re outside. You tried to cover your nose and mouth with your shit, but still felt queasy. You still hope don’t have cancer from breathing in all those fumes.
The train approaches. The doors stop where you stand. You give a soft applause, taking it as a sign of good luck from the universe. The doors open. Only a few people are in the car. You take a seat across from a guy wearing yellow Beats headphones. You read the ads posted overhead: one is for Long Island University, as a black lady with a stethoscope around her neck smiles at you; another ad is for a survey on marijuana, the word “Addicted?” in red letters; another ad is for subway safety awareness, to always inform officials about any suspicious packages by calling 1-800-NOW-BOMB. You squint your eyes at a black square in the corner of the Bomb ad. It’s a card for a psychic. At least they are cheaper than shrinks.
It takes three stops to get to Union Square. You get off the train, walk up the stairs, and hear tambourines from people in white robes. They’re sitting in a circle, mumbling mantras.
You exit the station, but a lady with a baby carriage needs help getting down the stairs. You help her, and she asks for a swipe, so you give her one; then you exit the station. You cross the street and enter Vending Mike’s. Most men are in plaid shirts and suspenders, and most girls have glasses and nose rings. The check-out line circles all around the store. Where the hell is this candy bar going to be? You walk down the desserts aisle, and don’t know if what you are looking at is chocolate or not. Buzzwords like “No Preservatives!” and “Locally Made!” take up the packaging, and you pick up a blue bag of what looks like jellybeans, but the words are in Russian. You see one of the employees in a red vest restocking dried mango slices.
“Excuse me,” you say to him, and he turns to you. You ask him if he has the candy bar. He blinks. You look around at the people scurrying, carrying baskets and totes. You ask again.
“Hold up,” he says, “let me ask my manager.” He stares, stands, blinks . . . then leaves.
He doesn’t come back. You walk around and find him flirting with a girl with pigtails, who’s offering samples of 100% free-range salmon. You ask her about the chocolate, and she says she used to offer samples of it last month. She says the candy bar has purple wrapping, a gold star logo, and is half cacao. But last week, Vending Mike’s stopped selling the chocolate because the candy company couldn’t afford the shelf space. You ask her if another store sells it, and she tells you to try the farmer’s market in Flushing. You ask her again if there is another store in Manhattan. She says that’s where she gets it. You say thanks, and try a sample of the salmon. It’s too salty.
You walk to the Doughnut Pub on 7th avenue. A small cup of black coffee and two Boston creams lifts your spirits. You tip the waiter $3 since you’ve been coming here for the past month at 5:30 in the morning before your shift starts.
You take the 4 train to 42nd, and walk the hallways in the belly of Times Square, not acknowledging the fight between two bearish guys in hockey jerseys. You barely make it on the 7 train, squeezing between the doors and a small woman in her winter jacket. After a couple stops, your ears pop as you go under the East River. After coming up the tunnel, you see out the window the Empire State and Chrysler building. You yawn, and look down at all the cars moving left and right, forward and backward. You look at the people around the train car, swiping on their phones and staring up at the ceiling. You close your eyes, and laugh. You’re going to be a father. You have a beautiful wife and a job. Everything is alright . . . right?
Even if your boss thinks you never have enough teaspoons at your workstation, you still make enough money for the simple things, like whisky and pumpkin pie and Netflix and hopefully this candy bar. You remember your boss asking if you would be interested in bartending, since some are going to be fired for taking shots behind the bar with the hostess. Yes, you nodded, and started making mimosas during breakfast. Even though you pour the orange juice first, and then the champagne, and the drink fizzes and overflows, it’s good enough to soothe people’s hangovers.
You get off at Willets Point. Overlooking the meadows, you spot those old towers from the World Fair far off in the distance. You ask the woman stuck in the MTA booth about the Farmer’s Market. She tells you it’s on Main Street, near the Botanical Garden. You should have gotten off on the next stop. You shrug, and head to Corona park, walking to the Unisphere. Admiring the water fountains, you try to remember the last time you took a stroll in the park on such a sunny, clear day. You walk down the path by the pools, hoping on the cement edge and walk like its tightrope. Passing a playground, the kids jumping and running around, you jump, clicking your heels, and walk on.
You approach the Botanical gardens. A lady with a pearl neckless tells you entry requires a donation. You give her a dollar and some coins. When you enter, the flowers take your breath away. You forgot what clean air feels like. The yellows, the oranges, the purples and pinks. You rub your eyes. There’s crates of plums, cabbages, tomatoes, corn; and sacks of coffee beans, pinto beans, fava beans; and tables of yams, eggplants, cucumbers. You walk around, checking for any brown spots like in the supermarket on Bleecker Street. None.
You see a stand selling caramel apples, and pull out your wallet, but put it back. Then, behind the glistening bronze fruit, there is a purple banner with a gold star. You go up, and there is a guy with glasses wearing overalls, putting tin boxes in the back of a blue Ford truck.
“Are you out of those candy bars?” you ask.
“Unfortunately,” he says, then points, “there’s the last bar.” Sitting on the bench, a chucky fella stuffs his mouth.
You ask the candyman if he knows where more would be. He tells you he will be back with more bars next week. I just need one bar you plead, and he wipes his glasses, and says there’s nothing he can do. You both shake hands, and you leave the garden without a chocolate or a caramel apple.
As the sun sets, you walk up Main Street. All the shops are in Chinese. One of these places must sell more than just fried ducks. Screw it. You’re waiting for the 7 train, sitting on a wooden bench. You take off your shoes and stretch your toes. Maybe a foot rub will make it up to her. A busker with a trumpeter plays softly, picking up the notes her and there. You give him a thumbs-up. He gives you one back. It’s night time, the train arrives, and you slug yourself inside the car, sit down with your shoes on your lap, and nod off.
You yawn. There’s a homeless guy with shopping cart sitting across from you. You see a green sack of glass bottles piled on the car, but notice the candy bar against the grates. You point at it, and he leans in to you, smiling without teeth. He fishes it out the cart. It has a gold star.
“Where did you find that?” you ask.
“It dropped off the back of truck,” he says, “lots of cool things fall of the back of trucks.”
You open up your wallet and there’s nothing but lint. You tell him your wife is pregnant, and she’s been craving for that candy bar. He laughs. You ask him to follow you to a bank at the next stop. You will give him $20. He blinks. You say $50. He blinks. $100. He yawns. You hand your shoes to him, but he pushes them away, and tosses the candy bar to you.
“It’s just a piece of chocolate,” he says.
You shake his hand, but he wraps you in a hug, and you pat him on the back.
“Good luck with your family,” he says.
The train stops at 42nd and you put your shoes back on and leave. He waves goodbye at you, and you wave back. While heading to the 1 train, you inspect the candy bar: 200 calories and 50% cacao. You put the candy bar in your pocket, board the 1 train, and touch the chocolate every now and then to be sure you still have it.
You get out the subway, walk east on Canal Street, and go up those creaky stairs. The old hag yelling to keep it down. The cats meow. It still smells like piss, the lights still flicker, and the nine still on the ground, but you open the front door, and there she is, on the couch watching the news. You sit by her, propping your head on her shoulder.
“Where have you been all day?” she asks, rubbing your head.
“Seriously?” you say, then stand up.
You throw the candy bar right beside her. She can’t believe you were listening to her, that you spent your entire day off over a piece of chocolate. She uncovers the purple wrapping, breaks into two, and gives you a piece, smiling at you. She chews, and smiles at you with chocolate on her teeth. You bite in. It’s not as sweet pumpkin pie.