Honey by Anthony Varallo

Honey

I don’t remember my first taste. The sweetness was just something that always seemed to be around, a part of everything I knew. I didn’t question its presence in my life. Nor did I question my burgeoning habit. In those years, I didn’t find it strange to spend entire afternoons traipsing through the woods, alone, avoiding others, out searching for another drop. How I remember those days now, the feel of woodland breezes across my bare tummy, my shirt neglecting to cover my midriff, my legs guiding me through a landscape where each tree seemed to hold the promise of another hit, another success, another pot to clutch to my grateful mouth. The feel of the pot against my chest, ah! Although it embarrasses me now to think of my younger years, I do not regret my solitude, for I would like to think that those lonely afternoons shaped me, pointing me in the direction of the Self I have since become. Whoever that might be.

My earliest memories appear to me through a golden-toned lens, from my first impressions of my parents (kind faces as sweet and loving as a bee-dropped nest) to my school days, where I excelled at nothing more than lunchtime, a well-packed pot awaiting me, enough sustenance to endure the hours until I could return home. I was not social, as they say; I did not make friends easily. Instead, friends found me. The ones I had, though, seemed wrapped up in their own miseries; they longed more for an audience to their unhappiness, perhaps, than genuine connection. One was hyperactive, boastful, and self-involved, bouncing from one egotistic enterprise to the next. One suffered undue anxiety, courtesy of a squeaky voice. Another was so besieged by depression and self-loathing that he took to wandering alone through the woods, eating thistles, as gloomy a proposition as I could imagine. I drank many pots to chase the image away.

A secret: it isn’t the sweetness alone that attracts me. Something else draws me in. A kind of excess I anticipate and look forward to. Like the moment before plunging into a deep stream, the flow raising me up, buoying me to the surface, even as I spit water from my mouth. A rare sort of abundance that I can’t seem to find anywhere else, although I’ve looked for it many times. I’ve looked in friendships, where my enthusiasm so often feels like a pose, a role I’m meant to play, to please others more than myself. In housekeeping, where my empty pots and jars collect like unrealized dreams. In foolish adventures, whose outcome is never in doubt. I long for a different journey. Interiority, inscape, to know what’s hidden deep inside. That’s the taste, when I lift the pot, remove the lid, and feel the nectar atop my tongue: the inside.

I am resigned to my habit; I do not plan to change. Gone are the days when I would give up the stuff for hours at a time; an afternoon, even; and once, during a summer thunderstorm whose sounds still haunt my dreams, an entire day. That day I endured my friends’ empty banter and meaningless gestures for as long as I could stand it, until I discovered I could stand it no longer.

“Do you think you could stop it?” I said. “Just for once?”

“Stop?” they said. They’d been assembling a birthday cake from incorrect ingredients: old socks, ribbons, lilies, and twigs. “We thought you had oh so very much been looking forward to this.”

“Well, you were wrong,” I said.

“Wrong?” They nibbled their fingers nervously and raised their eyebrows theatrically. “We know you do so ever much enjoy decorating the happiest of happy birthday cakes!”

“It’s no one’s birthday,” I said.

They exchanged frightened looks. Their limbs trembled and shook. “Oh,” they said, “why, there’s nothing happier than an especially fine everyday cake on an especially fine everyday!”

“It’s inedible,” I said.

“Perhaps,” they said, “you aren’t feeling quite yourself, at the present moment?”

“What I feel is what I feel,” I said.

They exchanged glances. They mouthed words I could not hear. “We do so ever wish to see you feeling quite yourself again,” they said. “That’s something we wish more than anything.” And, before I could object, one hopped atop the other’s shoulders and reached for a pot, high on my kitchen shelf. When they swayed beneath the pot’s surprising weight, the lid made a juddering noise. “Here,” they said, and handed the pot to me. “To feel quite yourself again.”

What can I say? I raised the pot to my lips and drank. Nectar ran down my chin, my shirt. I tasted the sweetness I’ve known my whole life, and yet I felt I tasted something new, some territory not yet explored, some mystery yet unsolved. For the first time, I looked inside the pot as I drank, a glimpse of myself, golden and gooey, eclipsed by shadow. Who was this looking back at me? I lifted the pot higher and drank deeper, hungrily, eager for knowledge. As I studied my reflection more closely, I understood that there was a part of myself that would always remain unreachable, no matter how much I drank, or how earnestly I wish to grasp it, and that, although I could perhaps one day understand that part of myself, the effort would be something of a bother.

Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. New work is out or forthcoming in The New Yorker “Daily Shouts”, One StorySTORYNew LettersDIAGRAMChicago Quarterly ReviewX-R-A-Y, and The Best Small Fictions 2020. Find him online @TheLines1979.

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