A Chocolate Malt
aka The Meaning of Life
Is there a list?
Surely there’s a list.
Oh my God, did I miss a list?
Where is the list?!
I panic. The back-to-school aisle at the store has everything I could want, but I don’t know what I need. Tomorrow is the first day of middle school. I picked out my outfit last week, and I know how I’m going to comb my hair for the first day too. But I don’t know what I need for the actual classes. In elementary school, the teacher gave my mom a list of supplies I'd need. Now, I’m flying blind. These are the big leagues. This is middle school. I’m not a kid anymore.
“We have to go to the store tonight, Mom.”
“What?” She answers.
“We have to go back to the store tonight, Mom!”
My mom didn’t even get to ask how my first day of middle school was before I demanded we go back to the store. I slam the car door behind me. “Mom, we got it all wrong. All the other kids have the right supplies, and I don’t. I need to go back to the store tonight.” My dad drives me back to the store after getting home from work, and I am back in the back-to-school aisle. This time, I know what I need: a different colored folder for each subject and a soft-sided binder in which to keep the folders. I got this. I’m going to kill this middle school thing.
“Can we go back to the store?
I just need one thing.
One thing, I swear...
I know the look creeping across my mom’s face, the first signs of anger. “What now?” she asks as my dad starts to get up from the couch. “Mom, I need a different kind of calculator for math, and everyone uses mechanical pencils. They are easier to use, please!” My dad drives me back to the store and the back-to-school aisle I now know well. He’s tired and wearing his thick-rimmed glasses. He looks frustrated, but he doesn’t realize how important these two things are to my future. I am determined to kill this middle school thing.
“We aren’t going back to the store tonight. It’s Friday night.
When your father gets home, we’re going out to dinner.
That Mexican restaurant on Main Street.
We’re not going back to the store tonight!”
I hadn’t asked to go back to the store. I close the car door behind me, and my mom pulls out of the middle school’s parking lot. When my dad gets home from work, we go to the Mexican restaurant on Main Street. I’m too distracted by school and too full from eating chips to eat much of my dinner. “Does anyone want dessert?” the waitress asks us. We look at each other uncomfortably until my mom says, “Not for us, we’re stuffed. It was so good.” She offers the waitress a smile I know is fake. When we get back to the car, my dad says, “Let’s get ice cream” and we do.
“Can we go?” I urge.
“No, we got cones. They’ll drip in the car,” my mom replies.
“Ugh, can’t we just go?”
“No, just sit there and drink your malt.”
I huff and puff with anger but still sit down next to my older brother on the bench in front of the ice cream shop. I hate this. I think of the homework I have to do and the very wrong supplies I have. With a pronounced pout, I take the first sip of my chocolate malt, what I get at every ice cream shop we go to. It tastes like the start of summer, like the early June dinner celebrating another successful school year. It tastes like the 4th of July. It tastes like our annual end of summer trip, the weekend before that torturous school supplies shopping. I don’t hate this. I can do this; I can do middle school.
“What does it all mean?” I ask rhetorically.
“Nothing, we’re meat sacks waiting to die,” my brother offers.
“Life is beautiful, now you both be quiet,” my mom interjects.
I’m a sophomore reading Lord of the Flies. Against all odds, I completed middle school. Now in high school I’m exploring a depth of understanding no one had ever explored. My older brother, a high school senior, is just slightly less deep than I am. My mom is sick of our dramatics. It is after dinner on another Friday night in August and we’re driving home.
“Say something to them,” my mom urges my dad.
“The meaning of life is...a chocolate malt,” my dad stammers out.
“What dad, what?” I ask incredulously.
My mom is slapping my dad on the arm. He’s tired and tries to put together the bits and pieces of the conversation he heard, so he can say something and doesn’t get slapped again. “Dad, with all the pain and suffering in the world, the meaning of life isn’t a dessert,” I say. “The atrocities of World War II and that shooting we heard about on the news last night, life is awful. Life is not elephants in party hats, dad.” “Yeah,” my brother chimes in. “Life isn’t rainbows and bunnies.” We laugh, mocking our dad. How could we, two high school students, understand the world far better than our dad?
“Life isn’t cows playing tubas, dad,” I continue.
“Life isn’t walruses eating cupcakes, dad,” my brother adds.
“Yeah, life isn’t hippos in tutus, dad.”
Every image my brother and I concoct is more ridiculous than the last. Soon my younger sister, sitting between us in the back seat of the car, chimes in. She can’t get her image out though because it makes her laugh. She’s saying something about a horse or a dog, maybe a pig, and a hat or a horn, maybe a boat. Her laugh is infectious. Soon my brother’s and my laughter turn genuine. My mom and then my dad laugh too. They even offer images of their own, and we all laugh harder.
It is finally 5:05 pm. The workday technically ends at 5 pm, but no one leaves at exactly 5 pm because to do so would make it look like we’re all just waiting to leave work. Work is fine, interesting enough. I don’t hate my work, but no one loves what they do every single day. This hot, August Tuesday, I didn’t love work. I wanted to leave work. I was just waiting to leave work.
At 5:05 pm, I log off my computer, gather my things, and walk to the elevators. Once on the ground floor, I leave my office building and walk two blocks to the train. By the time I reach the train, my shirt clings to my back. The sweat is pouring out of me. A half hour train ride later, I step from the train and start walking the handful of blocks to my apartment.
The walk to my apartment takes me past an ice cream shop. I slow down as I pass the shop. I think to myself, “A chocolate malt sounds good today.” There are three more days of work this week. This heat is supposed to last for at least two more weeks. A chocolate malt sounds really good right now, but is it worth the money? Is it worth the calories? Screw it. I want a chocolate malt.
I take the first sip of my chocolate malt. It tastes like the start of summer, like the early June dinner celebrating a successful school year. It tastes like the 4th of July. It tastes like my family’s annual end of summer trip, the weekend before school supplies shopping. It tastes like that night on the bench my first year of middle school when I was finally confident I could take on middle school.
Maybe my dad was right. The meaning of life is a chocolate malt.