A Thousand Flavors

By Nell Lake

At the ice cream stand, a bored teenaged girl awaited customers, peering out through the window at a nearly empty parking lot. Her blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she was perched on a stool, chewing gum. Behind her, steel machines gleamed, white freezers shone. Cool air wafted out from the kitchen toward me, smelling like sugar. The girl turned and asked what I wanted.

What I wanted.

Who knew? It was a warm September afternoon, and I was on my way home from a metta, or loving-kindness, retreat—three days of silence, of walking step by step, sitting breath by breath, offering metta to myself, to others, to the world. At meals I sipped tea, ate tofu, carrots, and rice and I practiced metta. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be safe. I lived with fifty other people, and yet met no one. I passed from room to room, eyes averted. May you be healthy. May you be content. May you be free from suffering. One afternoon I was doing walking meditation in the woods and seven turkeys strutted past me. I could see their small black eyes: May your be safe. May you be well fed. A breeze. More silence. A step. A breath. A bell. Gentleness and quiet grew. I entered a still, sweet, internal space—a deeply different place from the one I’d inhabited days before, full of my young children’s demands, my work, my getting-things-done.

You know what it’s like: the life you’re living, then the retreat, and the change it effects in you. But, after that, new moments keep arising. Driving home along the curved New England roads that would lead me to the highway, I felt fuzzy, light-headed, and somehow to removed from the task of driving that I wondered how I’d find my way. It was as if my mind could not catch up with a world of fast cars, of getting from here to there. Call it post-retreat fog-brain.

Maybe hungry, my mind suggested as I drove along. Glucose deficit. Yes, I thought, food. When I saw by the side of the road, amid cow pastures and rolling stone walls, a squat, white dairy bar with a big plastic blue-and-white cow standing sentry out front, my mind turned to ice cream. Yes, I thought as I parked my car, ice cream.

But then things got complicated. What did I want, the girl had asked. I’d just spent three days in retreat from want. How should I know? I looked up and found a list of flavors. Too many flavors, too complex. The words pistachio, coconut, ripple. A thousand flavors, a foreign language. I heard Frank Sinatra crooning from outdoor speakers: Is your mouth a little weak, when you open it to speak? My funny Valentine.

“Um, what is cherry chocolate chunk?” I asked the girl.

“Vanilla ice cream,” she said, leaning her chin on her fist and gazing beyond me at a car speeding by. “Chunks of chocolate-covered almonds. Cherry swirl.”

Did I want the flavor just described? Who knew? I gaped up again. “What is sunny caramel spice?” I asked.

“Orange liqueur ice cream with cinnamon and caramel swirl.” She was turning her gum slowly over in her mouth, pressing it between young, white teeth.

My head was swirling with swirls. I realized I was taking too long to order; I felt apologetic. So I smiled at the girl, a slow, metta smile. It came from stillness—not a distracted, errand-running smile. A communion smile. My eyes met hers. I felt warmth toward this person. Here we were, together, doing our parts. I saw her face melt, the bored look disappear. She seemed surprised. A light appeared in her eyes and she smiled back.

A pause. And then we were shy. Her eyes returned to the distance, mine to the board. But in that moment of human contact, I woke up to where I was. Here in this world of endless ice cream flavors, of getting from here to there. This world, yes, of the suffering of choices. You’ve got to be a part of it, Sinatra sang, and I agreed. Not far away, brown cows grazed, a warm breeze smelled like turning leaves, the sky was waxing a hazy pink. There was this ice cream stand, this liminal space, this sugary portal. You’ve got to be a part of it. Yes.

I read a familiar word, a snack-after-school word, an Americana word: “Oreo.”

I was relieved that I’d made a decision. The girl looked relieved, too. “A small,” I added, “on a sugar cone. Please.”

She nodded and receded into the cool white-and-steel space behind her. When she returned, the ice cream appeared before me, not just a scoop, certainly not small. It was a pile, a mound, a mountain, a bounty of thick, luscious white, suffused with black flecks, as high as two fat fists, stacked. “Oh, my,” I said, and laughed. The corners of the girl’s mouth turned up just so.

I started to fish around in my wallet for bills, but a new thought arose: a picture of my children, my two sandy-haired little boys, waiting at home. They would run to the door when I got there, eyes bright.

“Do you have any treats that don’t melt?” I asked.

The girl looked at me blankly.

“I mean, like baked goods. For my kids,” I said.

From behind the girl, a woman appeared, a strong-looking, middle-aged woman—the sort of woman who’s been working hard all her life. She’d been wiping down counters. “We’ve got brownies,” she said. “No walnuts.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Two, please.”

“Charge a dollar each,” the woman said to the girl, then returned to cleaning. But first she fmiled at me, and I knew she was a mother, too.

The girl fetched two brownies, each in a plastic baggie. She placed them inmy hand, the gifts I would bear. They were warm in my palm. I gave her money, she handed my my ice cream, and I strolled back to the car with the cold cone, the warm brownies, my hands full.

My heart, too. I slid into my seat. Frank was ending his New York song. I drove out of the parking lot, ice cream in my right hand, steering wheel in my left, brownies on the seat. I thought of my children waiting for me. I considered the riot of ice cream on the cone in my hand. I took a long, mindful lick, felt the astonishing cold on the roof of my mouth, the sweet on my tongue, and I laughed out loud. Tall pines marked my way down the road.