She paused, keys in hand, to admire the little chocolate shop before heading in. The windows were still covered in brown paper, like her favorite kind of package, and a handwritten sign on the door said, “Opening Soon.” Her very own chocolate shop. She smiled and said it again to herself, knowing that repetition would not make it feel any more real: her chocolate shop. She shook her head in happy disbelief and unlocked the door.
The front of shop still had a ways to go. She peeled back a corner of brown paper on one window to let some morning light in. Tile samples were taped to one wall and several framed photos were leaning against another, waiting to be mounted. But, right now, she was only interested in the back of shop: her atelier.
In truth it wasn’t really in the back—because it was only separated from the retail space by a giant glass window, the clients would feel like it was all one continuous space that they were a part of. But she knew better. She changed in the little office behind what would become the display counter, and by the time she stepped through the atelier glass in her starched whites that had her name stitched on them, breathing in the climate controlled, chocolate-scented air, she was in a different world, and she was a different person.
It was her first time working in here. But because she had selected every surface and every piece of equipment and sterilized it all herself just yesterday, she moved through the space like a rehearsed ballerina, every part of the room catching her as she approached it, like an unfailing partner.
Thinner-than-paper orange peels were sliced into individual hairs, throwing their fragrant mist into the air. They curled and undulated when they fell into the warm syrup to be cooked and candied.
Whole hazelnuts sang of Nutella and Christmas from the pot where they toasted. The sugar around them melted into liquid gold, then hardened and collapsed into powdered silver fine as sand, before finally succumbing to the melted bronze she was waiting for. She poured the chunky lava across a tray, cracked it like a frozen lake once it cooled, then pulverized it all in her shiny new food processor until it flowed in smooth ribbons of praliné. She tasted a spoonful and confirmed: this would be the result if peanut butter and crack cocaine had a sweet, sweet baby.
Honey caramels were a specialty of hers. She knew when the honey was telling her to add the hot cream, knew the size of the slow, toffee-thick bubbles that “blurp-blurped” with little bursts of steam when it was ready to be poured. She sliced the firm slab with her thirteen-string “guitar” cutter and felt immense satisfaction at the perfect cubes with their neat little edges.
Then, finally, came the chocolate.
As hundreds of chocolate drops fused together over the steaming bain-marie, she thought about the long journey they took to get here, the humble place from where they began. Here in her cool, pristine atelier in the middle of February, it was hard to believe that this chocolate was born of hot, sticky summer. The shiny pods, sometimes red and sometimes yellow, that grew right off the trunk of the cacao tree were swaddled in warm humidity from the moment they started as flower buds, and the birds that sang their lullabies were brightly colored and tropical. The gray, cooing pigeons here in the city would be so foreign to them. She could smell the tart white cacao fruits fermenting in their dark crates, hear the beans roll and tumble as they were raked back and forth under the sun, drying out to a familiar brown.
She remembered the kind, old woman who tended the trees. Empires could rise and fall and the seas could swallow the mountains and still this woman would be quietly, patiently, talking to her trees and nurturing them to grow. Most of all, she remembered the woman’s weathered hands. How familiar they were with the rich earth, how sure they felt when they guided her own hands to touch the young plants with their shiny leaves and delicate stalks, introducing her to her new partners in chocolate.
Some steam escaped from where her bowl met the rim of her melting pot and brought her back to the present.
She poured a warm pool of the chocolate into the center of her white marble counter. It spread in a perfect circle until she smeared it with her large offset spatula. Now it was paint across her canvas, she was laying down a base coat for the Sistine Chapel ceiling! Little drops went flying as she spread it rapidly back and forth. Now it was soft butter, she was preparing the biggest piece of toast in the world! Now it was mortar, she was building the Colosseum one brick at a time! The metal spatulas struck against each other and she thought of chefs honing their blades, of knights fighting for glory.
One glance was enough to tell her that the chocolate was thick enough, had cooled enough. She gathered it all together with her spatula, heated it gently back up to temperature, and then it was ready: the foundation, backbone, and crowning glory of all that she did.
She poured it into molds and overturned them to make thin streams of chocolate rain, catching the afternoon sun through the gap she’d left in the papered windows and turning everything to dripping gold. She piped chocolate leaves and sculpted chocolate feathers. She dipped caramels with tiny forks, left imprints in coated truffles with even tinier forks. The chocolate dripped, it flowed, it hardened, it flaked, it melted, it was magic.
Even though she knew she was alone, and even though she knew it was part of the process, she still looked over her shoulder guiltily before she tasted her creations. This couldn’t possibly be work, she thought as the tart fruit fillings made her salivate as soon as they hit her tongue. She made notes as the chocolate coatings cracked and filled her mouth with bursts of praliné, of smooth ganache, of salty caramel, just to feel more professional. Upon reviewing the pages later, all she would find was “YUM” written several times.
At the end of the day, she took the prettiest one of each of her chocolates and packaged them very carefully into a box, which she then packaged even more carefully into a bigger box. She was back in her street clothes in the office now, and had just finished writing the name and address on the label when she heard the front door open.
“Hello?” A man called.
She stepped out of the office, “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t open for a couple of—”
A very handsome man was in the entry, one hand on the doorknob.
“—weeks,” she finished. Had she, in fact, salivated? Could she lift her hand up to check without being too obvious?
“I’m so sorry to intrude,” he said shyly, “It’s just, it smells amazing in here. It's wafting all out into the street, I couldn’t resist. Are you making honey caramels?”
“Those are my favorite!”
When he didn’t say anything else for several seconds, she realized she should offer him one. But the moment seemed like it had passed. Although … had it? Well, if not, surely by now … Now? Unfortunately, she was much better at reading chocolate than reading people.
“Well … I didn’t mean to disturb you. I look forward to your opening.” He turned to leave.
Wait! She wanted to shout, Don’t go! But instead she stood, rooted and silent. As he started to close the door behind him, he caught sight of one of the framed photos leaning against the wall.
“Is that in … St. Lucia?” He asked, incredulously.
She followed his gaze: it was a photo of her in front of her cacao supplier. “Yes … how did you know?”
“My wife and I got married there!” He came back into the shop excitedly to take a closer look.
“Your … wife?”
“Yes! During the ceremony we planted a cacao tree together—I remember grafting it with her, you know how they do that? For the roots?”
“Wow!” He continued to look at the photo and seemed to be carried away by the memory. “There was an old woman there who helped us, she tended all the cacao plants and she had these amazing, weathered hands. I think her name was Mimi? My wife was really sad when she heard that this woman never got to try the final chocolates that came from her plants.”
She felt her heart melting in spite of herself and was all-too-aware that she didn’t have a spatula to gather it all together.
The man turned to her, back from the other side of the world, and smiled. “I’ve always dreamed of owning a chocolate shop.”
“Yeah. What about you? When did it start for you?”
“Oh!” She suddenly felt shy. “Well, I guess … with my mom.”
“Yeah … when I was little, we would share a box of chocolates at Christmas, and she would go through and take a bite of each one. If she liked it, she would finish it. If she didn’t, she would put the rest of it back.”
“Wait, so … you had to eat all her leftovers?”
She smiled sheepishly, “Yeah, so I figured if I opened my own shop, I would finally get to eat some good chocolate.”
He laughed, and she grinned too, she couldn’t help it.
They fell into silence again, but this time it was much more comfortable.
“Well, I’d better get going,” he said finally, “I’ve taken up enough of your time, and my wife is probably at home worrying about me,” he smiled once more and turned to leave again.
“Wait!” She said, out loud this time. He turned back, surprised. “Your wife is not at home, and she’s not worrying about you,” she said, approaching him, “She’s here, in the chocolate shop you built together, falling in love with you all over again!” He laughed as she threw herself into his arms, and kissed her.
“I really thought you were going to let me leave!” He said.
“Never, I was just playing!”
Her husband helped her gather things up in the office, but stopped when he saw the packaged box. “Is that the one?” he asked.
“This is the one,” she picked it up and showed him the name on it: Mimi.
“You did it,” he said, beaming at her.
“We did it,” she responded, and popped a honey caramel into his mouth.