My work friends Lucy Kim and Carl Trudeau were just back from Stockholm, where Lucy’s father had received a Nobel Prize for Physiology. They brought me a present: a fat chocolate coin wrapped in gold-colored foil, embossed on one side with a portrait of Alfred Nobel himself. It had been lying on the table during the banquet that took place after King Gustav awarded the real medals.
I thanked them and went to my desk, where I sat holding the chocolate Nobel on my palm. It covered the triangle formed by my scratchy lifeline, my faint travel line, and the thick, stubborn fusion of head and heart lines. I found it very moving that Lucy and Carl would bring this special thing all the way back for me to set upon the map of my future. I hadn’t thought we were the kind of friends who exchanged souvenirs.
I was also aware that it meant something to them to have the gift to give. They hadn’t planned on going to the ceremony because Lucy was pregnant. Only by two months, but she’d had a miscarriage before and did not want to take a risk by traveling.
Their OB-GYN assured them, “At this stage, nothing can happen from riding in an airplane that can’t happen from living your life as you do day by day.” This was terrifying to Lucy. Now she worried that at any moment she might lose the baby and not know why.
But how often does anyone get a chance to attend the Nobel ceremonies? And this was to honor her father, who lived in Korea and was starting to show signs of dementia. It would be his life’s last great occasion. Carl told her she’d regret saying no.
So they went, and everything was fine. Glorious, even. There was real gold on the tables, and snow falling outside, and the King and Queen in glittering jewels. Now Lucy’s father’s portrait hung in Stockholm with an exhibit about his work, and the baby was still inside Lucy.
I brought the medal home and put it into a cut-glass candy dish that I inherited from my mother. I set it on my winter windowsill, where the foil gleamed through the glass facets in a way that seemed to speak of great things.
I was forty-three and I lived by myself. I liked my house but not the city, and I seemed to be stuck. I had moved when the job market was good and I was young in the profession; I’d planned to leave after I’d gained some experience. But I’d never managed to accomplish what I expected of myself. I could say it was because of too many classes and committees, but those would be only excuses. Look at what Lucy’s father had done despite his dementia. Look at Lucy, being brave enough to make a family.
I felt a rush of affection for Lucy and Carl. I invited them to come to my house for dessert on Christmas Eve, when I’d decided to throw a small party. We would be three couples: Lucy and Carl; Muriel and Jack Jenkins, older neighbors whose children lived far away; and I and a man I had met on the internet. He had written that his spirit animal was the ocelet; I ignored the misspelling because I was tired of caring about things like that. He was handsome, like an ad for Old Spice.
When I invited this man, he said he needed to bring his six-year-old son, Vincent. So, three couples and a child.
I cleaned the downstairs and shut my cat in the bedroom in case anyone was allergic. In honor of Lucy’s father’s award, I baked Swedish treats: apple cake, semlor buns, almond cake, cinnamon snails. The house smelled heavenly. There was a huge bowl of sugary whipped cream and one made with Splenda for Jack, who was diabetic. He could put it on raw apple slices.
For the little boy, I undertook a toy store’s Christmas frenzy to buy Legos. I thought he might sit on a carpet and build something while we watched. That could be nice for Lucy and Carl, looking forward to their own future human.
Muriel and Jack were crazy about children. They used to hint to me about them just as if they were my own parents, who had died long before that night.
“I must say, Maia,” Jack remarked as Vincent opened the box of Legos, “it is good to see you acting maternal.”
My face felt very hot. “Oh,” I said stupidly. I didn’t want my date to think I had any plans in that direction. I didn’t want him to make those plans either.
As we all sat in my Eastlake-style parlor, eating exotic baked goods, I tried asking him about his work. He was in the safety business. His family ran the company that the police called when there was an accident; they set up new traffic lanes so that cars could keep moving and nobody else would be hurt.
I asked how they did it—how to decide where the risky spots were, how far apart to place the orange cones, how much danger there was to him from passing traffic—but he just gave me a few terms such as “crash truck” and “perimeter.” I could have told him that if he acted bored, everyone else would be bored too, but it was already too late.
Jack, a retired engineering professor, changed the subject. He wanted to hear about the Nobel ceremony, the speeches and the winning projects. Lucy and Carl answered questions in monosyllables. They were good listeners but not big talkers. How could they explain the ways in which Lucy’s father was different from the rest of us?
His discovery was something about leeches and the human nervous system. It would help people live with autoimmune disorders like lupus and Sjögren’s Syndrome. Nobody present had either of those diseases, and we moved quickly past the subject.
“Vincent,” said Muriel, “do you know what a genius is?”
The boy ignored her and fitted a green Lego on top of a yellow one. He felt out of sorts because he wasn’t able to eat any of the desserts. His father had not told me that Vincent couldn’t have gluten and was allergic to nuts, and so I had no particular treat for him, just the apples and whipped cream. They were not enough to satisfy a child. Even worse, there were not enough Legos to make the pirate ship he wanted. He kept losing the red and blue bricks in the pattern of the carpet.
“Aren’t you going to answer me, my little man?” Muriel asked. Vincent ignored her again.
Lucy’s palm draped over her stomach, where no baby showed yet. She tried to entertain Vincent. She said that in Stockholm, she and Carl had gone to a museum dedicated to a single ship, the Vasa, which wrecked on its very first voyage almost four hundred years ago.
Everyone pricked up then.
The Vasa, Lucy said, was top-heavy with carvings and bronze cannons, too lightweight below. It had traveled less than a mile when a sudden wind knocked it over. The thousands of Swedes who had come out to watch their proudest achievement sail into the world, watched instead as it sank it deep in its own harbor. Thirty people died. Others were rescued as they clung to the masts.
The Vasa stayed underwater until the 1960s, when it was hauled up and restored. This resurrected failure has become the national symbol of Sweden and the most visited museum in Scandinavia. Most interesting of all, the museum has made mannequins based on the skeletons of some of the victims, and for each doomed person there is a short biography.
I thought this story might upset a child. All those people died? I expected Vincent to say.
But he was focused on the injustice of cake served to everyone but him. He kept banging wedges of Legos together and sending them flying into pieces.
“Don’t you have anything that would seem like dessert?” asked my date. “Candy?”
“Go into the kitchen,” I said. “There ought to be something.”
Of course I had candy. I had one piece of candy.
My date came back with the crystal dish, lid off, the chocolate Nobel nestled inside as precious as real gold. “How about this?” he asked.
Lucy and Carl goggled. “Wow,” said Carl. “You didn’t eat it?”
“What is that?” Muriel squinted through her trifocals.
Lucy said, “A chocolate Nobel Prize.”
Muriel and Jack got up to look. I was embarrassed. It was too obvious that I had set great store by the medal, keeping it as I had, denying myself the taste until I felt I had earned it.
Vincent had heard “chocolate” and quieted expectantly. The man set the dish down. He looked at me.
“It’s okay,” Lucy said. “Give it to him.” She still had her hand on her stomach.
The man accepted Lucy’s permission. He held the medal out, and Vincent leaned forward to sink his teeth, surprisingly, into the foil.
Alfred Nobel’s face started to crumple.
That was too much. I got up and wrenched my medal out of the child’s mouth. “There’s only one,” I said.
“Maia,” said Carl, “come on.”
Jack said, “He’s a kid. Peel the foil off and let him eat it.” But I knew he wanted to take the medal home himself.
Vincent was already deep into a tantrum. He stomped on the Legos, crunching them into the carpet. As I straightened out my Nobel, Lucy slid off the sofa—a plastic brick went pop! under her boot—and she put her arms around Vincent and hugged him.
“We can’t reward this behavior,” I said. It was the sort of rule that made students dislike me.
Vincent struggled, screaming right into Lucy’s ear. His father watched, stoic, clearly thinking this was a situation for a woman to handle. Lucy held on for a moment, her slender body stuck fast to Vincent’s. But he fought hard and she released him, howling, to run to his father. She hugged herself instead.
“Are you all right, honey?” Carl asked. He helped her to stand. “Do you think you’re hurt?”
She shook her head. I imagined she wasn’t so sure now about her plans for family life.
It was the end of the party. My date took Vincent home, and everyone else left together.
“Thank you for going to all this trouble, Maia,” Lucy said. “Merry Christmas.” In her politeness, her circumspection, I finally understood why she and Carl had given me the chocolate Nobel: It was a pity gift. To them, I was a disappointed person.
I saw the man one more time after that night. It was almost Easter and I was driving to work down a wide avenue, while he was setting up cones to guide traffic around an accident. The crash was horrible. A white panel van had crumpled a blue SUV. The SUV’s doors had popped open and I glimpsed a pair of legs tumbling out of the driver’s seat. One set of EMTs were working on the far side of the car, and a second ambulance was coming down the avenue behind me.
All of this seemed to be business as usual for my date. He walked along in his jeans and yellow vest, setting cones down every four feet or so. Two other men in yellow vests were blowing whistles and windmilling their arms to make the rest of us go-go-go and clear the way.
I went on to work, to the job that would end a few months later, when my neighbor’s dog attacked and my head slammed into the brick wall of my house. With the concussion, I could not speak or read for more than a year. I will never recover entirely.
Shortly thereafter, Muriel died of ovarian cancer. Grief caused Jack to lose so much weight that his diabetes was cured.
I suppose Lucy and Carl worry about not having published enough to keep tenure as the university hits harder times. I would worry. But they have two healthy little boys. They and the other parents in the department go to play dates and birthday parties. I spot them sometimes in the parks. I think they notice me, too.
I see on Wikipedia that Lucy’s father is alive; at least, his death has not been recorded there. I think he must be in full dementia by now. But for as long as this world lasts, his portrait will hang in Stockholm, along with a detailed placard about his life and work.
And he is on Wikipedia. How many of us get that?
In the microclimate of my windowsill, the chocolate Nobel melts and freezes with the seasons. Every once in a while, when I am particularly sad or happy, I wonder if I should finally eat it. Sometimes I take it out of its crystal and measure it again on the lines of my hand. But I always stop myself when I see the toothmarks of that bored, hungry child, so fricking angry at being left out of the party that he ground all of his toys into dust.
Susann Cokal is the author of four novels, one of which (The Kingdom of Little Wounds) won an award from the American Library Association and sits at number 78 on its list of the most banned and challenged books of the last decade, with more libraries signing on as we speak. And yet she is so mild-mannered, living a quietly neurodivergent life in a tumbledown Virginia farmhouse. Her short work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Electric Lit, Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle, The New York Times Book Review, The Journal, Writers on the Job, and more.