In March 2020, before we knew anything—except that schools were closing and we should check every store for Clorox wipes—I texted my sisters a picture of my shopping cart: two pints of peanut butter ice cream perched atop a mound of plastic grocery bags.
Just in case things get really bad.
I joked because walking the line between adrenaline-laced levity and apocalyptic projections still seemed rational. There was talk of a virus, maybe catastrophic, maybe overblown, maybe best to buy some food and hunker down with arts and crafts until it passed. I’d grown up in Ohio, crouching in elementary-school hallways during tornado drills and running down to our basement when a siren sounded. But the thing we feared could happen, the most dangerous thing, never did.
Now I needed someone to tell me if this was only a drill. I texted my friend, an emergency-room physician who thrives under pressure. She’s the rational yang to my frenetic what-ifs:
“Should I be afraid?”
“I heard they’re using trucks as morgues overseas,” she responded. “This looks bad.”
Long before I could buy my own pints of Ben & Jerry’s, ice cream came into my life as a reward. You’re doing great, it said. Keep going. I’m 4 years old, holding my mother’s hand as we cross the parking lot of a homemade ice cream shop on East Main Street, the scent of mopped tile floors mixed with frosted air and just a hint of sugar hitting my face as she opens the door. I’ve collected enough foil star stickers on the laminated books Mom makes to help me read, which means “kiddie dips” are in order. For two quarters each, we eat like queens—chocolate mousse on a sugar cone for her, hot fudge swirled through banana ice cream for me. If any ice cream leaks through the bottom of the cone, I quickly bite the tip off and suck it down through the funnel before I lose any of it to the floor.
Years later I took my first job in that same shop. My older sisters had scooped ice cream too, and we were known in our small town as responsible high achievers. You could count on the Sharp sisters to be good token Blacks. And while I never missed shifts or arrived late to work, I did once miss an entire robbery. Reader, that was me, in the corner, letting hot fudge drip onto a plastic spoon and savoring its warmth on my tongue, oblivious to the man at the counter, demanding cash. My boss didn’t pay me enough not to hoard fudge, I reasoned.
It wasn’t until college that I really understood the term pilfer, through stories my professor shared of slaves and domestic workers taking a little something, bit by bit, for themselves. He introduced us to these quiet but powerful acts of resistance, evidence of life within the folds of sustained desire. Proof that sometimes entire galaxies exist in the margins.
I stopped working at that shop long before college, as my anxiety disorder peaked, making it difficult to leave the house. My eldest sister, Autumn, would pick me up from high school so I wouldn’t have to be alone and take me to Graeter’s, the other ice cream shop across town. No matter how many panic attacks I’d had that day, I could count on digging out smooth boulders of milk chocolate in a dip of mocha chip. For 10 minutes, I lived without anyone’s expectations, without any fear. I was just a girl in a car with a cup on my lap.
Even as I learned, with the help of medication and therapy, to cope with my anxiety, I stayed close to my sister, following her to the University of Virginia, where she attended law school and I started college. I was seven hours from home but only minutes from her. Ice milk, they called it at the dining halls, became an after-dinner palate cleanser I ate now and then with friends. But as I grew into my own person, capable of surviving without constant hand holding, surrounded by more brilliant Black peers than I had ever hoped for, ice cream became a thing of the past, a comfort and delight all but forgotten.
Delight is a word that means how it sounds. De-light lifts you higher toward the end, carries you off before setting you down. You know delight only because at some point you didn’t. And for the last 19 months, many of us have lived day after day in the didn’t.
I can read without the foil stars now and rarely have a panic attack, but throughout the pandemic, I’ve found myself reaching for ice cream. Pints of Ben & Jerry’s Netflix & Chilll’d sold in supermarkets; specialty ice cream sandwiches shipped on dry ice; cow-to-table drive-thru ice cream an hour away. When I finally got to visit family in Ohio in the spring, before the Delta wave hit, my dad and 89-year-old grandma brought five half-gallons of ice cream to my sister’s house. It was the only appropriate way to mark the occasion.
When it comes to ice cream, I know I’ve gone too far, have eaten too much, when my brain starts blowing past patches of pretzel or sinkholes of peanut butter, barely senses crushed Oreo cookies, and only registers the satisfaction of cool water. My body, starting with my tongue, then the sides of my cheeks, the roof of my mouth, has begun operating on delight rather than need. I’ve been taught by society to classify this as greed, that nothing good can come of an obsession. But as the world burns a little more each day, I’m not so sure. What if obsessively finding delight is a way to live well sometimes?
Gluttony is never O.K., the Pharisees of Wellness will say. Ice cream dissolves and leaves you with nothing but guilt. Legions of skinny women in yoga pants live within me, rent free. My doctors, ever so gentle, never tell me to worry about my weight but suggest I eat sweets in moderation, on account of a genetic mutation that puts me at a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.
Yes, doctor, I’m aware of my genetics. But doctor, have you ever gone skinny dipping in a French pot of churned cream, let the calories coat every hard fact and corner of your insides? What if ice cream’s superpower is acting as a sweet buffer between us and those hard things, the risks we carry? Between who we are today and who the world says we might become if we’re not careful?
As COVID-19 spread, the University of Virginia Medical Center canceled all elective procedures, including my preventive double mastectomy scheduled for April 2020. Because cancer hadn’t yet found my breasts, because my risk for developing cancer is higher than average but risk is not the same as having cancer, I’d have to wait. So I set aside my post-op checklist, left unopened boxes of breast pillows and ice packs and stretch pants and button-down shirts stacked in the corner of my bedroom, a memorial to a time when plans meant something.
We’d made plans in the Before, and even into 2020. My husband, a Black professor who’d done all the right things, would get tenure at UVA. But as Americans began to fill hospitals and die by the thousands, and even as Black Americans continued to die violently on runs and under knees and in their homes, UVA took a stand to uphold the status quo, citing false information in their report, denying my husband tenure.
We wrote articles, gave interviews and called Black friends in high places, those who already knew of our galaxies. Neighbors, church friends and colleagues signed petitions and dropped off bags of Cool Jacks ice cream sandwiches, and my family indulged in hand-scooped salted caramel ice cream stuffed between perfect circles of snickerdoodle. The fruit of a small business out of Michigan became a way for people to say, “I see you” and “This is wrong.” The dean called in July. We won the tenure battle, but we’d lost so much in the process.
By August, elective procedures were back on, and my friend Lisa appeared at my door days before my surgery, a tall and chic Strega Nona with a gift bottomless ice cream sandwiches. “This should last you a couple of days,” she teased. They looked bougie, individually wrapped and labeled with flavors like blueberry lemon, cookie monster, banana pudding, Key lime pie, raspberry white chocolate, peaches and cinnamon, and strawberry shortcake. What in the actual manna? Lisa and I rarely show emotion in public, but I suspect we’re both teeming with feelings inside. I took her over-the-top offering as our version of a good cry, her promise to stick with me no matter what came next.
“Should I be afraid?” that question again, this time in recovery. They’d wheeled me, wrapped in a heated, foil-like blanket to the operating room, on the three-year anniversary of the day white men tiki-torched their way across UVA’s lawn. Maybe being unable to grieve or roll my eyes at empty platitudes was a strange form of grace. There, on the table, tissues being excavated from my chest, I could do nothing but remain. As scary as surgery was, I found a thin layer of air trapped between my fears and my lack of control. “Just keep taking breaths,” the doctor said, placing a mask over my face.
I awoke in shock as a team raced to get my vitals, a chest X-ray, an EKG. The surgeons had made plans, but my body did not appreciate being invaded, stitched up with two holes left for drains, paste smeared across my chest, my torso wrapped in clear plastic like leftovers. My blood pressure tanked and my heart raced at 150 for far too long, trying to find a new normal. Sometimes it’s not a drill.
Days after I’d been discharged, I sat in a chair on our patio under the sun. I dozed off, but my body jerked me awake. It happened again and again, each time my eyes closed, even as I lay in bed that night. I wanted to sleep; my body demanded I keep watch. Resigned, I pulled a half-gallon of Monkey Business ice cream— a smooth banana base with flecks of chocolate and trails of thick peanut butter—from the freezer. A gift from the Penn State Creamery would keep me company.
I ate mouthful after mouthful, maybe filling back in the parts of me that had been carefully excised days before. Maybe eating more than what had been taken, maybe not even close. I could not weigh it all, couldn’t calculate how much pain is worth a decreased risk, or which acts of resistance are worth death. But there, on that couch, I could have a little taste of the world’s sweetness for myself. I see it now, see me. Housed in a body not quite mine, putting a little something away for the by-and-by. As the world tilts toward danger and burns at the edges, I am still listening to delight.
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