“Shut your talking hole,” she told me. We were sitting in Tompkins Square Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon and I was knee deep in trying to explain how humans can’t absorb nutrients from cow’s milk because the molecular bonds aren’t made to be broken down by our digestive enzymes. I’ve had this thought for years; it’s absurd to drink the milk of another species. It’s not made for us.
I had just moved across the country for her and used a big chunk of luggage space to bring her a couple of pints of ice cream from Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco. A few weeks before I moved she had wondered aloud in a Gchat about the things I might bring for her from San Francisco. She mentioned a burrito first, but the thought of refried beans and sour cream packed next to my underpants didn’t seem realistic.
Ice cream came up next, and my brain closed around the idea like a bear trap. Ice cream was innocent and sweet; a luxury from the optimistic summertime. I saw an image of two teenagers sharing an ice cream cone walking through the urinal sidewalks of the Mission District wholly content to be in one another’s company. I immediately decided that I would bend physics and ram my head through any bureaucratic wall to bring her as much ice cream as I could fit in my bags.
I would need dry ice, a cooler, and it would probably be wise to make sure the airline would let me board the plane with a controlled substance.
I quickly learned that most airlines don’t like to advertise their stance on dry ice as luggage. Every search I did returned a jigsaw of dubious forum postings and a FAQ from a Mexican airline of which I had never before heard. Instead I crossed my fingers and dialed the 800 number at the bottom of my itinerary. I learned I could bring 2 pounds of dry ice in a carry-on and 3 pounds in a checked piece of luggage.
Now all I needed was a cooler. I didn’t work hours that made it easy to shop at the kinds of establishments that might keep coolers in stock. I scoured the Walgreens and all the late night liquor stores in my neighborhood, but the only thing I could find was a floppy insulated lunch sack. I spent an entire Saturday wandering around the suburban hinterlands at the end of a BART line looking for a Target that never appeared.
And so I decided to just order a cooler on Amazon. It arrived a week later and was disappointingly small. 18 inches seemed so much bigger in writing than it did in mottled blue plastic. It would have to do. I only had a week left.
I realized I had no idea what flavor of ice cream to get. The idea that I would really bring something with me from San Francisco had been an idle joke as much as a serious request. But I didn’t want to make it happen with the wrong flavors. So I sent a circuitous email, asking about what flavors of local grown exotica she would be most interested. Silence.
The last weekend before I left my Dad came down in the maroon mini-van he had bought to move my wheelchair-bound grandmother around in the months before she died. I mailed thirteen bankers boxes to my friend’s address in New York for $270. Everything else would either fit into my checked luggage or left behind.
We went from the post office to an old industrial nook in Hunter’s Point and picked up the dry ice. I got ten pounds for $10, the minimum they would sell. I asked the nice ice man to cut the rectangular block in half so it would fit in the cooler.
The last stop was Bi-Rite. The sun was setting and I had been running on adrenaline and black coffee all day. I would have to wake up at four the next morning to make my flight. I was getting scared and numb at the same time. I had used up all the go-chemicals in my brain moving boxes and worrying about weight-limits for checked luggage.
I bought a quart and two pints of ice cream. This cost $37 dollars; honey lavender, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl, and orange cardamom. I tried to fit all three containers into the cooler with the dry ice. It was an inch too tall, the lid wouldn’t close.
A kindly stranger saw me wrestling with the geometry of it all and offered to help. “I’m great at stuff like this,” he said. I stood back and let him have a look. He turned all the containers upside down and tried to close the lid. He got the same result I had while also creating a big divet in the side of the softening containers, causing some brownish goo to squeeze out from under the lid of the honey lavender.
I wanted to punch him in the face. I had expected some professorial application of higher logic, but he had only succeeded in butting into my mess to make things worse. And now the frozen love offering to a woman for whom I was moving across the country had a giant dent and some sticky brown stains running down the once pristine containers. Only in San Francisco could such well-meaning charity come hand-in-hand with total incompetence.
I covered the lid as much as I could, still leaving the vexing inch open to the air and drove back with my dad. There wouldn’t be enough space for all three containers of ice cream. I’d have to cut it down to two, but which two? I spent the rest of the night packing and repacking my bags, cutting everything down to a bare minimum and throwing out everything else.
I squeezed the cooler into my heavy black duffel bag and leaned with all my weight to close the zipper. I took one last look at the pint of ice cream that wouldn’t make the trip. Orange cardamom, you didn’t make the cut. She told me she hated artificial citrus flavor once, buying Vitamin Water after a night of drinking. That decided it. Better to be boring than wrong.
The next day I hauled my four bags onto BART at five in the morning. Everything together weighed 180 pounds; a backpack, two big duffel bags on either shoulder, and a giant Chinatown roller bag dragging on broken wheels behind me. It was like carrying another person. I could feel the cold of the dry ice radiating out from the cooler as it rubbed against my ribs.
Eight hours and lots of introspective airplane time later I was in a Super Shuttle heading into Manhattan. The orange sky disappeared behind the gray skyline of the city. I kept imagining the cooler in my bag like a ticking bomb in a Hitchcock movie. Had it melted on the flight? Did some feckless baggage handler steal it? I wanted to check, but I was afraid of letting any of the cold air out before I could transplant it into a freezer.
When we saw each other the next night, I told her I had brought her a present. “What did you bring me?” she asked.
“You know,” I told her. Silence. A month later, in Tompkins Square Park the ice cream was still sitting in my friend’s freezer, growing a frosty little beard. Then one day, I ate both containers of ice cream for lunch and dinner, respectively.
There’s a doctor at UC San Francisco whose research shows that animal proteins, like those found in milk, metabolize into sulfuric acid in humans and leads to bone loss. Other studies have suggested that humans can’t actually absorb much of the calcium in dairy without a magnesium supplement to help break down the bovine bonds.
Halfway through the first pint I started to feel a twinge of nausea. I didn’t stop to think about it. You can’t think about a feeling. The salt lingered on my tongue after the sugar and creaminess melted away. I kept pushing spoonfuls into my mouth to quell the cold flush it left on my tongue.
I’ve never met anyone who moved for someone else and made it work. It’s a Chinese finger trap. The closer you get the more you want to pull away, touching suddenly becomes claustrophobic. Idle talk is mistaken for fact that builds into something absurd when taken literally, like milk causing bone disease, or traveling 3000 miles with a couple containers of ice cream for somebody who didn’t want to take them in the end.
So I ate it all by myself. I don’t even like ice cream, but I ate it all and I couldn’t stop myself. All it did was make me think of her.