It's the 28th night of September, and the air is thick, tepid and sticky with the grease sweats. It's the Stamp All Niter, and I'm deep in it — a gastronomic pit dug by pizza, fries, pineapple tofu over rice and tributaries of marinara sauce.
It's my Friday night, and I want to be game, so I hit up the the Dairy at 10 p.m. and pretend my stomach isn't a turbulent shoreline, ocean waves crashing into loose sand, from eating so much on top of a glut of spaghetti squash from the night before.
The first thing I confront is cardboard Maryland field hockey coach Missy Meharg. She's glossy. She shines. She's close to six feet tall. Her teeth are better than mine, and I think about how I stopped wearing my retainer a year ago on this day, and now it doesn't fit, and that's a lot of dental work dissipated into my mouth like so many earthquakes reverberating noiselessly into the Earth's mantle.
Cardboard Missy Meharg tells me to try the Dairy's newest flavor, Terpresso. She speaks in sweet tongues about the familiar winsomeness of its coffee, Oreo and caramel meld.
But there's another prop inside the Dairy's doors that offers something different. It's a piece of printer paper suspended in plastic, heralding with bold Times New Roman letters the Galaxy Shake.
It promises blue curacao and blackberry syrup pillowed into vanilla ice cream and dotted with stars. I only vaguely know what the first two components are supposed to taste like, but I understand they're adult and reminiscent of fruit, which is everything that could counteract the junk I'd eaten.
It's advertised as a special for the All Niter — fleeting, desirable and trendy. All things I aspire to be, and thus something I absolutely must ingest.
I'd never sprung for drinks like Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino that advertised color and charm above everything else, but the Galaxy Shake is a local debutante and almost personal. I pay about $6 for a tall container of blue and purple and whipped cream and tell myself: This is as good as it gets.
I'm beyond Missy Meharg and dental care. I'm here on my Friday night out drinking an adult beverage.
By the time I sit down at a table with a paper straw and a full heart, my shake has started to shiver and chant. It's a night sky transforming into the green horizon before a tornado. I'm reckless with the first sip, and I ingest a liquid hex in three notes that don't dance, don't glide, but stalk across my palate.
It's one flavor usurped by another before sinking into vanilla sweetness, each one a brother-sense to some other gustatory moment I remember all at once, all in chaotic resonance.
It first tastes like that moment when I was standing on the dubious pier of Lake Artemesia, looking back at myself in the midnight-murky water, my eye drawn to the tiny bottle swallowed in my fist.
I was trying to navigate spindles of neural nets to anticipate a taste that could only challenge what I know about citrus. I didn't need to drink this — an orange-flavored 5-hour Energy free sample, unjustly gained from the local business boys on a perfect spring afternoon, when I definitely didn't need any hours of synthetic orange energy — but I was moved by some electric compulsion to wire myself up.
The sip I took out of the bottle's open mouth was so cautious, but there's no moderating a 5-hour Energy. There was such a filmy, artificial graininess to the ostensibly orange flavor. I felt like I was experiencing orange bottled in a time capsule and stained with sepia, orange playing in stereo sound, orange made from the dust of a Flintstones chewable multivitamin.
This is what raw energy does to the dulcet tones of a fruit: It flips it inside out and rearranges your caveman understanding of what food can be. Energy without nourishment. Soup from a synthetic broth.
I didn't want to overload my stomach cells with pure ATP, so I set that cargo down on a bench after three sips, my offering to the sun and the little turtles that bobbed their heads up and down while I grappled with my two-ounce container of liquid anxiety.
I think that's the effect of the blue curacao. The shake almost captures its beachy blue aesthetic, but in a way that's stuffier and harder to understand than the lush image of virulently ripe oranges that bustle on its bottle. That taste lingers for a few seconds before the second tide comes.
The next flavor is the anniversary of a bad party I attended in my hometown. That was a memory of stewing in a small pool stuffed with too many adolescent egos releasing their used Band-Aids into the community water; one year later, this gathering was a subset of those partygoers, in a considerably more spacious kitchen, trying to make a more wholesome soup than the people broth of yesteryear.
The fatal flaw was having faith in someone else's kitchen. We spent minutes searching for savory ingredients and found scraps. These people were out of onions. They had no garlic. Not the head of a single shallot.
But they had a harvest of frozen fruits in their freezer. A few different bags of mixed berries and avocado chunks. Someone pulled beets out of the crisper, and we pretended to be in business so we could create solidarity with our own hands.
It all melted down eventually, in a saucepan of sugar and water, and we made magenta. It stained our hands, the ladles and the potato masher we used to texturize the contents to the consistency of baby food.
Eventually, the time came to put it in our mouths, and it was an hour of rumination. Something like 3 a.m. I was tired, hungry and, at the time, vegetarian, so I got a scoop of hot and fresh avocado-beet-berry mash, and it was so aggressively tangy yet earthy and freezer-burnt. So we baked it into yellow cake mix, and it planted roots in me at first bite.
It was the stuff in a witch's cauldron where she pickles her familiar until she needs it. It had a berry taste only insofar as the concept of berry is taught to us as the flavor of cough syrup and Propel Water. It wasn't very sweet but instead felt like another direction the concept of sweet could take — instead of pushing an electric signal higher and faster from the tip of your tongue to the right receptor, berry takes a middle frequency and lets the pulse wander a little.
It took a moment to understand the flavor, but it was 3 a.m., and there was time to take a walk through the wilderness of my taste buds.
I wanted to like it, because it was different and adjacent to healthy, and I'd never had more to prove with a bowl of soup/cake before. But I couldn't finish a substantial amount, and neither could any of my fellows, so we ended up obliterating it in icing.
I don't think it involved blackberries in any part, but the blackberry syrup of the Galaxy Shake was just as vague a flavor as the bastard confection we made.
Every sip of the shake evokes these flavors in succession, before the vanilla ice cream reclaims my palate from their push and pull. It's a lot, and it gets stressful. I get a fifth of the cup down before I'm starting to feel a stomach ache, and after just a little more, I can't go on.
It's a shake that tastes like past failures to conquer new flavors. But food shouldn't have to be a challenge, or a performance, or a display. There are some things that you wish could come together and be beautiful — the spaghetti squash can support the late-night junk food, the 5-hour Energy can support your nervous stomach, the berry bastard mash cake can support your relationships with other people — but that doesn't mean they're palatable. You have to listen to your guts.
I leave my cup to Testudo at midnight under the waning moon. I make a few wishes, but unloading my liquid burdens is absolution enough for the night. I go home and drink pure water.
I wish I had trusted cardboard Missy Meharg and tried the Terpresso.