“The Real Thing: My Life in Coke” by Deborah Gold

When I was ten, I would sit on the floor in front of the television, winking at the door-length mirror angled towards me. Wearing periwinkle Danskin elastic-waist shorts and a striped sleeveless top, I hugged my bare knees to my chest, tilted my head like Agent 99, and watched myself kiss my kneecaps–chewily, the way the stewardesses of Love, American Style kissed their weekly dates. This was done to the harmonies of “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing”–the infamous Coke anthem, in which gauze-smocked hippies from around the small world stood circled atop a sunset hill, singing, swaying, and tipping icy, dark bottles to their lips. It was a jingle that evolved into a real song, somehow, and was the only piano number, besides the intro to “Mrs. Robinson,” that I regularly practiced.

I kissed and re-tilted, one eye squinting up to analyze my style in the mirror, even though this destroyed the illusion of the kissee: the orange-haired Ned Van Meter, who could burp like a bullfrog and was nerdy enough to be my first real romantic possibility. Unlike the softball players with their monkey-headed buzz cuts, or the feverishly pink-cheeked Edwin, long-lashed and fragile, Ned was the class science brain, but he could also be as silly and giddy as me. If Monty Python had existed then, we’d have been swapping dead-parrot jokes, but instead I was charmed simply by his deep-throated ribbets. And when his Toad-style glasses were replaced with thin gold frames, he dazzled with his hair and freckles and ability to focus a microscope to reveal the scooting one-celled paramecia our class had grown in jars of water-soaked straw.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.

The sun glowed on that TV hilltop–it was obvious even in black and white. The teenagers swooned and swayed, passing Coke bottles down the line. “I’m going to marry you, Ned,” I declared. This was sacred: he was only the second boy I’d sworn that to after my dog.

They called it “The Hilltop Commercial,” and it went down in advertising history, although for years, I had no idea anyone else treasured it besides a few other ‘70s piano/organ students and me. Coke might as well have been a martini for all I was allowed to drink it at that age, but I was hooked on the dream of communal love, and, somewhere down the line, world peace.

My balloon popped a month later, upon seeing Ned curled up in tears, the glasses punched from his face. He was lying on the floor, hands clamped between the knees of his black shorts, the buzz-cut boys having kicked him in the crotch, a cruel fact of male life previously unknown to me. His halo of desirability–and my compassion–fizzled. The paramecia jar in his hand had slipped and shattered, stinking up the room with a brackish smell that lasted weeks.

Before long, my girlfriends and I started kissing pillows for group critique and stretching shirts over our knees to see how we’d look as giant-boobed Playboy Bunnies. But for those private nights in front of the mirror, the Real Thing was all golden promise. Only later, when I could sneak a cup at a birthday party or temple Oneg Shabbat, would the actual Coke turn out to have a rusty tang, sinus-stinging fizz, and a taste only sickly-sweet.

Like Fritos, Barbies, Christmas caroling, marshmallow-topped desserts, straight hair, training bras, Ouija boards, navy windbreakers, clackers (which actually could knock someone’s brain out), spray shampoo, and Wonder Bread…like all those all-American things, for me Coke remained out of reach. With my mother a late-1950s British emigre and my father a third-generation Jewish New Yorker, we didn’t fit anywhere, much less in the not-quite-New South of the 1970s, but the real drag was that my parents would not even let us try. While they celebrated their triumph in breaking a restrictive covenant barring Jews from the cul-de-sac, the real magic spells of assimilation–the miracle of stacked Pringles or Easter eggs with mallow whites, the enchanted promise of vanity sets and Dressy Tressy dolls, and later the casual hook of a bra, the snap of a pair of velveteen Viceroys, and the aerosol spray of deodorant in gym class–were necessities invisible to my parents, if not scorned outright. Yet all I needed was the right combination of power objects to spark my alchemical change into someone who belonged: if Plastigoop could be transmuted into something as delightful as Incredible Edibles, then surely so could I.

So when my dad began offering me two quarters for the temple Coke machine, pre-teen Hebrew School became a little more worthwhile. Especially since I had no choice about going.

They weren’t messing around when they put a Coke machine in the synagogue’s Hebrew School hallways. Someone knew that it would take more than the Lord our God, parents, and a nonexistent thirst for spiritual knowledge to keep kids coming back–and while we weren’t allowed to use it around Saturday youth services, so weighted with their relevance, halting guitar, and Beatles songs (“see, the Fool on the Hill is actually Moses…” and nobody was even stoned), the machine was fair game for Sundays and Hebrew School on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons.

Ani holaich al bet ha-safer–I go to school/the house of the book–is the only thing I still remember, along with Sheket bevakashah!–be quiet–the number one Hebrew school phrase since the time of the sages. Bar/Bat Mitzvah class began after regular Sunday School was done: in the sanctuary upstairs, the eternal light beamed on and the cushioned chairs were all flipped shut; the classroom wing was dark and empty, lit only by the promising glare of the Coke machine, which shook the floor tiles with its hum. I sat near the back of the classroom full of 12-year-olds on the brink of “manhood” and “young womanhood,” terms intoned in vain as the folded paper footballs and kippah frisbees flew. Those too slack to learn the dot-notes to sing their Bar Mitzvah haftorah portions carried cassette recordings of the Hebrew School principal singing them, or even worse, stumbled through English trans-literations; between debating the lifeboat dilemmas of our “Still, Small Voice” textbook, we listened endlessly to these chanted recitations. The classroom itself smelled of wax polish and rust, and somehow the smell became the taste, making the machine Coke brought back from break time always disappointingly flat and sour. But given my two quarters, each week I hoped for the best.

We’d moved across the county since joining this synagogue, and naturally the burden of driving fell to my mother, the non-believer, and only occasionally to my dad, who always made us so late that the reproving glares were not worth the insistence that he drive us. By the year Bar Mitzvah class came around, though, there was a kid, Zack Goldstein, from my own junior high to carpool with, and on this particular rainy morning, I’d ridden with Zack and his dad. A curly-haired wise guy, Zack was short and gremlin-like, with a perpetual Alfred E. Neuman grin. I was even further down the real school popularity scale, so outside of these car rides, we pretended not to know each other.

A hard March rain was falling and the Goldsteins’ cramped car had been steaming. Sunday School had been routinely tedious, full of “modern” Hebrew practice dialogues about movies, bus stops, and television, meant to assure us that life in the Promised Land was every bit as convenient as it was here, aside from having a few thousand trees to plant and wars to fight with unpredictable regularity. And, hey, Eretz Israel might be a desert, but it was groovy enough to have 608_large too. Kosher for Passover, but still the real thing.

Halfway through hearing everyone’s haftorah portions chanted even more haltingly than the week before, the defeated Bar Mitzvah coach declared a break, and we funneled out into the hallway. I bought a sweating, lukewarm Coke, looking away as Zack tried to feed the popped-off bottlecaps back through the coin slot. (The real “hoodlums,” as the Junior Congregation rabbi called them, were able to stick their arms up the dispenser at the bottom and pull the bottles loose, like a vet delivering a breached calf.)

At least we were allowed to wear pants to Sunday classes, although girls still could not wear jeans. I was wearing a pair of brick-pink, elastic-waisted pants I’d struggled over in Home Ec, sewing and re-sewing the bunched seams, which were still not straight. I had to wear them somewhere, though, and their discomfort matched perfectly this gray day of sheet rain. I drank the disappointing Coke, so different from the glory I continued to imagine–like every other object in this synagogue, it seemed flatly devoid of mystery. From the licorice taste of the Hadassah sponge cake fingers, to the playground’s wonky swings, to the locked Sukkot filled with dead leaves, where was the power? Where was the God who would swoop down to write on the wall, or demand our parents sacrifice us? The Eternal Light’s glow in a darkened sanctuary could inspire a little shiver, but that was about it.

A grinding sound came from the Coke machine, and before I could get in trouble for being a witness to Zack’s coin-slot destruction, I escaped into the restroom. There, in the yellow light of the stall, I saw the stain on my brick-pink pants and, with a cold, sinking feeling, knew what it was. My first period. The real thing. And I didn’t even have a bra yet.

The ladies’ room smelled of wet paper towels, and the light was too jaundiced to let me really see. The stain looked more like an inkblot than anything: how miserably perfect that it should happen here, I thought, where I’d spent so many unwilling hours. Now my years of Sunday School would always culminate in this absurd memory.

I had no purse, nor a pair of the dime-holding loafers our Scout leader had told us to wear for just this emergency–nor was there even was a machine with a predictably broken coin crank and picture of a calm, poised nurse. So I stalled, prayed for invisibility, and inched back to the classroom, where the fact that no one batted an eye meant the teacher and unofficial minyan of twelve-year-olds had surely guessed my horribly private business.

Through the long ride home with the Goldsteins, I perched on the edge of the vinyl seat, sick from stale cigar fumes and the aftertaste of cola syrup, trying to think of the words I’d need to break this to my mother. The windows steamed up as the gray rain poured on; my arms chafed inside a hot raincoat I knew I could not take off. If I’d never stepped out into that hallway, I suspected, and never bought that sub-standard Coke, and never been aggravated by Zack’s antics and the adenoidal droning of my classmates, things could have gone better and this unwelcome initiation might well have held off.

From the golden Hilltop to Olympic Moments to American Idol and even a Bachelor finale, it’s clear the masterminds at Coca-Cola want us to associate their product (God forbid it be called a “drink”) with the peaks–those utterly un-complex, photographable moments that chart the highest points on the graph of your life…as if such pure and plottable points even exist. Certainly Coke bubbled through my own Wonder Years, yet from that first high point on the Hilltop, as I practiced my movie-star kiss, the trajectory descended, with each new Coke marking an ever deeper plunge into the murky adolescent abyss.

My third life-jarring romance with Coke was actually Tab–the original, saccharine formula, dark as prune juice, that came in pebbled bottles with cryptic yellow print. This was almost a year before the tired-tasting pink cans appeared, in our state, at least. (Canned Fresca, flavored with equal parts grapefruit and shampoo, had reigned long already as the drink of babysitters.) Decades before Diet Coke, Tab was a forcibly acquired taste–that is, acquired in the way a naive teen might force herself to like Wild Turkey at a driveway party. The flavor was awful enough to convince American gals that the poison was doing its work, and the carbonation felt harsh enough to be slenderizing all by itself. And if the bottles were chilled almost down to freezing, the taste wasn’t so obvious.

That first Tab was handed to me by the unlikeliest of girls: Rachel was counterculture to the max, far beyond caring about bras, hobbit feet, or the glassy, knowing red of her eyes. And, yet she was the most successfully seductive of all us nubiles–the drama teacher’s word–as it turned out. In her paisley smock and white painter’s pants that showed skin through a frayed square, Rachel tossed me one of the bottles she’d ripped off from our school machine. “Say, ‘we’re going on a diet,’” she proclaimed, like it was just one more lark–just the way she’d declared that everyone would drop acid April 24 or have a hitchhiking race to the National Mall and back. Rachel was easy to idolize because she was so vividly in-the-moment, as we all aspired to be. Be here now, we commanded each other, half-joking, but she was here now, and now, with a vengeance. Rachel was appetite itself, so when she declared a diet, it seemed unlikely, yet a gesture of friendship easier for me to share than a hash joint or a trip to the urban clinic where the girls all got their IUDs.

For Rachel, a diet meant drinking Tab (or mixing rum and Tab on the smoking court), eating chips without the usual roast beef sub, and smoking more pot, which somehow killed her appetite as it jacked up everyone else’s. With her cascading kinky hair, she was what I longed to be, despite her blackened feet, upturned nose, and the doughy waist she liked to pinch over the top of her jeans. At home she could get laid and even smoke pot with a bong made from a vacuum cleaner pipe, right upstairs from her tiny, grandmother-ish mother, who, with her cat-eye glasses, resembled a timid Flannery O’Connor. Rachel’s father was divorced and a callous creep by reputation, long before such dads were commonplace in the suburbs. She hated to visit but sometimes ran into him at a neighborhood bar, where he’d bum money in exchange for buying her machine cigarettes.

Rachel spoke in a self-conscious slide whistle of a style that simultaneously savored words and made fun of them–everything was pronounced in quotes, and she began most sentences with the word “say,” as in “say, ‘my car is a junk pit,’” the way a mom might speak for a baby and wave its arm. Rarely did Rachel say anything straight, except once, months later, when I asked her if she’d been seeing Duane, the guy I’d hoped was my boyfriend and she answered simply, “I thought you knew that.” I jolted to earth then, but like everything else, this barely seemed to faze her.

Rachel wasn’t an earth mother–our hippie high school had several–but she was fearlessly, unbeautifully sexual, in a way you’d never see on TV. She’d sit in the hallway with her best friend on her lap, finger-combing the girl’s flame-red hair where it spilled from her bandana, blabbering about blowjobs and payback; she wore out-of-character wire frame glasses and a serious expression only when she drove herself.

In any case, hedonist Rachel was the last girl in the world you’d expect to propose a diet, but she did as we sat out on the straw-yellow grass, toasting the notion with the bottles of warm Tab she’d stolen for both us. In hindsight, that might have been when she’d started screwing Duane, whom I’d adored since February, but whatever the inspiration, we basked on the school’s ragged spring lawn, breathing in the first hints of humidity and honeysuckle, and throwing back medicinal shots of Tab together.

That was the first step, and from there our paths split. Rachel worked off two pounds by having sex, she said, letting me think she meant with her best friend’s brother. Her “lust life” sounded easy, while my heart thumped sickly every time the phone would ring, and I filled the time between rare Friday evening summons from Duane with weighing and measuring foods according to my father’s neglected diet-and-calorie guide. Worried by my determination, my mother banned the few diet foods I could scrounge up, just as she had the old longed-for junk food–first my hidden stash of Ayds was forbidden, then the bread made with wood shavings, and finally fake diabetic chocolate ice cream the color of Quick Tan. But I lost 46 pounds in the next six months, through counting calories down to fractions, marching miles around the block in sizzling heat, and straining to learn ballet with elementary school girls.

I got dumped by Duane and told the truth by Rachel after she’d abandoned the diet in favorite of actual cocaine, the real real thing, which for her did the weight-loss trick with much less trouble and also helped her waitress double-shifts in a seafood house where the smell of deep-fried shrimp infused her hair and spilled sweet tea granulated her skin. With my palms yellowed by carrots, I turned full-on anorexic with grief. If Duane couldn’t find me beautiful like this, well, at least he’d have to pay attention, I wrongly thought, and finally get “worried,” like the rest of our crew. Instead, he moved away to Alabama.

Tab became my lifeblood but was banned from my house, and outside, people frowned when I drank it after I sank below 100 pounds. Despite the taste, I drank my Tab warm when I could get it, as the slightest chill would freeze me. Every afternoon I crashed and huddled on the sunlit couch in a wrap-around patchwork sweater, clutching my clavicles, scribbling Joni Mitchell imitations, and conjuring the memory of Duane’s every tobacco-flavored kiss and weary monosyllable. I turned into such a skeleton that even my bone-loving ballet teacher chided me; Rachel became a star waitress who worked so much I could never see her, and from a party, in the middle of an Allman Brothers riff, Duane took off for the Heart of Dixie without so much as a glance back at me.

I remember few Tab commercials–just a bottle sucking its sides into an hourglass silhouette–but it didn’t take perfect harmonies for Tab to sell itself to girls like me. Alone at 89 pounds, caged in my perfect, graspable skeleton of grief, a year from U-turning to gain back every pound, what stuck in my head was not a jingle or slogan, but the spring fever pact we’d made that afternoon in the grass: my too-real passion bubbling up through pebbled glass, Rachel’s lilting laugh, and the first enchanted, syrupy dose of that most artificial of all drinks.

Now, as a mid-life adult free to let my cravings rage as high as 300 or more liters of Diet Coke a year, it’s finally becoming the pause that depresses–the choice between enduring another morning headache without it or succumbing and setting off another mini-bout of guilt. My friends and I still scarf down the diet drinks, stocking up during Dollar Days at Walgreens, but Diet Coke too has joined the ranks of virtuous foods gone bad: the dentist says it has acid-washed my tooth enamel and must be quit; the doctor scolds that there’s as much caffeine in a Diet Coke as a cup of coffee, which doesn’t feel any more true than it did the first time he said it; and the women’s magazines, having earned maximum mileage from assuring that diet drinks don’t cause cancer, now feature colorful call-outs of the newest research showing that artificial sweeteners overtax the kidneys and lead to early failure and, perhaps worse, somehow counteract efforts at weight loss by convincing your brain to consume the calories that ought to match the drinks’ sweetness level. At best, according to the insufferable Dr. Oz, diet soda makes the body crave sweet things all the more. Perhaps this explains the credo every dieter knows–that the perfect pairing with brownies is always Diet Coke.

Water is the best drink! is every professional’s bubbly advice. And no, sadly, they don’t even mean water made palatable by so much as a tincture of Crystal Lite. So some days I strain to get my bubble fix from plain seltzer; while other, weaker days I’m left pondering the mystery of why a 32-ounce bottle of soda can cost 99 cents on special, but the 16-ounce bottles at the grocery checkout never dip below $1.49. Of course the Coke moguls have that one all figured out, knowing that while we might chug from a 2-liter soda bottle at home, no grocery-bearing woman desperate for her fix wants to be seen doing that in her car, or in front of her kids, or having to use her clenched knees as a cupholder. Although it can be done, let me be the first to tell you.

Apple trees, honey bees, harmony, company, and the snow-white polar bears of love
Even today, is it possible to watch a Coke commercial and not be filled with longing–for memories that don’t even exist? Real or aspartame, with the Real Thing, is there even any difference?

Deborah Gold is the pseudonym of a writer, teacher, and foster parent.