As the girl slid open the screen, he was hit with a gust of horror borne on a draught of electrically cooled air. He recoiled as she extended her arm toward him, or wanted to; but instead he obediently took possession of the object, having, after all, ordered it. Taking it from her was just kind of his job in this relationship.
He stood staring stupidly at the tower of ice cream he had claimed: a Mint Oreo monolith, five bulbous green scoops tall and at least two scoops larger than he’d dreamed. He had meant to indulge himself a little, but not like this. A tide of humiliation swelled in his bloodstream, making him shudder in spite of the attacking summer sun. His smoldering disgrace was made even worse by the stares he fancied he could feel boring into his back.
“That’s a medium?” was the impotent protest he heard escape his lips. His upswept brow pleaded with the girl for rescue from this situation.
“Yup,” she replied curtly, clearly tired of answering this question from people, and probably suspecting that his objection was chiefly for show.
By the time the storm cloud of embarrassment lifted from his brain enough for him to consider asking her to hack this ridiculous dessert down to a more manageable size, too many long seconds had snuck past to make doing so anything but awkward. His window of opportunity slammed shut on its weathered wooden frame as the girl made his decision for him, leaving him at the mercy of his poor decision-making.
He turned around to have his worst fear confirmed: All of the assembled eyes were on him. At least, he was positive that more of them had been moments before. The ones lined up behind him no doubt just wanted him to get out of their way, while the eyes in other lines seemed to widen with awe at his impressive display of gluttony. Then, as so many times in his life before, the judgment he perceived from them was like mocking laughter peppering his eardrums.
He peered down at the totem pole of calories he now clutched. It was already sweating like a stick of old dynamite, a time bomb primed to explode all over his hands and shirt. He was sweating too: a flash of fresh shame sweat over top of the sheen of heat perspiration he had already worked up on the way over.
He had to get the hell out of there fast, so he got the self-recriminations and self-pity over with as quickly as he could. Why? I know these places always make a mockery of their sizes, why did I ask for a medium? I don’t deserve this. It’s super hot and I’ve been good about not eating sweets all week. I should have asked to trade this for a smaller cone while I had the chance. Why has this happened to me? All these thoughts declared themselves and then made their way to the exit in a quick and orderly fashion, and he did the same, away from the staring, judging crowd.
He had intended to lean against the hood of his car while enjoying his cone, just as he had used to do with his family many years before. But he’d parked near all the people, so that was now out of the question: no way was he going to attempt to tame this thing in view of a crowd. Spotting a remote corner of the property with a few mostly empty picnic tables—a place where he would not be observed until he’d reduced his ice cream to a size he felt comfortable being seen in public with—he fled in that direction.
It really was just a laughable object, he thought. He was accustomed to the slight list to one side of most hand-packed ice cream cones, scooped together a bit sloppily out of need of haste. But the girl had taken her time, gotten this one almost beautifully straight, probably because she sensed that otherwise it would collapse under its own weight inside of twenty seconds. For God’s sake, how did they put together a large cone? With a system of cantilevers?
As he hurried in the direction of the farthest table, he set to work on keeping in check this morbidly large treat, against which both the sun and gravity were already conspiring. Cookie pieces were beginning to emerge from their frozen tombs, ready to drop like muddy torpedoes onto his shoes. He remembered a hypothetical situation he had thought up for that day in the future when he had a child of his own to take out for ice cream. “Alice,” he’d tell her (in his imagination it was always a daughter and she was always named Alice), “don’t think of this as a dessert; think of it as a game. For every drop that falls off the cone and onto you, a piece of the world blows up. Your goal is to save as much of the world as you can, and whichever of us saves more of the world when we’re done is the winner.” He performed a quick mental calculation of the number of drips he could lick away versus the number of new ones appearing every second, and realized that the world was doomed.
In which case, fuck it. He might as well die eating a huge ice cream cone. If she’d ever been born, he knew Alice would want it that way. Besides, he’d already paid the social toll for this monstrous thing and it was, in fact, super hot, and he had, in fact, been quite good about not eating sweets all week.
So he straddled the picnic table bench facing the trees, his back to what few onlookers there were, and he set to. His mouth did laps around the bottom edge; he busily plugged every leak like a little Dutch boy at a dike. He whittled the mountain down to a hill. And, a few unfortunate casualties aside—not least of which was any shred of his pride—he saved the fucking world.