The Splenda™ of Substitutes

August 6, 2017 Oxford, UK

An American expat tries to find solace in substitutes for the foods she craves. So why not a lover instead of a love?

Illustration by Eva Straver

I craved American peanut butter. But I was in France...
So, I had to make do with a foreign brand that didn’t quite taste the same. Over my last five years in the UK and France, this became my new rhythm—settling for food substitutes when the original wasn’t available. Surprisingly, some substitutes came very close: they mimicked the original almost as realistically as Splenda™ mimicked sugar. But others were incredibly disappointing. Still, it was hard to know without some experimentation.
Since I had decent luck with food substitutes, I assumed I could also find a person to substitute for an unrequited love or a relationship that could never be. I’ve used French peanut butter, instead of American. So why not a lover instead of a love?
Unfortunately, stumbling on a mediocre substitute for a faraway love is much more devastating than foreign peanut butter could ever be.
My original love was Danny, an Australian I met while travelling. His stature, story and the way he entered my life were fit for one of those cheesy romance novels. He was tall and brawny, with long chestnut hair usually tied up in a man-bun. He made his living as a private chef, moving from patron to patron in a circle of billionaire yacht owners in the Mediterranean. Danny was fiendishly handsome, charming and almost too exotic to be real.
The day we met, I had said yes to a string of adventurous proposals. I had been travelling alone in Nice and spontaneously joined a mini roadtrip to St. Tropez with relative strangers. We managed to sneak into an exclusive beach club, frequented by the rich and famous, where we flirted with the cougars and heirs in an attempt to get free drinks. Danny was suave, putting any woman he talked to into schoolgirl giggles. I gravitated towards Danny throughout the day. I worried it was one sided attraction, but when I wandered away, he followed. By sunset, we were never more than a few feet apart.
Around midnight, we piled into the car to drive back to the hostel in Nice. Danny had been nodding off at the wheel, so I wanted to invite him to stay the night. Hesitantly, I made a clumsy proposal, “Hey, you can sleep here, if you want... But just because you’re so tired. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Like, no funny business, okay?...You just seem so tired...” He chuckled at my blatant awkwardness, which turned into a yawn, and took up my offer. Back at the hostel, we clambered into the top bunk together. I quickly gave up the stern act and snuggled up to him. He wrapped his arms around me, whispering a few sweet nothings in my ear before we fell asleep.
The next morning, we toured the local market together, where he taught me how to find the freshest tomatoes from the local vendors. He kept looking at me, holding my gaze until my cheeks flushed. I was still interested in him, but my bravery seemed to be replaced by a hangover—I was embarrassed that I had been so forward with this relative stranger. The morning passed too quickly, and before long, we said our goodbyes and he was gone.
I never expected to hear from him again. But he messaged me constantly in the days, weeks, and months that followed. Neither of us were silly enough to call our ongoing exchanges a relationship—they were just a source of comfort and amusement when one of us had a funny story and some free time. But we talked nearly every day, and pretty soon Danny was an integral part of my life.
Once, Danny called me, jovial and tipsy. But I was deeply saddened, heartbroken over a crush. My mood sobered Danny up, and he tried hard to make me laugh. We talked for hours, but I was inconsolable. Danny was in Australia at the time, and I in the UK. He asked for my address and promised he would send something to cheer me up. I was expecting maybe something small to arrive weeks from then. But within twenty-four hours, a stranger showed up at my doorstep with a beautifully wrapped pink cake box. Inside were delicate pastries, with a note reading “Dear Miss Amelia, here are some things to cheer you up my dearest. With love from Melbourne XX Danny.” I instantly forgot my heartache and only thought of Danny.
That spring, Danny happened to be in Florence while I was in the UK. Danny and I made plans to see each other after all these years spent writing. My hands were shaking as I entered my credit card details and I fainted after booking the tickets. The lines between my reality and my romantic fantasy kept blurring. I think I was excited, but maybe I just wanted to vomit. “This is a dumb idea. He was a cliché. Our day together was a cliché. This is just a stupid holiday fantasy. It will pass. Ames, this is absolutely ridiculous, you two have no future. Stop being foolish...oh fuck it, I’M GOING TO FLORENCE!”
Danny picked me up from the train station, and took me to the villa where he was working. On the first night, we walked under the stars amid the olive trees. We were too afraid to actually touch. We just stared at the sky and listened to the quiet. Suddenly, Danny grabbed my hand, pulled me close and squeezed me tight, burying his face in my hair. I squeezed back hard, never wanting to let him go. We spent the rest of the week together pretending that our relationship was real. We ate porchetta by moonlight. We sat shoulder to shoulder, smoking cigarettes on the steps in the square. He cooked dinner and fed me pasta under the Tuscan stars. He wrapped his arms around me as we watched the sunset over the river. And, on Valentine’s Day, we made love all over the apartment, overlooking the red tiled rooftops of Florence. He grasped my hand, whispering sweet nothings in my ear for the second time.
That week ended and I returned to my regular life. Danny and I continued messaging, but we began talking less frequently. Having actually held him and touched him made me curse my inability to teleport. The messages petered out to nothing. One day, Danny called to tell me he had met a girl and was moving in with her. I was genuinely happy for him, but Danny knew from my voice that something was wrong. I was silent for a while. Danny witnessed my heart breaking for the second time, but I told him not to send more pastries to try to cheer me up.
Long after Danny and I stopped talking, I met a boy at party. He was shorter and younger than Danny, but he did have the same long chestnut hair, deep brown eyes and a twinkly wry smile. His arms were strong and cuddle-able. His face looked so similar to Danny’s face. Under the flashing lights, I felt that same sense of gravity as I had felt with Danny.
To me, he seemed like the Splenda™ of substitutes.
So, I took him home to relive the fantasy of Danny once more. But away from the disco lights, I realized how far this substitute was from the original. He was handsome and sweet, but he was like an overeager puppy. In my tiny, cramped bed, his body felt awkward against mine. I was determined to stay optimistic and recapture any shred of what I had felt with Danny. When we woke up, however, I realised my mistake. He wasn’t Splenda, he was aspartame. I wanted the real thing, but instead, I was left like a Frenchman drinking frozen rosé: thirsty, disappointed and more than a little disgusted at myself. He had reminded me how much I missed Danny. In the morning, I politely sent aspartame on his way, then proceeded to mope around the house in withdrawal.
I’ve long given up hope of ever seeing Danny again. And, after the Splenda-boy fiasco, I’ve now also given up hope of trying to find someone who reminds me of Danny. My heart thinks that finding another substitute, a good one, wouldn’t be so bad. Memories are frail, and I’m afraid I’ll forget Danny without the occasional reminder. But, the practical part of me knows that finding a mediocre substitute only intensifies heartbreak. Danny was a fantasy from a faraway place that I lived in the flesh, and perhaps I’ll never relive the same story. But that’s okay—or so I’ll tell myself. Regardless, traces of my fantasy will always remain: the vague flutter in my chest when I bite into a pastry, the tingle when I catch a whiff of fresh tomatoes in the aisles of a street market, or the joy when I gaze up at a starry sky. I will always feel a sense of craving, but I wouldn’t want to become so desensitized that I might mistake the substitute for the real thing.

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Ames* is neuroscience graduate student and comedienne trying to find the humour in brain cancer research. Native to Los Angeles, California, she left showbiz behind her and decided that uptight, conservative Oxford, England seemed like a much better place to find insanity. Ames is a massive fan of yoga, scotch, dark humour, and can be usually found scribbling profane calligraphy in her favourite cafe.


* Pseudonym

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