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Mods Asleep

I Will Never Abandon My Special Little Drink

11 February 2020, Berlin: Bottles of the brand "Coca Cola" are lined up in the cinema Zoo Palast.
Gerald Matzka/picture alliance via Getty Images

This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!

About two years ago, my gallbladder tried to kill me. For years, I’d suffered mysterious stabbing pains that followed no clear pattern; it turned out that I had gallstones. In ordinary circumstances gallstones require only a simple surgery, but in my case the gallstones had already created pancreatitis that further developed into necrotising pancreatitis. It’s as bad as it sounds.

My personal catastrophe came with some lasting consequences. I have to take pills at every meal to get nutrition from my food. My hair fell out and grew back curly. I lost about a third of my body weight. I can no longer eat pizza, among other foods, and I’m not supposed to drink alcohol ever again. There was a certain pleasing irony to this turn of events. I had been thinking, in a vague early 30-something way, that maybe I should drink less and eat better. Now that problem was solved—forever. No willpower necessary. 

People are remarkably good at adapting to their circumstances. You find the snacks you can eat without distress; you explore the non-alcoholic drinks market. Before my gallbladder took matters into its own bile ducts, I’d gone to doctors vaguely expecting they’d be able to help me. They didn’t, but I learned that doctors love putting you on an elimination diet. If you go to them complaining about pain in your abdomen, they will immediately tell you to stop eating gluten for a month or two. Or onions. Or dairy. Or apples. Or sugar. (All of which I’ve done.) I follow these diets with scrupulous accuracy, because when they inevitably prove nothing, I want any blame to rest squarely with the doctor, not me. If there were such a thing as a teacher’s pet for patients, I would be one, but only for malicious reasons.

But through it all—through the various elimination diets I have done in the past four years, through the days when I could only have clear liquids because my pancreas was acting up—two things have always stood by me. One is black coffee. But there’s nothing irrational about my attachment to coffee, the beverage that keeps both me and society at large running.

The other one, though, is Coke Zero.

And before I say anything else, I want you to know that I know it’s disgusting. OK? I know. Saying you like Coke Zero isn’t like saying you like Diet Coke. Diet Coke has a culture. People love it. It even has a classic Trump tweet that gave the world the phrase “that's okay, I’ll still keep drinking that garbage.” But I can’t stand Diet Coke, which, in addition to tasting like somebody just watered down a normal Coke, gives me terrible headaches. I don’t like most sugar-free drinks (nasty aftertaste). Your average sugar-sweetened Coke is fine, but usually a little too sweet for me. But unfortunately—somehow—I love Coke Zero, which is represented in the culture mostly by Jude Law’s character in The Young Pope, who has a Cherry Coke Zero every day for breakfast. I am pretty sure this tic is meant to indicate there’s something a little wrong with him.

Here I was going to dedicate a paragraph rhapsodizing over the complexities of Coke Zero’s flavor, but I have realized that I not only do not know how to describe the taste of Coke Zero, I’m not sure I even know what it tastes like. I tried swishing it around in my mouth like I was at a wine tasting, but this turns out not to work so well with carbonated beverages. It tastes like … burnt sugar? The color brown? Fizz? It tastes like Coke, but with the Coke-ness turned down to a respectable level. If Coke itself has a Coke level of 10, and Diet Coke has a Coke level of 6, Coke Zero sits at a respectable 8. But an 8 is frankly what I want in a soft drink most of the time. Unless we’re talking ginger beer or root beer, a soda should be something that I can sip that manages not to be boring without ever being actively interesting. Coffee, tea, the sadly forbidden alcohol—these are complicated drinks. But Coke Zero is like the episodes of podcasts I put on so I can fall asleep. It is crucial that such a podcast be competent but not excellent. Too bad and I get too annoyed to sleep; too good and I get too engrossed. The three-stars-out-of-five hum of somebody on Dateline? That’s Coke Zero.

Perhaps because Coke Zero seems to be made exclusively of substances not found in nature, it has slid under the rules of every stupid diet I’ve been made to follow. Right now, I’m not supposed to eat anything with added sugar in it. But there’s great news for me: Aspartame, one of the two sweeteners in Coke Zero, is not sugar. Is it true that if you type in “aspartame” into Google, you get suggested searches like “aspartame cancer,” “aspartame bad for you,” “aspartame banned,” and “aspartame poisoning”? Yes. But consider the alternative—not drinking Coke Zero.

Frankly, even the fact that the FDA says aspartame is fine within limits is not especially reassuring in my case. Whatever those limits are, I’m sure I’ve blown past them. I once sat with a friend out on a rooftop deck and drank maybe 10 mini-sized cans in a row. I’ve certainly sat around, drinking one after another, conscious of mounting disapproval and even horror. “I only have this,” I will hiss, Gollum-like, popping open my third can. “Let me have my little drink.” Because, as I’ve said, I do what doctors tell me to do, even if I privately think it’s pointless. I dutifully eat a lightly salted puffed rice cake (two ingredients: rice, salt) as my afternoon snack. And then I drink the Frankenstein’s beverage that is Coke Zero, and I feel a little better.

Would I love Coke Zero less were I able to drink a wider range of beverages? It’s hard to say. I would drink less of it, probably. I wouldn’t feel toward Coke Zero the sort of feverish gratitude that is usually reserved for people who yank you out of the way of a moving car, but I’d still drink it when I’m stuck in the airport. Coke Zero and I are in an arranged marriage, perhaps, but we were friends first. But also, as Luther Vandross once sang, if you can’t be with the one you love (a dry gin martini), you gotta love the one you’re with. And I do.

Sometimes I imagine myself entering a room full of my friends. They’ve come to do an intervention. They need me to lay off the Coke Zero. Or I imagine a kindly doctor telling me that I need to stop drinking Coke Zero. Or I imagine waking up to the news that Coke Zero is being discontinued. What would I do? I know the answer is that I’d adapt once again and drink something else—water, perhaps. But I like to imagine that I’d simply sit down and say no. Not today. Not this time. This time, you have to adapt to me. And then I’d open another can.

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