Chinelo Okparanta

My earliest memories of Trebor peppermints are also my earliest memories of living in D/Line, Port Harcourt.

Our house was right up the road from mallam’s store. Whenever the grown-ups gathered, they dashed Nnamdi, Ify, and me glistening bronze and cupronickel kobo coins with palm trees engraved in them, or groundnuts in their shells, seeming to swim like those images of motile, life-producing seeds, and a pyramid of shelled nuts beneath. Other coins featured pawpaws and oil rigs, with the Nigerian coat of arms on the reverse: a shield flanked by two horses, an eagle at the top. This was back when kobos still had value and could buy small treats.

Some months before we moved to D/Line, we lived in Elelenwo. But a band of masked armed robbers had stolen into our house in the middle of the night. They shoved their guns in our faces and made two of my siblings and me line up alongside our parents in the corridor. One robber held his gun especially close to my father’s head, threatening to shoot if my father did not relinquish all our wealth. Meanwhile, my two-year-old baby sister lay asleep in the bedroom, hurriedly hidden in blankets by my mother. Nnamdi, Ify, and I stood silent and shock-frozen by our mother’s side.

After they dragged my father away, we listened from the corridor as the first gunshot was fired, followed by more rounds. So much happens in one brief moment. And then, like a ghost, my father came strolling back to us. Somehow, he had escaped.

We spent months sleeping in other people’s houses after the robbery—aunts, uncles, family friends—afraid to spend the night in our own home. But after some time my parents found us the new D/Line home and, with any luck, a safer, fresh start.

In D/Line, my mouth-watering began. I longed for things like chalk, powder, toothpaste, and clay. Sometimes, I munched on tiny bits of these items to satisfy my cravings, but after repeated warnings from my mother that they were substances not to be eaten, I stopped. I settled for sneaking bits of the nzu that my aunts sometimes brought to our home. Nzu, also known as calabash chalk, was, in those days, prevalent among pregnant women, who used it to combat nausea. If they ate it, why should I not be allowed to? I sanctioned the calabash chalk, permitted it to melt in my mouth, and somehow my cravings waned.

When my aunts stopped bringing around nzu, Trebor peppermints became the fallback to my cravings, but I’d have to wait for those special occasions when the grown-ups came and placed their gifts of coins in our palms. Then, I’d run off to mallam’s store, behind which was a grand estate from whose rooftop the adhan flowed out five times a day, like soothing music, seeming to linger above the dry heat. My siblings and I had quickly given up speculating over what rich oga and madam lived back there. I, for my part, was satisfied with the little shop at the home’s front, whose Trebor peppermints had such power to satisfy my mighty cravings.

Trebors came in one moderately long cylindrical roll of about a dozen white coin-like mints, only each mint was quite a bit too thick to look exactly like a coin. A brief greeting exchange with mallam, and an exchange of kobo coins, and the peppermint roll was all mine. I ripped through its green paper wrapping with the small image of a golden lion and some white and black printed words that professed all the things one would already know just by chewing on the mints: that they were extra strong, that they were genuine and made from real peppermint oil. When I had made my way through the paper wrapping, I tore open the shiny silver foil jacket that lay beneath. Finally, I arrived at the treasure. One at a time, I positioned each individual mint in the center of my tongue and allowed the roof of my mouth to come down upon it. I sucked deeply, for as long as it took for the candy to moisten and soften in my mouth. Then I chewed into it, rapidly. Each and every time, I thought about how the combination of the claylike scattering and the crisp flavor all over my mouth was what heaven must feel like! And I imagined it, all of heaven, right there in my mouth!

But even in D/Line, we never did quite return to feeling completely safe, none of us. My father began applying to graduate programs abroad, which he considered the most efficient method to achieve safety and peace of mind.

The year we left Nigeria, 1991—I could not have predicted it—would be the end of my love affair with Trebor peppermints. I was ten years old, and my mind had not yet wrapped itself around the effects of trauma, displacement, and nutritional deficiencies.

Just as the robbery had been traumatic, leaving Nigeria must have been another kind of trauma, because in Boston, my cravings intensified. When, in my fifth-grade classroom at Thomas Gardner Elementary School, Mrs. Stevens stood writing in cursive across the blackboard, I regarded the white chalk as a piece of peppermint and longed to bite off a portion of it, to position that portion at the center of my tongue. When we frolicked in the sand- and asphalt- and concrete-paved play area during recess, in those spring and summer days in Boston, I regarded the sand as clay, and I imagined the slow disintegration of Trebor mints in my mouth.

With the passage of time, I’d discover that my cravings for Trebor were likely a manifestation of pica, an eating disorder that causes people to crave nonfood or nonnutritive substances. Its prevalence is hard to pin down. The Handbook of Clinical Child Psychology estimates it at anywhere from four to twenty-six percent.

It would be years before I understood the implications of my cravings—that they were potentially linked to one or both of two things: childhood trauma and iron deficiency.

No way to know for sure the root cause(s), but according to the Journal of Medical Case Reports, “Pica has been reported to be associated with severe iron deficiency anaemia in up to half of its cases; however, it is unclear whether pica causes or is the consequence of iron deficiency anaemia.” Upon further research, I found that pica can also be caused by, or at least is known to coexist with, a number of other conditions, ranging from abuse and psychological trauma to brain damage and pregnancy.

Having armed myself with this new knowledge, I began to work through those most traumatic events of my childhood—the robbery, the psychological effects of our transatlantic relocation, culture shock, assimilation, etc. I also began a regimen of iron supplements. Those two things seemed to control, at least to some extent, my cravings.

These days I still battle the cravings, especially on those days when I have for one reason or another fallen off the wagon with my iron supplements. On those low-iron days, I long to eat and swallow my toothpaste each time I brush my teeth. When I visit my family where they now live in Silver Spring, Maryland, I sometimes go by bus. There is an area just as we enter Baltimore, on I-95, an expanse of earth with hills of white and brown and gray sand. Each time we pass this area, my mouth waters like a small fountain and I feel something like hunger pangs in my stomach. And I think of Trebor peppermint candy, even though it’s been decades since I’ve had it, and even though I have now relabeled and reattributed the reason behind my fixation on it.

For fifteen years, I have been a teacher. Walking up to the blackboard on my low-iron days, I continue to crave the chalk the way I craved Trebors and nzu, the way I craved the sand and asphalt and concrete in Thomas Gardner’s recess area. I long to mash it up between my teeth, then shake the mashed-up pieces around in my mouth like dice in palms, and then finally, slowly, swallow in small gulps my chalk-filled saliva.

I have come to think of my cravings not as longings for chalk or powder or candy, but as a longing for a sanctuary, a home. For some people, the idea of home will always be in flux, will always take on different textures, colors, and shapes. Sometimes, even, facets of home disappear altogether. Those old kobo coins, for instance, that were a major marker of our time in the D/Line home, are no longer in circulation. The packaging of Trebor peppermints no longer looks like it used to, and perhaps even the peppermints themselves have also changed. Part of coming to terms with my longing for home is accepting that home will never be exactly as it once was. Part of coming to terms with my longing is embracing new forms of home.

These days, I have found another brand of sharply disintegrating claylike mints: Bobs Sweet Stripes soft peppermint candy. Being soft (unlike Trebors), it melts more easily in the mouth. But like Trebors it also boasts to be the real deal: “Made with All Natural Peppermint.” It’s nice to have an equally satisfying peppermint candy as my contingency plan, a sort of second home.

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of Under the Udala Trees, winner of a 2016 Lambda Literary Award and finalist for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.