I have never tasted Diet Coke. I realized this a few minutes ago while reading about the company's plan to attract the next generation. How does one live almost 30 years in America and achieve this? Well, we have history:
First of all, I grew up in a no-junk-food house. No sodas, no Oreos, no chips - you get the idea. We snacked on carrot sticks and yogurt; maple candy was a major treat. But in a world of forbidden foods, Coke was a special enemy. It was regarded, in my house - or I should say, by me - not merely as an agent of tooth decay, but as an opiate of the masses, and my abstention became a major part of my embryonic outsider identity. What my parents had intended as merely a sop to oral hygiene quickly became, in my self-righteous little hands, a moral crusade. I shunned Coca-Cola with the zeal of a 19th century temperance advocate, and my sense of superiority was inviolate.
At the age of 6, I formed, with a neighbor and my 3-year-old brother, a club called the Coke-aters Society. Because my neighbor was a year older, she was president; I was Vice-. My brother, who could not write, was secretary. The meetings, of which there were 2, involved defiantly drinking juice and reciting out pledge:
"I will never drink Coke.
This is what the first Coke-ater spoke.
As long as I am a member,
This is what I will always remember."
And then, one day, an opportunity for greatness arose: our suburban village's annual Memorial Day Parade. We decided to make a float endorsing our message, and there began a barrage of papier mache-ing and painting and one serious fight in which the President said, "why don't you cry about it, baby?" about something, and I did, and ran home, and she had to come apologize after dinner. The float, once completed, was a magnificent thing: a Coke can the size of an old diaper holder, spewing bubble wrap carbonation and sporting a hose made from a pool noodle. The can was covered, on both sides, with large black paper X's.
The morning of the parade, we loaded the float into a red wagon and started down the hill towards the main street. (If memory serves, no one had investigated either the parade's starting point or starting time; we were blithely sure we could join at any point and, given our message, be welcomed with open arms.) As the crowd thickened and we began to encounter people we knew, I saw the president's resolve begin to waver. She looked furtive and uncomfortable. Finally, we came face to face with a group of other children. "I'm not doing this, it's stupid!" She said. "You pull the stupid float!"
"I can't!" I said angrily. "You're this club's president, and the president pulls the float!"
"Fine!" she returned. "You're promoted!" And ducked into the crowd, leaving me holding the wagon's handle.
Well then, if she didn't have the courage of her convictions, I did! I pulled the wagon determinedly forward and stationed myself on a corner, my parents observing from a distance. When a group of VFW oldsters came into view, I dragged my wagon into the fray and started to march, chanting,
"Coca-Cola is an awful drink!
All the kids pour it down the sink!
Tastes like vinegar, looks like ink!
Coca-Cola is an awful drink!"
I marched and I marched. It was probably just down Warburton and up a portion of Main, but it felt like forever. By the end, my voice was hoarse, my hands shaking, but I was triumphant. I had gotten our message across. (I've only recently learned that during my stand, the mayor approached my dad and praised what she mistakenly believed was my contribution to the nascent War on Drugs.)
Not long after, the ex-President was seen, by me, drinking a coke at the pool. And not long after that, to my chagrin, I was forced to break the oath, too. I was prone, in those days, to violent migraines that inevitably left me on my knees in front of my classroom's miniature toilet and led to a call home. A new school nurse started dosing me on these occasions with Coke syrup to settle my stomach, and even recommended my mother buy a bottle. The unfamiliar taste, magnified to the hundreth power in its evil-looking potion, was not only revolting to me, but quickly became associated with the blinding pain of headaches - and the inevitable sickness it failed to prevent.
It's really no wonder, then, that I should have failed to try Diet Coke, even as it became a go-to for other girls in my class; the lunch of choice - with a Cadbury Creme egg, in season - for a certain svelte popular crowd and later the study fuel of a generation. My moral outrage lessened over the years; I happily fetched the icy cans for my bosses and even stocked up on it for roommates. It never occurred to me to try it; I had coffee for caffeine and iced tea at barbecues.
And then, today, I realized it was kind of weird. I mean, these things happen: I have since learned that Hortense has never eaten a grape, and Jenna has never had an egg. But in my case, this was mere oversight. I didn't want to be like one of those people who's never seen Seinfeld or doesn't know who the Kardashians are and is always going on about it. "I've never tried Diet Coke," I IM'd Anna.
"And you're trying it now?" She wrote back. Well, no. That hadn't actually occurred to me. It seemed a bridge too far, and my stomach roiled at the prospect. And yet, why not? Part of my aversion, I think, was rooted in the word "Diet," which I've always found highly suspect. I like my yogurt full-fat and my butter real. And yet, who was I to question untold millions? Besides, Diet Coke fans are always saying how different it is from the original, how particular the sweetness, along with those intense discussions about Mexican Coke or the glass bottles you can only get during the holidays, or the Kosher kind or cans versus plastic. While I was unlikely to want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony after three decades' abstention, maybe I'd find I actually...liked it. And would that be so bad? No. I put on my shoes and walked to the corner bodega.
Despite my newfound resolve, I purchased my bottle of Diet Coke with the apprehension of a teen buying a first pack of Camel Lights. They only had bottles, but I figured the subtleties of flavor difference would probably be lost on me anyway. "Join Diet Coke in support of women's heart health programs," I read on the label as I waited to pay. I would! I could have been helping women all this time, had I only come to my senses sooner! I came home. I placed the bottle on the table. We regarded each other. I filled a glass of water to wash the taste away, in case it didn't go well. And then, heart pounding, I took the Diet Coke in my hand and gave the cap a decisive twist. There was a sharp hiss of escaping carbonation, the snap of plastic, and then, I closed my eyes and I drank.
Fifteen minutes later.
I regret to inform you that I have thrown up. With that one sip, I was back in the school nurse's office, the smell of the disposable paper cover on the thin pillow as clear as day. I have brushed my teeth and had three glasses of water and the taste is still there. I guess the association was just too strong. That, or that's just what you get for breaking the Coke-ater's oath. This is what the first - and last - Coke-ater spoke.
Related: Diet Coke Eyes 'Next Gen' Consumers [BrandWeek]