Issue No. 7 – March 2015
I‘m standing at the wide open front door. I’m looking through the screen door but I’m not opening it. The chicken-skin-translucent tops of her feet are blue, and her ruddy grape toes look ready to burst. It’s twenty-two degrees and she’s wearing turquoise flip-flops.
Baking is therapeutic, a form of medication. There are things that render null the value of the medication, things that chip away at the process. Anything interruptive, anything that fractures a recipe or cracks it open, anything that sullies the haven surrounding the practice.
What I’m thinking about while I stand there, a wet bowl in one hand and the towel I’m using to dry the dishes in the other, is the way she said her name the first time we met. “I’m Annalise.” Like Anna-leez, except she didn’t sound presumptuous. She raised her arm, gave a small wave. “Call me Anna,” she said. Like Ah-na.
Water is draining off the bowl and dripping into a little puddle on the floor. I’m trying to put the towel to the bowl to dry it, but I can’t force the two together.
On the other side of the screen, Anna lifts her forearm. A greeting.
The air swirling through the screen door is savagely cold. I feel my lips shrivel. I think that if I try to say anything, if I move my face at all, my lips will crack and I’ll be standing there like an idiot bleeding all down my chin. Anna’s making no expression with her face, so it just rests there, and her resting expression is this beautiful scowl that I had forgotten. Only now it’s turned up on my stoop and I have to use the stairway banister to steady myself against the force of it.
I keep to an order. First, I collect the dishes. From in the sink and off the dining table and off the granite counters, I put them all in the dishwasher. I wet a blue sponge — blue for counters, yellow for dishes — and wipe the countertops, careful to retrieve the crumbs that collect in the corners and around the base of the electric kettle. I scrub the pans by hand because my wife doesn’t like them going in the dishwasher, and I agree with her. After the kitchen and the dining room are clean, I gather up the dishes from elsewhere in the house.
I don’t want any plates or ringed tea cups appearing in the kitchen while I’m whipping the frosting for a cake or toasting hazelnuts. No filmy cereal bowls. No tupperware emptied of last night’s dinner. I want to see nothing when I’m finished reminiscent of the world beyond the recipe, nothing but two or three mixing bowls, the whisk or the spatula or the wooden spoon, measuring cups, a butter knife and probably a fork, all soaking in the sink, an asian pear crisp or a rosemary cake rising inside the pinging hot oven.
We’d met in Madison, Anna and I. At college. We’d both gone immediately to graduate school, she in Minneapolis and me in Tucson.
She didn’t have to teach, and thank goodness for that. She was always saying what a miserable teacher she would make. This was one thing I found attractive about her: that she was in tune with her own inadequacies without ever letting them discourage her. They were something separate that she could point to, outside of herself but covered in her fingerprints, the waste basket in the corner or her empty champagne flute left sitting on the bar.
She’d completed her first semester studying drawing and had received an illustrious grant. She’d called me, wanting to celebrate.
Her flight had cost $120 at the last minute and mine had cost $96. That’s round-trip for both of those, so there’s a reason we’d decided to reunite in Las Vegas. It’s the cheap flight capital of the world is why.
Anna was waiting on the cement strip under the UNITED sign, clutching the strap of her duffel with both hands. It was blazing down there. The heat rising off the black tar made her look like she was reeling, swaying in that nauseous, at-sea way. It had been seven months since I’d seen her. In that time the image of her body had clung to the empty spaces in the air around me. Her shoulders were as big and square as I’d remembered, and her shoulder-blades were rolled back and taut, like she’d just walked out of a hot yoga class. She was sweating. I don’t think she stopped sweating that entire weekend.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
I pressed BAKE and the oven beeped. I pressed the upward-facing triangle and the oven beeped again. The screen flashed 375. A green bulb glowed next to the word PREHEAT.
It was nearing two o’ clock. The sun was high and winter pale. I walked into the living room where the girls were lying on the sofa watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the same cartoon version from when I was a kid.
Chelsea is nine years old and Joni is eight. They’re both very perceptive, Joni in terms of being observant and Chelsea in terms of her good, visceral memory. Chelsea’s one of those kids who finds things by visualizing them. She’ll sit still and shut her eyes, but not in a desperate scrunched way. She’ll look serene, like she might doze off and whack her head on the wall behind her. Then her eyes will spring open and she’ll casually trot over to wherever she left the thing she was looking for, her favorite pen on the mantel or her headband underneath the kitchen table.
If Chelsea likes the show that’s playing on TV, she’ll say to Joni in this syrupy mother’s voice, “Please go get the glass on Mom’s bedside table,” and Joni will run hands-and-feet up the stairs and clomp back down holding the glass for Chelsea to see. Chelsea will say, “Take that to daddy. Oh, and the bowls we used when we were playing kitties. Remember? Under your bed? Remember, Joni? Please go get those.”
“Where’s the blue snowflake mug?” I said, and the girls lolled their heads in my direction. Chelsea rose off the sofa and walked into my wife’s office where the girls built a fort on the treadmill we bought two years ago. She crawled into the fort and popped out with the mug. In the living room, the Whos sang a wistful chorus.
“Anything else?” I asked.
She poked her head in and recovered the pink and yellow plastic popcorn bowls and a spoon from the first set of silverware my wife and I bought together.
Anna had this aliveness about her. Not in a cheery way, not in a love-of-life way, but an energy that was riotous and fertile. Like a fullness. She always seemed very full, and many things were always coming out of her. Hair, for one. She had long, leonine hair. It made my neck tired to look at all that hair, but she never lifted it over her head and held it with
her hands in a great pile to give her neck a break, never seemed agitated by its clinging around her sweaty temples. Her eyelashes arced nearly to her eyebrows, lovely and thick and long. Elsewhere, also. The hair on her shins and in her armpits and all the way up between her thighs and trailing down from her bellybutton, it was all dark and straight.
The pores on her face were large and always kind of brimming.
On top of all this, her whole self, the sum of all these parts, seemed always to be spreading wider, inhaling more deeply, expanding.
Anna opened the back door of the sedan and shoved her duffel off of her shoulder. She ducked into the passenger’s seat and yanked the door shut. I stared at her expectantly, waiting for a greeting, a kiss. She unhooked the button on her shorts and pulled her T-shirt over her head. She looked at me. “Are you gonna go?” she asked, pointing toward the open lane, perspiring, her shorts flayed and the dark sweat circles obvious on her teal bra.
Cream the peanut butter, oil, and sugars.
I reached for the large glass mixing bowl at the back of the corner cabinet. I wanted to make a double batch of cookies — you never know how many holiday party invitations you’ll receive at the eleventh hour.
Two years ago, Chelsea insisted that we attend a winter solstice party being hosted by the parents of a boy in her class. This was before I had begun to bake, before we’d had reason to suspect anything. The party would take place that same evening. Chelsea balked at the cupcakes I’d purchased on my way home from work: red and green frosted stuck with miniature, plastic Disney figurines.
“It’s a solstice party, Dad! You can’t bring Christmas colors to a solstice party! Oh my god, and it’s Disney Christmas!”
I set the heavy glass bowl on the counter and measured out the peanut butter, then the oil. A frozen afternoon light came through the window, so suited to the season that it felt artificial.
I filled the electric kettle to brew a pot of coffee. We have a glass coffee pot that looks pretty nice, Euro-Scandinavian or maybe retro-Americana, simple and thick-walled. My wife bought it. I weighed forty grams of beans into the grinder and dumped the grounds into the coffee paper. I swept the grinder clean with a narrow bamboo basting brush. The key to making the perfect pot is ritual. Ritual, and bringing your water just shy of a boil.
The dishwasher chugged. The hot water splashed and the kitchen began to smell sudsy and sweet. These steps, the polished countertops, the steaming dishwasher, the bamboo brush and everything flowery, they’re all part of the therapy.
When I received my two weeks’ notice at work, my wife scheduled a joint appointment for us with the psychologist at the cancer treatment center. It’s a good center, lots of resources beyond the standard patient services: individual support groups, family support groups, community yoga classes, healthy dinners. We had never gone out of our way to take advantage of the services, but we hadn’t thought I would lose my job.
I’d been the head of human resources at a large art distribution company. “It’s a management position,” I’d said. “Nothing wrong with prioritizing order when you’re in management.” I’d smiled, tried to keep it casual.
“It’s just,” my boss had said, “it doesn’t look good if our head of HR isn’t in tip-top mental shape.”
I don’t know when we all got so obsessed with tip-top. What happened to doing a decent job? Where was the praise for punctuality?
The diagnosis was unsurprising, its predictability embarrassing: a desire to exert control in the face of uncontrollable circumstances, evidenced in obsessive compulsive tendencies. The doctor was young, probably in her early thirties, and wearing a ribbed turtleneck. I wondered if she worried about being too pretty, if she made eye contact with herself in the mirror and thought, I shouldn’t look too good while I deliver the bad news to that husband whose wife will become a single mother in the next four months.
“OCD?” my wife said. “I knew it!” My wife is competitive. She teaches physics at the university. She’s intellectually intimidating and also quite strong — physically strong. Her arms in particular are impressive, and not just in that toned, Michelle Obama way. My wife wears suit jackets to work and women are always saying things to her about shoulder pads — about how they’re back, about different types of shoulder pads, about where she buys her jackets.. But my wife doesn’t wear shoulder pads, and knowing this is like a sexy secret.
“Not OCD,” the doctor insisted. Next to me, my wife slumped into her chair, genuinely disappointed. “What you’ve got going on is not a disorder.”
I squinted, looked at the doctor sideways. “The baking powder incident?”
When I’d first taken up baking, I’d let Joni help make a batch of breakfast muffins. She’d poured a quarter teaspoon of salt followed by a tablespoon of baking powder into the dry blend, though the recipe had called for the powder first and salt second. I could never yell at her for a thing like that, but when she’d run into the living room to check on her show I’d dumped the dry ingredients into the trashcan and begun again. The barrier protecting the process had been penetrated.
“Borderline disorder, tops,” the doctor said. She coughed into her elbow.
She was careful to explain to us that my recent behavior was the result of things taking place on a psychological level. That my new tendencies could be managed, but that we should not ruminate over solving anything. “Solving is beside the point,” she said. “The point is comfort. The point is repetition. The point is stability.”
“Whose comfort!” I wanted to say. “Whose stability!” I was ashamed at the rote defense mechanisms of my psyche, the ways they were inconveniencing my family. I wished we had discovered, in my deep subconscious, someone self-effacing and generous and significantly more pain tolerant.
Add the eggs and the vanilla.
I cracked two eggs into a measuring cup and whisked them to an even, yolky yellow. The crash and squeal of a toy commercial blared from the living room.
“Girls, mute on the commercials please.”
The volume cut. I combined the whisked eggs and vanilla with the butters and sugars.
One thing that happened that weekend with Anna: she told the waitress at the Ethiopian restaurant, the concierge at the hotel, the cleaning woman pushing the toilet-paper trolley, the couple we met in the hot tub, the Chinese family putting on sunscreen outside their car while we stood outside the rental car. She told them all that we had just gotten married. The man at the hotel front desk said it would be his pleasure to upgrade us to a queen plus room with hillside views.
The room had french doors that opened onto a little white fence that kept you from falling nine stories to the parking lot. Right away Anna opened those doors. “Look at our gran balconié,” she said, flourishing her arms over her head. Her armpit hair bristled. She knocked over a vase of fabric flowers.
That evening, she was lying on the bed in the hotel bathrobe lifting one leg and then the other in the air, twirling each and repeating the words, water ballet, water ballet when someone knocked on the door. I opened it. A young woman in a waist apron handed me a bottle of champagne and a styrofoam plate on which sat two chocolate-covered strawberries wrapped in cellophane. “Congratulations,” the woman said.
I came out of the vestibule carrying the champagne and strawberries. Anna leapt past me and flung open the door, smashing it against the wall. “Mercí!” she called to the woman in the waist apron. “Mercí! Mercí” She waved to the woman with her whole arm, like a generous queen.
My wife was not thrilled when I brought home the French-milled soap.
“This is a new level,” she said.
“It’s pretty much the same level,” I said.
“We already have soap,” she said. “Now you need a special soap? This is a new level.”
I should have waited to show her the soap until she had set the down the grocery bags and kicked off her boots. “Then it’s an improved level,” I said. “A more sophisticated level. Less run-of-the-mill neurotic.” And I believed it, too. I still believe it, especially when I’m washing my hands with the French-milled soap and the coffee is beginning to bloom and the kitchen smells of lavender and coffee and more lavender.
Combine the spices, flour, soda and salt; stir to mix. Add to the creamed mixture.
I sifted the flour, soda and salt into a small glass bowl. I measured out the ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg and turned the soft mixture with a fork. I spoke out loud. “Provence!” I said, “We bought it while we were vacationing!” I waved my hand near the French-milled soap like, What? This? “You haven’t vacationed in the south of France?” I said. “God, you must! You must!”
Chelsea came into the kitchen. “What, Daddy?”
I was quiet. I hummed along every now and again with the Whos and pretended that I don’t mind that I will never vacation in the south of France.
It was the deepest point in the night, the charcoal morning hours before the beginning of our last day. We were lying in bed and she asked me, “Should I move to Tucson?”
Instinctively, before I could stop myself, I said no. But I didn’t mean it. Or, I meant it, meant that she shouldn’t move to Tucson, but I didn’t mean what else it meant. I didn’t mean that I wasn’t in it for the long term. Or that I didn’t want the gift of her commitment. The truth is, I wanted the gift of her commitment, but I didn’t want what came with it. What she was offering. Her flexibility, her yielding. Because what if she sacrificed her schooling to come to Tucson, and then she resented me for it? That was the simple explanation. But also, I knew then — and I know it now, or I tell myself so — I never wanted Anna to give up anything. It would have tarnished her. It sounds cruel to say, but it would have cheapened her. To be with her, to earn her attention, was an accomplishment and a prize. If she gave it to me? If she reduced herself enough fit inside my Tucson apartment, fit in my bed, fit in the palm of my hand? I wouldn’t want it. What I wanted was to feel the bigness and the chaos of her. I wanted things with her to feel as they always had: that there were no boundaries, no end points, no destinations.
I was sorry that I said that. Or, sorry that I said it in the way I did.
Two weeks ago, after I’d pulled a tray of lemon-lavender biscotti from the oven, Joni bounded into the kitchen.
“It’s your birthday, Daddy!”
The biscotti had crisped up nicely, my best batch. I was Swiffering the kitchen floor. I Swiffered toward Joni, growling. “Daddy!” She jumped past me. I spun and inched the Swiffer toward her. She shrieked. “Daddy!”
Chelsea ran into the kitchen. “Daddy! It’s your birthday!”
“Watch out, Chelsea!” Joni said. “He’ll try to get you!” Joni waved her hands. “Over here!”
Their socks were peppermint striped, dangling from the ends of their toes. I sang the Nutcracker Ballet March and the girls grand jetéd from one end of the kitchen to the other, avoiding my reach. All the spinning made my head feel heavy. Breathing felt tiresome.
“Girls! The birthday party!” my wife said.
Chelsea and Joni disappeared from the kitchen.
“Let’s put these on a plate,” my wife said, standing over the biscotti. “What’s this?” I said.
“We wanted to.” She looked at me. “I wanted to. Nothing big, just a little birthday surprise.” She carried the plate of biscotti and I followed her into the dining room. The girls sang the Happy Birthday song.
“Candles!” Chelsea interrupted the chorus. “Get the candles!”
The biscotti were too brittle. They cracked and would not hold the candles. My wife let the girls hold one birthday candle in each of their hands, four candles total for my final birthday. She lit them quickly and I blew them out right away, but not before a drop of wax melted down to Joni’s finger. She began to cry, but she stopped when my wife asked her to retrieve the present they’d wrapped. Joni ran into my wife’s office and Chelsea said, “Isn’t it time to eat these long cookies already?”
The girls fingered the edge of the wrapped package while I untied the bow. “I like to take my time,” I said. “Enjoy the whole experience.”
“Daddy!” The girls said together.
“No, Daddy! Rip it!” Chelsea said.
“Let’s save this paper,” I said. “And the bow, too. Very gentle with the bow.”
“Rip it, Dad!” Chelsea said.
“Rip it!” Joni said.
“Rip it!” my wife said.
The gift was a linen pinafore apron, slate-colored, exquisite.
“Let me put it on!” Chelsea said. My wife opened it wide and both girls slid their arms into the apron, Chelsea coming out one armhole and Joni out the other.
My birthday is in August.
Form the dough into balls by hand and place on the cookie sheet. Allow about 3 inches between each cookie.
I resisted the temptation to dig through the girls’ art closet for the ruler. I made myself sit down at the kitchen table. I topped off my coffee and rubbed the palm of my hand against my chest. I thought I could feel the individual fibers of the linen apron. The Whos were singing again. Da hoo doray, da hoo doray. It was the final scene of the movie, the triumphant Who chorus.
Anna broke up with me. We were at the airport and we’d returned the rental car, handed the keys across the counter. The rental desk was set off along one of those little passageways between baggage claim and covered parking. We were standing there and people kept grut grut grutting their roller suitcases past us over the textured floor. The outside doors let in heat like poison and the inside doors let in frozen manufactured air. Back and forth. Each time either set of sliding doors closed they made a final suctioning noise. I tried to pop my ears without Anna noticing.
I was having a hard time hearing her. Or a hard time listening. Anna dropped her duffel against the wall and held me by the arms.
“It’s not gonna last,” she said.
And she was right.
“Are you going to make a scene?” she said.
I had begun to pace.
“No,” I said.
“You look like you are.”
Another thing she was right about.
“Do you want to try for a little longer?” she said. I think she hoped I would calm down.
I nodded and tried to regain my breath and kind of whispered in a panic like, “Of course. Yeah. A little longer. Yeah.”
Flatten each ball to make a thick disc.
I pressed each ball with the bottom side of a fork, across top-to-bottom, across left-to- right. The little nutty rounds were perfect. Symmetrically thick and imprinted with a classic cross-stitch pattern.
The doorbell rang. I didn’t know who it would be. The FedEx guy? I had ordered a pair of earrings for my wife, hand-made, exorbitantly priced. I’d hoped they would ask for a signature on a package like that.
There’s hardly a wound that doesn’t heal in fifteen year’s time. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen her. If something doesn’t heal in fifteen years, I mean, you’re probably dead from it.
My wife and I dated for two years before we got married, not a long time but not a short time either. Chelsea was born two years later and Joni a year after that, which means that we’ve spent most of our time together raising our children. There’s nothing wrong with that, or nothing to criticize about it. I’ve got the two tenderest kids on the planet. Even when I’m waiting in the mud room for Chelsea to finish triple-knotting the laces on her expensive tennis shoes or when I have to drive to the school to sign a permission slip Joni’s forgotten, I think I’ve got no better way to spend my time. My undergrad self would have hated that sort of filial devotion, but I couldn’t have foreseen, when I was in college, how insignificant any sort of professional or personal striving would become.
I’m watching Anna will herself not to shiver. I wonder if I’m about to open a healed wound.
I’m standing there and the smell of ginger and butter is pouring from the kitchen, pressing against the screen door. The girls are humming in high-pitched voices and all around the house are hung garlands and wool ornaments and lights. My wife will be home in an hour and she will make macaroni and cheese for the girls and a salad for herself. I will eat pudding, rice or chocolate or tapioca. She will drink a glass of wine and I will drink a bottle of Ensure and the girls will watch It’s a Wonderful Life and whatever comes on after that until they fall asleep. My wife will carry them to their beds and I will pull their blankets up around their faces.
It isn’t snowing, but the wind is blowing snow from the tree branches and down the slope of the roof. The freezing air blows through the screen and makes my hands feel stiff. I wonder if the glass bowl will slip from my grip.
The oven beeps three times, indicating the completion of the preheat phase. “Daddy!” Joni yells. “Oven’s ready!”
In the final months of my life, the preheat alarm has sounded. I stare into the face of my first lover. The oven is hot.
Chelsea appears at the door. She looks up sharply, surprised to see someone she does not recognize. “Daddy,” she says, standing by my side. “Who is she? Do you know her?”
“I do, Chels.”
“Is she staying with us?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Well are you gonna let her in?” Chelsea says. “Or close the door. It’s freezing.” Chelsea shuffles her feet toward the kitchen. I hear her shout for cookie dough.
Anna raises her eyebrows. I hold up two fingers. She nods slowly. We are separated by the screen.
I set the mixing bowl and the drying towel on the foyer table amid the holiday cards and unopened hospital bills. I push the screen door open and, stepping aside, I watch the whole mess of her cross over the threshold and into my home.
Makenzie Barron lives in Buena Vista, Colorado. She holds a BA in linguistics from Reed College. She is a current MFA candidate in fiction at Queens University and an editorial assistant at Qu Literary Magazine. “The Rendezvous” is her first publication.