-This is a selection from chapter four in my novel in process ‘The Bakery Assistant’
The sun had set, and the sky turned purple. The two-bedroom apartment was above a laundromat and bodega in the middle of Chinatown. Toasted Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel, cloves, and cinnamon lingered in the air. The metal door in front of us was on the ground floor. It had no lock or buzzer. It’s exterior was once bright red; yet currently covered in graffiti, local band stickers, and scratches. When the fingers of Aaron’s left hand gripped the door handle I silently prayed there wasn’t an axe murderer behind it.
On the other side was a dim stairwell; with lights, round like a jellyfish’s body, which ran along one side. Three were flickering.
“It’s on the fourth floor.” Aaron nodded up the steps.
“Okay.” I tugged on the end of my braid.
“But there’s not an elevator.”
“I’m not afraid of walking up some stairs.” But there were other aspects of my current situation that I did fear, which went beyond my flats squishing on the musty smelling, gray carpet that covered the floor. I was afraid of being alone with Aaron.
I didn’t think he was a serial killer, and predicted that he’d protect me from one if they were to present himself. As we started on the last flight, and the walls seemed to draw closer as if it the stairway was narrowing, his hand woven with mine brought a wave of calm over me. The more time I spent with him the more I let my guard down. I’d spent six years building up a wall; I wasn’t about to let it turn to ash before I knew Aaron better than I knew myself.
He turned to the aluminum door with ‘4B’ in gold letters that hung askew above the peephole. Thankfully this one had a lock. Aaron dug a key ring from his pocket, that held over a dozen keys of all shapes and sizes. A jet black rabbit’s foot with fur, matted and worn, hung amongst the keys.
“Guess you’re not a vegetarian,” I said.
He shook his head and laughed. “I’m Italian. That’s against our religion. But this,” he held the paw between his thumb and index finger. “I’ve had since I was a kid.”
I felt a smile creep up my face. “So you’re superstitious?”
Aaron shrugged. “I don’t carry it for luck.” He pushed a key into the lock and opened the door.
I didn’t have long to contemplate the deeper meaning behind the charm before he opened the door to his apartment and ushered me in.
The room was the size of my den in Georgetown, and had three personalities. One was a living room with a flat screen T.V., beat up brown leather couch, a couple of mismatched high back wooden chairs, and a long narrow coffee table that was once a door before it had been cut in thirds and nailed back together. Second was a dining room with a rectangular glass table and six white metal chairs that I recognized from IKEA. An ivory bowl full of fruit including red apples, bananas, and green pears sat in the middle of the table. Third was the kitchen, in the center of which was a butchers block, atop of it was half a dozen cupcakes. But I couldn’t comprehend the dessert I’m sure he’d made from scratch because I was taken aback by the four walls surrounding me.
Due to their texture I could tell, underneath layers of paint, they were concrete, but the living room had been transformed into the Grand Canyon. With shades of taupe, gray, rust, amethyst, cobalt, and the lightest blue for the sky above the peaks. A lone bald eagle flew across the crevasse. The kitchen had been altered into a meadow with kelly green grass. Complete with woodland creatures, butterflies, birds and a deep blue stream that snaked below the cabinets, which ended in a rocky crest above the porcelain sink.
That was wonderful, but I was drawn to the dining area which had an ink colored sky, and bright white stars that twinkled. The Eiffel Tower popped from the wall and I refused to believe it wasn’t three-dimensional until I ran my hand along the steel and found that it was the work of a talented artist who understood perspective. The Parisian landmark stood in the forefront of a multitude of shimmering fireworks that sparkled around it.
“You painted this, didn’t you?” I asked, refusing to break my trance from the painted people that stood around the Eiffel Tower gazing up at the fireworks. My index finger traced the outline of the spectators in awe of the detail he’d given them including striped shirts, berets, and a bright blue bow adorning a smiling blonde girl. Her cheeks were pale pink.
I turned to him. “When did you go to Paris?”
“Never.” He shrugged. “My roommate Sid showed me a picture of it, and I painted this.”
Incredulously I asked. “You captured this from a picture?”
“Yeah, I mean I know it’s not perfect, and I made up the people…”
“But it is. Perfect.” My gaze reverted to the painting. “I’ve been there, many times, with my parents. And this is exactly what it looks like.”
“So, I guess you like it?”
“It’s magical, Aaron.”
“Thank you.” He took off his beanie, ran his hands through his hair, and pulled it back on. “Hopefully you think dinner is just as awesome.”
He moved toward the kitchen and I followed him. “What are you making?”
“If they didn’t eat it…” He opened the fridge and breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.” He grabbed a bowl of crabmeat and a bottle of white wine called: Three Wishes. The wine bottle had a plain label with the silhouette of a dandelion on the left side, blossoms hanging in the air above it, as if caught by the wind. Aaron set both onto the butcher’s block next to the cupcakes that I’d begun to inspect. “Don’t know if you want dessert before dinner.”
Atop each cupcake was a blossoming hibiscus decorated in icing, the colors melted together, shades ranging from crimson to lime. In the center they were so dark they verged on black. The edges of each petal were white.
“I can’t eat them, they’re art.”
“That’s the point, Claire. I made them for you.” He grinned. “I even filled one with chocolate pudding.”
I giggled. “Seriously? Which one?”
He picked the fuschia hibiscus and handed it to me.
I took the cupcake on instinct. “I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite.”
“Live a little. We’re adults, we can have cake before dinner like we always dreamed about when we were kids.”
My mouth began to water, because it looked delectable. I gingerly pulled the wrapper from the confection and when I bit into the tender yellow cake, rich mocha drenched the inside of my mouth. “Oh my God.” I mumbled before I swallowed. “Unbelievable. Better than Yo-Yo Ma.” I took another bite.
Aaron laughed at me. “You have cake all over your face.”
I halted from another bite. “Where?”
“Here.” He leaned over the butcher’s block and gently kissed me.
Aaron Ricci sucking on my bottom lip was when my body officially went into sensory overload.
“You’re right,” he said, wiping his chin with his thumb once we separated. “It’s really good.”
He turned to a cabinet with a painted fawn dipping his face into the stream, which gave me time to catch my breath, and finish devouring the flower he’d given me. He set a round wine glass in front of me and half filled it with white wine, corked the bottle, and put it back in the fridge.
I licked the last of the frosting off of my fingers. “You aren’t having any?”
“Nah, I haven’t had anything harder than an ibuprofen in seven hundred and sixty-six days.”
The lingering chocolate slowly dripped down my throat. “That’s very specific.”
Aaron looked me dead in the eye, and for once his shimmering blue irises left me adrift, rather than drawing me closer. “I’m a recovering addict.”
I didn’t understand how a twenty-five year old could already be so addicted to something that they had to cut out an aspect of common social structure. Then again I’d refused to get in a car for years. I knew there had to be more to Aaron. No one would tattoo a rose bush that took over an entire arm and half their torso unless it meant something. Was the rabbit’s foot a talisman? If I were a detective I’d consider those ‘clues’ in finding what lead him to drugs. But I didn’t feel it was my place to investigate.
Especially on our first date.
I moved the wine glass to the side of the butcher’s block. “Oh, then I don’t have to…”
“It’s okay, I mean I bought it for you, after you mentioned it when I brought you the soup last week.”
“If I knew that you were, you know…” I pulled on the end of my braid. “…not drinking…I wouldn’t have said anything.”
“Well I left my t-shirt that says ‘I’m an asshole when drunk or high’ is at the cleaners downstairs. That’s the one I usually wear on first dates.” He rubbed his chin. “Guess I forgot the tradition because I haven’t really dated anyone since I’ve been sober. Besides,” He pulled down on the edge of his beanie covering his eyes for a moment, and then pushed it back up. “I wanted you to at least taste the cupcakes I made for you before you ran away…screaming…into the night.”
I didn’t ponder the thousands of questions that snowballed behind my eyes because I found him honest. That deemed him worthy of trust. Although it was limited. “Seven hundred and sixty-six days?”
“Yeah. And I really want there to be seven hundred and sixty-seven.”
I glanced at the wine, wondering if it was a wise idea to consume alcohol when he wasn’t. Not only would it be rude, but also I didn’t know his intentions. Although I did see him open the bottle in front of me, thus it was impossible to drug me. Finally I came to the realization that even if I was in his house alone with him, I knew he wouldn’t take advantage of me. There was no substation evidence to convince me other than my firm belief that it was true.
“I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“You could never make me uncomfortable.”
I took the glass, swirled it, and upon tasting I found it to be the perfect companion with a bouquet made of sugar. “It’s terrible,” I smiled. “I should drink the whole bottle just so you won’t be subjected to it.”
He tore apart bread crusts into an avocado green bowl, and grinned at his work. “Can’t have you doing that, Edie will get the wrong idea about me. Bringing her best friend home wasted.”
I rolled my eyes. “She’d probably give you a high five.”
He chuckled as he cracked an egg and started to beat it. “Why?”
“She thinks I’m uptight. I mean I haven’t…” I set down the glass of wine and bit my lip.
“You don’t have to do that.” Aaron bit the bottom of his own lip, and winked. “Even if it is hot.” He added mayo, and a dab of mustard to the egg.
My face burned. “I shouldn’t have told you why I do that.”
I tilted my head to the side. “Like when you pull on your beanie?”
He smiled at me, which was better than the cupcake. “Yeah, like when I mess with my beanie. But you can tell me what you really think, Claire. It’s not going to freak me out.” He dumped the wet ingredients into a bowl with the crab and bread. “I’m honest with you.”
I concentrated harder on not biting my lip than on what I was about to say. “Promise you won’t laugh?”
“I mean it’s not like serious…but… I’ve never been on a date. Not a real one.”
“Well let me let you in on a little secret. Only dates with me are this awesome.”
I took a deep breath, and a brick loosened from my wall. “And I’ve also never… kissed anyone. Ever. Not until a few hours ago.” I looked down at my hands. “But I guess you know that because you were there.”
I kept my face down. “You promised you wouldn’t laugh.”
“Hey.” His voice more of a whisper than a word as he lifted my chin. “I’m not laughing. It’s just I can’t believe no one’s ever tried to kiss you before.”
“One guy almost did. Try.” Edie and I had snuck out of our dorms to go to a party in the woods between our school and the all boys’ prep school. His name was Kevin. We were sitting against a White Oak when he leaned toward me, and threw up all over my jacket. The boys had shared a case of beer before my five friends and I showed up. “But he missed. In a way.”
“That sounds like an interesting story.”
“Not really.” I shook my head and took another sip of wine. “What are you making?”
He chuckled. “Now I’m shocked.”
He turned the bowl toward me so I could see its contents.
“You forgot the Old Bay.”
He tapped his finger at the familiar yellow tin can with a blue logo that sat on the edge of the butcher’s block. “I wanted to prove a guy from Jersey could cook that fancy food you eat in Annapolis.”
“Prove it then.”
A sly grin crossed Aaron’s tan face as he mixed together all the ingredients. “Now who’s this Yo-Yo Ma? And should I be jealous?”
I giggled. “No, and he’s a cellist, probably the greatest musician ever.”
“Ah, so I should be jealous.”
I went back into the dining area, where I’d set my purse on the Ikea table when I’d become enchanted by the ‘City of Lights’ and fished out my phone. “You shouldn’t be,” I said as I returned to the butcher’s block. “His music reminds me of you, or at least this piece.”
My thumb found Bach’s ‘Suite No. 1 in G Major’ and closed my eyes as the cello’s swooping ballad filled the meadow Aaron used as a kitchen. When I lay my hands flat on the wooden table between us I could feel the vibrations from the strings. My fingers ached to be even a quarter as talented as Ma’s, or even Aaron’s.
As the solo swelled to completion O’Connor’s ‘Butterfly’s Day Out’ began to play when Aaron asked. “Why does that remind you of me?”
I opened my eyes. “Because it’s beautiful.”
“You’re right. It is. Dunno about me.” He wiped his hands on a towel and took his phone from the front pocket of his black skinny jeans. “I promised I’d play you a song. And they’re from Baltimore, so I’m thinking you’ll like ‘em.”
“I’m noticing a theme.”
“I’m a big fan of all that the great state of Maryland has brought to this country of ours.”
“I’d have to agree with you there.”
He set his phone between us. “This reminds me of you.”
He tapped a button and I heard a keyboard, drums, and guitar mixed with a weird 80’s electronic sound. Or maybe they were underwater. The lead singers voice was deep, brusque, and would have been terrifying in any other context but accompanied by a soft melody that built into a force similar to a typhoon. For some reason the song made me want to dance. And that wasn’t a common reaction at my current level of sobriety.
I looked at his phone. Most of the screen was filled with the album cover art: a seascape with a sky full of puffy white clouds in the background in front of which was a woman in a diagonally striped orange and white dress. It looked like something I would wear to the beach, yet something about the cover art jarred me. The woman’s arm reached up to a head that wasn’t there. She also floated above the water in lieu of legs. The creators of this masterpiece called themselves Future Islands and the first song Aaron chose to play was ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. It was a song of longing for someone you’ve waited your entire life for. Or at lest that’s how I interpreted it as I let my mind sift through the lyrics.
After the second crest of sound, I asked. “Why does it remind you of me?”
“Because, you’re beautiful.”
I shook my head. “That’s my line.”
He shrugged. “Couldn’t come up with a better one.”
Aaron let it play as he formed the crab cakes, the next song started with an electric guitar playing a simple rhythm, then a cymbol, and a kick drum. The singers voice was softer, more hypnotizing. When the keyboard started I checked its title, ‘Back In The Tall Grass’.
“It sounds like something Lloyd Dobler would play for Diane Court,” I mused.
“You’ve never seen Say Anything…?” I scoffed.
Aaron shook his head.
“It’s the one where the guy lifts this boom box over his head outside of his girlfriend’s house!” I instinctively raised my arms in the air, miming John Cusack. “You must have seen it.”
“Is it new?”
“No. It’s older than me. My Mom loves it.”
“Already planning our second date?”
I took a gulp of wine giving me time to remember our conversation. “Are you asking to watch a chick flick with me?”
“Yeah. I am.”
My eyes scanned the copious amounts of preparation he spent on our date. From the cupcakes, to the dinner, all from scratch. He even remembered that I mentioned white wine offhand. “So far it’s looking good. But the nights not over.”
His perfect lips parted, but before words could form; a ruckus came from the other side of the front door.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me she’s here!” A girls voice squealed.
“That’s because it’s a date, Sid, not a fashion show.” A gruff man’s voice answered.
A key jiggled in the lock.
“Jesus Christ.” Aaron reached across the butcher’s block, and took my hand. “Please don’t let my roommates make you re-think that second date.”
“Why would they…”
Before I could finish a petite, fair-skinned girl with long hair the color of a fire truck burst through the door. “OMG, Claire!”
She was a flash of shredded blue jeans, black leather jacket, and bright yellow heels. Then she attacked. I guess a normal person would have called it a hug, but to me it verged on assault.
“Can’t breathe.” I choked.
“Sid!” The owner of the male voice from the other side of the door: a tall, skinny, auburn haired, flannel-wearing hipster tugged on her arm. “I thought you said you cut down on the caffeine?”
Sid turned to the hipster, rolled her big dark eyes, and parted her bright pink lips. “I promise I only had two iced coffees today!”
“Cut it down to one then,” Aaron said, in a tone dark as Sid’s eyelashes. “I thought you guys were going to see a movie, Taylor?”
Hipster, or Taylor, shook his head. “You know she can get anything out of me, man. I tried.”
“It’s not like I’m stupid, Aaron. I mean you never make us cupcakes. And all that crab. And you tell me I can’t eat it.” She swiped the air dismissing him. “Just because I’m a hairstylist doesn’t mean I can’t see the writing on the wall. I mean you’ve been talking about this chick for weeks…”
“She’s not a chick,” Aaron growled. “Her name is Claire.”
Sid looked directly at me. “I didn’t mean that. I know your name. He’s been saying it non-stop like since he started at that bakery.”
“I think we should let them eat, babe,” Taylor said.
“I know! I’m sorry, like for real, about coming in here like this. It’s just that Aaron is like the coolest guy friend I have, and I just had to meet the chick he’s gaga over.”
“She’s not a…” Taylor and Aaron said in unison.
“OMG I’m so super rude. Let’s start over. It’s like amazing to meet you. I’m Sidney,” she put her palm to her heart. Her fingernails had lightning bolts painted on them. “You know like from the old horror movie with Courtney Cox? Or like the city in Australia, only spelled different. But everyone calls me Sid. So you should totally call me Sid. And this,” She kissed the ginger hipster leaving a lipstick mark on his cheek. “Is my man, Taylor. You know, like Taylor Swift, only he’s a guy. He does play guitar though. Only he doesn’t write songs about his exes because they were super boring.”
I unclenched my fingers from the end of my braid and placed them in my lap. “Hi, I’m Claire.”
“So tell me everything, Claire.” Sid held her eyes on me.
I bit my bottom lip, and internally loathed her. She hadn’t done anything to deserve the feeling of disgust that overwhelmed me, other than barging in on my date. Or maybe it was because she was the living embodiment of everything I wasn’t. If I didn’t already know that she only lived under the same roof as Aaron because of Taylor, his childhood friend, then I’d demand new living arrangements prior to a second date.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot, you’re like super introverted. I have this client at the salon who like only leaves the house for me to do her hair…” Sid’s voice was like sandpaper against my face.
Aaron pulled off his beanie, ran his hands through his hair, and balled the knit beanie in his fist. “I will literally give you all the money in my wallet to go out and do whatever you want tonight, Sid. If you leave. Right now.”
“Babe,” Taylor pulled Sid to his side, bent his head down so his lips met with her eyes. “They haven’t eaten yet.”
A smile covered her face showing off a million bright white teeth. “You’re right, babe.” Sid turned to me and whispered as if we weren’t inches from each other. “We’ll talk later, okay?”
Taylor took Sid’s hand and they walked toward the door. When it closed behind them I turned to Aaron.
“I’d like another glass of wine, please.”