I stared at my half empty coffee cup, made from recycled paper and waited.
I’d been over the ʻplanʼ a hundred times. Although I don’t know why I bothered, because it always ended up the same. Once they searched me online and found out my heritage, wanted something physical, or called me up sobbing uncontrollably, then it was over. Whatever could or should have been didn’t matter, to me at least. So when a very intoxicated Pete frantically buzzed on my intercom two nights ago, and then proceeded to tell me about what an asshole his brother was, I knew I had to end it.
Not that I’d had many boyfriends, one to be exact, because my parents sent me to boarding school the moment I hit puberty. They should have saved their money since I was shaped more like a rectangle than a woman. Usually guys were the ones to stop picking up the phone. It’s not as if any of them had turned me on so to speak, but then again I’m sure the fact that I dressed like a Sunday school teacher didn’t elicit any feelings for them either.
Otherwise I wouldn’t be the only twenty-two year old that had yet to have her first kiss. At least that’s what Edie told me. She’d been my best friend since we were toddlers, and was way past her first kiss, so I could only assume she was right.
She didn’t understand that I felt in control in my earth-toned cardigans, knee length skirts, and ballet flats. She’d begged incessantly that I at least alter my hairstyle from a single French braid that hit the middle of my back. But I didn’t care; I didn’t want to stand out, even if no one had ever called me sexy.
My lack of sex appeal to the general population of single men in D.C. wasn’t what brought me to a small locally owned coffee shop in Adams Morgan. Jazz music lingered among the patrons. There were a half dozen small wooden tables each with two matching chairs. The tables were covered in stickers from various bands, businesses, and photographs of the city were pressed beneath with a circular piece of glass. I pushed back the sleeve of my green angora sweater to check my watch, and sighed. Over the past month Pete had yet to be on time. That alone was a deal-breaker. I sipped my coffee leaving a peach lip stain on the rim of the cup, and drummed my nails atop Ford’s Theatre.
Pete’s first strike was when he whined that I never baked for him. I tried to explain to him that if he had a ‘real’ job, and didn’t work for his father then he’d refuse to perform the same tasks on his day off as well. He ignored me for the rest of the night, but was decent enough to walk me to the Metro after last call.
My fingertips were numb from the repetition when he breezed in. His dark blonde hair was buzzed on the sides; the front was spiked using at least half a bottle of gel. It was his eyes that caught me though.
Lots of people talked to you, or themselves in a foreign language, on the train from Jersey back to the city especially when you’re standing in the middle of the train reading a book thicker than my purse. Normally I’d turn up the music on my phone, that all changed when the owner of the most beautiful ocean blue eyes in human history sat next to me.
Too bad they were attached to a guido.
Everything about his style: from his tight t-shirts with a ridiculous graphic of swirls and colors, to his sneakers with the laces undone, gave the impression of ease. But I knew he put more effort into getting ready then I did, or at least that’s what he told me when he noticed I never wore eyeliner. Pete wasn’t entirely the stereotypical Italian-American that you saw on MTV, the city broke him of some of his habits, namely tanning every three days. But he was certainly the only man I knew who had his eyebrows waxed.
“Hey, Claire,” Pete said as he pulled out the bright white plastic chair across from me and sat down.
As usual there was no explanation for his excessive tardiness, and I didn’t care what his excuse might be anyway. I made sure my face was relaxed and emotionless when I said, “It’s over.”
He squinted, as if I’d turned into a sunbeam. “What is?”
“Yes, us. I just can’t be your girlfriend anymore. We’re too different.”
His blue eyes sparkled, and suddenly I hated the shade of ice they’d turned. “I didn’t even know you were my girlfriend.”
I froze. This was not the response I expected. Granted it was better then causing a scene while begging for me to take him back… No actually this was worse. I tilted my head to the side, and concentrated on the dregs of coffee in my cup. “Well, I was.”
“Not if I didn’t ask you.”
“Okay but I treated you like…” He cut me off, and that was strike fifty.
“We never even kissed, how could we be dating, much less something serious?”
I leaned forward and words fell out of my mouth. “You took me to the movies, and dinner both of which you paid for.”
He laughed. “That’s what I do for all my friends, you just happened to be a girl. We’re not in middle school anymore, this is the real world.”
“But you came over the other night and…”
“I was drunk!” He slammed his palm on the table drawing the attention of the other patrons. “I’m Italian. My brothers and I fight all the time, it doesn’t mean anything. And it’s none of your business.”
I thought that if you told someone the specifics about your personal life then it did become your business.
“We’re passionate people, something you’d know if you were my girlfriend. But you never were and you never will be, Claire.”
I muttered to myself since Pete wasn’t listening to me anymore. “I just thought since you asked me if I liked my book on the train. You talked to me first…”
“No way. I prefer blondes,” The eyes I’d coveted zeroed in on my chest, “Ones that aren’t built like a surfboard.”
My body ignited in flames. “Lose my number.”
He picked up his phone and with a few swipes of his finger he snickered. “Done. Besides when would I want to talk to some frigid bitch anyway?”
A lock, which never had a key, formed on my mouth, which was my usual response when in distress. I stood up so quickly I knocked the chair over and rushed to the door when I heard Pete call out. “Uptight Georgetown slut!”
On my way back to the Metro I held my gaze to the concrete so no one saw the tears in my eye. As it turned out at twenty-two I’d apparently never had a boyfriend.
I lay the three strands of dough, wound them like a rope, placed them on the long shallow baking tray, and then slid it in a speed rack. My body repeated the process until the rack was full of bread to be proofed then wheeled it into the walk-in. Baking was methodical, as long as you followed the steps, and trusted that once the product was in the oven, it would cook to perfection.
“This is so boring,” Dee sighed. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand leaving a streak of flour in its wake. Her bright white chefs coat and beret matched mine, except she had a single lock of neon pink hair that escaped from hers. The stud in her small nose glittered from across the four-foot wide wooden table. Her eyes were dark, as were the purple bags under them.
I shrugged. “I like it.”
“Of course you would.”
“What does that mean?”
Dee stopped kneading and tilted her narrow pointed face to the side. “You’re like the most boring person I know.”
I sprinkled flour on the honey colored birch wood. “Considering the source, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“At least I’m alive.”
I felt the muscles in my face tense constricting my voice. “I’m alive.”
She chuckled. “I’ve been working with you for almost a year, Claire. A year in which you haven’t gone to a party, taken a vacation, or even had a real date with a nice guy. All you do is visit your Mom and read. You’re twenty-two, not fifty.”
“I’ve been on dates.”
She rolled her eyes. “That last guy took you to a restaurant, which you hated, and some stupid action movie.” She leaned closer. “I mean, there’s no way you two had sex, so it’s not like even a real relationship.”
“You can be close to someone and not…” My mouth went dry.
A wide smile covered her face, which made her look like a Halloween mask, the oversize grin that haunts a child’s dreams. “You can’t even say sex. I knew you were a virgin!”
I looked back at the dough. “We shouldn’t even be talking about this, Dee. Its vulgar.”
“This isn’t nineteen twenty Nazi Germany, girl.”
“It wasn’t considered Nazi Germany until nineteen thirty-three.”
Dee’s sigh sounded closer to a growl as she took out her frustration on the dough by pounding it. “That’s what I’m saying, you’re young, and you shouldn’t know stuff like that. It’s like you’re an encyclopedia.”
I didn’t know how to answer her, which was a common occurrence. One of my many weaknesses was not being able to converse with my peers. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re sheltered the first fifteen years of your life, until one day you’re all alone. I concentrated on the dough, and only thought of the motion my hands made, because I couldn’t think about why I was irrevocably disconnected.
Mario entered the prep room, which was made of pale yellow tile and unfinished wooden floor. He clapped his aged and dry hands together with a smile so bright on his square face, it blinded me. His beret stood atop the thickest shoulder length silver hair I’d ever seen, and on his coat in navy blue thread ‘Mario-Baker’ was etched on its left lapel. When his mouth opened I was comforted by his deep tenor voice with a hint of a Sicilian accent.
“Girls I have great news.” A twenty something guy came through the entryway and stood on Mario’s side. “This is Aaron, and he’ll be our new cake decorator.”
Our boss smacked Aaron on the back so hard his whole body shook. All six skinny feet of him. Jet-black curls covered his forehead, but you could still see plenty of his olive skin. His ocean blue eyes took in the room and stopped at me. It seemed cruel and unusual to see two guys in the same day with eyes that a girl could fall into. A sly grin encroached on his face while his left hand rubbed the scruff on his chin.
“Hey.” His voice was gruff like he’d just woken up, or had a mouth full of gravel.
“Hey,” I mumbled. Then my gaze turned back to my work.
“So,” Dee started. “You fired Michelle for writing ʻHappy Merry Fucking Birthday?”
“Yes,” Mario’s voice had an edge to it before he turned to Aaron. “In case I didn’t mention that, just create what’s on the order form, and you’ll keep your job.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
I refused to look away from my work, but I could still feel his eyes on me.
“Just tell the girls what cake you need baked, icing, fondant, and they’ll make it for you. There’s Dee here with all the questions.” I assumed Mario gestured to Dee because he took a moment before he continued. “And this is Claire, she’s much quieter.” I heard Mario mutter to Aaron, “It’s much more peaceful when Dee isn’t here.” His laughter gradually lessoned as he went back to the main kitchen.
My only goal in life was to work in the stainless steel heaven that was the main kitchen; which was four times the size of the prep kitchen. The walls were pale pink with white pinstripes, all the machines were state of the art, and each baker was tasked with creating items like zeppole, cannoli, and amaretti. They also worked together more as a family than a team, which was an alluring prospect for someone who didn’t have a one. To be surrounded by the intoxicating smell of chocolate, vanilla bean, mint, and cream on a daily basis was a plus. And also kept my gym membership active. The fact that I could combine ingredients and with time and patience create something delicious for people to enjoy seemed as great a prize for everyone involved. Kneading dough was more meditation than task.
Mario’s Family Bakery, my workplace, made cakes that blew bubbles with a flick of a switch, replicated rain forests, and modeled after entire towns. Occasionally Mario would send me to the venue to help with the delivery of the cake to ensure that whatever magic trick the cake had in store went off without a hitch. Although it never had. The store on the ground level had been open for over a decade. But it wasn’t until now that our delicacies were only growing in demand in the heart of the Nations Capitol. Last week the President admitted in an interview it’s his favorite place for desert.
My blood froze when my eyes locked with Aaron’s. “Yes?”
I noticed he had a dimple in his left cheek, but not the right. “That’s a pretty name.”
I bit my bottom lip and saw the edge of a bright red petal tattooed on his left forearm as he rolled up his shirtsleeves then slid on his chef’s coat.
“Give it up, dude. It was like months before she said a full sentence to me,” Dee said.
He nodded at me. “Well, if you can’t talk, can you at least bake?”
I shrugged, mostly to get the feeling of his gaze engulfing me to stop.
Dee slid another tray on the rack. “She’s good.” Then she turned back to Aaron and licked her lips. “But I’m not.”
That’s when I looked away, again. I just had to. It wasn’t normal to look at a complete stranger that long unless you were into tall, effortlessly cool, and handsome. Because I wasn’t.
“Let’s see.” A yellow carbon copy of an order glided across the table toward me, directed by Aaron’s long index finger. “Help me make a cake.”
My voice was soft, as if I were telling him my darkest secret. “But, this will take me all day to make.”
“I’ll help you.” His tone matched mine and I prayed I wasn’t blushing.
I pushed the last rack into the walk-in, and then started filling the industrial sized mixer with butter, eggs, and vanilla.
He mixed the flour and cocoa powder when Dee asked, “Where’d you work before, Aaron?”
“At a body shop.”
She giggled. “Well you do have a good body.”
My chest filled with frozen air.
“Thanks, but no, for cars. You know when you get into an accident…”
“That’s so weird, Claire knows someone that does that too.”
“Really?” Aaron asked. “I used to work in Jersey, what about him?”
I knew Dee referenced Pete, who would be on top of my hit list if I had one. I reached for the bowl that Aaron held and mixed it with the wet ingredients. For a moment my hand brushed his and I felt a jolt in my stomach. “I don’t know him anymore.”
“I think he was from Jersey too. But they went on like half a date.” She smirked at me. “She’s totally single.”
Aaron took the bowl that I poured the mocha batter from. “Interesting,” He murmured before he walked to the sink.
Once the chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry cake circles had cooled, and all seven icing colors were made, Dee and I spent the last hour of the day watching Aaron construct his masterpiece. He stacked the cake circles, with cream between each layer, and covered it in fondant. The thick liquid chocolate hardened before he edged the top and bottom with teal and forest green leaves. While twisting a toothpick between his index finger and thumb he flicked his wrist forming a dozen fuschia droplets. He’d throw it onto the cake, and with some sort of witchcraft it stuck and blossomed into a geranium.
By the time he was finished the cake looked like a meadow covered in grass, flowers, butterflies, and even a bright red robin.
Aaron stepped away from his creation and smiled. “So, what do you think?”
“Holy shit!” Dee gasped. “That’s awesome.”
He nodded at me, “And you?”
I tried to think of the right words to say as I tugged at the end of my braid, unaware that I still had crimson icing on my hands. “It’s pretty.”
The longer his gaze enveloped me the warmer my skin grew. My breathing quickened, and I felt the room closing in on me. I turned from the pair, and the amazing cake, then rushed downstairs to the locker room. I yanked off my coat and beret before I shoved them in the bright blue metal locker with a push door on top, like a trashcan, which we used as a hamper. My fingers twisted the dial on my lock, but I got the combination wrong. Twice. I grabbed my jacket, slung my bag over my shoulder, bolted back upstairs, and darted out the back door that was on the east wall of the prep room.
One of them might have called out to me, but I hurried out the backdoor, and ran to the Metro before they could finish the syllable.
“Talk about karma.”
I sighed into my oversize mug of hot chocolate. The whip cream and chocolate shavings that Edie had added to it had already melted, making the drink thicker and sweeter. Which in turn made it more delicious. “What are you talking about?”
Edie’s white blonde hair glowed in the light from the fire. The short-stacked bob hit right at her chin accentuating the echo of an upstate New York accent. “One guy turns out to be an asshole, the very next guy you meet is super hot, and likes to cook? I’d call that a win.”
I sat up straighter on the plush leather couch, pulled my cashmere robe tighter, and averted my best friends gaze. “It’s not like I’m going to marry him or anything. Besides I can’t live off cake alone.”
She rolled her green eyes. “You’re at spin class more than the instructors, you could take it.” She turned to face me, and pulled her knees to her chest. Her pale pink, frayed bunny slippers that she’d had for years, gazed at me with their black button eyes. “I’m talking about you leaving this apartment for more than just work. And hopefully that outing would include a cute boy.”
I set the mug on the circular glass coffee table in front of us. It was littered with fashion magazines, Edie’s cell phone with charger, and a couple tubes of bright red lipstick. I couldn’t find a coaster underneath the junk she’d dumped out of her Coach purse the moment she entered the living room, and bit my lip realizing I’d have to clean the table for the third time this week. Whenever she questioned my strict separate bathroom policy I’d point to the miscellaneous heels strewn in almost every room, the couple of laptops along with a plethora of paperwork that overtook the dining room, and the copious amounts of cookery equipment that had to be thrown away after she’d burnt food. Again.
“It’s been raining all week,” I sighed.
“It’s March, where do you think we live? Miami?” She set down her own mug atop Reese Witherspoon’s face. Then she cheered, and jumped up. “We should go on a vacation! I’m so sick of working 100 hours a week.” Edie pulled me up off the couch and spun me on the bamboo floor as if we were still little girls on the playground. Although she’s five inches shorter than me, and had more curves than muscles, Edie was stronger than she looked. When she let go I almost slid into the television that hung from the celery painted wall. “What do you think?”
I stood up, and cocked my head to the side letting my long braid hang over my shoulder. “I can’t leave Mario in the lurch.”
Edie put her hand on her hip. “Mario gave you the job with no experience because he loved your Dad so much, I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to give you time off.”
I glared at her for a moment, as my throat tightened, until I realized she was the only person I had left in my life. “I’m not going to use my father’s memory to get out of work. It’s not something he would do.” I pulled the band off the end of my braid and brushed it out with my fingers. “Besides you wouldn’t be able to get off. Your boss is a Congressman, and he’s always working.”
She huffed, and then fell back onto the couch, deflated from my reality check. “Not always, but he does need me to tell him when his son’s lacrosse game is scheduled so he doesn’t double book with his mistress.” I returned to my spot next to her. Edie slouched as she set her feet on the coffee table pushing off a box of tissues, which made me cringe. She looked as if she could fall asleep, especially since she wore a baggy Orioles s t-shirt and sweatpants. Edie’s nose was small and delicate, like the other features on her face, other than her wide doll-like pale green eyes. Even in neon orange, with no make-up, and exhausted she was the most beautiful woman I’d seen. Well, other than my mother. “I wish I could do something good. I feel like scum helping that creep with all his side deals.”
“It’s not like he sends you to kill people, I mean it’s terrible that his girlfriend is our age…”
“That’s not what I mean, Claire.” She cast her light eyes out the bay window. Although the curtains were drawn they were thin enough to see the city lights from eight stories up. There was always a car on the street, flashing lights along the harbor, and the occasional bird that flew into the reflective windows of our complex, but I knew she loved looking at the Potomac as much as I did. Even when the snow had been pilling up for days and had turned into a frozen gray slime, I loved the city. “Remember when we were younger and we wanted to start a non-profit when we grew up?” She asked.
“Yeah, but we never figured out what we’d raise funds for. Back in tenth grade we decided that it should fund Jessica Thompson getting higher quality hair extensions.”
She giggled. “That’s right!”
I covered my mouth and laughed. “We were so mean.”
“You were never mean.” Edie’s tone was soft and held me like an afghan. “Maybe we should help families who lost someone, like you. I mean you have enough capital, we could quit our jobs tomorrow…”
“No.” I stood up, wanting the conversation to end instantly, and picked up my mug. “I’m going to bed.”
“It’s fine.” I waved my hand and turned toward the kitchen. “I’m just going to bed.” I set the mug in the sink, and didn’t bother rinsing it before I puttered down the hallway, and threw myself onto my bed.
Clean sheets were as close to pure bliss as I’d known. They smelled like lavender, although they were a pale yellow. The light creeping in from the street illumined part of the wallpaper making the oversize sunflowers look a darker gold than I knew them to be. The nightlight near the door glowed. The white down comforter fell to the floor; the swoosh of it sliding off the bed was the last sound I heard before I closed my eyes.
I felt the rectangle in my clutch vibrate. I pulled my phone out and rolled my eyes when I saw a picture of my mother light up the screen.
“What?” I answered as I popped my gum and twirled a lock of purple hair around my freshly manicured sky blue fingernail.
“We’re running a little late dear…”
I stomped my heel on the sidewalk outside of the aquarium. They were suede; fuchsia colored, with a red bottom, and had been the most expensive part of the outfit. The dress was skintight, bright white, with large dots in various shades of pink. It hit just above my knees.
I donated the ensemble to charity a month later.
The sun had set an hour ago, but tourists still strolled around the Baltimore Inner Harbor. It had been our tradition to have a private dinner for my birthday near the shark tank, which was by far my favorite exhibit. But, as usual, someone always came first in my parents’ lives.
“You’re always late! It’s like I’m the last thing on your mind.”
My father cleared his throat. “Baby that’s not true.”
“I’m not a baby anymore. I’m sixteen now! Or I would be if you weren’t still in D.C.”
“Claire…” My mother’s voice was tender, more like a hum than an actual word.
When I spoke it was a hiss. “Shut up, Mom.”
“I don’t care how old you are,” My father started. “Don’t talk that way to your mother. We’ve both committed our lives to serving our country and one day you’ll understand that.”
Fury filled my body. I started screaming at them. Years of being forgotten, being sent away to boarding school with only Edie as an ally, and never able to go anywhere without security guards close by, I’d never be able to live my own life. The one day a year where it was supposed to be all about me was another let down. At the end of my rant, at full volume, I finished with “I hate you! I hate you! I…”
Then my mother screamed, but hers was an entirely different sound from mine. Her cry was harrowing, cutting me to the bone, and accompanied by my fathers howl.
There was a metallic crunch. Screeching. Glass shattering. Then, something more terrifying then the cacophony of sound.
It was the silence.
I sat up in bed, drenched in sweat, clutching the sheet.
I pulled my knees to my chest and sobbed.
I didn’t hear Edie come in, but when she stroked my hair I remembered where I was.
In my own home, in my own bed, essentially an orphan. She rocked me back and forth as I buried my face in her chest. “I’m here, Claire.”
I sucked in as much air as my body would allow in an attempt to break through the tears. “When…when…will it stop?”
She loosened her grip on me. I pulled back and saw that her eyes were full of tears too. “I don’t know, but I’m going to be here for you.”
Half of her mouth turned up into a smile. “We’re going to be those crazy old ladies that race each other in the supermarket in our scooters.”
I was lucky she had enough curves to muffle my uncontrollable sobbing or the neighbors might call the police. I tried to laugh, wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t.
“Do you think you can go back to sleep?”
I shook my head and wiped my face with my t-shirt.
“You want me to make you something to eat, and have a Pretty Little Liars marathon?”
“That would be nice.”
She wiped away her own tears. “What do you want?”
I couldn’t recall what we had in the pantry, but I hoped that earlier when I texted Edie about the horrible day I was having she’d gone on a supply run. I wanted to be as far away from that night as possible, the memory sank back into the darkest part of my gray matter. “Do we have marshmallows, Hanna?”
She squeezed my hand. “Duh, Spencer. I’ve only been your bestie forever. Besides s’mores would go great with the wine we got in the fridge.”
She smiled. “Always.”