By Becky Furuta
Under the circumstances, the frosting-like scent of powdered sugar and vanilla was almost putrid. I felt my stomach lurch ever so slightly as I made my way toward a row of merengues and colorful French macarons, illuminated under the silky glass of a pastry case like fish swimming in an aquarium. A middle-aged woman with thick fingers and a hairnet glanced in my direction. She had tiny particles of flour dusting her arms and clinging to her face and bangs like lice. I winced, reconsidered the whole endeavor, and then pressed awkwardly onward.
“I need a cake. Any cake, really. I’m not feeling very particular. I guess a white cake of one sort or another would be fine.”
I couldn’t help but feel as if things were going badly already. Perhaps I should have lied and told her it was for a child’s party or an anniversary. I suppose it might have made things easier and spared me the discomfort of an explanation.
“Any cake? How big and how many layers? What sort of filling? And the frosting?”
It was getting too complicated. There was the faint odor of baking cookies which, on another day and in another life might have felt comforting, but instead felt like a cold, wet blanket. A thousand voices churned in my head, and the loudest among them was my own, taunting me for had being so hopelessly, painfully awkward. I was entirely consumed by the pointlessness of it all. And the woman behind the counter, looming and sighing like some sort of medieval Hun, had no patience for the existential crisis taking place on the other side of her pastry case. “How many people do you need to serve?” she persisted.
I really had no idea. “I guess a two-layer cake, and about ten inches would be fine. You choose the rest. I like surprises,” I lied. And it was such an obvious falsehood that I punctuated the statement with a weak and somewhat bemused laugh that I thought might be sufficient to put the matter to rest. It wasn’t.
The Hun clearly wanted me to devote some careful consideration to the issue of the cake which, yes, had now risen to the level of “issue” in my mind. It was no longer a mere matter of procuring a dessert. It was a problem, and one that demanded my attention in the very moment when I felt most likely to crack. Asking me to buy this cake was like asking me to breaststroke the ocean.
“Can you at least tell me if the person you are buying this for has any special considerations or food allergies?”
I took in a giant breath of sticky-sweet bakery air. “It doesn’t matter,” I grinned as I shook my head. “He’s dead.”
Moments later, I cradled a white, thin cardboard box that had been closed snugly with a gold colored sticker. The Hun, obviously horrified by my sudden proclamation, scurried about without further inquiry, grabbing the first ten inch white cake not already claimed by another customer. It had whipped chocolate mousse sandwiched between the slabs of airy vanilla sponge, and the whole thing had been shelaqued in soft white buttercream. It was a fine cake, and we ate it with plastic spoons under the illumination of parking lot lights, swapping stories about the man who had been found unmoving in his bed earlier that morning.
I stood there, licking the last remnants of buttercream from my fingers while hungry mosquitoes buzzed toward the street lights above. I looked up at the moon and the stars. I took inventory of the disaster.
The day had begun with a phone call letting me know that Michael had unexpectedly died. I laid in bed, numbly waiting for the grief to soak through the layers of my psyche, and drowning in the musty scent of the man next to me. I considered telling him, but decided I would rather not have to navigate the landscape of what husbands and wives are supposed to do in the vacant space of loss and sadness. My husband would be filled with panic. After thirteen years of married life, he could anticipate that whatever he might say would be absolutely wrong, and I would meet him not with tears but with rage. When my mother died five years earlier, I shattered a plate glass window in the living room with my fist after he came home carrying flowers and tried to desperately offer consolation. Sympathy, to me, has always seemed supremely patronizing.
Eventually, I would make my way to the bicycle perched on the trainer in the living room. I spun bitter, silent circles in the darkness of the pre-dawn light. I had been given only weeks to prepare for my last race of the season, which would involve traversing 300 or so kilometers in Taiwan. I was woefully unprepared, and so I resisted the urge to enrobe myself in bedsheets until the sun crept through the breaks in the curtains. Instead, I found a frantic cadence and sent my husband a text: “Mike died. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I showered and dressed in silence like a convict in a prison escapee movie, trying to vacate my house before my spouse read the message, before his eyes might meet my own, before we were going to awkwardly pretend everything was ok. We had been pretending for a long while, in fact, but had not managed to perfect the charade.
Overlooking the ledge of 40 years old, I spent had spent my 39th year taking inventory of everything that was about to change. My hair was becoming streaked by tiny grey threads, wrinkles appeared around my mouth and across my forehead. I had been diagnosed with what was my second autoimmune condition after a crash at a race in St. Louis and tremendous difficulty returning to form. The cells of my body were waging war, and there was nothing I could do about it. My 11 year old son with autism was transitioning painfully to adolescence, and my husband was defiantly refusing to grasp that his job of 27 years was about to go away thanks to a corporate merger. While I wrote and re-wrote his resume, he solemnly vowed to move us to Georgia or Dallas in order to keep doing what he had been doing for the entirety of his adult life. Unequivocally, I told him I would leave him first. And so we settled into being two lonely people, sharing only the peripheries of our human existence – the easy parts, the harmless spaces, the banal, the rote negotiations requisite in running a home. The rest was a lifetime apart. For me, it was comfortable and amicable. For him, the vacuousness of what had become us was swallowing him whole. It was only nights ago that he had leaned over and asked, “How do we fix this?” For simplicity, I replied, “Fix what?” And that was it.
I slipped out the back door of my own house, and pedaled silent streets to the cafe. I go there less for the coffee – though I need that, too – and more for the familiarity of the regulars on weekday mornings. Every day at 8am finds the same cast of characters gathered in the lobby. There’s an older man who sits with the Times and talks about politics and the state of the country, and always embraces a beautiful young mother in a way that is both flirtatious and benign when she walks in with her daughter, who appears to be about the same age as my own little girl. There’s a fifty-something woman who methodically knits skeins of thick grey wool, and a man who wears one of four cycling kits and rides a steel Bianchi every day. I’ve never wanted to talk to any of them, even as they chat easily amongst themselves. I want only to be there, in the company of familiar strangers. On this morning, though, the young mother was mid-quarrel with her daughter when she turned to me unexpectedly and offered, “You have kids? Because let me tell you, there will be days when you think you can’t take another minute. Not one more minute.” I nodded. I tried to laugh. In my head, I thought, “Why? Why are you talking to me? Why today?” She placed her hand on mine, and I realized just how tightly I was clutching the paper cup in my grasp, as if it were the last life boat off a sinking ship.
“Stop, stop,” the man with the Times imbued. “You’re making her nervous. Can’t you see she doesn’t want to be part of your domestic issue?” He laughed, and pulled out a chair for me. His look beckoned me to sit down. For months, these people had been like the landscape of my afternoon ride : comfortable and interesting and entirely expected. I had been perfectly content to leave them there like the growing grass and rocky hillsides. I didn’t want to know them, even casually. I just wanted them to be there among them in a vaguely social way, to keep up the rhythm of the morning ritual so that we might have even one bit of permanence in the course of the day. They were ruining it.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “I have to go.”
It was late. My boss was sitting at his desk, eyes trained on the screen, shoulders hunched forward. He had glanced only briefly at the clock, and said nothing. He, too, seemed melancholy. Joe and I had perfected a kind of distant, professional friendship over the course of the prior year. At first, I worked for him because he gave me time in the afternoons to train on my bike and a flexible schedule to accommodate my racing and my travel, but, in truth, I knew I liked him from the moment I met him because he reminded me of myself. He could be funny and outgoing, carrying himself into a room with a kind of confident and likeable ease. But Joe could also be temperamental and brooding and, like, me, deeply private. I didn’t ask about his demeanor, and he seemed to intentionally not notice my own. That kind of mutually agreed upon emotional ignorance keeps things comfortable most of the time. But by midday, the anger from our separate spheres was slowly spilling over into a kind of polite hostility that seemed entirely palpable to the staff.
I crept past the doorway of the office on my way to leave. For the second time that day, I intended to just sneak out the back door. Joe stopped me. He spun me around, and placed a hand on each shoulder. I was less surprised by the interruption than I was by the weight of his fingers, and the violation of an agreed upon set of rules dictated by both our habit and our personalities. I looked up at him, expecting him to scold me like a child for my vague hostilities. Instead, Joe looked at me gently, and asked, “We’re ok here, right? Are you doing all right?”
For the first time all day, I felt the wave of anger subside, and the slow burn of sadness in my throat. I was so far from the land of “all right.” Worse, the damage was apparent even to those an arm’s length away.
I pedaled. I left work and I pointed my bicycle in a hopeful direction, and thought that I would ride until the pain dulled and became a hard scab covering the wounds of that day and the weeks before it and the months before all of that. That was how I had met Mike, too. I was bitter after being diagnosed with type one diabetes, resentful of the doctor who advised me to stop racing my bike, fearful because my son had just been diagnosed with autism and had been dismissed from his fifth preschool that year, and I was trying desperately to put the pieces of life together. And it was Mike who told me to keep cycling, who assured me that I could continue to race, who found me a better physician. I met him on a ride where we barely spoke, but where he sensed that I felt alone because he had navigated that same quiet loneliness after his diagnosis. He insisted we have coffee at the cafe where the man reads the Times and the woman knits thick grey wool and the guy rides in on a steel Bianchi.
I kept turning the pedals for hours in the cold and dark, until my fingers felt like they would break and my toes had lost all sensation. I could hear the quiet chirp of text messages emanating from my jersey pocket, and I presumed they were all from my husband, so I ignored the noise. In so many ways, I thought, I am more wedded to my bicycle than I could be to any man. As hard as it is to attach to people, it is so easy to fall for the ride.
Halfway home, I checked my messages. “It’s been a rough day. What do you say we get cake? Go buy Mike a cake, and we’ll eat it together. I’ll invite our friends.”
The thought of cake made my teeth hurt and my stomach ache. And then I thought of my husband, of the distance between the thoughts in my head and the things that I could share with the man I married, and of him, trying to build a raft to reach me through the ripples and waves of life in the last year. So, I made my way to the tiny French bakery, strolled uncomfortably through the door and bought a cake for my dead friend, and a handful of the living.
I walked quietly into my house, smelling like pastry. My husband looked up from the stove, apprehensive and worried. And then, gently, he said, “We haven’t ridden together in a while. We should do that soon. Maybe this weekend.” I nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I think we should do that. We should ride away together.” He swept me up in his arms, spun me around and kissed my cheek, and hung on to what was left of me. I forced a smile. “We can just ride forever, if you want. To the moon and back. I love you to the moon and back.” He bent down and kissed my lips, tasting the faint essence of buttercream. I thought of all the times we’d been steeled with anger, and found our way back to warmth after miles and hours of aimless riding. I remembered my husband, tenderly coaxing our children down grassy embankments as he taught them to ride their own bikes. I thought of how much of this life has passed between myself and the bicycle, and tethered me to the people I otherwise keep at a distance. I thought that I loved him, that he finally got it right.
I handed him the flimsy white cardboard box. He cracked it open just far enough to see the remaining piece of cake inside. We each took out a spoon, and dove in.