I set the oven to 425 degrees. And wait. Impatient as always, I pace the kitchen. Glaring in the oven’s direction. Willing it to beep, beep, beep.
Sometimes the indoors make me itchy. Deep down into my soul. A rash. Burning me alive.
And so, I walk, barefooted down to the small and winding stream that draws a divide between my neighborhood and the next.
I hop ever so slightly from one stone to the next until I stop. Sinking down into the shallow depths of the cool waters flowing from nature’s faucet.
Closing my eyes, I stretch my arms wide. Imagining the two competing neighborhoods each pulling me in opposing directions. With the same force. At the same time. Heavy. And grounded. I stand firmly in the middle.
There is a wind that knocks at my back. It’s gentle enough, but still warns. My toes curl in response to the subtle breeze, slipping and sliding, and shuffling the slimy stones beneath my feet. Against these faint forces, I remain weakly rooted. And it’s comforting, knowing there is something smaller than me. Something less grounded.
I wish I could live in this moment forever. Safe in the middle. Rather than a mere pendulum, tethered to something out of reach, caught in an ever-lasting tumultuous wind. Violently swaying in conflicting directions. Never finding the stillness and quiet and peace of the middle.
I’ve contemplated never returning. Just standing here forever. But there are, obviously, so many problems with this delusional fantasy. Mostly, that even here, although I feel in control, like a strong, grounded stone, heavy and immovable against even the strongest of forces, I am not.
And it is now. At this stage of my thought process. Where more than my footing slips away from me. But also, my serenity. And maybe some of my sanity.
Reality flickers in and out. And I feel the tides of fear and anxiety begin to rise inside of me.
The murky waters barely reach my ankles. And yet I am panicked. Feeling as though my feet are sinking deeper and deeper. The loose gravel floor beneath me, now quicksand. And I feel and see the depth of the river of my uncertainty slowly grow taller and taller.
It’s a terrible feeling. A nightmare. Knowing I should be able to walk away so easily. Yet feeling as though I can’t. Stuck. Here. A stone prophet of my own sad fate. I see my future. That these waters will rise so high and these winds will blow so strong, that they will obliterate me. Once and for all. One day.
A train sounds its horn. And pulls me back. To reality? I’m not sure you can call it that. Because even here, in the every day. Nothing makes sense. And I’m never quite sure which is worse. My little self-directed nightmares, or my life.
I struggle to find any semblance of balance as I skitter across the same stones I so effortlessly hopped upon a few moments ago.
Little muddied footprints trail behind me as I traverse the weathered wood floors of my house. I like to leave them there. Never cleaning them until I know I’m having a visitor. They remind me that I am real. Or was at some point.
The oven light is green. And there is a comforting heat that magically spills out from behind its closed door.
It is ready. And so am I.
I grab the tattered polka dot apron from the rusty hook that loosely hangs from the alabaster white walls of my not-quite-good-enough apartment. Mom always tells me I should repaint them a respectable eggshell. Or even a bright and cheery tangerine. But the plain walls remind me of myself—a blank canvas waiting to become a masterpiece. They give me hope.
It was Nana’s. The apron was. Not the apartment, of course. And my bony body swims in the stained linen that once hugged my plump and mostly-happy grandmother.
Baking was Nana’s therapy. When Pappy would go out for business—business that took place in other women’s beds—Nana would retreat to the kitchen.
“If you can’t find the sweetness in life, Buttercup, you just have to make it,” she’d say.
I grab the two pints of fresh blueberries I picked up at Elliott’s the other day and toss them into a strainer. I rinse them in lukewarm water. And I smile. Laugh a little. Remembering.
“Why on earth do you think I should rinse these in warm water?”
“Nana they’re cold. You’ve had them sitting in the fridge all day and all night and then some this morning. It seems unfair to just rinse ‘em in cold water and make ‘em think they’ll stay nice and chilled forever. When we all know you’re gonna throw ‘em straight into a hot oven! Don’t you think it would make for a happier pie if you warmed ‘em up a little first?”
“I suppose you’re right, Buttercup. I suppose you are right. Nobody wants to be eating a sad pie, do they?”
Except the irony of the situation was that neither one of us had ever made a truly happy pie.
I sprinkle the sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon over the damp berries and mix them with my hands, making sure they’re coated.
The recipe our family had used for generations called for one additional ingredient: salt. But just as Nana had done, I replaced a ¼ teaspoon of salt with a lifetime of tears. It was our special ingredient. The one we were convinced made it the pie everyone loved. Because everyone has been dealt at least one slice of unhappy in their life. And so eating it always felt like you were returning to something familiar. Something like home.
Nana had baked to fill her heart with sugar, a replacement for the love that had slowly dribbled out from the hole Pappy left there. I baked to…well, I don’t know why. Because I wasn’t so sure there was enough sugar in the world to fill the cavernous void that filled me. So, I guess I baked because I like to eat pie. And that was reason enough, I suppose.
I glance up at the clock just as I slip the glass dish into the oven. Mom will be here in three hours. Just enough time for the pie to bake and cool slightly. And for me to hopefully turn into someone else.
I spend what seems like forever in the shower. Scrubbing my skin, willing the better version of myself hidden under the many layers of dead to come forth. The water turns from scalding to lukewarm and then to ice. But none of it does anything, because when I face the mirror and the steam dissipates, I find the same person looking back—might-as-well-be-invisible me.
I try on the four different outfits I own that are suitable for her visit and end up wearing something different entirely, the same thing I always do—ripped jeans, an oversized sweatshirt, and clogs.
Reluctantly, I scrub away the muddied footprints and tighten the loose hook where Nana’s apron hangs. I open the blinds and let the bright yellow sunlight splash against my stark walls. I brush my hair and use deodorant. Put on makeup and pinch some life back into my cheeks.
And I wait. And wait. Wait. Wait.
Standing at the counter, my face hovering over the pie. Taking slow, deep breaths. I smell it. Savor it. The cinnamon. And the sweetness of the berries and the sugar, melted and gooey. And something else. The special ingredient. Sadness.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
And for a moment, I’m not sure which is louder—the sound of my heart beating against my ribs or her pounding on my door.
I walk hurriedly to the door, plastering a somewhat believable smile across my face before opening it.
She pecks my cheek lightly before walking past me. Or maybe through me.
“I see you haven’t done anything with the place yet. Or yourself, for that matter. Why you insist on these boring clothes and empty walls, is beyond me.” She sits down and sighs as one of the old chairs at my old table rocks back and forth.
“I made pie,” I say, teetering on my own set of rickety, uneven legs.
“Fine, fine,” she says, shooing away my words as though gnats attacking her face.
The knife shakes in my hands and it feels as though it weighs a hundred pounds. Mom prattles on about neighbors and dad. And me. And everything all of us are doing wrong. About all the things she is doing right. And how exhausting it is thinking on behalf of the entire world.
“Do you want a cup of coffee with your pie? I made a whole pot,” I ask, desperately hoping to change the subject. I never can.
“You know I never drink coffee in the afternoon. Tea is what respectable people drink in the afternoon. I’ll have tea. Unless you don’t have any.”
But she always drinks coffee in the afternoon. Meets her friends and other people she likes at cafes all over town. And I realize that’s the problem. She only drinks coffee with people she likes. Not me.
“I have some. Early Grey, right?”
“Never mind. Don’t bother. I won’t be here long. Just water. Unless it’s from the tap. And you know I don’t drink anything but filtered water in glass bottles.”
“I only have tap,” I say, my voice and my existence completely deflated.
She sighs and continues talking about how terrible my hair is. How skinny I am. How no one will ever date me. I’ll be alone. Or worse… like Nana. Living off someone who loves someone else.
My blood boils when she talks about Nana that way. And I lose myself. Knife in hand. Thinking how easy it would be to walk up behind her and slice her into eight uneven pieces. It would drive her crazy. Not being dead. Being imperfect.
“I can’t take it anymore!” I scream, hurling the knife toward my already gnarled wood floors.
There’s a long awkward pause where nothing is said or heard save the whoosh whoosh of my aching heart.
“Well…maybe I should just leave,” she says, the lack of emotion in her voice breaking me down. Cutting me into a million uneven pieces.
“That’s all you can say? A normal person would yell back at me! Or hit something! Or…CARE!” My body trembles as a storm brews deep inside me. My temperature climbs; my soul now a perfect 425 degrees.
“What is there to say? You refuse to let me help you. You refuse to talk. You just sit there staring at me like some…some kind of…WEIRDO!”
I should be crying, but I feel oddly strong. That ugly, small, wounded person that sleeps under the stairway to my heart has awoken. She smiles brightly before opening her mouth and spewing her poison.
“I know, mom,” and I make air quotations around the title she was given at my birth, the title she never earned, “you’ve made it very clear my entire life what an utter disappointment I’ve been to you. Trust me, you’re not the only person who’s been disappointed.”
For the first time, I see the briefest flicker of emotion roll across her face, causing her perfectly Botoxed complexion to slump toward the ground. And a small pool of tears fills her eyes making them look like two dollops of melted milk chocolate.
“I’m sorry,” I say, suddenly feeling lightheaded and embarrassed at my loss of control.
“I really think I should leave,” she says, the cool, robotic tone to her voice returned.
“Let me wrap up the pie for you,” my voice weak and cracked, “you didn’t even get to eat your piece.”
She looks down at her plate, the first bite still resting on the tip of her fork, and she pushes it away from her. Looking back over to me, a deep crease has now formed in the middle of her brow, and she opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She nods.
I open the “everything” drawer and rummage around the 5 pairs of holey oven mitts and dull scissors and mistakenly purchased plastic bags in sizes that no one uses. Grabbing the roll of cellophane, I pull out an extra-long piece. And it occurs to me, as I stare through the smooth, translucent material, that I am just like it—invisible and suffocating.
It was never her…
It’s always been…me.
A single tear hits the top of the pie before I wrap it. And I turn my head and wipe my eyes before she can see.
“Here,” I croak out, as I hand it to her.
She doesn’t smile. Doesn’t talk. Doesn’t even push in her chair—she always pushes her chair in. Walks to the door and opens it. Pauses. Looks back at me.
I start to tremble again. Start to try to form the words in my mind that I need to say. Have wanted to say. For so long. For so, so, so long. Not the mean hateful words I slapped her with today. But the real ones. The truth.
But nothing comes out.
And so, she turns and walks out, closing the door softly behind her.
And it feels so final. Her leaving. My aloneness. The silence. Our sadness.
I stand there. For what seems like forever.
And I almost feel like I’m stuck in the water again.
Except this time, I’m not escaping.
And then it hits me. The waves.
I cry. Hard. And ugly.
And I yank out another long piece of cellophane and wrap it around my head. And I scream. The loud roar shakes the very foundation of my existence. My legs give out and I slide down my cabinets onto the floor. And I lay there squirming as I strain to breathe; my tears and sweat forming a glue that holds the plastic taut against me.
Amid my grasping, I hear something…
Ring. Ring. Ring.
And it serves as an alarm. Waking me up.
Mustering what little strength is remaining, I pry the cellophane off and crawl over to the phone before it rolls over to voicemail.
“Hell…h-hello,” I say, still heaving and grasping for something to keep me alive.
But my stuttered words are met with silence. I look down at the screen of the phone and blink a few times, bringing the number, the word, into focus.
“Mom,” I say, not asking.
And I hear something, but it’s not words, not really breath. It’s familiar but unreachable.
“Mom?” I ask this time. “Please?” I beg.
“It’s really good,” she says, her voice matching the same broken tone of my own.
“It’s just like hers,” she says, sniffling. “Like Nana used to make.”
“Oh,” is all I think of to say.
“That’s why I avoid eating it. I tried it…once, when you first made it. And it brought up all these things. All these feelings. Memories. I didn’t…couldn’t handle them. It. You.”
“Oh, mom,” I say, crying with her.
“You’ve always reminded me of her. And she was always so proud of you. Not me. And I’ve held it against you. Against her. All these years. Instead of holding onto it. Onto you. Onto her.”
“I never understood why you hated me. All I ever wanted was to make you happy. To make myself happy.” And the rivers start to flow again.
“I do hate you,” she says, sort of laughing.
“Oh, well, I hate you too,” I say, laughing back. “What are you doing? Where are you?”
“Eating your damn pie. With my hands. In the car. Still in the parking lot. Spilled it all over my white blouse,” she says, laughing harder. “You?”
“Oh, you know, murder by plastic wrap,” I say, through a mixture of giggles and tears, because it’s not really a joke. I’m scared.
She stops laughing. “What? Are you…are you okay?”
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Someone’s at the door,” I say into the receiver.
“I know,” she says.
I open the door and she’s there. Her face is a mixture of black and blue—mascara and pie.
“Mommy,” I say, falling into her arms.
“Buttercup,” she says through tears.
And we stay like that—in each other’s arms—for a long time. Neither of us knows what to say next. What to do. To fix this. To fix ourselves.
She pulls back and brushes my hair away from my eyes and tucks it behind my ears. “If you can’t find happiness in life, Buttercup, say fuck-it and make fried chicken!”
“Nana never said that!” I say, crying, but not from sadness this time. From something I hadn’t felt in a long time. And in some ways, maybe ever.
“I know. I said it. Just now. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re making our own recipe for life—Fuck-it Fried Chicken!”
And we both fold over in laughter. And even though we’re both still far from being okay. Far from truly knowing one another or even ourselves. I realize my Nana had it wrong all along.
The secret ingredient to the best recipe was never tears. It was and always will be…love.