Fall had sifted in the windows overnight, breathing forth the moist scent of overly ripened leaves, calling into my mind images of children running breathless through a pumpkin patch. My house sits on the cusp of a little rural town that still abuts an active farm. Nestled into my oversized chair, I stare out through the wide wall of windows to the fields behind my house. The cornstalks have turned the color of sand, brittle in the wind, ripe for harvest. I think of how the farmers will come in a few days with their hungry combines and thresh the cobs, discarding the husks. During this time of year I feel a slight sorrow knowing I will no longer hear the rustling whispers of the towering stalks as I hike the border of the fields. These fields, this corn, the quite secrets, do not belong to me, but I find solace in them.Last night, over a glass of wine, I had made two decisions. I began researching sperm banks and had made some resolutions about those necessary cells. I had also decided I would try to email Evelyn again today. I’ve not heard from her in months, and despite the lapse of time and perplexing hurt rendered from her silence, I still feel that she is dear to me. I am not, nor have I ever been, particularly comfortable with people, but it seems unfathomable to me that four years of friendship cannot withstand the ebb and flow of the decisions people make for themselves. It’s sometimes difficult for me to accept certain wisdoms as they unfold, but I feel, perhaps, I am beginning to realize something significant about friendship. All my life, I’ve suffered the false illusion that friendship is easy. What I never could understand was why I was so bad at it, why it was so difficult to allow people to be close to me. Now, in the pulse of my sorrow, I understand too clearly that trying to effectively blend the intricacies of two human hearts and two human minds together to withstand the barrage of change is something akin to a dangerous chemistry experiment. I’ve always told myself that it’s okay to be alone, that I am good at being alone. But now, with its loss, I understand the preciousness of friendship. Every day, people hungrily search to find something within others that justifies their own questionable nuances. It seems that people need others to tell them that through every difficult thing faced, they will be, somehow, okay.It’s not by choice that I’ve arrived at this realization, but rather by the cruelty and subsequent loss of not only Evelyn’s friendship, but also Holly’s. I met these women on my first day of work at Pellow Middle School when the new teachers were introduced to one another before being tossed to the pubescent hoards. In hindsight, perhaps it was only the commonality of our frantic job that had made us so close. Whatever it was, for the first time in my life it felt wondrous to find women who seemed to care about me. To have people know me—or so I thought—well, that in itself was a miracle. One time, out of frustration with my painful shyness, my mother described me as a finely painted portrait with clear features and flaming hair that jumped off the canvas. But the artist had divulged nothing of my heart with the green oil paint used to create my eyes. Mom equated me with Waterhouse’s enchanting woman pushing open the gate to a clandestine garden; no one would ever understand for certain my secrets or motivation. This sentiment was spoken out of frustration for a loved child who seemed to face the cruel world alone, but now I understood more clearly the aptness of her description. Throughout my life people initially looked at me with interest, but the few who tried to know me never stuck around long enough to really get past the paint. I had been created with an inability to effectively speak of the things that crowded my heart.I send Evelyn a short message in which I play it casual with meaningless chit chat. Really, I am screaming to her, “Where are you? Why have you cut me off without an explanation?” Then, I shut my computer with a sense of finality, knowing somehow that she has said with silence that she is done with me. As the distance between us grows, I am baffled as to which of my faults and imperfections are the ones that won’t allow them to care about me anymore. With the last swallow of tea, I rise and stretch my mind to the tasks of the day ahead. The decision I made to quit my teaching job was not a fault. It was a choice. Evidently, it was a choice significant enough that Evelyn and Holly felt it was worth ending our friendship. I walk out of the living room and down the short hall of my little farmhouse, planning out the order in which I will make six cakes. Five are for orders. The extra cake is the beginning of another choice I have decided I will implement today. I stand for a moment in my well-used kitchen and realize I am still marveling at not having to get up at five-thirty in the morning, throw on appropriate and uncomfortable clothing, and race to work while cramming breakfast in my mouth. It was always most painful to enter the school on mornings when the sun shot bold fingers across a sleek spattering of biscotti shaped clouds. On such days, there was a woman who would run vigorous laps around the school with multiple children crammed into this magnificent jogging stroller. I would stare longingly at this scene: the mother determinedly pounding the pavement, the plump cheeks of the children rosy and excited. I wondered if she acknowledged every day how lucky she was. Perhaps it was moments like that that finally pushed me into the slightly terrifying realm of self-employment and allowed me to leave behind a job that left me feeling incomplete at the end of the day. I desperately wanted children of my own, and teaching other people’s was a constant reminder that I was thirty-years-old with no glimmer of a possibility that I would ever have the thing I most craved. My new life had begun with one cake mailed to my favorite cousin for her birthday. It had been citrus spice with lemon buttercream, adapted slightly from a recipe in my grandmother’s cookbook. My mother had bequeathed this book of cooking marvels to me when I was a young teenager more interested in baking than going to the mall with friends we both pretended I had. As an adult, I look back at those memories and know my mom had also enjoyed those moments in the kitchen—despite the look in her eyes that had told me she wanted so much more for her only child. It had taken some effort to devise a way to mail the cake three states away without it ending up there looking like a colorful cow patty. Jane, the middle-aged hippie-ish postmaster, had given several suggestions that we eventually streamlined into some thrifty contraption that held the cake in place without disturbing its simple layer of frosting. Jane got a cake that wasn’t smashed to bits as payment for her extra time, and I got the first non-test-dummy cake in the mail to my cousin Cynthia only four days late, sent with my apologies and a somewhat hysterical description of what it took to get it there. A few days later, Cynthia called to tell me she had shared the cake at a small dinner party, and it received such rave reviews that she had two friends who would be willing to pay me nicely to mail them cakes for upcoming events they were hosting. I rolled up my figurative sleeves and began baking. When I took these cakes to the post office, Jane told me her husband and his brother were so crazy about the cake I had gifted her as payment for her help, they wanted to pay me to make one for her niece’s birthday in two weeks. But could I also make a chocolate type of cake so they could have a variety? Thus, with the help of my grandmother’s neat floral script, extra dark chocolate was born, and devoured greedily by a group of twelve-year-olds. From that point, my little cake business began to blossom in such a way that I found myself staying up half the night to catch up on school work. It was difficult to focus on the students’ perception of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” when my head was combining Gran’s recipes with my own new twists on ingredients. I loved the soothing nature of the constant baking: the crisp, definite crack of the eggs, the pleasant whirring hum of my mixer, the subtle joy of real vanilla. But my favorite moment was one that had taken me by surprise the moment I had bid a hopeful farewell to that first cake to Cynthia, and it continued to be the most fulfilling each time I successfully mailed a new one. I would gently pass the new box over to Jane who would take it almost tenderly as if we were sending a child on a journey. I would walk outside the post office and stand on the sidewalk of my quaint town, press my back against the cool stone of the building, and close my eyes to imagine the impending journey of my modest-looking cakes. Sometimes I would envision children, crowded around a table, their faces bright and lively with the exertion of playing, their little elbows pushing at one another clamoring for the first piece of cake after the birthday boy or girl. “Mmm, this is so yummy!” they would shout to the mother who felt happy she had spent a little extra to order one of those delicious cakes her friends had raved about at their last mommy group meeting. Or sometimes, I would imagine a group of casually fashionable adults gathered around a dark wood table in a restaurant where little gold lights were strung merrily along the ceiling. The friends would be clinking glasses of burgundy wine together as someone brought out my cake, simple looking on the platter. They would celebrate something together—an engagement or a promotion, and then there would be silence for a moment as they all took that first bite. Their eyes would widen because sometimes simplicity is deceptive. Sometimes it is magical. I set down my mug and begin to pull out ingredients, lining them neatly on the center island. It has been three months since I took a deep breath, quadruple checked my finances, and quit my job. It has been three months since Holly sent me an email saying she would like to stay home, you know, with her daughter (absolutely no insinuation there about my childlessness), but she was working to help take care of her family. She ended up abruptly ending the email with, “I don’t have time to talk about this anymore. I’m at work and have to get grading done so I can go home to be with my daughter.” I had told her I was making a personal decision for myself based on much forethought and sacrifice. Apparently what she had heard was, “I’m quitting my job and you can’t, nana-nana-boo-boo.” Evelyn had been more gracious. We had a nice phone call in which I gently told her of my decision and plans, and she, in her soft, sweet way, had told me that I was lucky, and lots of women wished they could make that decision. And then she had never spoken to me again. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who holds on to emotional hurt like a permanent limp earned in a legitimate battle. I remember still the pain of boys in middle school pretending to want to be my boyfriend because their buddies thought it would be a good joke to watch their snooty girl counterparts laugh at me. I still see the jeering faces of my classmates the day after I got off the bus and ran into my mother’s arms after she had spent a night in the hospital with an unexpected health scare. As they made fun of me the next day, I remember wondering if they didn’t have mothers. Apparently my conduct had always been questionable; I was either too aloof and came off as a snob, or I was overly emotional and intimidated people with my feelings. I had never found a balance, and I clutched these little slights and verbal attacks so tightly to my chest, a pocketful of scars. I wasn’t sure how I would fare carrying the burdening loss of two dear people. I knew I had not been a perfect friend, but I didn’t understand how I deserved so little from them. I am about to add the gorgeous melted chocolate to the mixture in my bowl, when the phone rings, scaring me sufficiently enough that I jerk and an enormous blob lands on the countertop. Cursing, I wipe my hands on my apron and grab the perpetrator. “What!?” I demand, cradling the receiver in the crook of my neck so I can wipe up the wasted chocolate. With so many orders to make and a plan to carry out, I can’t afford mistakes today. “Hey chicky, what’s biting your ass this morning? Or have you finally OD’d on sugar? You know you can’t eat that many refined carbs and still keep that tight figure for long.” I sigh. “What’s biting my butt is a 5’2” sized smartass who just caused me to make a huge mess in my kitchen.” I finish wiping up and lean against the counter for a moment. “Hi Midge.” “Okay, I won’t bring up your sugar addiction if you don’t reference my height again. Deal? And hi, back.” “Deal. What’s going on that you felt the need to interrupt me during the baking hours?” I hear a snort on the other end. “Dude, it’s always baking hour at your house. Before long I’ll find elves making cookies in the tree in your front yard. Anyway, I thought maybe you wanted to know that we have your supplies for the week all boxed up. You want me to send a delivery kid over with them today?” I stare out the window and watch two chipmunks wrestling in the driveway. One escapes only to be caught again with a vigorous pounce. They roll like tumbleweed through the gravel. Feeling a little too voyeuristic, I turn away and clear my throat. “Actually, Midge? You feel up to a drink tonight at Roy’s?”“Holy shit! You’re actually going to do it today, aren’t you? You almost never drink—or go out for that matter—so you must have made a decision. I’ll tell ya what, that boy is not going to know what hit him. More power to you if this is the way to go, but are you sure?Absently, I scoop some chocolate out of the bowl with my finger and put it in my mouth before realizing it’s unsweetened. I scrunch up my face, contemplate her question. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. See, the thing is—and I’ve thought about this a lot—I could go to one of those banks, you know, and stare at pictures and read about the wonder donors, but somehow that just seems so impersonal to me. Plus, I’m pretty sure that Taylor’s gay, so it’s not like things could get too complicated between the two of us. He dresses way too nicely when he’s not in uniform, and there’s something so classy and refined about him. Guys ‘round here don’t look like that, and you know it.” Midge is silent for a moment, and I imagine her tugging on her short spikes of dark hair, trying to think of a straight man in this town who is comparable to Taylor. “Nah, I guess you’re probably right. But you could have solved this mystery a long time ago by, I don’t know, actually hanging out with him? But, Vanessa? Don’t forget that he may dress nicely and seems to have manners, but he’s still the milkman. It sure doesn’t take an Einstein to do that job, and maybe you want your donor to have the brains to match the beauty.” I scowl into the mixing bowl where I’ve started another batch of batter while listening. “Well Midge, I thought you, unlike most people, understood it’s not easy for me to approach people and just start ‘hanging out’. Secondly, I don’t know, but my gut just tells me that he’s not a dumb-dumb. Something in those eyes shines a little too bright, I think. Maybe he’s just having an early mid-life crisis.” “Hey Chicky,” I hear the sincerity in her lowered voice, “I know it’s not easy for you to put yourself out there. Sorry I said that. You know, it’s just that I’ve come to think that you’re pretty awesome and more people should know you. And yes, I will go for a drink with you tonight, but I am not sitting next to the buffalo head if we do go to Roy’s. That thing scares the shit outta me.” The local bar, Roy’s, is owned by a former big-game hunter who proudly displays all of his conquests on the walls. Amidst our laughter, I feel a surge of gratitude for this new woman in my life. Midge runs the little grocery in town, and over my massive orders of baking supplies, it seems we have somehow become friends without me even realizing it. She thought I was brave for quitting my job. I am beginning to think, maybe, I’m a little brave, too. The rest of the morning and early afternoon are drowned out by the hum of my mixer and the general jumble of my growing nerves. I stop moving only once to check for an email response from Evelyn which of course is non-existent. As five o’clock draws near, I find myself wishing I didn’t live in a town small enough that we still have a milkman. But by the time the firm knock lands on the door, I have a vanilla cream cake on the kitchen table, I’ve put on a new scarf and skirt, and I remind myself I am simply asking for that which matters most. I smooth my skirt with shaking hands and open the door to 6’2” of dark-haired, blue-eyed man wearing a crisp white uniform and a mildly surprised, yet friendly smile. “Hi!” I exclaim much too loudly, too exuberantly.“Hey, I didn’t expect to see you. Normally I drop your eighty gallons of milk and cream on the porch and run,” he says with a wink. I feel the typical burn start at the nape of my neck, begin to creep into my ears. “I don’t order eighty gallons of milk,” my voice sounds flustered and ridiculous.He laughs easily and holds out his hand from which I take a surprised hop back like a scared field mouse. “Hi, I’m Taylor, and I’m joking. You just order more than anyone on my route. Do you mind me asking what you do with all of that dairy?” He teasingly tries to peer around the door, “do you have ten kids hiding in there?” He smiles at me again, an act smooth and rich like cream. “I suppose you’re too young to have that many though, huh? So… we’ve been shaking hands for a couple minutes now. I know your name on paper, but could I have the honor of a formal introduction?” I pull my hand away, mortified, and try to collect my sorry self. I attempt to focus on my goal. “Ha, sorry. My name is Vanessa. It’s really nice to finally meet you. I see you in town all the time. I usually have my hands full of batter when you knock on the door.” This of course is mostly a lie; I am usually too afraid to open the door to such a handsome man. “I bake cakes,” I add quickly, “I have a little business. Well, actually it’s kind of becoming a bigger business.” I am calmed a bit by the easiness of his demeanor as he stands before me, and I actually manage a playful smile. “That’s what I mostly use those eighty gallons of milk for.” I nod toward the back of the house. “But you’re also right—the rest is for the ten kids I keep in a big shoe out back.” Did I just make a corny joke? This is going terribly. But something miraculous happens: he laughs. Not a polite kind of laugh, but a genuine one where I swear I see his super white teeth sparkle.“Ah, so that explains the continually delicious smell that makes me salivate every time I drop off an order.” Do I sense reluctance as he hands me the crate of dairy? No, I’m being delusional. He puts his hands in his pockets so casually, shrugs, “Well, it’s nice to finally meet you.” He pauses. “I’ve seen you around town, too, you know.”I have to do this. I have to. “Well, would you like to try my cake? I’ve made an extra today.” I put the crate down inside and wring my hands together. “I mean, if you don’t think it’s weird that I’m asking.” His demeanor relaxes another degree, and his eyes seem to flash as brightly as his teeth. “I’d love to—since you’re asking. You happen to be my last delivery of the day.” He steps comfortably into the house, and I close the door behind us. I'm afraid the sound of my heart fills the hall as I lead him to the kitchen. I gesture to the table where the cake sits prettily as a centerpiece. He shrugs off his white jacket, and I see he’s wearing a gorgeous navy crewneck sweater underneath. He’s definitely gay. “This is a great old house,” he says, looking around as I cut two fat slices of cake. “I think I’ll eventually buy something like this after I’ve settled myself down a bit.” I smile tersely and get mugs. “Oh, you have an apartment around town, then?” “No, no. I’m living with my grandmother right now. I had to take a sabbatical from med school to take care of her.” Ha! Midge was totally wrong—brains to match the beauty. I’d let her buy my first drink tonight. “Oh, well, that’s certainly noble of you.” Noble? I have the communication skills of a trout. He seems not to notice, only shrugs and takes a drink of the coffee I place in front of him. “Well, she’s not doing well on her own, and there just isn’t really anyone else to take care of her. School will be waiting— ” his voice drops off as he takes the first bite of cake, and I swell with the pleasure of watching him close his eyes for a moment. He opens them and shakes his head seriously, sighs quietly. “Vanessa, this is incredible. Just incredible.” I sit and push my piece of cake around with my fork and look down, away from his earnest gaze. I am humming with pleasure all the way to my toes. “I’m glad you like it. So, I hope you don’t think I’m rude for asking, but if you’re smart enough to be studying to be some kind of doctor, what made you decide to be—”“A milkman?” he finishes my question, laughing. “I don’t know. I just wanted something that felt friendly, without a lot of obligation. I really like people and seeing the way they live, the little acts of kindness they show when they think no one is looking. People are really friendly when they’re not intimidated by you. I couldn’t think of anything less intimidating or quaint than delivering dairy. C’mon, what towns even have this kind of service anymore?” He grins and takes another huge bite of cake. “Who knows, you may be looking at one of the last milkmen on the face of the Earth as we know it. Are you going to eat that cake or just keep stabbing at it? It’s way too awesome to waste.” I laugh genuinely, more at ease for the first time, and take a bite, inadvertently closing my own eyes as I savor the new recipe. Yeah, I might be good at baking cakes. When I open my lids again, he’s staring at me in this weird way that I can’t decipher. I decide that I’m getting lost in our conversation and need to remember why I’ve invited him in and stuffed him full of cake. I collect myself and open my mouth to ask him.“So, this is your job, huh?” he asks before I can tell him why he’s here.I lift up my hands in the suggestion that I still can’t believe I’m doing it either. “Yeah, I guess it is, now.” He leans back in his chair comfortably. “It’s a pretty good gig, and after that piece of cake, I can’t imagine you wasting your time on anything else. Has this always been your job?”I pick up my coffee cup and somehow end up telling him everything from quitting my teaching job to the deliberate snubs of Evelyn and Holly. For one of the first times, I forget to worry that I’m saying the wrong thing, or being too emotional. I forget to be intimidated by him. I remember the pain of losing my friends and let it show in my eyes to a man who is a virtual stranger.When I set my cup back down, I feel embarrassed that I’ve shared too much, and I tell him so. He shakes his head and frowns a little. “No, absolutely not. I can tell that your friends meant a lot to you. It’s a shame they couldn’t be happy for you even if they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, make the same decision. You know, I’m certainly no expert, and maybe you don’t want any advice, but I learned a long time ago that envy is a powerful emotion. My dad once told me that people think jealousy and envy are the same thing, but they’re really not. Jealousy is the fear of losing something that you already have. Envy is not being able to get something that you want. Maybe your friends just couldn’t deal with your choice for their own reasons.” He looks at me, “maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with you and who you are.” I look down at my hands splayed so deliberately on the table and feel like I might cry with relief. Maybe he’s right. Maybe this is a burden I don’t have to carry because there was nothing I could do to stop the severance from Evelyn and Holly once I had made my decision. “Hey, Vanessa? Are you okay? Did I overstep my bounds as a stranger sitting in your kitchen eating cake?” I look up and smile tentatively, shake my head. “No, no, I think that was exactly the right thing to say to me. Thank you.” “Well, good. Now, are you going to think I’m overstepping when I ask if you’re going to eat the rest of your piece?” He raises an eyebrow perfectly, and I pass him my plate. “So I think I may have interrupted you before when I asked about your job. Did you start to say something to me?” I sit for a moment staring at him, and I make a decision. “No, well maybe, but I can’t remember what it is now.” “Huh, okay, well can I ask you another question?” “Sure,” I say, hoping I am making the right decision by keeping my mouth shut. I guess there’s always the sperm donor bank. “Well, I was wondering now that we’ve had dessert, if I could take you out to dinner tonight? I’d like the full dining experience with you. If you’re interested.”I almost, almost start to giggle. Pressing the back of my hand against my smile, I am about to scream the word, “YES” when I remember something. I shake my head sadly. “I can’t. I’m going out with my friend Midge tonight for a drink at Roy’s.” I cannot believe what I blurt out next. “She thinks you might be gay.” Taylor roars with laughter, pressing back from the table. “Vanessa, I think you owe me the rest of this cake, now. No, I’m not gay” he shakes his head, “but my buddies sure take digs at me for the way I dress.”My face is now a fury of flame as I place my forehead against the cool edge of the table. “I will bake you a cake every week for the rest of the time you’re working here as a milkman” I mutter against the wood. Suddenly, I feel his hand rest lightly on mine, and I rocket back up in my chair, still flushed. He’s standing beside me, looking down with gentle amusement and maybe, maybe something else. It makes me feel uncharacteristically brave. “You know what? I don’t think Midge would mind one extra tonight. Do you want to go to Roy’s with us?”He moves his hand and smoothly picks up his jacket. “That sounds great. I’ll buy on two conditions.”“What are they?” I ask cautiously. “I get a raincheck on a real dinner with you.” He turns, grinning, “And I’m not sitting next to the buffalo.”
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