Roxanne Ryan baked bread when the depression came down on her like a moonless night. Yeast called to her with its sour gas, startled her from her sleep. She thrashed and rolled her bed sheets into a ball seeking comfort on the mattress, and then she switched on the bedside lamp. She woke with stomach cramps, spilled flour from her knotted fist onto the bedroom floor. Scruffy snorted from his pillow of MacGregor plaid flannel. She rubbed his nose and found a pair of cotton sweat socks to keep the cold out for when she stood on the kitchen linoleum, kneading whole wheat sourdough. When things got bad, even the Xanax didn’t work. Nothing worked except the smell of bread baking, the essence of a fine brown crust forming on a loaf.
Roxanne cut butter into flour to form a sweet dough. She dribbled in sweet cream and yogurt. She dropped in soft currants soaked in orange brandy. A spongy mass formed and she turned it out onto a slab of marble she got as surplus at the old church renovation site. The county was gentrifying. Open fields close to town were being replaced with decorating studios. While some families still kept chickens that scratched in the dirt between houses, the old Victorians on Main were finally getting fixed up. As towns went, Cold Water had allure for young professionals who got struck dumb at the beauty of the place while on vacation and who decided to move to paradise.
When Roxanne left Kenny, she gravitated back to that western familiarity. She copied bread recipes from Sunset magazine and poured over the San Francisco Chronicle in bed Sunday mornings with milky Costa Rican blend coffee. On Kenny’s transfer to Alexandria, she learned to live in a world roped by traditions and she became bound. It wasn’t until she cut through Denver on I-70 and across the Continental Divide, rolling back toward the Pacific, that Roxanne took a deep breath for the first time in what could have been years. In Cold Water, she surrendered to simplicity. On the western lip of North America, she yielded to the alchemy of bread.
Roxanne speed-dialed Virginia. At two in the morning in San Francisco, it was five in the east and Mercedes Lazarus was just waking, getting ready to take the train into D.C. to review legal briefs for the EPA.
“Hi, baby.” Mercedes caught calls on the first ring. She jogged onto her trampoline the minute the phone went off, working up endorphins.
Roxanne pressed her eyes shut. “Geniuses are supposed to be able to live on two or three hours of sleep a night. By now I should be channeling Einstein.”
“How about. Anais Nin!” Mercedes breathed hard into the handset. “So. Baby, spill.”
Mercedes lived on pesto and call waiting and was a perpetual motion machine. Her blood was equal parts Italian and Greek, separated from the homeland by a distance of two generations, requiring dinner with her parents every Sunday, after which she drank grappa with her father at the kitchen table; shared Viceroys. She made tomato gravy and Greek salad with an essence of garlic that oozed from her pores. Mercedes was the only woman whose lips Roxanne had ever kissed besides her own mother’s.
“What are you doing up? It’s the middle. Of night there.”
“I’m baking. It’s my new therapy.”
“Ha.” Springs creaked in the beat between bounces.
“I’m rising to a higher power. One loaf at a time.” Roxanne shook her head, felt the weight of silver earrings against her cheek. “Bread good as a psychic Rolf.”
“So what’s this I? Sense blueness?”
“Maybe lavenderness. Second guessingness.”
“Self awareness. About —”
“You know, leaving.”
“We’ve covered this ground. Your only crime was falling. Out of love. You’re not. As screwed up. As you imagine. Actually, I think. You’re sane for the first. Time maybe in your life.”
Roxanne rolled the dough into a ball. She covered it with a damp dish towel and greased the bowl before dropping it in, setting the timer. “Did I tell you? I had dinner with my step-brother last week? He married two sisters.”
Mercedes’ voice garbled. There was the sound of rushing water, the scritch of bristles on tooth enamel.
“One couldn’t have babies, so she left. Lana says the other, the fertile one, is hell on wheels. She says Robert is a polygamist.”
“Is he?” Her voice dropped to her throat, a gathering to spit.
“Number one allegedly loved him so much, she gave him up.”
“Still water —”
“It makes me wonder —”
“More aggravation —”
“You think you know somebody —”
“Everyone sees things, people. Through the filter of their own perception, you know. It’s nothing new.”
“What will I say about Kenny in twenty years?”
“You’re very clear about Kenny’s shortcomings.”
“You loved him once, that’s enough. Hold on a minute.” The sound of toilet plumbing roared through the line. “I have to put my hair up. I’ve got five minutes before I have to run to make the bloody train.”
“Never mind. I’ll call you from the car. Or the way in.”
“I miss you, baby.”
“I miss you back. Ciao.”
Roxanne Ryan tapped her fingers against the stove top. She dropped the cordless into a basket and wondered if she should color her hair blonde, wondered if she would ever date again. It was four o’clock in the morning of the ninth month of the year of her first divorce. She had moved back west, rented a cottage in the vineyards north of San Francisco. She was skirted by vines and grapes, sweet-smelling dirt. Roxanne swam in a sea of leafy vines that rose up out of the valley floor and spread across the golden coastal hills. In a countryside swarming with weekend tourists, Roxanne scraped her knees praying for answers in a language that she understood, which, as it turned out, was the language of flour and water, the exchange of gasses, of leavening. Four brown loaves cooled on racks on the kitchen table. Four brown, smooth, perfect loaves that could soak up butter and jam and sudden, unexplainable melancholy. Bread that could fill empty places. Bread and chocolate and blues. Roxanne dabbed her eye where it got moist and lit a cigarette. She called her lawyer. Five o’clock San Francisco made it eight in Chevy Chase.
“Michael Goldman.” Goldman answered the phone himself, his receptionist being late. Again. He was genial, a gentleman. Her therapist told her, available. His courtesy cost her roughly twenty bucks a minute. Each conversation with him cost her half of a pair of Ferragamo’s. A CD player. A standing rib roast at Raley’s. This conversation had the potential to become a new pair of Joan and David’s. Dinner at Don Giovanni’s.
“Maybe you should take on some work,” Goldman had said. “It wouldn’t hurt to establish at least the impression that you’re moving forward.”
“I did it,” she told him. “You know, as my attorney I thought you should be informed.”
On his advice, and for the first time in ten years, Roxanne took a writing assignment. She chronicled famous wine country spas for an artsy travel magazine. She called the first place on the list, checked in for a facial: research in the form of a four-layer seaweed wrap. The therapist patted thick cream onto her face and while it hardened to a therapeutic crust, she worked an emollient into Roxanne’s feet, wrapped them in plastic bags, tucked them into heated booties. She could do this every month of the year. She could wake up next to a stunt man named Paolo, whisper for a cappuccino, eat cucumber sandwiches. It was something to consider while the facialist worked a rosemary scented cream into her hand, pulling her fingers until she shot into a beta state, right past alpha, into dream land.
Now her unconscious wrestled angels, gathered fancy pigeons. Now rock stars haunted her bedroom, handsome ER doctors made consultations. Now she and Kenny struggled over control of the oars of a rowboat on an artificial lake. The reservoir was full; the turbines of the dam pulled at them.
“Give up,” Kenny shouted to her. “It’s futile.”
“Bite me,” she said, grabbed an oar and thrust it in the water. “It wasn’t me you wanted, it was that lady barber.”
Kenny paddled hard with the remaining oar, propelling the boat in circles. Loaves of Italian slipper bread floated in the sky. All the babies they did not have, would never have, floated like wafers in the water, swathed in organza layettes, trimmed in lace, dotted with raisins. This is why she did not sleep.
Last spring, during the year of their estrangement, she had suggested alimony. Kenny’s voice fell a decibel. “You could get a job,” he said. “You’re capable. F.Y.I.: these days its called spousal support, a contingency that can go either way.” It was the intimation of a tactic. That he could demand she pay to support him, retribution for working up the courage to leave. The kitchen timer went off and the phone rang.
“To hell with. Work,” Mercedes told her. “Enroll in school. You could get. Your master’s degree. If you wanted.”
“Jesus, who knows. Professional wrestling. Literature. Do what you love. Pursue the culinary sciences.”
“I feel as if I’m dancing on the edge of a cliff. It could go either way.”
“Take up yoga. Give up vices.”
Roxanne moaned. “But I’ve given up everything I know.”
“The Tao would say. Give up even that.”
Mercedes was off caffeine, but still went to the coffee houses, for the ambiance, the magazines, the sense of literary importance. She was a lawyer with literary ambitions, with mommy ambitions, with ambitions even she could not yet define, so great was her reserve of energy. Roxanne suspected that the miscarriage and the ectopic pregnancy were the result of some weird vortex Mercedes Lazarus created in her moving-fastness.
Roxanne toasted a piece of bread, slathered it with plum jam, sniffed at it, pushed it away. “I met a man. A lawyer.”
“Wounded, God. I’m so over men. Give me someone who hasn’t cried publicly for a year. A recovering sensitive. Jee-sus.”
“No.” Roxanne opened a seltzer water, sprayed the front of her jammies. She reached for a towel. “Ahhh, shoot. Maybe.”
“I don’t know. The idea of dating, of dancing. Body contact with a virtual stranger.”
“Depends on the stranger.”
“Plus, you get close, there are smells.”
“Soap. Shampoo. Laundry detergent. Belly to belly, ear to ear. And kissing. The idea of saliva is paralyzing.”
“Breathing in, out.”
“Anyway, the lawyer.”
“Ahhh. Beautiful smile, but so goddamned sad.”
The train whistle came tinny through the handset, the warning blast of an approaching station. “The grass isn’t any greener on the other side,” Mercedes said. A tapping of laptop keys floated between her words. “Truth is, tap-tap, on the other side, tap, there is no grass.” The shriek of brakes rose up through the phone.
Roxanne threw a pinch of salt over her shoulder. “You have to go.”
The air smelled of pine and bay laurel. A light rain fell before dawn, a sky full of waterbeads letting go, dropping into an ocean of air. The lawyer took her to dinner at the local bistro du jour. The place was austere to the nth. They took no reservations, the waiters were young, swarthy, tuxedo shirts, pony tails. The walls of the restaurant were painted terra cotta and the floor was stained saffron. Candles flickered from wall sconces. When the food came, it was arranged artfully on wide brimmed plates. The lawyer ate oysters to begin, and after the entree he ordered flan. He smiled and said, viagra, vasectomy.
“Um,” she said, “Saw Palmetto. Zinc.”
I’ll look it up, he said. You do that.
There were judges, teachers, novelists waiting to get seats. Roxanne lifted her glass of pinot grigio and observed happy couples over the rim of the glass, tinted gold by wine. She felt the same twinge of envy that she had when she and Kenny were trying to have babies and passed young families on the street. After twenty-six weeks of Clomed and disappointment, they avoided city parks and shopping malls.
The how-to market was explosive with books on how to navigate divorce, not get screwed, look after your interests. But there were nuances that were not explored in the divorce manuals. They didn’t say that you would miss being married, double, if you did it well. If you happened to like turning junk store tables into decorator accents. If you thought selecting the correct wallpaper was tantamount to a feat of civic heroism. If your coq au vin was talked about in three states.
The books didn’t tell you that you might find yourself wandering into hardware stores shopping for kitchen tiles for your ex’s kitchen makeover. That you would become aroused by magazine ads for men’s underwear. That your intentions for independence would be subverted by well-meaning family members who said, what a shame, what a shame, as if you had killed someone. Poisoned someone. Admitted over the creamed peas and buttermilk biscuits that you wished his plane would jack-knife out of the sky into an Iowa cornfield.
Certain associations would bask in a florid superiority. They would offer woolly threads of advice. After a while you would learn to just smile and hold your breath when sentences began with that airy Well, you know. . . .
You wonder if you’re sane. You wonder if your shrink is sane. You wonder if the pharmacist who fills your prescription could have anything interesting to say after sex. You find that you are both a stereotype (statistic) and forging new territory. You may flirt with a young woman at the Barnes & Noble coffee counter. You may wonder if love came at you like that, what you would do about it. You will discover that investment brokers are not your friends; they work on commission. You will remember that the box of Christmas ornaments you gave to your ex contained a collection of Santas and you will pay penance to get it back. You will perform a live enactment of the Last Supper superimposed over the Seven Stages of Grief. Love stories will make you cry and war epics will raise your blood. You will discover that a dark theater and a sad movie are cathartic and meaningful in a way beyond therapy.
Roxanne braided ropy strands of Challah and set it aside to rise. She took a carton of eggshells out to the composter and startled a raccoon picking through the wilted lettuce she ritually bought for good health and then watched turn to green mush in the refrigerator. The night sky was brave. Jupiter sparked in the early dark, winking. The raccoon’s eyes glinted with ephemeral light and Roxanne felt herself lift off. It was midnight: too early in the east, too late in the west. This was what it was like in space, a vacuum.
Sleep was her panacea, coming in bits and snatches, between the rising of dough, the baking and cooling of loaves. The phone was shaped like a baguette, a comfort that fitted in the palm of her hand.
“I have something. To say, big news. But don’t want to. Tip your canoe.”
“You can tell me anything.”
“I would love it. If you were happy. For me. Us.”
Roxanne pushed the blade of a knife into a rectangle of dough, cutting squares. “Did you put that milagro I sent you on the back of your bed like I told you?”
“Baby! Hey! It worked.”
Mercedes blew air. “Totally.”
“Well.” Roxanne stared into the still dark sky. In the east, a faint glimmer of yellow tinted the horizon.
“It was a fluke. Not even a command. Performance, you know what. It’s like.”
“That’s the way it happens. So you better stop slogging around super fund sights. No more chances.”
Mercedes’s voice was muffled. She was pulling off a sweatshirt, possibly pulling on a fresh tee.
“No! More rivers dead with chemicals. No imperiled aviaries.”
“There are considerations now you didn’t have before, like maybe slowing down, letting someone else take up the slack. Putting your feet up. You don’t have to be a hotshot all the time. Imagine what it’s like inside there, inside you, that kind of magic. Witness that.”
Roxanne brushed melted butter across the top of her dough squares, sprinkled them with granulated sugar and lemon zest. Mercedes was quiet. There was no sound of trampoline, no hard breath. “So how far are we talking?”
“What does Marcus think?”
“My adorable chemical engineer says pseudo podia.”
“Super fund? What?”
“Pseudo podia. False-foot.”
“False foot. It’s how amoebae move. They create a false foot, a hologram. Then move their bodies with the imaginary foot. Then it dissolves.”
Roxanne spilled coffee into a filter, poured scalding water, brewed a pot of Costa Rican, inhaled the heady fragrance.
“Moving in new directions. Now we both are, you see? I signed up for school. The Culinary Institute actually, I registered.”
“Baby, that’s great.”
“Yeah, babies, it is.” The line spiraled vacant a moment, one of those empty spaces you could lose yourself in, sink into, an oven of very deep quiet.
“Could you be godmother, you think?”
“Of course I will. You know I will. I’ll teach them to bake bread.”
“One at a time, naturally. Hey.”
“This one is for good.”
Mercedes laughed, a signature sound that ended on a rising note. “I love you, baby.”
“I love you back.”
Roxanne cupped her palm against her throat. She poured a steaming stream of very dark roast, added a shot of hazelnut syrup. She could count on one hand the things that she knew for sure. There was Mercedes’ love, sovereignty, and bread. She loved bread and Mercedes and mornings in the dark just before the sparrows went wild with song. And yeast. Yeast was something to be trusted. Like an amoeba, a living organism, a teeming culture, a hologram. It grew phantom feet, stood on them in a universe that made allowances for miraculous appendages.
# # #
this prize-winning story is previously published
all rights retained by author, 2013