It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon,
a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light
breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black- eyed
pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.
My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up
the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock.
How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door
frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my
favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches
of twinned red cherries.
On the kitchen counter, she’d set out the ingredients: Flour
bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between
tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow
glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of
my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive
lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point
scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm- eyed mother were
welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of
brown- sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.
She said there was about an hour to go, so I pulled out my
spelling booklet. Can I help? I asked, spreading out pencils and
papers on the vinyl place mats.
Nah, said Mom, whisking the flour and baking soda
My birthday is in March, and that year it fell during an
especially bright spring week, vivid and clear in the narrow residential
streets where we lived just a handful of blocks south of
Sunset. The night- blooming jasmine that crawled up our neighbor’s
front gate released its heady scent at dusk, and to the north,
the hills rolled charmingly over the horizon, houses tucked into
the brown. Soon, daylight savings time would arrive, and even at
nearly nine, I associated my birthday with the first hint of summer,
with the feeling in classrooms of open windows and lighter
clothing and in a few months no more homework. My hair got
lighter in spring, from light brown to nearly blond, almost like
my mother’s ponytail tassel. In the neighborhood gardens, the
agapanthus plants started to push out their long green robot
stems to open up to soft purples and blues.
Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had one
bowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles.
A cake challenge like this wasn’t a usual afternoon activity;
my mother didn’t bake all that often, but what she enjoyed most
was anything tactile, and this cake was just one in a long line of
recent varied hands- on experiments. In the last six months, she’d
coaxed a strawberry plant into a vine, stitched doilies from vintage
lace, and in a burst of motivation installed an oak side door
in my brother’s bedroom with the help of a hired contractor.
She’d been working as an office administrator, but she didn’t
like copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when my
father paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him if
she could take some time off and learn to do more with her
hands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hips
against his; my hands have had no lessons in anything.
Anything? he’d asked, holding tight to those hands. She
laughed, low. Anything practical, she said.
They were right in the way, in the middle of the hall, as I
was leaping from room to room with a plastic leopard. Excuse
me, I said.
He breathed in her hair, the sweet- smelling thickness of it.
My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped in
his two- footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he
loved her the way a bird- watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the
call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting
coo- coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird- watcher.
Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back.
Rah, said the leopard, heading back to its lair.
At the kitchen table, I flipped through my workbook, basking
in the clicking sounds of a warming oven. If I felt a hint of anything
unsettling, it was like the sun going swiftly behind a cloud
only to shine straight seconds later. I knew vaguely that my parents
had had an argument the night before, but parents had
arguments all the time, at home and on TV. Plus, I was still busily
going over the bad point scoring from lunch, called by Eddie
Oakley with the freckles, who never called fairly. I read through
my spelling booklet: knack, knick, knot; cartwheel, wheelbarrow,
wheelie. At the counter, Mom poured thick yellow batter into a
greased cake pan, and smoothed the top with the flat end of a
pink plastic spatula. She checked the oven temperature, brushed
a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead with the knob of her
Here we go, she said, slipping the cake pan into the oven.
When I looked up, she was rubbing her eyelids with the pads
of her fingertips. She blew me a kiss and said she was going to lie
down for a little bit. Okay, I nodded. Two birds bickered outside.
In my booklet, I picked the person doing a cartwheel and colored
her shoes with red laces, her face a light orange. I made a
vow to bounce the ball harder on the playground, and to bounce
it right into Eddie Oakley’s corner. I added some apples to the
The room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugar
and lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulled
out the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet.
The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go,
and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I really
couldn’t possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan,
to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongy
chunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped the
whole thing into my mouth.
From the Hardcover edition.