Two and a half cups of all-purpose flour land in a bowl with a soft thud and a mini “poooof.” The cloud has barely settled when one and a half cups of sugar arrive, creating a mound surrounded by mini gopher holes, on the surface of what looks like some distant frozen continent.
The now-empty measuring cup is placed delicately on the counter, right beside an old and much-used index card.
“Red Velvet Cupcakes” in her mother’s writing.
“Red elvet Cupcakes,” actually. The “V” having been erased by renegade drops of vegetable oil, during their ill-conceived escape attempt in ’86.
Sophia doesn’t need the recipe.
Sophia never did.
She continues to add the ingredients.
Enjoying the bossy attempt by the cocoa powder to take over the colour. Almost feeling bad as the white fights back.
She combines it all.
Bringing them back together, she feels.
Where they belong.
Sophia exits the kitchen.
She straightens her apron.
She surveys the little cupcake shop with purposely mismatched chairs and decor that just about tries too hard.
A girl sits in the far corner.
She’s young. Maybe fourteen.
Sophia notices a man noticing Sophia. He’s in his thirties. He is sitting at a table on the other side of the room, pretending to stare at a laptop screen.
She goes to the young girl’s table first.
Sophia notices that the girl is reading Pablo Neruda.
“Hi,” the girl says, shyly, her eyes going quickly back to the yellowing pages.
The man watches from across the shop as Sophia leans in.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine”
The young girl smiles. A little.
“What will you have?” Sophia asks.
“Hot chocolate, please. And a… uhm…”
“Yeah. Not sure…”
“How about I surprise you?” Sophia just-above-a-whispers.
Sophia goes back to the counter.
The girl goes back to her book.
Before she can turn a page, Sophia returns.
Sophia sits opposite the girl.
“Reading that book for school?”
“No… For me.”
“Even better. Do you like school?”
“I… No. I just moved here.”
“Hard time making friends?”
“Yeah. You’re not…”
“You’re not going to give me the speech about how all the most successful people in the world were once high school outcasts, are you?” the girl asks.
“I am going to ask you to close your eyes and visualize what you want. What you want right now and for the future. What you need to make you happy. What you really and truly need to make this feel like home.”
The girl hesitantly closes her eyes.
“Do you see it?” Sophia asks.
“Okay. Open your eyes. And take a bite of this.”
Sophia slides a plate containing a Boston Cream cupcake, with a cherry on top, across the table.
The girl opens her eyes. She looks at Sophia. She looks at the cupcake.
She picks it up and takes a bite.
“Mmmmmmmmm.” The girl’s whole face lights up.
“It’s… amazing,” the girl says, with a mouthful.
“One sec,” Sophie says as she bounces up from her seat.
The girl takes another big bite, ignoring the mess of crumbs and frosting on her lips.
Sophie returns with a cardboard box, which she opens to show a dozen mini Boston Cream cupcakes.
“Leave this box open next to you on the school lunch table,” Sophia tells her.
The girl’s demeanor has changed. Her voice is louder. She keeps smiling.
She stands up. As does Sophia. The girl tries to hand Sophia cash. Sophia waves it away. The girl grabs her book in one hand and the box of little cupcakes in the other. She gives Sophia an awkward hug.
With that, the girl is out the door.
She turns to the man, who has been watching.
He immediately goes back to his laptop.
Sophia washes dishes. Expressionless.
She takes her time. She scrubs each piece until there is no doubt.
She tucks rebellious strands of hair, determined to throw off the yoke of ponytail oppression, behind her ear.
Her ipod shuffles and deals her The Lucksmiths’ “T-Shirt Weather.”
She turns it up.
Then up some more.
And then she starts dancing.
And then she really starts dancing.
Hands in the air.
Spinning and singing and spinning.
She doesn’t notice the people watching through the window, from the building next door.
But even if she knew they were there, she’d keep singing.
But not lonely.
She sings louder.
She dances harder.
Everything moves in slow motion.
Then the song ends.
She grabs a mixing bowl and starts washing it.
Sophia leans on the counter.
She stares at the man with the laptop.
He’s the only customer in the shop.
She narrows her eyes. She crinkles her nose.
She walks over to him.
“Hello,” he replies. Less shyly than she expects.
“You come in here every day, but only order drinks…”
“I’m sorry. This place used to be a coffee shop. I wrote here every day. I don’t like change… Even if the writing is not really going well. But I’ll buy something if–”
“It’s OK. I think the owners are going to close the shop anyway. I just thought you didn’t like my baking.”
“Oh no. But I can’t eat gluten and–”
“That’s sad. Your body is being mean.”:
They are interrupted by the little bell, as the front door opens.
An elderly couple enters. Bickering. They settle at a table. Eventually.
Sophia watches them intently. This gradually moving mosaic of history and arthritis and carefully pressed cotton pants.
The man on the laptop watches Sophia.
When the old couple is seated, Sophia turns back to the man.
“I’m not finished with you.”
And with that, she whirls around and walks over to the couple.
The old man grumbles. The old lady mentions “a draft.”
“What can I get you?”
They read the charmingly cutesie little menus.
The old man adjusts his glasses.
The old lady coughs. She reaches in her purse and fumbles with a hard candy she finds in it.
“Coffee. Black.” The old man barks.
“I want tea… no… yes… tea… Or coffee,” the old lady debates aloud.
Her husband lets out a snort of impatience.
She shoots him a look that’s three tablespoons of angry and a half cup of hurt.
Sophia puts a hand on each of their shoulders.
“I think I can help.”
They look at her. Confused.
She scampers off.
They sit in resigned angry silence.
Sophia returns with two cupcakes on two plates.
She sits at the table with the couple.
“Hold hands,” she tells them.
They stare at her.
“Please,” she says, in something swirling softly just below a command.
They oblige. For reasons even they probably don’t understand.
“Now,” she continues. “Think about when you met. Think about the feeling in your stomach when you first knew. When you first really knew. Think about the birth of your first child. Think about the tough times. Think about who was beside you. Through it all. Through it all.”
She slides a plate in front of each of them. A carrot cake cupcake in front of the man. A lemon cupcake, with lemon frosting, in front of the woman.
“Now,” Sophia says. “Open your eyes and take a bite.”
They do. And they do.
All is silent. At first.
Then the old man laughs. A happily unchained laugh.
His wife Mmmmms through a second bite. She puts her hand tenderly on her husband’s forearm. He nods.
All the while, the laptop man has closed his laptop and is watching the scene unfolding.
Sophia walks back over to him.
“What do you do to people?” he asks.
“I give them cupcakes.”
“But… They change. Did you get their names?”
“No. Oh no. I never get their names,” she replies, uncomfortably squeezing a ball of apron in her hand.
“Because then all of their stories would stay with me.”
She turns quickly and returns to the kitchen.
Sophia is in the alley behind the shop.
A place that sometimes makes her sad. She hates seeing old, discarded boxes and crates. She appreciates that they delivered ingredients. Her ingredients.
They deserve better.
She is pouring milk into little bowls on the ground.
A black and white cat meows to announce his arrival.
He struts like a cat who owns this alley.
He is clearly very comfortable in his own fur.
He rubs against Sophia’s leg and purrs.
He starts to lap up milk from a green bowl.
Sophia clears her throat.
The cat stops.
“Is that your bowl?”
The cat meows.
Sophia stares. Warmly, but firmly.
The cat starts lapping milk from the red bowl instead.
Sophia fixes her apron and walks back into the shop.
He watches intently.
Sophia whispers in the ear of a woman in her 20s.
The woman sobs. She shakes her head.
Sophie puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
The woman says “No” over and over, with decreasing intensity and volume.
Sophie leans in. Says something.
The woman closes her eyes.
Sophia whispers something else, as the glorious noon day sun back lights her in a way that makes the man come close to a gasp.
The woman opens her eyes.
Sophia passes the still mildly sobbing figure a simple white cupcake. Chocolate frosting. Sprinkles.
She eats it. Quickly.
And she smiles. Sobbing shoulders stop.
The women hug.
The man smiles too.
Without really realizing it.
Sophia counts the money.
She makes sure all the bills are pointing the same way.
She is counting five dollar bills when she stops.
She looks at one more closely.
There is a big, goofy happy face drawn in purple ink.
She laughs. Then she cries.
Then she laughs.
The man hits his “backspace” key like it owes him money.
He looks up to see Sophia sitting at the table with him.
As is often the case, they are alone in the shop.
She slides a cupcake across the table to him.
He slides it back.
She smiles and slides it back towards him.
“Gluten,” he reminds, a little more forcefully than he planned.
She shakes her head.
He’s dubious, but he can’t say no to her so so soooo pretty face.
He reaches for the cupcake. She stops him.
She stares at him.
“Close your eyes.”
“Now see yourself writing. Desperately trying to get all the words down before you forget them. The best thing you’ve ever written. Life-changing. Feel it. All over.”
“OK. I feel it.”
He opens his eyes. He takes a bite.
There’s an explosion.
In his head.
In his heart.
But he feels it. He can write it. He can write anything. He can fucking write ANYTHING.
And then he sees…
She is standing there. Waiting for him. Amused that it took him so long to figure it out.
He opens his eyes and she is smiling at him from across the table.
“Will you go to dinner with me tonight?” he blurts.
She looks confused. A little off-balance.
After what seems, to him, like days.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
The date was perfection.
She gave a business card to a bum and whispered something to him that made him grin.
Strangers talked to her.
She ordered their wine in terrible French. And giggled about it.
He found out absolutely nothing about her “story.” Despite trying. A few times.
But he figured there’d be time for that.
When he asked to watch her bake, she was opposed to it at first.
But the look in his eyes won her over.
And now they are in the kitchen of the shop.
Something about the place, left him a little in awe.
Might not have been the place.
She is narrating the baking of angel food cupcakes.
She scratches her nose.
He smiles at the white flour dot left behind.
She knows right away what it is.
“I do messy well,” she says.
She really does.
He immediately pulls a notepad out of his pocket.
He starts writing.
She keeps baking.
They stand at the door to her building.
He starts to talk, but what he wants to say has already run away.
He tilts his head. He opens his mouth, hoping it will just show up again.
He takes a deep breath.
She bites her lower lip.
He can’t take it any more and kisses her.
So much better than he even imagined.
He stops. To make sure she’s OK.
“I’m a little dizzy,” she whispers.
Then she kisses him suddenly.
He presses a folded-up piece of paper into her hand.
He has a spring in his step.
He knows it.
Every stride that brings him closer to her makes him more excited.
Other denizens of this stretch of sidewalk move aside, as if they know he is on an important mission.
He’s sure that if they knew – if they REALLY knew – they’d be doling out lots of high fives and attaboys to him.
He rounds the corner and–
There is a “CLOSED” sign on the cupcake shop door.
He starts running.
He sits on the steps of her building. Just below the buzzer system with red name tags that are falling off, and haven’t been updated this millennium.
The concrete is entirely too cold for such a warm day.
“She moved out this morning,” echoes in his ears.
He watches a little girl walk by with her mother. Different-sized twins.
The little girl is eating a cupcake.
Flying makes Sophia nervous.
She rarely does it.
If she did it more often, she’d have a helpful routine right now.
She reaches in her pocket.
She unfolds a piece of paper.
part of my day
to guess what’s
the best part
i spent hours
talked to you
i’ve never felt
as a writer
as a person
that i get to
so far eclipses
She takes a deep breath.
It has been just long enough since Jack has seen Sophia that he doesn’t immediately recognize the gluten free cupcakes in the obviously carefully decorated basket sitting outside of his apartment door.
He takes the basket in and puts it on his kitchen table.
He takes the plastic wrapping off
In addition to two dozen cupcakes, there is a postcard.
There is nothing written on the back of it.
It is from a city far away.
Picture of two bunny statues.
“Wish you were hare.”
He sits down.
He puts a cupcake on the table in front of him.
He closes his eyes.
He pictures another kiss.
His hands in her hair.
Her arms around his lower back.
He exhales long and slow.
He opens his eyes.
He takes a bite.
He is thrown back in his seat.
He lets it wash over him.
He picks up the postcard.
The city isn’t really that far away.
———-[Originally posted April 2010.]