By Jenn Bouchard
I hadn’t thought about my ex-girlfriend in years.
Now Clara – or Cee, as I called her – was sitting across from me at Cannonball, my restaurant in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. She was there because I had totally messed up her life about two hours earlier.
“It’s good to see you, Mitch,” she said, her eyes as big and blue as I remembered, but due to my intrusion in the backroom of her bakery that morning, they were now way too sad. I felt awful. “So much has happened. And I want to hear it all. But I’ve got a big problem on my hands.”
I grasped the back of my still-wet hair, dripping with sweat from running back to Cannonball in the blazing Chicago summer sun after making a complete ass out of myself. “I know. Your husband didn’t know you wrote a book. But, like, why? You’ve got a website for God’s sake. That’s how I found out.” I had to come clean. “I was, um, Googling you.” Busted. Damn it. “How come you didn’t tell him?”
Cee closed her eyes for a few seconds, like she was drifting off into somewhere else. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, but in some ways, it was as if no time had passed. She had grown out her bangs, but her hair was still a dark blonde that she wore in a messy bun when baking, which I had interrupted her doing that morning. Her glasses were perched on top of her head, so I could see that the freckles that were sprinkled across her nose had grown more pronounced with age. Her look, her deliberate nature, just about everything about her was so different from my fiery wife Theresa. “Have you ever wanted something just for you?” she posed. “And then you get to the point where you kind of want to share it with the world, but then you know everyone’s going to be like what the eff?” She never really cursed, just sort of implied it. It was still pretty cute. “That’s where I am. I needed to do something just for me when I was in Boston and was a co-owner of the bakery there. I was sharing everything. The book was mine. But now we’re here, in Chicago. I finally have my own place, and the book is done. I created a bare-bones website, but I don’t know what to do next.”
“And your husband’s mad because you didn’t tell him.” It was a statement, not a question, because I knew that much was true. When I walked through the back door of Cee’s bakery The Whisk that morning in a panic, I found her making whipped cream. The irony was almost too much for me to handle in that frantic moment; whipped cream was our assignment during our very first class paired up together in culinary school in Vermont. We weren’t able to use any electronic gadgets, and I had watched in awe as Cee measured out heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla with confidence, without looking at a damn recipe or computer screen. She just knew how much of everything she needed. When she looked up at me through her glasses and asked, “Can you hand me that whisk over there, please?” I was done. Standing next to her was a master class in everything I had been missing. Fast forward seventeen years, and she was using an enormous stand mixer in her very own bakery, but it was still whipped cream. And I blurted out in the most selfish asshole way possible, “You wrote a book? Am I in it?” I then had the pleasure of meeting her husband Heath, who was sitting in nearby chair. Shit.
Cee grimaced and rested her weary chin in her hand. “It wasn’t like I was purposely trying to keep something from him. It just kind of got away from me, and then I felt like I had gotten in too deep. So, I sort of thought, maybe I’ll tell him when I find someone who wants to publish it? But I don’t even know where to begin to make that happen.”
I had almost been a high school dropout, graduating only because of a guidance counselor who pulled what seemed like countless strings for me. Culinary school had been a promissory note to my parents; they promised to send me if I promised not to fuck it up. But Cee gets the credit for cheering me on and getting me through. I destroyed our relationship at the very end, stressing out about getting a job in New York, focusing solely on myself, and essentially shutting down while simultaneously throwing grenades right and left. I put this woman through hell, and I owed her anything and everything. “I want to make it up to you,” I said. “What can I do? Want me to talk to Heath Bar?” Shit, I couldn’t help myself. It was annoyingly adorable that a baker was married to a British guy named after candy.
She was unfazed and simply shook her head. “He’s actually really nice. I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m scared of him or anything. I should have told him about it. But no, I’m not sure you two sitting down will do much. He knows about you anyway. I met him a few weeks after we broke up, so it was all sort of, you know, fresh.”
Ouch. I bet she made him scones. Her scones could solve all of the world’s problems or at least make everyone a hell of a lot happier. Toffee Candy Husband was probably the happiest guy on earth until that morning. “OK, scratch that. You wrote the book, you’ve got the website, and now you need to find its home. Is that the situation in a nutshell?” I was awful at many things, and I couldn’t bake for shit. But getting to the heart of a challenge was something I had gotten infinitely better at. Years of perfecting recipes – not to mention parenting my son Luke and trying to keep my wife happy – seemed to help. I was still not always the greatest guy – a lot of people in the Chicago restaurant scene thought I was a total dick – but I saw myself as a work in progress. When Cee nodded and looked a bit hopeful, I hoped she saw my evolution, too.
I felt charged up by the task and continued with my plan. “How about this? Give me one week. I’ll work your social media platforms. I’m really good at that. It’s the only reason Cannonball ever got to where it is. I’ll get you a ton of followers and build up hype around it. And everyone who already knows about your bakery is going to be super curious about this. I just need to know what I’m talking about.” I knew that the next question was loaded, given my paranoia about the situation. “Can I read it?”
Cee sighed. “Why are you so worried about this? You’re not a character in the book. See, this is what I didn’t want to deal with. Not just with you, with everyone.”
I didn’t even know why I had panicked the night before when I had stumbled upon her website. It was like a punch to the gut that I couldn’t explain. “I wasn’t always the greatest to you, Cee. I mean, towards the end.” For two years we had been inseparable. Mitch and Clara, or MC-Squared, as we came to be known as by our classmates and even a few of our instructors. My parents, relieved when I brought home someone without multiple facial piercings, told me that she brought out the best in me. But as I had done up until that point in my life, I tended to destroy the things that were good for me. Thank God those days were behind me.
Cee reached across the table and grabbed my hand for a moment, giving it a squeeze before releasing it. “It’s OK. We’re OK. It was a long time ago, and we both found what we needed. Theresa, right? I Google, too,” she said with a wink. Just the idea that Cee had checked up on me made me smile. “I’m going to send you a synopsis,” she said. “That’ll be enough for now.” She stood up to leave. “Thanks? I guess?” She seemed both a little confused and a little relieved by our time together.
I stood up as well. I didn’t want to push my luck but still couldn’t help myself. “If I can fix this – if I can get some interest in the book – can I read it then? I’m not looking for myself in it or for some kind of hidden whatever. I just want to see what you’ve created. If it’s anything like your scones…”
“Then we’ll all gain ten pounds,” she replied, brushing flour from an early morning baking session off her bright pink dress. She looked at me with a combination of fatigue and maternal love, much like a parent looks at a toddler at the end of a long, hot summer day. “Why do you care so much about this?”
The answer was easy. “Because it’s you. Us. MC-Squared.” We stood staring at each other awkwardly, as if too much time and yet no time at all had passed. I cleared my throat. “Just send me the damn synopsis. I’ll make it happen.”
I averaged two hours of sleep per night over the next week. I learned more than I ever wanted or needed to know about the literary world, including conferences, newsletters, hashtags, pitch contests, queries, blogs, beta readers, writing centers, and so much more. Cee quickly had a Twitter handle, an Instagram feed, and a Facebook presence. I only communicated with her a couple of times, mostly just to get her website login information and to ask her if she was OK with me linking her bakery site to her writing one (she ultimately agreed). By the time we were scheduled to chat, her yet-to-be published novel was the buzz of the Chicago food journalism scene, and people all over social media were clamoring to take a look at what their favorite raspberry danish maker had written.
She FaceTimed me at ten o’clock that morning as planned. I had managed to shave for the occasion, but I was running on fumes, and as I saw my face reflected back on the laptop screen, my weariness and anxiousness showed. Before Cee had a chance to talk, I launched into my findings, probably talking way too quickly. “I’ve got everything for you in a zip file that I just sent to you. But I’m afraid I may have missed a few things. I need to show you a site called Query – “
She cut me off. “I’ve gotten sixty emails in the past two days. People are seeking me out. I can’t – I don’t know what to say. What you’ve done, I just can’t thank you enough.” Her eyes were filled with tears, and it made me both happy and sad. She wasn’t mine to share all of this joy with, but I was glad I was able to make her this delighted. Finally.
I relaxed a bit, feeling my shoulders release some of their tension. “Well, that’s great. I’m glad I could do it. I’m sorry again that I busted in on you. Maybe you and Heath could come have dinner at Cannonball sometime. Just let me know.”
She smiled. “Definitely. OK, I need to get ready for the lunch crowd. One question though. Why Cannonball?”
That was easy. “You know when you’re a kid and you can’t wait to get in the pool? And you cannonball in with such elation?” She nodded. “The restaurant was that for me. I needed to jump in a big way again. It had been awhile.” She knew what I meant.
“Bye, Mitch. See you then,” she said, ending the call.
I had to clean the condo that night. Theresa and Luke were coming home from an extended vacation with her family in Wisconsin, and a month of bachelorhood had not been kind to our space. Done with my duty, I was ready for life to return to normal. I was putting clothes in a drawer when I heard the “ding” of my computer, indicating an email. It was from Cee, and the subject was simply “The Whisk.” There was no message, but the file attached had the same name. I opened it to discover a 275-page book.
“It all started with a whisk,” I read aloud to myself and smiled, remembering the day that I handed to Cee the one cooking tool that she needed to get the job done. She had everything else that she needed.
Category: Featured, Short Story