Monday, January 18, 2010

Baklava and Broken Dreams

Flames to dust,
Lovers to friends.
Why do all good things come to an end?
-Nelly Furtado and Chris Martin
She relished the moment of slipping the little metal key, still warm from the pocket of her wool overcoat, into the lock of her bakery’s back door. Stepping out of a cold alley into the cozy kitchen was always the highlight of Lisbeth Arrow’s day. Sometimes she would hang her coat on its peg behind the door and delay the switching on of the lights for as long as possible. As she stared at the kitchen it would begin to solidify in the hazy predawn. Barely lit by the blue of a streetlight outside the front windows, pots and pans and stainless steel countertops would shine bright against soft shadows. Then the brilliant flash of the fluorescent lights, a flick of a switch and the entire bakery would stand illuminated, ready to give her whatever she desired, to move under her fingertips into the creations she had in mind. Rolling up her sleeves Lisbeth would glance at the clock and throw on an apron, eager to delve into that morning’s baking. 
Bakery assistant Heidi Calloway always arrived at six o’ clock sharp, usually standing still for a few moments, jingling keys in her pocket while appraising Lisbeth’s culinary progress. Once satisfied she went to take stock of the pantry, then joined her comrade in the  kitchen. Kurt would come half an hour later to find the two of them giggling over stacks of muffin tins, hands white with flour.
Then the magic moment would arrive--the moment when morning sun illuminates the puffs of chimney smoke from snug little houses and traffic begins to flow in earnest. Lisbeth was always the one to fling open the front door, welcoming the morning with open arms. Serving the day’s first customer was always a fresh, exciting experience. The man or woman would exchange a smile with Lisbeth over the counter, then tentatively point to a flaky pastry or thick slice of warm banana bread in the shiny glass case. Bending down, Lisbeth lovingly folded the desired treat into a sheet of waxed paper, handing it over to the delighted customer. There was no feeling like it in the world.
Lisbeth had given a lot for this bakery. It had been a slow, agonizing process. Four years ago her parents had enrolled her in the local community college with the idea of an associate degree in public relations. One month into the semester Lisbeth threw her family for a loop when she told them that she wanted to own a bakery. Everyone was incredulous and decided that the ambition would soon wear off. It didn’t. She dropped out of college as soon as possible and started researching small business practices. A couple months later she got in touch with some realtors and began shopping around for a suitable building. She knew when she saw the small old-fashioned stone structure on the main street of a small town that it was the fulfillment of her dream. Using all the money she had ever saved and what had been allotted for her higher education she bought the building and fitted it out as a bakery. There was no going back to college after that.
The one thing that might have dissuaded her from running her own bakery was Jared Bancroft, the dreamy twenty-four year old who had stolen her heart. They had been going steady for almost a year when he began asking her whether or not this was a feasible enterprise. Lisbeth was confident in it, but Jared seemed doubtful. After the business had been up and going for three months Jared had started saying that Lisbeth cared more about the bakery than she did about him. She assured him that of course it wasn’t true, and that she would be able to spend more time with him…very soon. About a year or so after that Jared had all but stopped speaking to her, but she was too busy to do anything about it.        
On the morning of January 6 Lisbeth was spreading spoonfuls of orange marmalade (the slightly bitter kind with lots of lovely rind) over rolled-out dough, then she ladled on just the right amount of melted butter and brown sugar for her signature marmalade rolls. Humming to herself, she pondered her secret plan for that evening: she was going to make something she hadn’t attempted in years--baklava. This Greek dessert had always beaten her in the past, as she was not the lightest hand at delicate pastry. 20 layers of butter-brushed phyllo dough were required for the perfect baklava, interspersed with honey, nuts, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. After this the baklava is cut into diamond shaped pieces and baked until golden brown, then drizzled with a special syrup. A challenge, but a greatly rewarding one, resulting in a gorgeous, addictive dessert. She was looking forward the time when Heidi and Kurt would leave and she would have the entire kitchen to herself.
Several hours and not too many customers later, it was closing time. As she began to wash a ginormous cookie sheet, Lisbeth noticed Heidi in her peripheral vision. The wispy little bakery assistant (Lisbeth had no idea how she kept that figure, despite the dozens of chocolate chip cookies the girl made daily) was walking toward the sink, a vexed look of concern glinting through her small eyeglasses. She mumbled something to Lisbeth and motioned her employer over to one of the small Formica tables, over which was scattered dozens of papers and a calculator--Lisbeth’s mind began to reel.
It only took about two seconds for her to realize that the bakery was gone, forever. The imminent danger had been festering in the back of her mind for months, maybe years. She had never feared failure, but always met difficulties head-on. Success was something she had never doubted, until now. 
As she had examined the ledgers, stared at receipts, and tried to be optimistic, Lisbeth had pushed all the numbers and vague suspicions into dark corners of her mind, forgetting it all and delving deeper into vanilla beans and fresh pecans. But that didn’t change the inevitable truth. Heidi was here to tell her that the bakery would have to close. And Lisbeth knew that she was right. This little town couldn’t support a bakery, taxes were too high, and what little she had to keep the place afloat disappeared long ago. An alien blindness began to creep over her, blurring her vision.  
Heidi blinked. “We can’t get away from it. What are we going to do?”
“I love that ‘we’.”
“Come on, Lizzy, you know what I mean. We’ll both be out of a job.”
She knew it was weakness, but tears came shooting into the corners of Lisbeth’s eyes and the tip of her nose began to prickle ominously. A job? The bakery was more than a job--it was her life! Heidi had family, friends, college studies, a life outside Danishes and apple fritters. Lisbeth had given up her other life for this little piece of Heaven. She’d sacrificed her higher education and life savings, even her boyfriend, pouring everything into it: time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. And it had been worth it for so long. Though barely supporting her financially it had given her a feeling of purpose and fulfillment she had never had before. Now? It had ceased producing money and so it would soon cease producing pleasure. Heidi pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “Lizzy, what are you going to do?”
“Oh, get a job at Wal-Mart I guess. Isn’t that what every entrepreneurial failure does?”
Heidi gave her a pair of soft eyes and a sympathetic half-smile. “It wasn’t your fault, you know. It’s this economy; everyone’s getting hit hard these days.” These days. What was it about these days? How could people sacrifice the bliss of biting into a warm buttered blueberry scone, no matter what the crisis? 
“Thank you, Heidi, but I’m a very realistic person. I’m finished with optimism and I’m facing the world as it is.” Lisbeth swiped at a renegade tear, slipped out of her chair and went back to the sink to finish the cookie sheet. Kurt had gone home and Heidi whispered that she had to help her roommate with a paper, so Lisbeth was left alone in a kitchen full of soapy water and crusty pans. All thoughts of baklava had long since flown, replaced by that creeping darkness and a clammy knot in her throat.

What do you do after facing the fact that you will have to leave behind everything you’ve lived for for the past three and a half years? There’s no simple answer in a dry county. But the town did have one very special place where every poor unfortunate went to drown their sorrows. It was a quiet little restaurant on a back street, the windows lit up with neon lights. Outside hung a sign with big blue letters: The Bar - Ice Cream ‘til Midnight. 
That’s where Lisbeth headed on the night of January 6. The front door swung open, shaking a strident little bell, and she stepped onto the cold linoleum. The Bar was full of people though it was already eleven o’clock. She wedged herself onto a bright red swivel stool at the counter, brushing the shoulders of a haggard middle-aged man on one side and a punk teenage girl on the other. What might have been a humorous scene at some other time was now just a little clot of humanity, trying to force its way through the world in one piece. They all gathered here for strength, in the knowledge that none of them was alone, and some solace could be had in a double scoop cone of rocky road.
Lisbeth ordered, and the chubby waitress shuffled back into the kitchen. She stared at the scratched stainless steel of the countertop and traced little designs on the greasy surface with her index finger. Someone had used a key to scratch “Jackie + Mark”. How sweet. 
The cone came, and she marveled at the globs of marshmallows and toasted almond slivers swimming in slippery balls of chocolate. She stared at it long enough to see a long drip start from the east side and begin slipping down onto the cone. Lisbeth expected the first bite to be ecstasy, but the knot in her throat had dulled her sense of taste, adding insult to injury.
Before Lisbeth had finished her first scoop the customer on her left changed, and in the place of the tired man with strawberry came a good-looking brunette woman of thirty-odd years who ordered pistachio. Disappointed in her ice cream, Lisbeth decided to distract herself by striking up a friendly little conversation with her neighbor. She began by remarking on the lady’s bandaged right hand. The hand was jerked back and hid in the lady’s lap. “Oh, that? It’s not much, just ten stitches.” Noticing Lisbeth’s inquiring look she added, “I was in a car wreck a few days ago.” She sounded nonchalant enough, but a few seconds later Lisbeth saw a suspicious glimmer in the corners of her eyes. 
“Was it a bad wreck?”
“Totaled my car.”
“Oh, how awful.” They sat in awkward silence for a moment.
“Ah, it’s all my fault.” The glimmer intensified and became angry. The brunette’s next words were inexplicable. “Flames to dust, lovers to friends.”
“Excuse me?” Lisbeth had once heard that you should never trust anyone who liked pistachios; she began to wonder. Another woman came in to take the punk teen’s place--a blonde who ordered cappuccino chocolate in a bowl.    
The brunette seemed to be in a talkative mood. “When I was a girl my uncle owned a BMW convertible, and sometimes he would take me out driving on the highway. I absolutely loved the wind in my hair and the sun on my face…when I was ten I promised myself that I would have a Bimmer of my own someday. It seemed impossible when I married John, my husband is a plumber, but I went to school to become a surgeon. For years I worked and saved and worked and saved until I finally had enough money. After driving a ‘99 Honda Civic for nearly a decade I found the car of my dreams--a 2007 BMW 335i Convertible, gunmetal gray with red leather interior.”    
Lisbeth had begun to nibble at her chocolaty cone. The blonde on her right gave the waitress a smile when she got her ice cream. The brunette ate a spoonful of her melty green glop. A moment later her eyes turned again to Lisbeth’s face with a peculiar look of mingled glamour and ecstasy. “Driving it off the lot was one of those things I’ll never forget as long as I live. The spring and energy of my convertible was…unparalleled. I poured myself into that car, treated it like my own child. I must have washed, waxed and polished it nearly every day.” 
Her eyes were staring into space now, reliving the feel of an engine leaping forward, bounding ahead of her, eager to flash past the next curve in the road. Then she collapsed and her voice lost all sparkle and verve. “I wonder how many hours I wasted. A few weeks ago I lost it all in one of those one-car accidents where you wonder what on earth the driver was thinking. It just goes to show that no matter what you gain in life, it can all go away like that.” The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable. Shoving her empty bowl away she gave Lisbeth a last pitying look. “Take it from me, kid, never pour too much of yourself into any one thing. All good things come to an end, sooner or later.” With a dry, bitter smile, “Now I‘m back to driving the Honda.” The door of The Bar banged shut behind the brunette.     
Lisbeth had worked her way down to the very base of the cone and now wiped sticky fingers on an insubstantial napkin. It seemed odd that on the very night she realized that her lifelong dream was going to disappear forever, she should meet this total stranger and find out that her story of loss was just a repetition of someone else’s. She felt that God must have been trying to teach her something--something that might break her heart if she ever wrapped her mind around it. 
Before she could take the last bite of cone the blonde on Lisbeth’s right leaned over confidentially. “Excuse me.” Her soft Southern drawl was a quite a change from the brunette’s bitter tone.
“Oh, hi.”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing that other lady’s story. Friend of yours?”
“No, uh, we just met.”
“Well, I was, I was just gonna say, um, well…maybe I’d--what she said just then, about good things coming to an end, it’s sorta, well, I want to tell you my story, if I may?”
“Uh, yes, of course! Feel free.” Lisbeth felt that someone must have put a large sign on her back saying, “Tell me your life story.”
The blonde woman pushed away her cappuccino chocolate and began. “I met the love of my life two years ago. His name was Christopher. We met at a Christian singles retreat and got to know each other. Before I knew it we really fell in love. We dated for about eight months and I began to think that this was gonna go somewhere and we might get married someday. But while we were still dating Chris was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma.”
The last sentence hit Lisbeth like a shockwave as she imagined the sweet Southern woman in front of her hearing this news about the man she loved. “I’m so sorry.”
“Well, ‘course, I went through some pretty rough times. The cancer had already spread from his abdomen to his chest and he wasn’t given very long to live. I fought and I prayed and I asked questions; I didn’t know what I was gonna do. And then he proposed to me. He said that we both knew he was dying, and he didn’t want to hurt me or anything, but he just couldn’t live the rest of his life knowing he’d let me go. And I realized that I felt the same way!” For a moment the woman shut her eyes tight and clenched her fingers, then went on. “I made up my mind to marry him, just because I couldn’t live without him.   
“We were married on January 23, and I tell you, my marriage was the best six months of my life. I laughed more and cried more during those six months than I ever have and probably ever will but, oh, it was amazing! It was absolutely the time of my life. I loved Chris with everything I had, and when the Lord took him away from me I could only thank Him for those six months, with Chris being there for me as I was there for him. 
“Chris taught me something that I’d never learned before: that good things may come to an end, but it’s worth every moment of it! You can’t stop loving now just because you’ll have to one of these days. And I still love Chris, I haven’t stopped loving him! Yes, he’s gone, but I wouldn’t take anything in the world for those few months that we were together. Yes, it’s hard, it was much harder losing a husband than it would have been to lose a friend. I lost Chris after we’d made a commitment, made all those hopes, and dreams, and plans; it was so much harder, but so much more worth it. And I just wanted to let you know that that woman is right when she says that all good things will come to an end, but she’s not right when she says that you should stop loving just because it hurts. True love is something that sacrifices and gives of itself. If you don’t give anything in return for love then it’s worthless.” Her words came to an end with an unexpected suddenness and she began putting on her coat. Tears streamed down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t get all emotional. I just…couldn’t let you go without telling you. Good night.” In a moment she was gone.
Lisbeth sat silently at the counter, pondering, twirling the last of her cone between her fingers clockwise, counterclockwise, clockwise, counterclockwise. She’d poured herself into that bakery. She’d sacrificed a higher education, she’d probably ruined her relationship with Jared…had it been worth it? She had to say yes.
She walked out into the nipping air and unlocked her car, sliding into the driver’s seat.  She had to ask herself, what about the now? What about the moment? Why couldn’t she glory in the few weeks she had left before the bakery would be forced to close? Was she going to cheat herself out of every last pleasure just because of the inevitable day? Lisbeth glanced at the radio’s digital clock. 11:45. The first few flakes that foreshadowed a heavy snowstorm fell soundlessly on the windshield. There was no phyllo dough back at the bakery. But Wal-Mart was open.

1 comment:

Sylace said...

Your writing is addictive like the baklava. (But please hold the marmalade on mine).