This is a first chapter of a Nanowrimo novel.
My father meant to kidnap my sister, not me. It was an honest mistake I suppose; we were identical twins, and even my mother had some difficulty telling us apart. Only our temperaments could give us away. Me, living up (or down) to my unruly mass of red hair, stubborn and angry, and Isabella, the “good” one, calmer and quieter.
He must have caught me in a rare moment of quiet and meditation. I call it meditation now, but as a child it was a kind of trance– seeing in my mind’s eye a pair of dancers spinning round and round, round and round.
On that morning, Mama was at her office and Lily was watching us. Lily probably loved us more than anyone, but was not equipped to actually care for us. She was kind but distracted. She loved television. In Lily’s care, we were raised on a diet of Guiding Light and As the World Turns. People lived in dimly lit but luxurious rooms, were never outside. They smoked. They cried and screamed at each other. They looked puzzled, confused, unhappy. They would stare at one another in fury, and the next moment be locked in a lustful kiss. It was not like that around our house, but our house was different. I already knew that.
Bella and I were restless that morning, and Lily marched us into the kitchen to make cupcakes. Which is to say, she got a packet of cupcake mix from the cupboard, and a measuring cup, and told us to mix three quarters of a cup of milk with the mix, in a big bowl with a big spoon to stir, until all the lumps were out. Then, she said, we needed to put butter on squares of wax paper and rub the butter all over the cupcake tin. She seemed to think we would remember all this accurately and not forget what came after the word “cupcake”, as any five year old would.
When I grabbed the packet from Lily’s hand, she scolded: “Catarina, for pete’s sake, let your sister play too.” Play? This was not play. This was some serious culinary action. Maybe those cupcakes put me on the path that ultimately led to the kitchen.
Lily retreated to the TV room.
Bella and I got the mix into a big ceramic bowl which was blue on the outside and glazed white on the inside. Then we tried to measure the milk in the measuring cup, but forgot the amount. I did that part, and erred on the side of caution, not putting enough milk in. I got a wooden spoon from the canister on the counter, and started mixing in earnest.
It was lumpy and powdery and I got bored quickly. I let Bella take a turn stirring. “Put some elbow grease into it,” I told her, using a phrase from Lily.
Our kitchen was all checkerboard. I still dream about it. Square yellow and white floor tiles, and a backsplash that was blue and white ceramic. My logo now, for my company, is a yellow and white checkerboard.
Lily had said something about smooshing butter all over a cupcake pan, and this sounded appealing. Wax paper? I forgot that part. The butter was hard from the fridge, so I ran it under some hot water. Bella was chanting as she stirred. She had a sweet voice, but since she was applying so much elbow grease to her task, her tone took on a note of stridency. Eeny meeny MINEY mo. Catch aniggle BY the toe. That was Lily’s verse too. Mama had already told us to stop singing it. She swatted our behind if she heard it, even though we had no inkling what the words meant. But the intensity of the moment made Bella forget.
The butter was warm and melty on my hands, and I started to coat the cupcake pan with it. I wondered why we had to do this. It made little sense, but Bella and I had learned that not much made sense, and forged ahead anyway. I smoothed the butter in the little cups, and around the cups, and on the back of the tin, too. It was well and truly coated with butter, as Lily instructed.
Bella then dropped the bowl on the floor and began to cry. The bowl was heavy and may even have dented the soft floor tiles. But it didn’t break, and she and I scooped up the batter that had escaped. We heard Lily call out, “I’ll be right there!” She was waiting for a commercial break. How she had faith that we hadn’t broken something important, like a spine, remains a mystery to me.
Lily finally arrived, corrected our mistakes, and searched the cupboards for something to use as icing once the cupcakes were baked. She added milk to the mix and stirred the lumps out, wiped off the excess butter from the tin and dusted the cups with flour. She poured some of the batter into the measuring cup and let us fill the tin cups halfway full. She forgot to preheat the oven, and so set it, and told us to call her when it beeped to indicate that the oven had reached temperature. Meanwhile, she said, we could draw pictures of cupcakes to show Mama. Ok?
And she sat us at the kitchen table. It had a smooth, cool formica surface, light blue with silver speckles. We each had a sheet of letter sized white paper, and shared a box of sixteen coloured pencils, which were our drawing tools of preference for the moment.
Bella had a talent for drawing, and she concentrated, her tongue tight against her lip as she drew what appeared to be a birthday cupcake, with green icing and some pink candles. Our birthday was coming up, we would be six, and would also start school. Some heavy life changes lay in our immediate future. Mama impressed that upon us. Turning six was important. School! We couldn’t wait to start. Mama was trepidatious, as if she feared we would fuck it up.
Bella was so lovingly drawing that cake that I deduced she was particularly fond of cupcakes. So my picture showed a Bella (Bella was differentiated from me, Cat, in my drawings, by a bow in her hair) who had a big fat belly full of cupcakes, demonstrated by her tummy kind of exploding and cupcakes and blood flying out of it. Not high art, but it told a story.
Well, Bella howled when she saw it. Lily was furious. “You expect me to show that to your Mama?” and she walloped my behind and sent my out to the back porch to repent. That’s exactly what she said. “You go out there and repent for awhile.”
I was unrepentant. Art, free expression, creative genius stifled because Bella cried! No doubt her cupcake drawing would adorn the fridge for Mama to see, while mine failed to pass the censors and would end up in the garbage pail under the sink. Life was unfair.
Anger tied my tummy in knots for awhile, then I stared at the sumac, which was starting to leaf out. And I saw the dancers, he holding her in a long silken gown, spinning round. Graceful, dipping to the unheard music, round and round. There was no anger, no anything, in that cloud ballroom.
Daddy drove a Buick. It was big and flashy, green in colour. We had a carport in the back, from the lane, but he didn’t pull in. His car was parked in the lane, the engine running.
We hadn’t seen him for almost two weeks. Mama said he was away but we knew better. It was hard to remember when they didn’t yell and scream at each other, like the characters did on Lily’s television programs. There was no accompanying puzzlement or confusion, though, no lustful kisses, only shouting. Daddy would say, “Just stop it, you’re upsetting the girls” and Mama would say, “They need to know what a giant asshole you are!” And so on. Mama was the fearful one. If we actually witnessed them fighting, instead of just hearing it while cowering in our bedroom, it was Mama we were afraid would strike out, would punch him or grab a ersatz weapon and crown Daddy the king of awful. I don’t know why my own temper annoyed her so, since it was obvious who I had inherited it from. “I won’t let you near them!” she screamed at him, and we guessed she meant us, his daughters.
Bella was the calmer one, it’s true. But all the same, it was strange that I was the one who cried, fearful, into my pillow during those fights, and Bella who crawled in beside me to offer comfort. Bella, dry-eyed, unafraid, warm arms wrapped around me as we spooned. I was the strong angry one, Bella the gentle, soft one. Shouldn’t she be the one who wept?
Daddy was standing outside the running car, and calling out in a low voice. “Bella, sweetheart, darling, come over here.” I looked up and stared. He gave an awkward wave, smiling. “It’s ok,” he said. So I stood up and went to him.
He scooped me up in his arms and I swear he sniffed me. “I miss you so much,” he said. “Where’s your sister?”
I didn’t answer, but he didn’t mind. We drove away in the Buick.