Luckily, my mother was a damn fine pastry chef. She could make anything out of sugar, flour, and three hours, and when my bastard father left her for another man, she put to use the only marketable skill she had. We moved into the city and lived above the bakery. The kitchen in the back always smelled of sweet, baking deliciousness and would waft upstairs, leaking under the door of my bedroom. I would come downstairs on my way to school in the morning, and instead of pancakes there was tiramisu, éclairs, cupcakes, and other delights as far as the eye could see. (I’m drooling just thinking about my mother’s cooking.) Every morning I would stare at those pastries, my stomach aching for one, begging me to take one. Forget that these desserts were our livelihood, that they paid for the house and my clothes and food for my siblings. I just wanted to take four or five and eat them on the bus on the way to school and savor each bite of them. Every morning I was tempted to fulfill my desires. But mom’s tired smile on her flour spotted face was always enough of a deterrent for me to take only the paper sack with my lunch in it from the counter and go to school. And it’s not like we never had them; every year for our birthdays we each could choose one dessert from behind the glass counter in the storefront. But once a year was never enough, especially when the possibility of delicate sweetness was dangled in front of me every morning.
I never figured out how mom kept it all together, the house, the business and raising us. Of the four kids, I was the oldest. Next came Sarah and Joanie, twins who were often mistaken to be the same person, and Tucker rounded it out as the baby. Four mouths to feed, four bodies to clothe and keep healthy, four hearts to nurture, eight feet to shod, eight eyes to have checked, 128 teeth to keep from rotting, the list goes on and on. She never married again and if she had boyfriends we never saw them. She shed the role of wife and assumed the title of sole care-giver seamlessly. I was delegated the all important role of “man of the house” and did what I could to help with housework and parenting, but was probably more trouble than I was worth.
The cupcakes were what got me the most. Two dollars each with frosting in every color imaginable, and some that can really only be captured with milk, confectioners’ sugar and just the right amount of food coloring. I was more entranced by the curves of the cupcakes than I was the budding curves of the girls in my grade level. To know exactly what you want, see it in front of you day after day, taunting you with its sugary pretense, is more maddening than I could possibly describe here. So that morning, I snuck behind the counter and took one with green icing on it, so much that it leaked off of the cupcake and onto my fingers. I licked the frosting off my index finger; it had an aftertaste of mint from where I brushed my teeth that morning and the toothpaste had foamed onto my hand. I peeled back the wrapper, exposing the tender cupcake, considered what wouldn’t be bought with these two dollars, and then shoved the entire treat into my mouth. My eyes began to water. It was heaven. I sat savoring my sin for a few minutes, licking every last bit of icing from my fingers, lips, and the wrapper itself. I put the wrapper in my mouth, sucking and chewing on it, extracting every last bit of flavor I could.
But one wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I emptied my lunch sack that was sitting on the counter, relocating my peanut butter and jelly and granny smith apple to the recesses of my backpack. I shook open the bag as wide as possible, precariously checking to make sure the rustling paper hadn’t drawn any attention from anyone that may be passing by the kitchen. Trays and trays of cupcakes, in all their rainbow colors, and I with a paper sack to fill. Having known the pleasures of a green cupcake, I moved past that tray. I took a pink, two blue, a purple, and three chocolate. When the bag was full, I quickly snatched my backpack and ran out the door.
I sat on the bench that served as our bus stop and gingerly held the bulging paper bag in my lap. I bent my face closer to the opening of the bag, inhaling the aroma of the three chocolate cupcakes on top. It was intoxicating and brought a goofy smile to my face. I shielded the bag from any passersby, not wanting them to delight in even a hint of the treasure I clutched in my lap. I looked at my watch. I had left the house in such a mad rush, the bus wouldn’t be there for another ten minutes. I decided to occupy the time with a cupcake.
I took one of the chocolates from the top and lovingly unwrapped it. I relished in the fact that I would be the first and last to see the morsel’s soft brown skin, would be the only one to know its delights. I took my time on this one, licking a bit of icing from around the edges before taking a bite, leaving the cupcake diminished by half. My teeth marks left jagged scars on the cake; so harsh it was almost ugly. To hide them, I thrust the rest of the cupcake into my mouth, moving the sticky paste around my mouth with my tongue and then finally down my throat.
Still eight minutes until the bus came. This time I dug deep into the paper sack and produced a blue one. I licked all of the frosting off the top in one fluid motion, leaving only a soggy, blue tinted top. I then unwrapped it and devoured the remaining cake in three bites. Five minutes left.
I couldn’t possibly just sit here, waiting, while these cupcakes taunted me in my lap, the smell of them swimming around my head. I could catch another bus, get to school a few minutes late. I cradled the bag of cupcakes in my arms once more and walked down the block, finding a place where I could enjoy them in peace. I walked into a pizza shop, though why it was open this early, God only knows. I sat down at a table, the top of it mysteriously, yet characteristically, sticky. I placed the coveted sack on the table top, laying it down so the opening faced my chest.
I pulled another cupcake from the bag. It was pink. Not magenta. Mom hated magenta. She said of all the colors, magenta was the tackiest. This was more of a pastel pink. Baby pink. The promise of what was to come pink.
But the longer I stared at the cupcake, the more it became a fleshy pink. Something turned in my stomach at that thought, and I set the pink cupcake down on the table. I fished out the other blue cupcake from the bag, and decided to eat that one instead. I unwrapped it in the same loving manner that I had the previous three, and took a bite. I chewed the cake a few times, but something about the taste had changed. I let the lump of half-chewed food sit in my mouth, letting my saliva turn it into a gluey muck. I swallowed the bite and placed the disfigured blue cupcake next to the pink one. I picked up the pink cupcake again and looked at it, the peach of its flesh taunting me.
I unwrapped it. Crumbles clung to the wrapper like dry skin. I took a huge bite, only leaving a fourth of the cupcake in my hand.
The taste in my mouth was not of sugar and flour. I tasted flesh, my mother’s hands. The sweat and blood she had put into the cupcakes, the shop, our livelihood. I closed my teeth, feeling bone crunch between them, the marrow pooling between my cheek and gums. Blood was running down my chin and seeping from the cupcake in my hand, the gnarled teeth marks forming a joint, the pores of the cake forming crude calloused fingerprints. A fingernail scratched at the roof of my mouth, stroking my soft palate and initiating a gag reflex. I spit the gore in my mouth onto the table and dropped the cupcake that still remained in my hand.
The room around me began to swim and my stomach turned somersaults. Soon I gave in to the gagging and spewed multi-colors all over the table, all over my precious bag of remaining cupcakes. I slid out of my chair and fell to my knees, throwing up all over the floor, drenching my shirt, the vomit pooling and wetting the knees of my pants. I struggled to take in air, but the oxygen couldn’t find a way past the sick streaming past my teeth. The swirls of blues and browns and pinks and greens would almost be artistic if they didn’t reek of stomach juices. Tears leaked down my cheeks as more and more putrescence poured from my mouth; the pool around me was growing and now twelve inches thick. I willed my stomach to be empty, to be rid of the foul cupcakes, but the harder I wished the more I spewed in earnest.
The vomit had now risen to tidal proportions, floating me off my knees and leading me into a dog paddle like stroke. I tried to paddle through the clumps of cake toward the door, all the while spitting. With my next stroke I could feel a limb through the muck. I fumbled for it, grabbing it at an awkward angle. As I pulled it toward me, a head appeared a foot away. It slowly spun towards me, revealing my mother’s face, flecks of half-digested frosting replacing the flour that normally peppered her face. I sucked in my breath in horror, but took vomit into my lungs as well, scorching them and choking me. In my panic I succumbed to the sea of upchuck. The vile substance burned my eyes and nasal passages for a few moments before I was lost, and the pungent smell of my guilt overtook me.