Joyce woke to the sound of her son, whistling in the kitchen. With her eyes closed she felt the vacancy of her husband’s bedside. Raulph had already departed for work, rising gradually, walking across their bedroom gently, in such a way that he never woke her. And she would lie there each morning never roused because her ears and limbs had habituated to her husband’s foreday movements. It was only one morning of the year that she was awakened by her son’s anomalous presence. His annual visitation evoked discomposure, which caffeinated Joyce’s marrow. She sat up quickly.
She walked into her kitchen and found her son delving through her cookbooks, flipping through to the dessert sections and analyzing the glossy pictures. She began making coffee, noticing that some cake ingredients had been pulled from cupboards and placed on the counter by Raulph before he left. She sat at the table staring at her son.
Joyce only baked once a year, and only for him. This was the 26th cake she would be making. She gazed at her boy, his hair more unruly than the year before, his consideration reminiscent of his father, the narrow bridge of his nose clearly from his mother. He turned back and forth between two parts of a book contemplating the choice. “This one. I want this one.” He finally told her.
Joyce pre-heated her oven, selecting cake pans and measuring utensils. She set everything out in the order in which it would be used. She inventoried the ingredients twice before she began to butter the pans. Her son pushed the cookbooks aside and rested his feet upon the kitchen table. He dug his finger into his ear and then examined the contents cultivated under his fingernail.
Joyce poured two cups of coffee and set a mug next to her son’s feet. She sprinkled flour over the pan trying not to make eye contact with the boy. He began to whistle again. His euphony cut into Joyce’s ears. Her face twisted into a cringe and she asked him, “Please, can you stop doing that?”
The young man scoffed and placed both his hands behind his head, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and began cracking his knuckles. Joyce thought of firecrackers, gun shots. She imagined dead tree limbs snapping. She thought of arthritis. Afraid of what his next retaliation might be, Joyce did not ask him to stop. She sifted the flour vigorously, picturing light snow kissing the broken aspen branches.
“I thought by now I’d be too old for this. You and dad would’ve given up, thrown away the pans, stopped clipping recipes. I didn’t see you at 48 still making me birthday cakes.” the son spoke, now picking at the acne on his shoulders- an affliction Joyce herself suffered until her mid-thirties.
“It’s not your birthday. That’s the entire point. Please don’t pick. Your shoulders will scar terribly if you don’t stop the habit now.” Joyce’s forearm began to ache from the grip she gave the wooden spoon. The sable batter folded and mended into itself, caught the kitchen light and devoured the luster effortlessly like a confectious black hole.
The son dug deeper into his skin, creating red crescent moons. Joyce could feel the familiar sting on her own shoulders. Hot pin heads scorched her nerves. Feverish cinnamon dashed into whole milk. Her boy sucked air between his teeth as he carved three lacerations across his shoulder blade, making his t-shirt inky red.
“Doesn’t Dad kiss those white scars some nights? Isn’t it like some romantic gesture only shared between the two of you? And every time, you respond with ‘Oh Raulph.’ I’m going to find a woman who’ll suck on my scars, forgive me for my own ugliness. I’m sure there’s a soul mate for me, looking for me, dying for me. Bated breath, right, Mom?” His face, half-smiling, as he continued to cleave.
After splitting the batter between pans Joyce set them into the oven. She referenced the recipe her son had chosen and began mixing the buttercream frosting. The mixer droned throughout the kitchen, letting Joyce’s diaphragm unclench while the buzz diluted her son as he scratched the bottoms of his feet and smelled his fingers.
Powdered sugar swept the back of Joyce’s throat. She didn’t want to remove her eyes from the spellbound snowstorm within the mixer. The words cool, frost, cut coiled around her tongue. This was always the worst day in spring.
“This might be the last year I do this.” She admitted to the boy.
“You say that. Come next April you’ll be looking up genoise recipes.” Her son dug under his fingernails and smeared the motley matter on her table cloth.
Raulph arrived home, champagne under his arm and a bouquet of lilies in his hand. Joyce sat at the table with the finished cake next to her. For the first time that day she smiled. Raulph kissed her forehead and poured the brut. Joyce cut through the layered pastry, thinking that next year she might attempt a genoise. She slid her finger across the cake knife, collecting the black and white composition. Bark and blizzard. Charcoal and salt. Piano keys.
The two of them said nothing while their glasses kissed, tolling between them the unspoken salutation to the son they chose never to have.