Friends & Mothers

Louise Limerick

Thomas Dunne Books

joanna

ever since evelyn cracked, i’ve been dying for cake. I crave it when I get up in the morning and I pour my regulation ten ounces of cereal into my bowl. Ten ounces isn’t much, you know. I think I’ll have to find a variety without raisins. They weigh too much. And the half a cup of skim milk only just settles the bran dust. I look into my bowl, and I know that I’m too hungry for cereal. I’m aching for cake. Not the add-an-egg dehydrated variety in a cardboard box. What I want is much more substantial. Packet mixes never fill those empty places. The light texture dissolves like spun sugar on your tongue and smears the inside of your mouth with a waxy film of almost flavors. Almost banana. Almost blueberry. Almost chocolate. Actually, the chocolate’s not too bad. If I was going to bake a packet mix, I’d choose chocolate. One of those fancy American chocolate cake mixes that make you drool. One of those double-layered, rich, choc-frosted cakes. Bloody hell, I can almost taste it!

Last night, after I’d eaten my grilled steak and steamed vegetables, I saw that ad. You know the one—the little kid is standing on the stairs watching his mother ice a Betty Crocker chocolate cake in the fluoro-lit kitchen. That cake looked so good, the saliva in my mouth was nearly drowning me when I thought about licking the rich buttercream . . . But what gets me is why a stay-at-home mom would be giving her kid a packet-mix cake for his fifth birthday and frosting it like it was an act of love. Do you know how I could tell she was a stay-at-home mom? She looked like me. It could have been me sitting there, with my drab brown hair, in my sloppy old clothes, in my 1950s, never-been-redone Formica kitchen.

Anyway, working mothers buy their five-year-olds sponge slabs from Woolies that feed twenty. The slabs come with a big yellow banana in blue-striped pajamas dancing through an inch and a half of Vienna cream frosting. The cake tastes like chemicals are holding it together and keeping it soft. It doesn’t matter. Kids only eat the frosting anyway.

I know the kind of cake I’m dying for. It’s not the kind of cake you can buy in a box, or at Woolies. It has to be homemade. The kind of cake they sell here, at the Vista Cafe. I drool like a dog when I look in that display cabinet and see those cakes. Mud cake, the top so thick with dark chocolate you need a hot knife to cut it. Pumpkin syrup cake, flecked with citrus rind and drenched in sweet orange syrup that congeals like sticky toffee on the crust. Blueberry sour cream cake, thick and buttery with a cinnamon sugar crumble and a juicy berry in every second mouthful. Vanilla slices, caramel tarts, melting moments . . . My heart’s rocketing around in my chest as I stand looking at those cakes. Then I remember the weigh-in tonight. I order my skinnychino and I go outside where I can’t see the cakes, not with my eyes open anyway.

I sit outside under a large white market umbrella, at a table with a mosaic of blue and green tiles embedded into the top. The tiles make a pattern that looks like waves frozen in the act of uncurling. I look at the tiles and try to think about the sea. It doesn’t work. As I lift my three-year-old onto my knee, the waitress brushes past us with a tray loaded with coffees and cake. Warm apple teacake. Lightly crusted on the outside with sugar and strewn with soft wedges of apple. The rich butter curls slide down the soft yellow crumbs and unfold onto the plate. I’m drowning. My mouth fills with water and I can barely breathe.

I can’t afford to eat cake if I want to lose ten pounds. Least of all that teacake oozing with butter. Sixteen points! That’s nearly my whole day’s food quota under my Fat-Trimmers points plan. So, when my skinnychino arrives, I try to make the sweet froth last as I juggle Sam on my knee.

“More frop,” he says, grabbing the spoon, and he makes me spoon so much froth into his mouth that I’m going to have to order another skinnychino before the others get here. And maybe a babychino for him, just so I can at least get the sugar kick from the chocolate sprinkled on top. Even just a little taste of something sweet . . . but it’s like throwing matchsticks into a fire and it never satisfies me for long.

Sam’s a big boy for three. Long legs and big feet, puffy inside his sandals. Smelly feet too. He sweats a lot, especially in the heat. Even though it’s March now, there’s still enough heat in the midday sun to start him sweating. As he leans back on me and his Popsicle trickles down my arm, I smell the savory sweat in his hair. That smell and the quick beat of his heart remind me of the rabbit I owned as a child. I remember holding that rabbit up to my face and inhaling the smell of grass and sun and sweat. I remember feeling its heart beating against my cheek. I look at him, Sam, my only baby now that Jake’s at preschool. I stroke the soft pink cheek and stare at the long-lashed eyes and I feel like I’m going to explode with love. It’s moments like these when I can’t understand Evelyn at all. Why doesn’t she tell us what happened? Why does she just sit all closed up and silent? If it were my baby . . .

People talk. They talk about Evelyn and they say that she won’t ever get better. They say she’s trying to protect herself. I don’t think like that. I won’t think like that. She was my friend and I can’t think of a reason why she would have done what people are saying she did. When I think back to the weeks before it happened, my mind’s full of empty spaces. I do remember this one day when something wasn’t quite right. Evelyn walked into the cafe for coffee after she’d dropped William at preschool. It was the first time I’d seen her out and about since the baby was born. Clare had been doing the drop-offs and pickups for her. I remember thinking what a beautiful baby she had. Tiny little Amy, only four weeks old. Evelyn didn’t look beautiful. She looked worn-out, and while the rest of us gooed at the baby she just sat there melting in the summer sun like Sam’s ice cream. She was quiet, too quiet, and when she looked at me she looked straight through me as if I wasn’t really there at all. And that was just before . . . No, I mustn’t. I mustn’t make the connections that everyone else has been making. All new moms get tired. Amy was stolen. That’s what I believe.

The day Amy disappeared, Evelyn went queer. She didn’t explode. She’s not the exploding kind. She kind of did the opposite. She imploded. I think that’s the word. Kind of caved in on herself and shrank away until she certainly wasn’t anyone I could recognize. Yet sometimes I wonder whether, in the moment before she completely lost it, Evelyn did let it all out. At least that would have been gutsy, to yell and scream and kick like a wild thing. I like to think she did but somehow I doubt it. It would be so out of character for Evelyn.

Evelyn was always too well mannered to make a fuss. In any argument she was the first to back down and could put us all to shame just by being so nice. Nice. That was my impression of her when we met on the day our children started kindergarten. Evelyn was helping the teacher soothe five howling three-year-olds. She held two of them in her lap but only one of them, William, was hers. The other kid was wrapped around her neck and screaming for his mother. Evelyn was crying too. Big drops of empathy rolled down her cheeks. “I feel so silly,” she said to me, embarrassed by her tears. “I just can’t help myself when everyone else is doing it!”

I liked Evelyn from the beginning. I tried to prize the clingy kid loose—the one that wasn’t hers. His grip around her neck was so tight that she was beginning to choke, but the kid just wouldn’t come off. I was grateful when my old friend Susan arrived with her daughter, Laura. She shook her head at the chaos and took control straightaway.

It was Susan who suggested that the moms make a quick exit and go for coffee at the Vista Cafe. So a small group of us did. We had coffee and cake and enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to meet regularly. I remember how Evelyn laughed that first day. Her green eyes glistened. She was so different then from the time after Amy was born. I can’t remember what we talked about. Probably our kids. We were all going through the same stuff. I can remember the taste of the mud cake I shared with Evelyn. It was made with dark chocolate, not just cocoa, and it was dense and moist and . . .

It’s strange how this whole business has made me feel so hungry. I don’t like to analyze myself too closely but it’s weird that I should have this incredible longing—for cake. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a little shallow. On the other hand, maybe I’m so deep I can’t even begin to sort myself out. All I know is that ever since Evelyn imploded—gee, I like that word—I’ve been dying. Day by day, a little bit more. Just dying for cake.

Copyright © 2003 by Louise Limerick. All rights reserved.