‘Birds of Paradise’ Excerpt
A cookie, Avis told her children, is a soul. She held up the wafer, its edges shimmering with ruby-dark sugar. “You think it looks like a tiny thing, right? Just a little nothing. But then you take a bite.”
Four-year-old Felice lifted her face. Avis fanned her daughter’s eyes closed with her fingertips and placed it in Felice’s mouth. Felice opened her sheer eyes. Lamb slid his orange length against her ankles. Avis handed a cookie to eight-year-old Stanley, who held it up to his nose. “Does that taste good?” she asked. Felice nodded and opened her mouth again.
“It smells like flowers,” Stanley said.
“Yes.” Avis paused, a cookie balanced on her spatula. “That’s the rosewater. Good palate, darling.”
“Mermaids eat roses,” Felice said. “Then they melt.”
This morning’s pastry poses challenges. To assemble the tiny mosaic disks of chocolate flake and candied ginger, Avis must execute a number of discrete, ritualistic steps: scraping the chocolate with a fine grater, rolling the dough cylinder in large-grain sanding sugar, and assembling the ingredients atop each hand-cut disk of dough in a pointillist collage. Her husband wavers near the counter, watching. “They’re like something Marie Antoinette would wear around her neck. When she still had one.”
“I thought she was more interested in cake,” Avis says, she tilts her narrow shoulders, veers around him to stack dishes in the sink.
“But really—look at this.” Brian holds one on the palm of his hand; it twinkles with the kitchen light. “Shame to eat them.”
Avis had shopped for the ingredients two days earlier, driving to Fort Lauderdale, to an Italian import store, to buy the rock sugar and flour. The outlying regions of downtown Miami, Hallandale, Hollywood, seemed esoteric, scribbled over—inscrutable as an ancient desert. She was offended by the ads painted on the sides of warehouses, hawking lamps and furniture, medical treatments and ice cream, a thirty-foot naked man reclining, selling God-knows-what.
Yesterday she crystallized the ginger, then mixed the ingredients slowly, not to disturb the dough. But even after one full day’s work, there were still more steps to complete this morning, including baking and cooling. Avis had hurried, not wanting Brian to notice how much labor has gone into this. Her assistant won’t be in for another hour and there’s a tower in the sink, open bins of pastry flour, the hair dryer on the counter (just a blast of cool air, to ward off the humidity, before slipping the cookies into tins). Brian slips one of the half-dollar-sized pastries into his mouth. Avis knows it will dissolve mid-chew, fleeting as a wink. “Have I had these before? Do you sell them?”
“Not for years.” Avis can’t help boasting a little, “Last time I made these, Neiman’s sold them for $4.95 apiece in their case.”
Brian eyes the three remaining on his plate. “We should stick them in a safe.”
Avis admits, “A little labor-intensive.” Gingembre en cristal was Felice’s favorite cookie; Stanley’s were homely, proletarian Toll Houses. Avis remembers toiling over the delicate ginger coins for Felice’s tenth birthday, only for her daughter to thank her politely and then refuse to eat them. She’d said, “I just like the way they look.”
Avis had felt singed by the rejection. Yet there was also a pang of admiration: the purity of Felice’s desires—preferring beauty to sugar!
Avis had started baking because there was never anything to eat when she was a child. Her mother—head lowered over Dante, Hegel, C. S. Lewis, reading Voltaire, Bakhtin, Avicenna, in French, Russian, Arabic—would murmur, “Go get yourself something.” Avis would hang on the refrigerator door, staring at cans of tomato juice, sticks of butter, bags of coffee. She went for days at a time eating only jam and slices of bread. The women at the Redbird Bakery on the next block gave her free muffins and scones whenever she came in. Her mother was busy: she taught and wrote about private and cultural representations of Heaven, the phoenix, the transformation of base materials into gold. Instead of reading storybooks, Avis stood in the kitchen studying the pictures in cookbooks, a more immediate form of alchemy.
Avis asked about the identity of her father when she was ten: Geraldine waved her off, saying, “Oh, who keeps track?” When Avis persisted, she shook her head: “No, no—don’t be tedious, dear.”
The first time Avis knelt on a chair and stirred eggs into flour to make a vanilla cake, she had an inkling of how higher orders of meaning encircle the chaos of life. Where philosophy, she already intuited, created only thought—no beds made, no children fed—in other rooms there were good things like measuring spoons, thermometers, and recipes, with their lovely, interwoven systems and codes. Avis labored over her pastries: her ingredient base grew, combining worlds: preserved lemons from Morocco in a Provençal tart; Syrian olive oil in Neapolitan cantuccini; salt combed from English marshes and filaments of Kashmiri saffron secreted within a Swedish cream. By the time Avis was in college, her baking had evolved to a level of exquisite accomplishment: each pastry as unique as a snowflake, just as fleeting on the tongue: pellucid jams colored cobalt and lavender, biscuits light as eiderdown.
Brian edges in front of the sink, trying to stay out of her way. “Like you don’t have enough to worry about today.”
“Yes, yes.” She glances at him: he’s holding the counter as if it were keeping him steady. He’s in the kitchen, she knows, because they’d fought earlier—or had what passes for a fight between them—the dart of words: Why are you still doing this? I just don’t think . . .
I’m aware of what you think.
Now he looms, big as an obstacle. Not sure where to put himself. She doesn’t like having people in her kitchen, but she does feel a lilt toward him, grateful that he hasn’t run out yet. They’re trying to stop fighting, but can’t quite leave each other alone.
“That kid never ate anything anyway,” he says darkly.
Avis begins the cautious and deliberate transfer of cookies to tin, using just the tips of her fingers. “Yes, and I’m crazy to go meet her.”
“Now you’re angry again.”
“No, I’m not.” Avis places the cookies in concentric rings on parchment layers inside the tin. “I know just what my husband thinks, thank you very much, and I’m not angry. I’m fine.”
Brian crosses his arms, the suit fabric bunching in fine soft ripples. She knows he can’t stop himself. “But, please, admit it. It’s what? The first time all year we hear from that girl? Light of our lives. You’re already exhausted, at your wits’ end. Finally you’ll see her—if she comes. I don’t get why you knock yourself out even more—making some impossible dessert that—I’m sorry, but she probably won’t even eat. Am I wrong?”
Avis touches the sides of the tin. Her ribs feel compressed, like a whalebone corset. “No. No. You’re right.”
He stares at her, a weight in his gaze. He turns and his eyes fall on the Audubon calendar hanging near the door—the only ornamentation in Avis’s kitchen. The month of August, Snowy Egret. He looks away.
Avis sees this and smiles. Her hands are steady and cool as she lays down another round of parchment. “Felice never liked cakes,” she says. “Even for birthdays.”
He tucks in his chin, silent.
Avis finishes the layer and fits the lid on the tin, inhales the kitchen’s gingered air. Flour and yolk and cream are all coarse—of the earth. But sugar and air and vanilla are elements of the firmament. Avis used to tell her kids: Sweets should be an evanescence: cakes and pies represent minutes, cookies and mille-feuilles are seconds, meringues are moments. “I actually haven’t made these since she left,” Avis says. If a voice could be inspected under a lens, the first tiny crack of the day would be detectable. “I thought these might be—” She’s gone too far—pretending to be braver than she can manage right now—and there’s no good way to complete the sentence.
“Never mind,” Brian murmurs. “It’ll be fine today.” He touches the ridge at the back of her neck, just under her twist of hair. But she is so light-boned, he feels clumsy and lifts his hand. “I have to get to work,” he says like it’s an apology.
She lifts her head, offering him a temple to kiss goodbye.
The sun is riper, more golden and potent as Avis stands in the driveway, trying not to show impatience as her assistant roots through her purse, hunting for her keys—first, without looking, just feeling, then plopping the bag on the hood of her car and examining its contents. From over the tiled eave of her house comes a bird cry, so close, deep, and staccato it startles Avis. It’s a new song that she’s been hearing over the past few mornings. Chortling followed by a long whistle, like a dove’s three-note gurgle, then a low-level, agitated squeak—a funny extended song. Catbird? It starts sweetly, then sharpens and escalates: Brian’s complained about the noise waking him, threatens to call Animal Control.
“Listen to that.”
“What?” Nina pulls out her handful of keys. “Hooray already.”
“You didn’t hear that?” Avis asks as she slides into the car. “The loud, angry one? The bird?”
Nina pulls her door shut, adjusts the rearview mirror. She laughs through her nose. “A loud angry bird? Okay, let’s focus. Now, we’re going to the usual place?”
“Please.” Avis stares out the window, trying to find the bird. The flickering bamboo along the perimeter of the drive seems to correspond to her own internal state, a flickering grief or rawness, left over from that morning’s argument with Brian. “You’re just causing yourself pain,” he’d said, several times. “It’s like you’re doing it deliberately.”
Did she love him still? Persist in loving him, her mother would have said. “Oh, don’t marry a lawyer, my dear,” she’d cried. “They’re horrible. They’re venal. At least accountants say what they are. They make no bones about it.”
Was it possible to still love someone when she fantasizes about solitude? She can see the state of separateness so clearly: a house without Brian. A cottage with a fireplace and thatched roof, a morning sky like opal; every inch of the place a kitchen, a bakery. Where would she sleep if she didn’t have Brian to make the bed for? Would she sleep at all? She’s read that the unhappiest, loneliest writers write the sweetest poems. Still, she loves their house, a wonderful old Spanish-style with plaster moldings, fireplace framed with blue mosaic, rooms that flow like river water into each other, a generous, high-ceilinged living room that opens into a dining room, an office, a Florida room, all imbued with subtle lights from a row of French doors that lead to the backyard and pool. She could never give up her house or kitchen.
Nina and Avis pull out onto Vizcaya. They pass through the vault of old black olive trees, the pale houses in ocher, terracotta, and sienna—light-stained, rippling tile rooftops. The neighborhood is filled with key-shaped doors, arches, brick drives, Moorish tiles, round windows, sly turrets and gables, windows in triangles and trapezoids glinting from hidden corners. And this is a restrained, middle-to-upper area. Just a few blocks to the south, Coral Gables unfurls into immense estates, manicured lawns, private docks, the winter homes of czars. Avis has taken strolls past the study of Thomas Edison, an orchard where barefooted Alexander Graham Bell picked mangoes, beyond languid botanical gardens that hug the shore, copses of banyan trees with their preternatural dangling limbs and silvery flesh.
At a cocktail party she’d overheard a realtor referring to Avis’s neighborhood as “the ghetto of the Gables.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she’d edged into the conversation while cutting a baguette on a sharp bias. “A ghetto?”
The realtor, a woman with a long, corded neck, had seemed to barely register Avis, glancing at her hands on the cutting board. Avis wasn’t the caterer—she merely disliked the way the hostess ripped her loaves into chunks. “It’s silly,” the woman had answered, mainly addressing the man across from her. “Just, you know, four bedrooms instead of eight, balconies but no tennis courts, no servants’ quarters. That sort of thing.”
Avis had coolly revealed her address to the realtor and the woman had replied, “Goodness. Well, at least you’re to the west of LeJeune.”
The scent of jasmine drifts into the windows. Songbird season is over. No more gardenias: hurricane season. The trees have grown dense as rooftops; the plumeria hold their flower-tipped branches up like brides with golden corsages. Avis sits hunched forward, clinging to her tin: she can feel the metal chill through her blouse, all the way to the pit of her stomach. She’d forgotten to eat again. She flips down the mirror in the car visor, batting at her hair—lately it’s started thinning but there’s still enough to twirl into a twist—a smear of chocolate on her cheek. She rubs at it, then slaps the visor back. Her breath gets shallower as they drive, and there seems to be a lump forming in her throat. By the time they’ve reached the Alton Road exit ramp, heading up the spine of the beach to their meeting place, her arms feel rubbery with fear. A small unwelcome voice returns to the back of her head: Please forgive me, please forgive me.
Avis stiffens as they pull over at the corner, pressing herself into the seat. Five months ago: Avis had received one of her daughter’s random calls to meet, and off she’d gone to the appointed place—always against Brian’s wishes—clutching money, a shopping bag of gifts—expensive shampoo, a new sweater, and an iPod—and sat alone for over two hours, suffering miserably through suspense and, finally, disappointment. Today she brings nothing but a wallet stuffed with crisp fifties and the tin of cookies.
Nina waits a moment, engine idling, watching Avis’s profile. After a few long moments, she says, “Hang on.” Nina pulls out her thermos, pours an inch of inky coffee in the bottom of two waxed paper cups—cortaditos. She touches her cup to Avis’s, toasts, “Salud, amor, y pesetas.” Avis can barely return Nina’s smile. She closes her eyes to drink. The richly black liquid tastes of smoke, like the pot of Turkish coffee she stood over throughout her childhood, stirring and watching and stirring. When Avis brought it to her mother, she would take a sip, close her eyes, and mutter, “It takes like dirt.”
Avis would apologize and her mother would say, “No, it’s good dirt.”
Avis’s eyes feel hot: she tucks her empty cup on the dash and touches Nina’s hand, mute and overgrateful. Nina shakes her hand loose, waving at Avis. “You get going.”
The car door opens: the day is mild, the air crystalline, rendering all details in hyper-real clarity. Avis realizes she’s shaking, her teeth chattering. She clings to the edge of the car as if it’s an airplane hatch. She shakes her head. “I can’t.”
She’d felt disorientation strong as vertigo after they’d first moved to Miami—as if her magnetic poles had been switched. The drivers were appalling, punching their horns, running reds, cutting each other off like sworn enemies. There were certain shops and restaurants one would not wish to enter unless one spoke Spanish—and not at her halting, college intermediate level, either. There were whole neighborhoods and sections of town where she felt scrutinized and sized up. How many times had she waited by counters while salespeople went in search of “the one” who spoke English? One of Brian’s new business associates took the two of them out for “traditional Cuban cuisine” to an immense old restaurant on Calle Ocho, a warren of rooms filled with speckled old mirrors and gilt frames. He rattled off an order in Spanish, and barely five minutes later, the waiter returned with heaped-up plates of ground beef and cubed pork and fish in a blanket of white gravy. While Brian and the other man leaned forward into a discussion of easement disputes, his wife raised a penciled eyebrow at Avis. “This isn’t real Cuban food,” she muttered. “It’s for the tourists. Hector brings Americans here because he thinks they’ll like it better.”
Avis insisted that the food was fine, but the salty, greasy meat unsettled her stomach. The waiter ignored everyone at their table but Hector.
Brian gleaned from his new bosses that to lead a civilized life in Miami, one had to buy in the Gables: apparently Coconut Grove was for artists and related “marginals,” Kendall for Colombians, Doral for Venezuelans, Hialeah for Cubans, Pinecrest for multichild suburban dullards, and beyond the (frightening, inscrutable) downtown, there were ominous “ethnic” regions with names like Overtown, Liberty City, and sad Little Haiti. PI&B helped Brian and Avis find and finance their gracious home ($104,000—an astronomical sum to Avis, nineteen years ago), and when Felice was born, Avis pushed her stroller through the streets, trying to get her bearings. She crossed neighborhoods filled with pillowy silence, where landscapers roamed around waving herbicide wands, where the rare matron walking her borzoi might offer an arch, provisional “Good morning.” Five blocks from their front door there were houses on the historic register, manses with titles, “Villa Tempesta,” “The San Esteban,” ivy-circled palm trees, secret gated communities, limestone entrances flanked by stone unicorns. And, everywhere, polished sedans with blacked-out windows, gliding by like ghosts.
One day, after a year and a half of living in Miami, she was again out pushing Felice on their daily walk. At the end of one block, some women gathered around the stroller. “Qué linda! Hola, muñeca!” the women cooed, patting Felice’s thighs, “Hola, gordita,” while Felice frowned into the sunlight: a gorgeous child. They were nannies and housekeepers: they lived in cottages behind their employers’ homes—some of these servants’ quarters bigger than Avis’s house. Avis smiled uneasily, nodding, straining for bits of comprehension. One of the women had a smooth, young face, her hair gathered in a glossy chignon at the nape of her neck. Avis remembers the woman’s curiosity—the way she seemed to regard Avis as a sort of exotic creature. Despite Felice’s pale skin and lighter eyes, Luma did not assume, like the others, that Avis was her nanny.
She became Avis’s first assistant—initially, more of a babysitter for the children—once they started school, she began helping Avis in the kitchen—washing dishes, crushing walnuts, chopping cherries, scraping vanilla beans, measuring and sifting flour. After she left, claiming snidely there would be less work at the Au Bon Pain, Avis went through a series of assistants. They talked to the children in Spanish; they helped Avis with the infinite tasks of running a home bakery. Some became her friends—though rarely confidantes. This was, as far as Avis could divine, the way people did it in Miami: they were friendly but reserved, confined mainly to the close orbits of relatives. While Avis’s kitchen was increasingly taken over by her bakery, the assistants brought in home-cooked dishes—picadillo, moros y cristianos, ropa vieja, pastelitos—beef crumbled or shredded, fried nearly crispy and tossed with dark spices, served with rice or bread or stuffed into flaking, downy pies that, Avis knew, had to be made with lard. They took Avis shopping, taught the kids torchy, breathless Cuban love songs like Bésame Mucho and Adoración. Avis had no extended family, no old ties to the area: they explained Miami to her, the intricacies of the Cuban community, the warring clans that owned the city, the class nuances of the Gables neighborhoods—the “Platinum Triangle,” the “bohemian North End.” Rarely did anyone work for her for more than a year or two—they left to get married or have their own children: or they tired of Avis’s imperious, Gallic approach to baking. Or Avis fired them, tired of “Cuban time,” “Miami time.” The entitled pouting and eye-rolling of formerly wealthy or spoiled women.
On the corner of Alton and Lincoln Roads, Avis feels wobbly, as if the ground is stirring very slightly beneath her feet. “You okay?” Nina calls through the passenger window.
Avis is barely aware of having moved from the car. She turns to Nina and lifts her lips into a smile, then turns back. As she starts down Lincoln Road, she tries not to hold the bakery box too high. The pedestrian mall is fluted with trees, a late-summer flush over the simple, old Art Deco buildings. A ruffle of awnings and brick red table umbrellas, planters spilling over with arthurium, ginger, hibiscus, blooms in decadent colors, vermillion, magenta, sapphire. Grand date palms line the center of the walkway, their emerald fronds like starbursts and water fountains. Orchids and bromeliads tumble from crates hanging over store displays or secreted in the branches of trees. Avis hunches her shoulders and lowers her head—she doesn’t have the reserves to take in this exuberance. The stores and shoppers appear blurry, then break into clarity as she gets closer, as if moving along the sides of a fishbowl. There are shopkeepers rinsing their storefronts with garden hoses and waiters setting out chairs; shirtless men strut along the sidewalk; elderly women in pearls and black cashmere window-shop beside young girls who each in some way remind Avis of Felice. Couples push double and triple baby strollers, some of the mothers are also extravagantly pregnant. Avis believes that these women deliberately avert their eyes.
Four—almost five—years of erratic visits—perhaps twelve visits in all. No, Avis corrects herself; she has not lost track after all. There have been eight visits to date, no more no less. She has seen her daughter exactly eight times since she turned thirteen.
By the door of a restaurant, a girl with long beige hair steps forward, pushing a menu at Avis. “We’re offering out-of-towner specials,” she chimes, then seems to detect something on Avis’s face and directs herself to the next pedestrian.
At last, Avis reaches the outdoor café table where she will await Felice. It takes all of her effort to stay clear-headed and calm. She notes that the usual waiter is there, an olive-skinned man with drowsy eyes, who once exclaimed, “She is here at last!” when Felice arrived an hour late. Avis sits at a table, feeling fluish, gripping the tin of precious cookies. Will Felice eat these? Avis charges such exorbitant prices for her little pastries that her son told her it was “shameful.” But she doesn’t take the shortcuts of professional bakeries—nothing is rushed, each batch is constructed of pure ingredients, no factory lard or chemical fillers or cheap flour. She thinks of herself as an artisan, each of her pastries as delicately constructed as a piece of stained glass. And she has discovered that the more she charges, the more the customers want.
She orders an iced tea and tells the waiter she needs more time with the menu. He returns with a basket of rolls, a tin of purple jam, a round, peach-colored plumeria blossom among the rolls. Avis sits back, scanning each face in the stream of shoppers. She tries to avoid her watch but catches a glimpse, involuntarily, when she lifts her water glass: 12:08. She lays one hand on top of the other on the tin and tries to steady them.
Felice is often late.
She sips her sweating iced tea and watches the passersby: everyone is so young. So many girls, their small chins tilted toward the light like sunflowers. A child walks by, perhaps six or seven years old, her narrow back sprightly, her hair tucked into a black velvet headband; she is holding her mother’s hand.
The waiter wafts through her line of vision—a gigalo-ish face, outlandishly seductive eyes. She looks down.
12:13. She is angry with herself for peeking—not meaning to—doing it habitually—she twists the watch face around on her wrist so it taps against the café table. Felice isn’t usually more than a half hour late. But there was that one time. An hour. Anything is possible.
The ice in her glass begins to melt. The waiter removes it and puts down a fresh glass of ice and tea. “Do you know what you want yet?” He scans the other tables as if he’s at a party, waiting for someone more interesting to appear.
Sunlight edges around the table umbrella and she can feel the heat on her forearm: they must use such small umbrellas to keep people from lingering. “No—I’d like to wait for my—for my other party to arrive.” Her voice is professionally uninflected; she looks directly at him, sits back into shadow: I too have worked the front of the house.
But Avis also feels a minor soughing at the center of her chest as the waiter turns on his heel. The air seems to bow straight through her skin, her body raw. She moves the cookie tin from her lap to the table, not caring if the waiter thinks she’s a weird lost woman clutching her treasure. Nothing matters. She stares at her hands, crosshatched with scrapings of this morning’s flour work, sinewy with veins and knuckles, overdeveloped, like her calves and ankles, from standing and kneading and stirring. The tin is her talisman. She no longer focuses on the crowds: she sees herself and her daughter everywhere, like memory echoes from the past, bouncing along the sidewalks. All those pairs hovering outside store windows, a hand glissading down the back of a head of hair, an armload of shopping bags—oh, that was once her and Felice. For years and years, that’s how it was—even her son knew it—that somehow, without any conscious decision, Avis had assumed that daughters belonged to mothers, and sons to their fathers. Before she’d ever had kids or even met her husband, she’d imagined baking with a daughter. Showing her how to crack an egg one-handed, between her fingers, the way to distill essences from berries, the proper way to tie an apron.
Avis curls in her lips, bites down with just enough pressure to keep from crying. She thinks of Felice at twelve—just before she had gotten so angry.
Felice had wanted to go to a party at Lola Rodriguez’s house—just a few blocks away, right in the Gables. They knew Lola—she was one of Felice’s cadre—unserious, sweet-natured girls, all of them just beginning to be vain about their smooth hair and skin and nails. When they were together—Lola, Felice, Betty, Coco, Marisa, Yeni, Bella—Avis had a general impression of splashes of laughter, colorful dresses, and thin, tan arms. These girls were accustomed to elaborate entertainments—pool parties, birthday parties; in a few more years most of them would plan wedding-like quinceañeras, their fancy white dresses like poufs of Bavarian cream. Brian and Avis did their best to keep up—taking the kids to water parks and museums, summertime hegiras to Europe, and the costly winter pilgrimages to Disney World, its coiling lines and raw sunshine. But sometimes she would notice Felice standing apart from the others, especially as she grew older—her eyes grave, even when she was laughing—a kind of fretful concentration about her.
A few days past Thanksgiving, six years ago. Avis had been working so steadily kneading bread dough that she hadn’t noticed how late it was until a blue glistening in the window distracted her: the Calvadoses’ Christmas lights had come on, floating the outline of a house on the black night. Brian didn’t get home until after seven and Stanley was at a friend’s house. Usually Felice would’ve stopped in the kitchen after school for whatever treat her mother was testing (back then, she was forever developing new offerings for her clients). Avis checked the cooling rack: a tray of raspberry éclairs in glossy chocolate coats.
Avis moved through the house, switching on lights, wondering if Felice had stayed late at school. In the hallway outside her daughter’s room, her hand on a light switch, Avis stopped: there were tiny, gasping, imploring sounds coming from within. They sounded so unearthly that everything seemed to hover there, as if the night and stars had leaked into the house and hovered in this dark, sparkling hallway. After listening for a moment, Avis knocked gently, bringing her ear close to the door. “Felice? Darling? Are you there? Can I come in?”
The tiny noises ceased and it was quiet for such a long time that Avis began to wonder if she was hearing things. Finally she heard something muffled and low, and after another pause, she turned the old glass doorknob. She could barely make out Felice on the bed. Her head was propped on the pillow, her hair curling and waving like a sea anemone, her arms flung to either side, she looked half-drowned, ineffably lovely. “Watch your eyes.” Instead of the overhead, Avis switched on the softer desk lamp so the room glowed with a sea-green penumbra. “Hey.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “What’s going on? You didn’t say hi. I’ve got éclairs, and there’s still some mousse with the salted caramel.”
“Hi Mommy,” Felice said in a dazed, unnatural voice. “I feel so tired. I don’t know what it is. I’m just so tired.”
Avis felt her daughter’s forehead, then helped her get undressed and slide under the covers: the child fell asleep instantly.
Felice stayed in bed all night and all the next day: she lay so still it didn’t even seem like sleep to Avis, but a kind of stony, mortal sinking. Stanley boiled a whole chicken, browned carrots, onions, and turnips, and brought Felice the fragrant broth, but she barely managed a few spoonfuls. Avis and Brian had terse, whispered conferences outside Felice’s bedroom door. Brian was convinced that Felice was merely overtired: “Soccer practice, gymnastics camp, birthday parties practically every week. And these mountains of homework! She needs a vacation just to be a regular kid.”
Then Avis learned through the school’s phone grapevine that there’d been a suicide at Gables Middle. The girl was thirteen, a grade ahead of Felice, but Avis had heard that suicides could send ripples of shock throughout a school: the administrators offered counseling services to students. She went into the bedroom to ask her daughter if she’d known the girl. “Who?” Felice stared up from her pillow: her eyes had a pearly luster. “Who is that?”
Even after she’d spent three days in bed, Avis didn’t want to take Felice to a doctor: she didn’t think it would help. She didn’t have much of a fever—or any clear physical symptoms, apart from lassitude. It almost seemed as if she needed some sort of bruja, as Nina would say, a witch or sorcerer, to break the feverish spell. She tried to talk to Felice, to be easy and comforting, hoping that conversation might help restore her. But Felice’s unresponsiveness was so frightening she gave up. Instead Avis retreated to the kitchen, trying to concoct something to tempt Felice, as if coaxing her away from a ledge. She made chocolate truffles with essence of Earl Grey; Brie gougères; sable cookies; baba au rhum. Felice refused everything. Throat constricted, Avis watched Stanley withdraw from Felice’s room each day, his soup bowls emptied.
Eventually she did reemerge, but the light in her face seemed different: she’d gone from clarity to a gray gem. Even her voice was different, textured. There was a new satiny quality about her, like grief, that made her seem older—her loveliness elevated into something unearthly. Geraldine—Avis’s mother—would have said that Felice had stepped through some sort of enchantment, and that it had altered her. Part of the spell remained inside her. Avis could see its remnants—a sly, feline indifference: the impatience to return to her enchantment. Things escalated after that, the atmosphere in the house became inexplicably combative. Avis remembers her daughter’s distraught expression, unable to comprehend why her father was forcing her—forcing her—to return from a party before midnight.
“Humor me,” Brian had said, lingering in their daughter’s bedroom door. “I only have a few more years to pretend to make the rules.”
Avis knew this would be meaningless to their daughter, that Felice believed that the only true time was the present: she was twelve and she would always be twelve, sprawled across her bed, sobbing. They had elected to be old, they were meant to be old. Nothing would change: Felice was meant to be young, and she was sad and would always feel that way.
Felice used to be such an easy, pliant child. “Of course she’s easy,” Brian used to joke with their friends. “All you have to do is give your child everything.”
After her “illness,” as Avis thought of that time, she noticed the sharpening of Felice’s personality—a willful recalcitrance, bouts of spoiled, pettish behavior. It was unpredictable. A kind of furtiveness spirited across her daughter’s face. Once, she broke into tears when Avis made her change an outfit. “It’s like you think you own me. You don’t even really love me.”
Brian, of course, said Avis was imagining things. “She’s a preteen girl. This is what they do.”
The night of the party, there’d been a storm of tears. Brian, home late from work, bowed over a stack of paperwork. Avis thought he was being particularly rigid about a 10 p.m. curfew, and she was tempted to dissent. Their daughter wept passionately, her lashes dark and pointed. “I can’t believe you people,” Felice had cried, her voice ragged as if something were sawing away inside her.
“Maybe you’d rather not go at all?” Brian threatened, arms crossed, standing in her doorway. Looking back, Avis is jealous of these young parents who could still offer and withhold freedom. Avis spoke with Brian privately in their bedroom. A compromise was brokered.
So Felice went to the party. She smiled at them before leaving—it seemed that all was forgiven—they’d agreed on a curfew of 11:30. When Avis kissed Felice, she detected a trace of dried tears on her daughter’s face and moved to brush it away, then checked herself, saying instead, “You look so pretty.”
Felice had given her a tremulous smile that pierced Avis. “Thank you, Mommy. You do too.” She waved on her way out the door.
That evening, Felice didn’t come home.
Avis stirs the murk of sugar in the bottom of her glass. She watches it rise a few inches into the amber liquid, then settle back. If this place were half-decent, she muses, they’d have given her simple syrup.
She fingers her watch, refusing to look at it. Felice has been over an hour late in the past, hasn’t she? Surely. She has also not come at all, on one or two occasions.
The waiter is hovering near her left elbow and Avis finds she has taken an intense dislike to this man, his demonic appearances and disappearances, the way he places the refilled basket before her, murmuring, “Fresh bread.”
The cell phone rings and Avis nearly upsets her drink, which the waiter (why is he still there?) catches. It might be Felice, she thinks, though her daughter never uses the prepaid cell phone she gave her three years ago (too late, too late . . . Felice had started asking for her own phone when she’d turned ten, but Brian had ruled she was too young). Avis checks the screen and her pulse slows with disappointment: Nina—Cell. The time stamp on the screen: 2:02.
“Do you know what you’d like, ma’am?” the waiter asks.
Avis experiences a surge of rage so cool and hard it feels as if her body is filled with ice. She could stand and quietly crush the waiter’s windpipe with her thumbs, sit down and finish sipping her gritty tea. She smiles at him, her face metallic. “Not right now, thank you,” her voice a tiny hammer on iron.
She can’t quite let herself get at that night—the first night—that Felice didn’t come home. She knows police were involved, and 3 a.m. drives, and calls to other parents—she can’t recall the sequence. Then, after the terrible empty hours of waiting, like a miracle, there was Felice emerging from Del Fishbein’s BMW. It was the morning after the party, the sun a blister on the horizon. The birds were chucking, creaking, whirring; they sounded like monkeys and lizards and rubbing tree limbs.
And there was that boy with Felice—what was his name? Casey? Shawn?
But it wasn’t the boy, Felice insisted. She’d gotten tired of the party, she said. She’d asked Casey—or Connor—to walk her home, but they’d stopped to look at the water in the dark. Water? Avis realized she was talking about the canals that intersected the Gables: slow, fat manatees sometimes rose to the water’s surface and ibises littered the banks like stars.
See, Felice had wondered if they could see the manatees in the dark, she tried to explain to her mother in her reasonable voice. She and Avis stood in the middle of the yard in the dawn, as if Felice simply couldn’t wait to get inside the house to explain herself, both of them still in the clothes they’d been wearing the night before. Felice’s hands held out in explanation, “I wanted to see if they slept or where they would be, you know? And we cut across the Fishbeins’ yard and there were, like, a hundred million of them! They were playing all together in the canal—the manatees!” Avis glanced at the boy; he stood, sleepy-eyed, behind Felice, hands jammed in his pockets. He squinted, the grass on the front lawn seemed to be too bright for him.
Avis’s daughter’s eyes were overwide; she was speaking too loudly. She’d told her mother that she and this Shawn—who was just a friend, nothing else (he looked away, over one narrow shoulder, blinking at the bright lawns. He was fourteen at most, Avis calculated)—had sat on the banks of the Fishbeins’ yard, just above the stone steps to the water, watching this display in the dark. “And it was just, you know, it was all like warm and soft”—Felice had put her hands up to her face, calming a bit—“and we fell asleep. And the next thing we knew, Mrs. Fishbein was out there in her nightie. ‘Your mother’s going crazy!’ ” Felice mimicked.
Avis listened with tears standing in her eyes. Brian was too furious to come out of the house. He didn’t trust himself to speak. Still, they didn’t actually punish Felice: perhaps they should have? Brian wanted to ground her but Avis talked him out of it, saying, That’s the problem—we tried to control her, so she rebelled.
Avis didn’t know what to make of her daughter’s fantastic story. Was she on drugs? Avis stood next to her and ran her fingers through Felice’s silky hair. Her daughter’s breath and hair smelled clean—not a hint of beer or cigarettes.
Felice seemed to ground herself—coming straight home from school, sleeping for hours over the weekend. Stanley moved through the house silently, as if around a convalescent. Gradually they all relaxed, and things seemed mostly normal again. Three months later, when Felice was thirteen, she went to another party. She’d laughed on her way out the door, swearing she’d be home by ten latest, kissing her father and saying, mock-serious, “Don’t worry, Daddy.” She was missing for three nights in a row.
Avis remembers the three nights and days without her daughter—the sheer panic of driving around, searching. At home, she couldn’t sleep more than ten minutes at a time; instead she stood at her marble slab rolling pie crusts that shattered and crumpled, filling the freezer with crusts lined with flour and parchment, stacked in towers. When Felice finally reappeared in the driveway, it felt like taking a breath after being buried alive. Avis recalls how Felice stared out of the backseat of the cruiser, fixing her parents with a sharp, red gaze. She hadn’t meant to come home that time—not ever. The police had found her with some older kids in a nightclub on Hollywood Beach. She was wearing clothes Avis had never seen before—a mesh blouse that adhered to her skin and a pair of faded jeans cinched with a belt of leather petals like a daisy chain. Avis wept while a white-haired officer with a weathered, kindly face stood in their front door talking to her and Brian about social services and family counseling, and their daughter stared out of the police car, over their heads. She begged Felice to tell them why she’d stayed away. Felice stared as if she wasn’t there at all.
Avis had wished desperately at that moment that she’d grown up with a proper mother—a real one—who would’ve shown her what to do—not the shadow figure, muttering over books and papers, two pencils tucked into her hair. Avis’s mother had raised her in a state of benign neglect, and would scarcely have noticed if Avis had stayed out all night for a week or a month. After the police had taken their statements, the officers left and Felice followed her parents back into the house. Avis had closed the front door, and Brian grabbed Felice by one of her winglike arms and swatted her, hard, twice with the flat of his palm against the seat of her jeans.
Avis gulped a high, startled suck of air, and watched her daughter’s face broaden, as if she were about to burst into tears, and then tighten, masklike, into something unfamiliar. Avis didn’t blame Brian exactly—or at least not in the way he assumed she did—not for the spanking. It seemed possible in fact, at times like that, that she really did still love him. She blamed him only for making it so plain to all of them—the gesture so furious and despairing—how ineffectual they were. Felice had started leaving them already: neither one knew how to stop it, neither knew why it was happening.
Avis looks past the waiter’s shoulder. About to surrender the table, she takes a last look at the crowded sidewalk. In that moment, taking in the flux of hair and eyes and talking, the hands and dresses, all at once, a rush of pure, incandescent relief. It floods her body, melting away her bones. There: emerging from the crowd, that brisk, unmistakable, long-boned walk, tall and slim, the fingers curling absently against her sides.
Avis releases the cookie tin and places her hand on the iron chair arms, letting her breath deepen, pushing up, uncurling from her tight hunch. At last. Another electrical cascade of release as she moves forward. At the same moment, the waiter appears, interposing himself between Felice and Avis. “Know what you want yet?”
She flinches. For a moment, the day seems to tilt: Avis sees green and silver leaves, a lace of cirrus clouds, a bit of linen-colored umbrella. Her breath and pulse knock in her cranium. Avis lifts her arms, moving toward the girl, but Felice looks so shocked that Avis halts midway, her arms frozen in the air. The girl’s eyes are wide; whites show around the irises—Avis sucks in a tiny sip of air, trying to smile, because (of course!) it seems that this is not Felice after all, but just another lovely wraith of a girl, a stranger minding her own business. Avis’s lips tremble as she smiles; she says, “Oh, I just—I beg your pardon. I thought you were my daughter . . . I’m so—I’m—” But the girl turns her body in a smooth, evasive manuever, flipping her hair through her fingers, reentering the procession of shoppers.
Avis watches her go: blood rushes to her face, stinging as if she’d been slapped. She snaps, “You aren’t even that pretty.”
Two bronzed women, dark, sprayed hair piled on their heads, look up as Avis sinks back to her table. She notices the waiter watching her from several tables away, and returns his stare until he looks away.
Avis had an idea of how things were going to be, of her and her daughter, their fingers in a pâte sucrée, rolling, cutting out the shapes of cupids and sea horses and dragons. But Felice was uninterested. The blithe girl ran around the house, light-spirited as a firefly, calling her friends, lying out by the pool, or playing video games. It was Stanley who came into the kitchen to help Avis shell walnuts and separate eggs.
Her own mother had openly disapproved when Avis had announced that, instead of college, she wanted to attend the culinary institute to become a pastry chef.
“That’s a girls’ slum,” Geraldine had said. “All that sugar and decoration. Just a blue-collar job with a frilly apron. You’ll never get half the respect or the pay of a real chef. If you can’t be bothered with an education, at least learn to cook.”
Years later, Avis sat on the couch, her own daughter’s head in her lap, hair spilling like ink over her leg. They’d had a daylong immersion in shopping at the mall in Pinecrest, then tea cakes (crude, coarsely frosted) at the French-Cuban bakery on the Miracle Mile. Avis combed Felice’s hair with her fingers, murmuring, “Who’s my beautiful girl?”
Felice smiled at her mother, barely shifting her attention from the TV cartoons.
Stanley emerged from the kitchen; his arms like twigs in the oversized oven mitts. At twelve, his hair was glossy, his small face pale with thought. Oh, Avis loved him too, but she’d had other plans for her son: she tried to direct his attention toward his father—a lawyer—she murmured the word to him like an incantation. But Stanley persisted in the kitchen, performing the small yet demanding apprentice’s tasks she set for him—removing the skin from piles of almonds, grating snowy hills of lemon zest, the nightly sweeping of the kitchen floor and sponging of metal shelves. He didn’t seem to mind: every day after school, he’d lean over the counter, watching her experiment with combinations—shifting flavors like the beads in a kaleidoscope—burnt sugar, hibiscus, rum, espresso, pear: dessert as a metaphor for something unresolvable. It was nothing like the slapdashery of cooking. Baking, to Avis, was no less precise than chemistry: an exquisite transfiguration. Every night, she lingered in the kitchen, analyzing her work, jotting notes, describing the way ingredients nestled: a slim layer of black chocolate hidden at the bottom of a praline tart, the essence of lavender stirred into a bowl of preserved wild blueberries. Stanley listened to his mother think out loud: he asked her questions and made suggestions—like mounding lemon meringue between layers of crisp pecan wafers—such a success that her corporate customers ordered it for banquets and company retreats.
On the day Avis is thinking of, she sat in the den where they watched TV, letting her hand swim over the silk of her daughter’s hair, imagining a dessert pistou of blackberry, crème fraîche, and nutmeg, in which floated tiny vanilla croutons. Felice was her audience, Avis’s picky eater—difficult to please. Her “favorites” changed capriciously and at times, it seemed, deliberately, so that after Avis set out what once had been, in Felice’s words, “the best ever”—say, a miniature roulade Pavlova with billows of cream and fresh kumquat—Felice would announce that she was now “tired” of kumquats.
Felice sat up as Stanley approached. Avis had noted that Felice was always pleased to eat whatever her big brother offered. Stanley wasn’t looking at Felice, though, but at Avis. “It’s a castagnaccio—I found some stuff about it online. And I tried a few things . . .” His voice tapered off modestly. He held out a plate with a low, suede-gold cake. Avis had struggled to conjure up a lighter chestnut cake: she realized that—while they’d been shopping—Stanley had reconfigured the laborious recipe. She cut a sliver for Felice and herself and they ate with their fingers while Stanley watched.
The cake had a delicate, nearly vaporous texture that released a startling flavor. There was something, some ingredient, that tugged at the chestnut and lemon and opened the taste on her tongue—the chimera, as Avis thought of it—the secret in the maze of ingredients.
“Mmmm, Stanley—so good.” Felice was already cutting another piece.
Avis took another bite as Stanley waited. She could barely grasp her own response, the plummeting sensation that seemed to plunge through her. Why couldn’t the boy stay out of her kitchen? She wanted him to be more than a food worker. He didn’t realize what punishing work it could be—hot, monotonous, hazardous: it was true manual labor, but magazines and TV dressed it up in glamour. She wanted him to use his mind, not his back. “What is it?” she asked quietly. “A savory herb. Basil?”
“Some basil and some rosemary.” He averted his gaze, still too tentative to smile—as if he were afraid he’d done wrong. Felice was watching her.
Avis nodded, eyes closed. She wanted to praise his ingenuity, to say how proud she was. Why did that simple act elude her? She opened her mouth, struggling for words; she had said finally, “It’s fine, but it isn’t quite right.”
He took the rest of the cake back to the kitchen and disposed of it.
Five years later, after Felice was gone, Stanley built a raised bed in the backyard and grew herbs and vegetables. He worked in grocery stores. He cooked dinner for his parents—vegetable stews and roasted chicken—trying to make sure Avis in particular ate something beside cookies and tarts. He avoided sugar. He stopped baking.
The cell rings again: Nina. There is the time stamp: she has to read it twice before she understands: 2:53. She’s been waiting for three hours.
Avis lays her hands and phone flat on the iron-grid table, gazing forward like a woman at a séance, staring past the streetlamp post and the gang of stick-shouldered boys with skateboards and the enormous black-and-white mural for Abercrombie & Fitch. When she recognizes the dark bounce of Nina’s hair, she feels mostly numb. Nina is overbearing, even caustic and punitive, but she has never said—like several others, “Oh well! They all eventually leave home, anyway, don’t they?” (Once, at a dinner party, a snow bird from Cincinnati, upon hearing about Felice running away, remarked dryly, “Lucky you.”)
Avis can see her assistant composing herself, chin lifting. Nina approaches the table with one hand on her chest. “I’m so sorry, dear,” she says softly. “When you didn’t answer the phone, I just—I thought I’d better . . .”
“Oh, she didn’t come, I guess.” A tiny smile on her lips. “Oh well.”
“Ah, sweetie.” Nina touches her shoulder, but Avis stands.
“No, it’s . . . No—no. It’s nothing.” Avis glances around for the waiter. “I should have—I don’t know.” Evidently she’d outlasted his shift. She can’t remember if she’d paid for the tea. Avis refuses to say that perhaps her daughter forgot, she got busy. These were the things she’d said last time while Nina looked at her with those kind, terrible eyes. Brian refuses to go to these meetings at all. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, he says, voice bone-dry, desiccated by anger. So it’s been nearly five years since he’s last seen his daughter. Stanley hasn’t seen his sister in that time either, as far as she knows. And ten months, now, for Avis. Not so bad in comparison with five years. Really, not bad.
Ten months, she reflects as she follows Nina. For some reason this is all she can hold in her head, like the refrain to a song. Ten months, as they pass the French bakery franchise, ten months, as they cross the street by the theater. They enter the parking structure, the air dim as a chapel’s. Perhaps if she clings to this clot of thought, it will hold her. Not so bad. She climbs into Nina’s big, empty car. Beyond the open ramparts of the garage, Avis sees the sky lowering, the damp air growing heavier. She will try not to wonder where Felice is: where she goes when it rains. She can’t be that far away.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the award-winning author of “Origin,” “Crescent,” “Arabian Jazz,” and “The Language of Baklava.” Her writing has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Ms., Salon, Vogue, Gourmet, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between Coral Gables, Florida, and Portland, Oregon.