He was preparing.
He did a lot of things to get ready:
He made a playlist. He added Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover.” And Aretha Franklin’s version of “Swanee.” He added Beirut. The singer not the city. And if he thought about it long enough, there was plenty of love in Beirut too, despite all the war. He decided playlists of love were about ratios. Ratios of fast and slow. Ratios of love and apathy. He was preparing for 80/20, but 70/30 seemed like it would do.
He made reservations for two on Friday nights at restaurants called Wild Orchid, La Crema, and Whisk. He showed up alone, in a tie and sometimes his only vest, a silky, cream-colored affair with periwinkle trim. He didn’t wait expectantly, glancing at the door, at the couples coming in and pulling chairs out for each other, but he ordered a bottle of wine, appetizers, and two entrees, one with halibut or lamb and the other with chicken. He ate the halibut or lamb, slowly, sipping his wine, one hand placed calmly halfway across the table. He ordered dessert, chocolate mousse or coconut flan, and ate half. He got a box to go for the chicken because it would taste better than the halibut or lamb as leftovers and a very small box for the rest of the chocolate mousse or coconut flan. He ate them for brunch on Saturday mornings.
He only wore brightly colored polo shirts with animals on the left breast. He felt like the animal represented his heart on that day: the alligator, the squirrel, the penguin, a horse. And if his heart were visible then you would know what you would get. He shaved his surprisingly hairy chest (considering his already thinning hair even though he was only thirty-two).
He took one picture of himself every morning before he left his one bedroom for the day. So far, he had 158 pics of himself at arms length, sometimes smiling, sometimes with eyes squinted against the flash, sometimes with his Persian cat, Parmesan, held up to his cheek, her poofy head turned demurely away from the camera. He thought when he was at 365 days, someone else would know him for a whole year even if they only met him a month ago. On day 56 he was wearing a black hoodie with white stripes and glasses. He covered his mouth with his fist and knit his eyebrows as close together as he could.
He imagined love would be like an indie folk singer: dark hair, blue eyes, a banjo, and sometimes: wings.
On day 159, after taking a picture of himself holding his purple plaid tie over his mouth, he quit his job as a marketing agent for FitPup, an alternative diet high in protein and Vitamin D for small dogs (this did not seem like a good job for the kind of preparation he was preparing for) to become a baker.
He put Kelis's “Bossy” on the playlist because it wasn't a love song, but he loved it and someone that he loved would have to love it, too.
On day 169 after begging Lourdes to be her assistant despite his lack of experience, he woke up at 1 a.m., made oatmeal and ate it completely plain. He put on a white smock over a baby blue polo with a red crab on the heart, snapped a picture with his head cocked, his left eye winking, and walked the eleven blocks down Coventry St. to Button Loaf Bakery and the terrifyingly tall German-Ecuadorian owner.
On his first day, Lourdes only let him watch. Even though the bakery was warm and smelled like rye and wood, he certainly hadn’t woken up at one in the morning just to watch, but Dolores, in her dramatic accent that seemed most likely put on, said “there are two parts to baking: watching and not watching.”
The triple consonants tch sounded like a mousetrap.
He thought that this rule did not apply to much else in life. Not for him anyway. There was never a time not to watch. Love was so small at first that even when you were watching, you might miss it.
So first he watched her. And he watched her watch the bread coming together: she sifted the flour through a huge old hand crank, mixed in the rye, splashed it with water and yeast, drifted flour over the shiny stainless steel counter, and spritzed in the lemon, the secret ingredient. She kneaded. Her stubby fingers disappeared around the shape of the bread. She did it slowly, unhurried. Each loaf fit between her hands like an appointment. She lined them up on a long wooden paddle and threw more flour on the counter. Flour filled the air and settled on him like sea spray.
Lourdes did not explain what she was doing. She didn’t say anything. She worked efficiently and nothing but her hands moved, not a hair on her head and she didn’t even blink as the flour dusted her face. He stood there with his hands gripping the counter, wanting to touch the bread or maybe her, but afraid of doing anything but watching.
Finally Lourdes turned away from him and the counter, she slid the loaves into the double-stacked matching stainless steel ovens and closed the door without a sound. She kissed the metal and swiveled around to him.
“Now! You stop the watching,” she said.
They went outside, leaned against the front door, and Lourdes smoked a Camel light. A generic brightness broke through the oak tree limbs in the cemetery across Mayfield Street.
“You must do one thing that is bad for you everyday.” She told him. “This is mine. Simple and not too bad. It keeps me out of trouble.”
He tried to think of the bad thing that he did every day. Two weeks ago he lied to his friend, Sylvia, about going to the movies. He said he was feeling sick, a cliché lie, and a small one. He spent the evening preparing: the playlist, scrolling through the photos, ten sets of ten crunches. He didn’t lie everyday, though. He ate kale and broccoli. He bought fair trade coffee and called his grandfather twice a week and his great aunt at least once a year. He went to the Westside market on Sundays to support local farmers and didn’t own a car. He never did drugs.
“I must be heading for some big bad,” he said to Dolores.
And she laughed. It sounded like Christmas lights on a tree planted in the sidewalk.
Back inside the cloud of flour enclosed them again as Lourdes rolled out pastry dough that she made the day before. She treated the dough as if it were hot even though it had been refrigerated overnight.
Lourdes was silent again. She shaved a brick of dark chocolate with a very sharp cleaver and melted it with butter. She added coconut milk, eggs and tumeric to make her flavor of the week tart: chocolate curried coconut with fresh mango.
After adding dashes of cayenne to the mix, Lourdes turned away from the bubbling soup, quickly threw open the lid of the oven and chaperoned the bread out and onto a rack. No timer had gone off and she hadn’t looked at a clock.
“How did you know it was done?” he asked her.
Lourdes turned back and stirred the chocolate, “When I had completely forgotten it was there. Now, it’s your turn to sell it, pretty boy.”
He spiral-filled round baskets with the ovals of lemon rye bread and hung them from hooks on the walls. The front end of the shop was smaller than the kitchen in his studio apartment, but this benefited Button Loaf because whenever there were more than two people waiting for bread, a line formed out the door.
Selling the bread and the tarts was easy. Lourdes only made two things at a time: one kind of bread, one kind of sweet.
“I’m too lazy to mix more than two types of dough a day.”
He smiled at the first customer. 7 o’clock like that. An old lady with three canvas bags dangling from the crook of her elbow. She put a single loaf of bread in each bag and she gave him a twenty.
“Keep the change, sonny,” and she laughed on her way out the door.
He had not been preparing for this: sonny.
He walked home at 2:30 in the afternoon with one loaf of lemon rye under his left arm and one chocolate curried coconut tart in his right palm. This is why he had become a baker (at least started to learn how to be a baker). What wasn’t he prepared for with bread and sweets all around him?
He passed a young woman with grey hair and tiny wire-rimmed glasses: a grey fox, nose like a beak, and a small brown paper bag in the shape of a dozen sticks of incense. She was coming out of Passport to Peru.
He smiled so big and lifted the tart slightly closer to his mouth as if to eat it or offer it or at least put it in a more comfortable holding position, but she did not look at him.
When he got home, he added Donna Summer’s greatest hits to his playlist and he toasted four slices of the lemon rye and smothered them in peanut butter. He watched a VHS tape of his grade school friend’s bar mitzvah. She wore a lime green suit and danced with him and then danced with Tyler, a boy with a very large head of curly black hair, whom he had had a huge crush on or at least wanted to lick his eyeballs because they were as golden as an egg yolk.
He ate both peanut butter sandwiches and hoped that Lourdes would make something different tomorrow.
There were river songs on the playlist: Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”.
On day 173, a newly minted pic of the back of his head saved on his camera, he met Sylvia on the Westside at the Grubby Dawn for a coffee and a walk around Fairview Park at least 20 times until it was actually late enough to go to the only decent gay nightclub in town, Bubbles. Sylvia was both his beautiful and fat friend. He was glad that she was both because otherwise he would have to have two friends. Everyone always had one beautiful friend and one fat one. Sylvia wore heels everywhere and sang karaoke on Tuesday nights at The Flats.
“I can’t believe you get up that early,” she said.
“I guess you would too if you had kids.”
“I’d only have kids if you had kids, just so we could switch off the day care situation,” she said. Sylvia perched her strawberry-lacquered lips over her chocolate soy chai with a shot of espresso and swallowed.
“Also, I quit my job,” he said.
Sylvia choked on her chocolate soy chai with a shot of espresso and it burned the back of her tongue and the top of her throat. She was finally able to spit out the brown liquid that suspiciously looked like a mocha all over his gray polo with the lime green snail on the heart.
The stain would not do. So he just took off the shirt and strolled around the park in the surprising heat until it was time to go to the club and then he danced with his shirt off next to Sylvia and the drag queen with hot pink boots up to her crotch. Sylvia spilled an olive from a martini on the dance floor.
“Why did you quit?” she asked.
He just body rolled away, sort of into a corner really, since it didn’t seem like anyone was about to dance with him. He didn’t want to tell her the truth, but the truth was this: he brought home bread everyday hoping he would pass the right person to give it to and/or share it with, but he mostly passed children running home from school with back packs the size and color of candy. Where did they put their books these days?
So he didn’t give the loaf of pistachio raisin or fennel sourdough to anyone and he ended up just eating it along with the spearmint meringue-topped apricot tart or the mini-Aztec devil’s fudge cake.
He was getting fat.
That Friday, he only ate an arugula grapefruit salad at an all vegan restaurant named Root. He did not order for two and skipped lunch the next day.
On day 195, he took a picture of his foot in an old Nike and then ran all the way down Mayfield, through the cemetery and out onto the super ghetto end of Euclid. He huffed to a halt next to a garage with an antique-y twisted sign that read TwinWood.
“You’re here already!” a voiced barked from inside the garage.
He was breathing too heavy to jump and Gemini stuck their head out of the side door.
“Oh, good you’re sweaty,” they said. “It’s better when your hands are warm.”
Gemini ran a carpentry apprenticeship program out of their garage. They were picket fence-white and wore their black hair sharply cropped to their head. They had lips the size of a boat and fingers long enough to be limbs of the dead trees that they worked with.
After Dolores had cried like his own mother when he quit the bakery, he decided to take up woodworking because it looked really sexy or at least people doing it looked sexy and he wanted to make something permanent and useful.
Inside, the garage was as clean as a boutique and only seemed to house oddly shaped wooden boxes. He tried to catch his breath as Gemini lifted lids, swung open doors, and pulled down panels. Gleaming circular saws popped out of boxes, routers dropped out of cabinets, and planers flipped out from under tables.
“Wood is plurality,” Gemini said, “like myself. We start with a tree, but with a cut, a nail, and a sanding we could have a coffee table or a paddle. Obviously some uses are better than others, but wood is about possibility.”
They flipped a switch and a saw bit into an oak log. Golden dust flew into the air like flour. Not much had changed.
People noticed him as he ran to work empty handed and returned from work with furniture held high above his head. Muscles collected between joints and his hands hardened and were always dirty. His apartment cluttered with tiny furniture because that was all he could run with across the city. A hickory stool sat under his kitchen table with bowed in legs. A black walnut, peapod-shaped coffee table the length of his spine and as high as his ankles rested in front of his four-seater leather couch. A foldout, ash drying rack squeezed between his water heater and dryer.
He felt much more prepared, but was no longer sure what he was prepared for.
He added Stravinsky to his playlist.
On day 237, the day of a picture of him squeezed on the hickory stool next to his dining room table, his knees up to his armpits, he was at TwinWood routing grooves into a bonbon shaped box made of pine. Gemini was behind him justifying a new log of birch that they had bought from an old woman with a very gray beard from Iceland who contracted out female lumberjacks to harvest the trees sustainably and fashionably.
The router jabbed a hole directly through the knuckle of his right ring finger. Blood lashed onto his brown polo with the teal cockatoo over the breast. Gemini turned and immediately scooped up the wounded hand and closed their lips around the blood and shredded cartilage.
“Pine is too soft,” they mumbled. “It’s always too soft.”
He called 911 himself, his eyes open as far as he could get them, his teeth grinding together.
“I lost my finger,” he told the very cool, Southern drawl at the other end of the line.
He woke up with a bad case of anvil-hand in front of a Dr. Stacy who had very curly blond hair and jade chunks in her ears.
“Hi, my name is Ron,” she said, “and I’ll start with the bad news first because that is really the only news I have. We couldn’t salvage the finger.”
He smiled or frowned, he couldn’t tell which. He hadn’t been prepared for this, but it seemed right, as if Dr. Stacy had tucked him in.
“I loved pine,” he said.
“There’s what you do for love,” Ron said, “ and what love does to you.”
Then she actually tucked him in and left the room.
He untucked his left arm, ate an orange jello, and fell asleep again.
On day 238 he woke up in the hospital with a visitor by the bed. It was himself. He had seen the perfectly tweezed eyebrows, receding hairline, and slivery scar along the underside of his chin everyday of his life. He looked down at his right ring finger and that of the visitor. One gone and bandaged, the other completely intact. He stroked the whole one with the gauze of the other.
“They told me I could take you home now,” he said and then he helped dress him, crooked his elbow, and steered him out of the tiny room and back to his own apartment.
On day 239 he woke up next to himself, both of them completely naked.
“Let me see it,” he said.
He lifted up the whole finger and he kissed it.
“I want you to hear something,” he said as he slid over to his laptop perched on the black walnut peapod coffee table and turned on his speakers.
The playlist started with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and he slipped back into bed.
Alex Vikmanis had a circuitous journey to becoming a writer including a degree in biomedical engineering and a stint in the Peace Corps. He finally got his MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco and has been published in Plaid Review, Litro Magazine, and theNewerYork, as well as projects like The Super Pop-Up Shop and 2x2. He's also a contributor for Kqedpop.com and BelleSF.