There was a note waiting for me when I came into the bakery at 5:00 a.m.: so sorry but Lexi went home sick yesterday and couldn’t decorate the full sheet for the party today. Can you please do it??? We need it by opening. Aunt Karen had written it. I didn’t decorate cakes. That shit was hard. Baking was chemistry requiring only a little concentration. Icing was an art form. So I greeted the news that I had to smear frosting in a highly decorative manner with a scowl and a grunt. I couldn’t remember who the client was, but I hoped to God it was for a four-year-old’s birthday at the school for the blind.
I searched for paperwork on the party but couldn’t find any. If it didn’t magically appear in the next two minutes, I was going to call Lexi at this ungodly hour and personally thank her for getting whatever communicable disease was preventing her from being at work and doing her job.
I went into the cooler to get the confection in question. Aunt Karen had already taken it out of its plastic wrap nightgown and put it in a box, as though that was going to be the hardest part of this task. I hauled it out to the counter and popped open the lid . . . only to discover a beautifully finished cake with my name on it.
And that’s when I was assaulted with seven voices screaming, “Happy birthday!”
I backed away, stunned. Aunt Karen was there, and Lexi, and the four college girls who worked the front counter. Plus Tom, our custodian. All of them up at 5:00 a.m., waiting to surprise me, when they didn’t have to be.
“Holy shit,” I said, because words were completely failing me.
“Gotcha,” said Lexi. “Boy, did you look pissed when you read the note.”
“You should’ve heard the revenge I was planning in my head.” The cake was beautiful. Rather than trying to carve out something ornate in fondant, which she knew I hated the taste of, Lexi had made a beautiful chocolate ganache that shimmered in the fluorescent light. Happy Birthday, Helen, it read in her practiced hand. “I can’t believe you guys did this.”
“Thirty is a big deal,” said Tom. “I’d give anything to have thirty back.”
My eyes started to water. “Are you crying?” asked Donna, the perpetually stoned UT coed that I’d taken to calling Duh-na behind her back thanks to her inability to get the obvious.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “No.”
“She’s mourning her misspent youth,” said Aunt Karen. She meant it as a joke, but if anyone knew how true it was, it was her. And Lexi. “And Tom’s right: this day is a really big deal. You deserve to celebrate.”
“So you’re giving me the day off?” I asked.
“Hell no. But I am letting you eat some of the cake you baked.”
Later, after cake and coffee—mine was decaf—the others went home to enjoy a few hours of sleep before they actually had to be at work, leaving me alone with Aunt Karen to prep the day’s doughs. As the others disappeared, she emerged with a second, much smaller bakery box.
“I hated that you had to bake your own cake,” she said. “But I never would’ve gotten away with it otherwise. This one I was able to slip past you.”
I opened the box and found a single cupcake—part of a batch of red velvet and amaretto she’d been experimenting with the day before. Topping its swirl of red cream cheese icing was a single number: 3.
“Happy anniversary,” she said. “A bigger deal than thirty, yes?”
“The biggest.” For the second time that morning my eyes began to water. What was wrong with me? I was the tough tattooed baker bitch, not this baby crying at every kind gesture.
“Do you want me there today?”
“Who would you leave in charge? Duh-na? She’d give away the shop.”
“We’d find a way to manage.”
“No, but thanks for offering. I think I want to do this on my own. Keep it low-key.”
She kissed me on the forehead, the way a mother should. “I love you, kiddo. And I’m proud of you.”
“I love you too.” I turned away from her—embarrassed by my tears—and focused on the paperwork I’d assembled the night before. “I have the list of supplies I need you to order.”
“Why don’t you put in the order this time? You know how to do it, right?”
Alarm bells went off in my head. Aunt Karen was in perpetual pain, thanks to rheumatoid arthritis that curled her fingers and made her knees scream after more than ten minutes of standing on the cement kitchen floor. Her presence at the bakery had become more and more scarce. “You okay?” I asked.
“Actually, I’m thinking of retiring.”
So no more shop, no more job. Happy fucking birthday to me.
“Get that panicked look off your face,” she said. “I’m not shutting down. But I’m starting to think I’m not needed here so much anymore. You do the bulk of the work, anyway. So how would you feel about running the place officially?”
“Seriously?” I’d fallen into working for Aunt Karen by invitation, not interest, but it quickly became apparent that I’d managed to find something I was actually good at.
“Seriously. I’d be a silent partner, offering counsel, but all the decisions would ultimately be yours.”
I wasn’t used to being trusted, and this was the ultimate demonstration of trust. The gossamer threads of what she was offering me were so thin that breathing on them could rip them apart.
She took my hands in hers. “Take a week to think about it, okay? I think you’d be fantastic at it.”
Those tears betrayed me one more time. “Okay.”
I was done at work by one. Then I trudged across the parking lot in the sweltering Austin heat, loaded the cake into my car, and followed East 45th Street to the Red River Church, where a Narcotics Anonymous meeting was already in session. I usually went to one in the early evening, but Lexi and I had birthday plans, so I’d arranged to attend this one instead. My sponsor—Willis—nodded as I arrived, his eyes growing big at the site of the cake box. Addicts love their cake, but they love my cake even more.
“Happy anniversary,” he mouthed. I winked in return, then focused on the speaker at the front of the room. I have no idea what the man said; I was too busy trying to slow down the beating of my heart. Three years clean. I was shocked by the length of it. My sobriety often felt like holding my breath—it would be so easy to let it go and exhale. Could it really be possible that I’d been holding it nonstop for thirty-six months?
My phone vibrated in my lap. Whoever it was would have to wait until later.
“And now we have one final task before we open up the floor to testimonials,” said the man leading the meeting. “Willis?”
Willis arrived at the podium and opened up a small clamshell jewelry box. “This is a big day for one of you in this room. As all of us know, addiction doesn’t care about how long you’ve been clean. I’ve seen people make it a decade only to pick up the pipe again. A disease doesn’t go away, but it can respond to treatment. Go to your meetings. Do the steps. Stay away from bad influences. Avoid your triggers. I have faith that the woman I’m about to give this coin to is going to keep to that path, and I hope you will help her continue to do so. After all, every time we give Helen one of these, she brings cake. Come on up here and get your coin.”
The room broke into applause. When I reached the podium, Willis hugged me, then pressed the three-year token into my hand like it was the ring of Mordor. I inhaled the stench of Marlboro Reds that clung to his skin. “You done good,” he said. “Don’t stop now.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
More decaf—no more cake for me—and then the afternoon sped past, and I was in my car, headed toward home, amazed that what I had assumed would be a typical day had turned into such a big deal. At the first traffic light, my phone dinged, signally an incoming text. It was Lexi, no doubt confirming our plans for that night. We were celebrating with m&m—Mexican food and a movie.
How did it go? asked Lexi.
Good. Really good.
Proud of you, Hellsbells.
Aw, shucks. What time are we getting this party started?
Don’t be mad, but I have to bail. Something’s come up.
I’ll make it up to you 2moro. xoxo.
I tossed the phone into the passenger seat as the light turned green. As irritated as I was, I knew Lexi didn’t do shit like this. If she had to cancel, she had a reason. I would go home and take a shower. Maybe a nap. I’d finish the day solo in the quiet of my apartment. There were worse ways to spend your birthday.
That was the plan, anyway, until I arrived home and found my front door ajar.
I thought about running, but the idea that my best friend had canceled on me and someone had broken into my apartment left me ready for a fight. Cradling the bakery box with the cupcake in my hand, I pushed open the door the rest of the way only to be knocked flat on my back. My assailant climbed on top of me, forcing my breath away, then something wet made the journey around the curve of my face.
“Ah shit. Bodie, get off her! Helen, are you okay?”
I opened my eyes as Brian pulled the oversize half lab, half rottie off my chest. Bodie wagged, clearly unmoved by the reprimand.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. I took careful inventory of my parts. Aside from the dog saliva on my face, I seemed to be fine. “I thought you had to work?”
Brian was a sous-chef at Congress, which meant we worked opposite hours: I was mornings, he was nights.
“I wanted to surprise you for your birthday so I got the night off.” So that was why Lexi had canceled on me. She was in on it.
“How did you get in?”
“That front door lock is for shit. All it took was one swipe with my Visa. You’ve got to talk to your super about replacing it.”
“Noted.” From my kitchen came the scent of onions and garlic sautéing in olive oil. My stomach groaned in appreciation. “You’re finally cooking for me.”
Brian pulled me to my feet. Before releasing me, he kissed my hand. “I figured I couldn’t play hard to get forever.”
When you cook for a living, making food becomes something valued (after all, you get paid for it). And the minute you start getting paid for something, you open yourself up to criticism, you strive to do a better job, you start to see the things you put on that plate as an extension of yourself. To do it for someone on your off-hours for no reason but to give someone else pleasure—that was a big deal.
I didn’t need to tell Brian that. He knew, which was why it had taken him three months to reach that point.
“How was work?” he asked.
I tried to shake away the emotion that was brimming inside me again. “Nice. They had a cake for me.”
“Save me any?”
“It wasn’t a very big cake. I brought you a cupcake.” We both turned and eyed the box on the floor. It had been smashed in the battle between Bodie and me, and my attacker was doing his best to extricate it from its container without actually opening it.
“Sweets are overrated,” said Brian.
“You shut your whore mouth,” I said. “You’re talking about my livelihood. As a matter of fact, Aunt Karen announced today that she’s retiring and giving me the shop.”
“I haven’t said yes yet, but how’s that for a birthday gift?”
“Better than what I got you, that’s for sure. Is Lexi in on the deal too?”
Lexi wasn’t just my best friend; she was my cousin and Aunt Karen’s daughter. “Lexi can’t wait to see that place in the rearview mirror. All she ever talks about is getting a job where her skills are appreciated.” I started toward the kitchen, but he grabbed my arm and kept me planted in the living room. “What?” I asked.
“I want to watch.”
He feigned shock. “Pervert. A guy’s got to maintain some mystery. Besides, there’s nothing left to do but put it on the plates.”
Bodie followed him into the kitchen, while I sank into the sofa with a pout. “You’re not supposed to be mean to me on my birthday.”
“If I was mean, would I have gotten you a present?”
He returned with two plates and set them on the tiny table that served as my dining room. Then he fished a small package wrapped in brown paper and twine from his pocket and placed it in front of me.
“That looks like jewelry,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I’m not proposing. Open it.”
I unwrapped the box. A leather bracelet was inside, stamped with words “Tomorrow’s a fantasy and yesterday’s gone. There’s only today.”
“I saw it and thought you had to have it,” he said.
“I love it.” I’d never had a man give me jewelry. Drugs? Sure. VD? Absolutely. But jewelry? That was a gesture beyond the reach of all the guys I’d known before Brian. But then Brian wasn’t like any of the others. He wasn’t an addict, an ex-con, or a shyster. He was tall, built, beautiful, and unequivocally the nicest person I’d ever met.
And every day I wondered when he was going to wake up and realize he was too good for me.
He wrapped the leather strap around my wrist three times and fed the end into a buckle. I turned my wrist and read the words again.
“Bon appétit,” he said.
I didn’t have to be told twice. I was famished and dove into the meal with decidedly unladylike gusto. River-striped bass. Chickpea panisse. Snap peas. It was fucking amazing.
“So . . . ,” he said as I chased the last bit of panisse around my plate with a slice of bread. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
I froze as dread enveloped me. Was this it? Had Lexi come clean about my past? Had Brian followed me to an NA meeting when I swore I was going to the gym? “What’s that?” I asked.
“My lease is up at the end of the month.”
“And I honestly don’t think I can keep living at the Cosmo. There’s a new guy next door. He plays bongos.” The Cosmopolitan was a west Austin staple known for cheap rents, artistic residents, and a party atmosphere. Roaches of both kind were prevalent. Needless to say, I’d never visited Brian there. Frankly, I was shocked that he lived there. It seemed counter to everything I knew about him. “I’m not renewing.”
“I don't blame you.”
He tapped his fingers on the tabletop, playing a miniaturized version of his new neighbor’s bongo beat. “This thing is good between us, right? I don’t see things getting weird, do you?”
I shook my head. My whole life was weird, but I admired Brian’s zen-like stability. He was the calming force I desperately needed.
“It seems silly for us to pay for two places when both of us are gone half the day. And when we’re together, we’re in the same place, right?”
“So . . . what do you think?”
I left the last bit of bread on the side of my plate. “Can I think about it?”
He blanched. I had spoken too quickly.
“It’s just a big commitment, that’s all,” I said. “I kind of think I’d be a nightmare to live with.” The truth was, I’d only had a roommate once before, and we hadn’t exactly gotten along. Of course, those circumstances had been slightly different. We’d both been residents at an in-patient drug program in Hunt, Texas.
Brian didn’t know I’d been in treatment.
I hadn’t been completely truthful with him. I’d never lied, but I committed sins of omission again and again. He knew I was an addict, but it was alcohol that he assumed was my drug of choice, and I let him. Alcoholics are, as a species, much more upwardly mobile. They didn’t do the things I did for a drink. And they certainly didn’t attend court-mandated residential treatment for helping other people get drunk. And what did it matter, really, which poison was my downfall? Addiction was addiction, or so I told myself every time I let him think that passing up a drink was a real accomplishment.
Tomorrow’s a fantasy and yesterday’s gone. There’s only today.
Even as I rationalized the lies, I knew, deep down, the truth would matter to him in a cataclysmic way, and that if he found out about my past, all of my happiness would be gone.
“So think about it,” he said. “Take as long as you need.” He was sincere, but I could see how much the words hurt him. This wasn’t how he thought this conversation was going to go.
Being in recovery was about consistency. Stress made you vulnerable to relapsing. For three long years I’d followed a careful schedule, made cautious decisions, and put off opportunities that might’ve made my life better in the long run because I was terrified of reawakening that thing inside of me.
Was it worth living that way for the rest of my life, or was I trading one prison for another?
“Forget what I said,” I told Brian. “I don’t need time. I know my answer. Yes.”
His face lit up, showing off a perfect smile that he once confessed was the result of years of orthodontia. “Are you sure?”
“No, but it seems like a risk worth taking, right?” It was my fourth surprise of the day. First the cake, then Aunt Karen’s retirement, then dinner, and now this willingness to take a risk entirely outside of my comfort zone. Thirty was proving to be a very interesting year so far.
He raised his water glass, and I did the same. “To risk taking,” he said, and we clinked glasses.
We ended the evening in front of the TV, as we often did, wrapped in each other’s arms, nodding off before some movie that offered a low threshold for entertainment.
Three months into the relationship, and Brian and I still hadn’t slept together. It was my choice, and to his credit, he didn’t bug me about it.
“I have trust issues,” I’d told him at the end of our first official date. “I’ve made some bad choices in the past, and I just want to make sure I’m not doing that again.” The fact was, I’d never had sex when I wasn’t high and there was a part of me that was terrified that I would discover that I needed meth to enjoy it.
“It’s cool. Seriously. You just tell me how long you want to take.” Did he really mean it? It was hard to know for sure. Maybe he was getting it somewhere else, but I didn’t think so. He joked about it every once in a while, asking me to move over on the couch so he had more room for his swollen balls, but there was no resentment that I could see.
When we moved in together, that would change too. I would definitely be ready by then.
I awoke with a jolt as the movie ended. Brian dozed beside me. On the other side of him, Bodie’s chest rose and fell to the same rhythm as his master’s.
I didn’t want to go to sleep—not yet. I picked up my phone and opened up my calendar. Then I typed in what I always did at the end of the day:
Time lost: 0.
It was my little ritual to ensure that I wasn’t blacking out like I used to in the early days of recovery. Before bed each night I recounted my day and then noted that every hour had been present and accounted for.
As I closed out the app, I realized I had a voicemail .
I clicked over to missed calls and saw a number I didn’t recognize. It was a 210 area code. San Antonio.
Dad, I thought. He’s finally decided to leave the past in the past and call to wish me a happy birthday. Too little too late, asshole. I almost deleted the message, but then I wondered why I didn’t recognize the rest of the number. Had Dad moved? Unlikely. Had he decided to join the twenty-first century and ponied up for a cell phone? It seemed . . . impossible that he’d spend money on such a thing.
Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was her.
My breath caught in my throat. After all these years, could Mom finally be reaching out? It made sense, didn’t it, that she’d think about me on the one day that linked us forever. And when I talked to her, what would she say? I’m sorry I left. I shouldn’t have abandoned you. My new family means nothing to me.
Would that be enough?
I pushed play and put the phone to my ear as Brian and Bodie snored softly beside me.
“This is Detective Reggie Simmons of the San Antonio Police Department. Could you please call me back at your earliest convenience?”
Disappointment pushed me into the sofa cushion.
I replayed the message multiple times. Could it be a wrong number? My outgoing message had my name on it, so that was unlikely.
I swallowed against the rising tide of onion and garlic as my dinner threatened to come up.
What was it Willis was always telling us at NA? Don’t let uncertainty eat you up. The minute you do, you’ll be trying to plug up those holes with a quick hit to quell the anxiety.
I carefully untangled myself from Brian and exited through the living room and out onto my balcony. I was hit by a wall of south Texas heat and the scent of burning asphalt mixed with exhaust. Before I lost my nerve, I redialed the detective’s number and waited.
“This is Simmons,” he said.
I paused and felt my throat hitch at the thought of speech. It relaxed, and I squeaked out, “This is Helen Darden. You left a message for me?”
“Thanks for calling me back, Miss Darden.” Papers shuffled in the background. “I was wondering if you might be able to come down to San Antonio and take a look at something.”
“What?” I asked. It was a body, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t be Mom—she had a family that would be contacted before anyone reached out to me. But Dad didn’t. I was being asked to come identify his body. He finally drank himself to death, and on my birthday, no less.
“I’d rather not say over the phone. Want your impression fresh.” He had a pleasant Texas drawl that I was willing to bet disappeared the minute he needed to play hardball. “How’s tomorrow for you?”
“I have to work,” I said.
“I could come to you if it’s easier.”
Would he offer to do that if there was a body to identify? “Look, can you just tell me what’s happened to my father?”
“Your father? He’s fine. He’s the one who gave me this number.”
My worry turned to rage. Of course he did. I wasn’t easily findable. Both my phone and my apartment were in Aunt Karen’s name, since she was the one who’d initially set them up for me. Dad was probably thrilled the police were looking for me, elated to tell them how to track me down. After all, I was his no-good daughter, destined to break his heart again and again.
“So should I come to you?” he asked.
I thought about the police showing up at the bakery or—worse—my apartment, and shivered despite the heat. “No, I’ll come to you. In the afternoon, okay? That’s the earliest I can get there.”
“Fine, fine,” he said, like he wasn’t a cop following a lead, but a dental hygienist confirming an appointment. “How ’bout we say three o’clock? That work for you?”
He gave me the address of his downtown station and then closed with a casual remark about looking forward to seeing me. I hit the end call button and stared at it.
I had no reason to worry. I’d been good for three years, attending my meetings, checking in with my parole officer, holding down a steady job. So why did I have a sneaking suspicion that my next call should’ve been to a lawyer?