Fiction: Anniversary

Third Prize in Lilith’s 2020 Fiction Contest

MIRIAM’S HUSBAND broke his leg and couldn’t drive his cab any more. The unemployment money was hardly enough, life was getting dearer every week, and she was growing restless taking care of him. When they started arguing about the right way to twirl pasta on a fork—Manny said clockwise, Miriam counterclockwise—she’d had enough. The next day she took bus #18 to the shuk, and haggled with her old friend Sami for some flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and vanilla essence. Her persistence paid off. He sold her everything wholesale.

She set up shop in the apartment. At first the neighbors bought from her out of pity. When the sweet aroma of baking wafted daily through the dark corridors of the building, pity was soon replaced by gluttony.

When someone came to place an order, Miriam interviewed them, “Motek, tagid, who’s the cake for? What’s she like? What’s the occasion?” So on. Each cake was unique. For Mrs. Kroenig, who loved opera, Miriam made a cake with tiny sugar pyramids, a miniature Sphinx, and a turquoise rivulet of powdered sugar. Someone told Miriam the Nile was murkier, but she figured poetic license applied to pastries also. Mrs. Kroenig ate it on her balcony, Ritorna Vincitor spinning on the turntable.

Mrs. Kroenig praised Miriam’s talent to anyone who listened. That’s how the Shachars decided to relieve their daughter’s nostalgia for their native Romania with one of Miriam’s cake. Miriam looked at little Shoshi’s downcast eyes and was inspired. She covered the entire surface with arabesques of sugar roses. When Mr. Shachar picked it up, he took the longest path to his building in the squat gray complex, holding the cake before him. The kids playing ball on the parking lot dropped their game to gawk. It was the most beautiful sight anyone had seen in the working-class neighborhood of Katamonim.

Word got around. Jerusalem’s small. People came from other neighborhoods: well-dressed ladies from Rehavia; blue-jeaned students from French Hills; an occasional American tourist from the Old City. It was something to see, all those people coming through Katamonim’s run-down streets and into Miriam’s hot kitchen. The Voice of the City published a small item with the headline, “Let Us Eat Cake.” Miriam cried when she read it. “Struggled all my life and now, at fifty-eight, I’m famous!” She clipped the item, got it laminated and hung it underneath the picture of the mystic Baba Sali.

She worked six days a week, from the moment the Sabbath went out on Saturday night until three hours before sundown on Friday. She was never tired. If anything, her eyes shone and there was an extra zip in her walk.

One morning a young woman stopped in front of Miriam’s building balancing a cake on one hand. It was intact save for a triangular wedge. Scowling, she addressed Miriam’s teenage son, Rafi, looking down at her from the balcony.

“Hey! Your mother ruined my life!”

Miriam peered over Rafi’s shoulder. “What are you talking about? What’s with your shouting?”

“Your cake ruined my life!” The girl repeated. She threw the cake on the ground. It was decorated with irises because Iris was the girl’s name.

“Ruined your life? How can a cake ruin your life? Are you crazy? Are you diabetic, maybe?”

Several women opened their windows and decided it was the perfect time to beat their rugs, spacing out the whacks so they could hear every word.

“I ask you again, how could a cake ruin your life?” The women in their balconies and the children on the stairways stared, dying of curiosity.

“My fiancée took two bites and didn’t want to marry me!”

“And you blame me? Sorry, miss, but I don’t see how you can come here and insult me in front of all my neighbors!”

“You don’t understand. He looked right into my eyes and his gaze cut right through me. I could feel him read my soul!”

“So, sue your soul!”

The neighbors whooped with delight. At a loss for words, Iris shuffled back to her car. Miriam had won. Everyone laughed at the poor deluded girl and the incident would have been forgotten had Sami Myer not bought a cake for his wife shortly after.

That motzei Shabbat, Sam’s wife ran him out of the house. Then she strutted right down to Edna Toledano’s and nearly knocked her door down. Mrs. Myer claimed that once she ate the cake, all her husband’s secrets unfolded right before her. “It was like a book opening right before me!” Others came forward with similar stories, at first timidly. They grew bold as their numbers grew.

Before long, Katamonim was divided into those who claimed their lives had been destroyed by the cakes and those who dismissed them as idle superstition. It wasn’t all disasters, though. Old Mrs. Borenstein from Stairwell B bought one for her daughter-inlaw’s birthday. The young woman looked into Mrs. Borenstein’s rheumy eyes and began crying, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know!” They spent the entire night exchanging confidences, and fifteen years of mutual suspicion dissolved over a bottle of schnapps. One shopkeeper’s clerk bought one for his boss and the next day the store manager was fired and arrested. The clerk was promoted.

Indignant, Miriam denied it all, but after a while she stopped complaining. The cakes’ alleged magical qualities raised such a furor that orders increased. She had to hire three helpers.  Jealous wives and suspicious husbands slunk in at night to place orders. Lots of people were suddenly on diets and blanched at the sight of dessert. A new ritual sprang up at birthday parties: people would nibble a few crumbs, and then a hush would fall as everyone searched each other. Politicians proposed that no dessert be served at political meetings or in public places.

The head of psychiatric studies at Talbiah declared it a public mental crisis on a popular talk show.

“It’s a variant of Jerusalem syndrome. Mass madness has historical precedents! The Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s, for instance, or the panic provoked by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast,” he intoned in an authoritative bass.

Some scoffed at the comparison: these were modern times, after all, how could anyone believe such superstition? In the meantime, Miriam nearly died of exhaustion due to the number of orders. Other bakers grew jealous and grumbled: if Miriam wasn’t guilty, why didn’t she publish her recipe? Fortunetellers and Tarot card readers were equally annoyed. This woman’s confections were threatening their millenarian monopoly on the Unknown. The Sephardic Head Rabbi gave a long speech in which he reminded the nation that certain mysteries were too heady and proposed that, like the Kabbalah, no one under the age of forty sample Miriam’s cakes. The Ashkenazi Head Rabbi praised God’s inscrutability.

Manny’s leg healed. Thanks to Miriam’s success, he bought his own taxicab. The truth was Miriam’s fame was beginning to disturb him. Her work no longer made her happy. People now ordered bare cakes so as not to give away their intention to eavesdrop on their neighbors’ souls.

“They might as well come from a factory,” Miriam mumbled. If she couldn’t make something beautiful what was the point of laboring over them? She questioned the very meaning of her life.

The constant assault of the press, the pressure to reveal her secret ingredients, the accusations and counteraccusations—all this kept her housebound for weeks. She was being crushed under the weight of her mystique.

No one in Miriam’s own family ate her cakes. It wasn’t out of superstitious caution. Her husband and children were simply tired of the cloying aroma. Manny never gave the accusations much credence until the day he ran into a fellow cab driver at a falafel stand.

“Go ahead, Manny. What are you afraid of ? Ask your wife to bake you a cake. See how you like it. Itzik here did just that for his ten year anniversary and what has it gotten him? His wife won’t talk to him!”

“Oh, enough already! You’ve all gone crazy, I tell you. As if we didn’t have enough problems!” Manny slapped his rolled up newspaper against the table. He left it at that and kept eating. But he couldn’t help but brood about it as he dropped off passengers. That night he woke up before dawn, like he had done so often when he couldn’t drive and worried about providing for his family. It was four in the morning, the hour when worries and fears rouse one from deep slumber. Miriam was asleep beside him, the tide of her breath marking the anxious minutes in which he lay awake looking up at the ceiling. He heard the muezzin call the Muslims to prayer, drawling out the ancient call, his voice drifting above the sleeping city. Manny asked himself, “Wasn’t it perfectly reasonable to want to know your wife better?”

He drifted off to sleep. When Miriam stirred a few hours later he pretended to sleep and observed her through his lashes. In the dimness, he saw she was no longer young, but he could see traces of the girl she had been. She still had that same wry smile when she thought no one was looking. She put on a robe and went to the kitchen.

“We change, we grow old,” thought Manny. “I’ve changed also. I too am old but when I look in the mirror, it’s a shock, a shock to see this old face looking back at me. I wonder, do our souls age?” He tiptoed to the kitchen.

The light filtered in from the window. Miriam sat in her robe, sipping mint-tea from a small glass. She reached into the shelf where she kept the salt and spices, and brought out a small radio held together with brown tape and rubber bands. She turned it to the morning news. Then she caught sight of Manny and jumped in her chair.

“You scared me, Manny! What’s the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? What are you so serious for?”

She laughed at herself and he tried to kiss her. She let him, but squirmed in his arms when she saw the time. “I have orders, I don’t have time for all this nonsense…”

“You’re such a busy businesswoman you haven’t got time to talk with your husband?” She sighed. She shrugged.

“Mirileh, do you remember that one time, before the kids came along, we were in bed—“he stopped and winked at her and she just looked at him, puzzled, until the memory clicked. She blushed. She waved at him to shut him up, but Manny continued.

“And then the bed fell and the legs broke?

” Despite herself, Miriam started giggling. “Was that us? That was another life!”

“Yes, my love, it was another life. And we couldn’t afford a new bed, then…”

“And you placed the mattress on some crates you found on the Midrehov…”

“Except we had to be careful so the mattress wouldn’t slip off the crates.”

“Those were hard days, hard days,” Miriam said.

Manny held his bearded chin with his left hand. “Yes, yes. But good days.”

“But good days,” she agreed. “Forty years!”

They sat in silence for a long time before Manny dared to ask, “Will you bake a cake for our anniversary?”

“But you don’t like cake!”

He drew invisible circles on the oil-cloth.

“Miri, I have to ask, all this balagan, all this talk about your cakes—do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, Manny, you know how people are! They’re not happy unless they make trouble for themselves.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“Some things you shouldn’t try and find out.”

They sat still, listening to the creaking of the bus brakes outside and the indistinct talk of their neighbors in the stairwells.

Then Miriam shrugged. “Should we try it? Should I bake us a cake and find out?”

Manny looked at her face, and saw the puckering of the skin around her eyes. He stroked her hand as they pondered the question in silence.

“What if we stop loving each other?” was the question in Miriam’s eyes.

“What if I’m not the man you thought I was?” asked Manny’s gaze in return.

Looking at each other again, they needed no words.

“But it’ll be a small cake,” she warned.

“No use making a bigger one,” Manny said.

“And we’ll eat it alone.”

“No need for anyone else to have any!”

They held hands across the table. It had been a long time since they’d held each other’s hands like tongue-tied lovers.

Was it a sign? That day she didn’t have any orders to fill. As she mixed and measured, cracked eggs and poured vanilla essence, tasted with the tip of her little finger, she wondered: Could it be true? It was an old family recipe but she’d read many similar ones in cookbooks. Was it the butter, maybe? Had someone added something to the flour? As she mixed the batter, memories long-forgotten reemerged: the moments of doubt, the fights, the sleepless nights wondering where money would come from, the honest sweat of hard work, the long nights putting the children to bed and the stolen moments of mutual revelations. The early years of parenthood, when she woke in the middle of the night to breast-feed and Manny kept her company, talking about this and that. The kisses, at first passionate, and a little later, indifferent, cursory; the tears of jealousy, the recriminations and the apologetic embraces. The times Manny left for miluim, and she accompanied him in her imagination, picturing him in the desert or the Golan. The times she held her breath listening to the news or suppressed a jump when the phone rang. The times she prayed for him to come back safe. And then when their sons went into the army, the hours she and Manny enacted the waiting ritual together: Manny shuffling playing cards, and she mumbling psalms under her breath pretending to be dusting.

Those memories were theirs, really theirs, an abundant harvest.

She flavored the cake with bitter almond essence for the years of difficulty and stress; with rose extract for their early passion; and flakes of kosher salt for the times they’d been lonely despite the other’s presence. She decorated it simply with two marzipan gold rings and miniature braided challot. In pink letters she wrote, “Our daily bread, our love.”

The children came that evening. Their daughter Rivka cooked them a sumptuous dinner, their son Shlomi brought two bottles of Baron Herzog champagne, and everyone cried in admiration. Racheli, their daughter-in-law, sang “Erev Shel Shoshanim”, accompanied by Rafi on the guitar. Manny and Miriam stole glances at each other over their children’s chatter. At last the children left, the older two to their respective homes, the youngest to the movies.

They were alone. Miriam brought out the cake. She and Manny stood before it, with a similar anxiety and hopefulness with which they’d stood under the wedding canopy forty years before.

She cut two wedges. They chewed methodically. They swallowed. They waited.

“I don’t see anything. Do you?”

“Not a thing,” said Manny. “Now what?” asked Miriam.

But he was too busy wolfing down the cake to answer.

“It’s that good?”

“It’s delicious! How could I have denied myself the pleasure for so long?”

Miriam cut a bigger piece for herself and they ate without a care. Before they knew it, they finished the entire cake and sat back, fully sated.

“Miriam, I tell you, I tasted nothing like it! It’s the best thing you’ve ever made!”

“When my grandmother baked it, may she rest in peace, it was like food for the angels.”

That’s when it struck.

In an instant their inner selves unfolded before each other. Miriam saw Manny in his petty desires for other women, more money, easier work. And Manny saw Miriam in her need for serenity, her longing for a moment far away from him and the kids; and envying a neighbor’s new furniture or clothing. His long-forgotten dreams of adventure and travel. Her rage and frustration—which she was forced to disguise. Every aspect of themselves they’d previously hidden was now illuminated in chiaroscuro, like an old painting by a Dutch master, so that each one saw the other in full.

They didn’t just see each other with their eyes; each sense was engaged in appreciation of the other. Their souls emanated the lingering aroma of delight; the bittersweet balsam of melancholy; the spiky sweat of despair; and the purifying zest of hope. And the rising tide of these emanations was accompanied by textures: the viscous ooze of malice; the silken flesh of desire; the liquid coolness of confidence; the prickle of envy.

The longer they sat without stirring, the more concrete and real the other became. As the evening progressed it became a conversation in which they spoke in their own impenetrable, unutterable language, which only they could perceive.

Finally, they broke it off. There was still life to attend to. There was so much they’d never know about the other. Miriam and Manny sighed with placid exhaustion. When Miriam looked at Manny again – and he at her—, all was as before.

They said nothing, there was nothing to say, and the first look they exchanged was timid. They both had the same question “What will he think of me now?” “Does she still love me?”

Manny looked at Miriam fully and she returned his gaze. And they sat there, truly together for the first time ever, as morning broke and the sun rose over the city.