Ginny and Leon lived in a two-bedroom, uptown flat overlooking New York City’s Hudson River. They had met three years before at a mutual friend’s wedding reception, over glasses of champagne punch. Leon had complimented Ginny on her black dress. It was an investment from a designer store well above her means. She explained how she dressed it up for the wedding with an amber necklace and stiletto heel shoes. All she had to do was swap them for a blazer and kitten heels and she had the perfect business casual outfit for client meetings. Or lunch with friends on the Upper East Side.
Leon, who wore shabby, off-the-rack suits every day (regardless of the occasion) was impressed. He called her three days later and asked if she’d be interested in dinner and a movie. She accepted. Two more months of dates followed before he tentatively asked how she felt about them living together. She answered with a kiss and got to work searching rental websites. It didn’t take her long to find a reasonably priced apartment. It was spacious yet cozy, on the fifth floor of a building that was over a hundred years old. The porcelain washroom fixtures were cracked and the heating didn’t always work. Leon loved the apartment’s high ceilings and egg and dart moldings. He thought its charm was worth a few compromises.
After moving and unpacking, Ginny dragged Leon to a hardware store to buy space heaters and tubes of caulking. She scattered the heaters throughout the flat and sealed the bathroom sink. Leon hugged her and said she was wonderful. She hugged him back gently to avoid smearing caulking on his dress shirt.
The second bedroom in their flat wasn’t really a bedroom. Ginny used it as an office by day. She worked from home as an accountant for an investment brokerage. It became a study in the evening, when Leon returned from his job as a youth counselor at a community centre. Ginny would head to the den to watch the awful sitcoms she loved so he could read in peace. He had a vast collection of classic novels and textbooks that were arranged in piles all over the room. Proust, Camus, Arthur C. Clarke, Brothers Grimm fairy-tales.
Several hours later, he’d join her on the couch for nachos and the Late-Late-Show. After it finished, they’d brush crumbs from their laps and go to bed. She had established the routine early in their relationship. Leon fell into it eagerly. He was the type whose shoelaces were always untied. His hair was a shaggy mess, even with frequent trips to the barber. Before meeting Ginny his life had been marked by volatility. Overdrawn bank accounts, many temporary girlfriends. With Ginny he felt comfortable and safe. Ginny was happy to be appreciated. She’d been written off as mom-like and boring by all of her previous boyfriends.
The office disappeared for good one icy winter when the brokerage went bankrupt. Ginny was out of a job. For weeks she mailed out resumes. They were promptly returned. Nobody wanted to hire her. Whatever, she said to Leon. I could use a break. She envisioned day after indolent day of watching trashy daytime television. She soon discovered that soap operas were boring. They had no jokes or canned laughter. Just women with clip-on earrings snarling through gritted teeth. Leon’s books didn’t help her pass time either. They were full of multi-syllable words that made her eyes itch. This is what I get for reading nothing but numbers and formulas for so many years, she said. She grew anxious and thin. Leon ordered her delicious, greasy take-out meals from a nearby Cantonese restaurant. She picked at her food. The line between Leon’s eyes deepened every time she refused to eat. As her appetite diminished Leon felt more and more defeated. He worried that she’d never be happy again.
He had an idea one day, when he was visiting his favourite secondhand bookstore in Greenwich Village. He brought back a thick book for Ginny, who wasn’t impressed. He urged her to take a peek. Easy Baking for the Urbanite. A cookbook, he explained. Or bakebook, to be precise. A hobby would cheer her up. Her eyes glazed as she scanned the recipes. They were neat and concise beneath orderly columns of measurements. The next day, she left the flat for the first time in weeks. She visited a department store and bought an apron, candy thermometer, and oven mitts. Her first attempt at baking was a disaster. Leon came home to find a coating of burnt fudge fused to the stove. But soon after she proudly showed him a tray of perfect apple fritters. She began making new desserts every day. She gained back the weight she lost. Leon filled out too. She got in the habit of packing his brown bag lunches with treats. Freshly baked bread with apple butter wrapped in butcher paper. Turkish baklava. Cheddar scones. Baba au rhum (sealed in Tupperware to keep his briefcase from getting sticky). After every meal he’d breathe in the lingering scent of vanilla and reflect how lucky he was.
One evening, Leon was late for dinner. By the Late-Late-Show he still hadn’t shown up and Ginny was worried. The police were skeptical. Maybe he was at a bar? Had he been acting strange lately? Any problems at home? Not in the slightest, she said, irritated. They exchanged smirks. As the days dragged on she grew mopey. Leon didn’t come home. Her friends were no help. All men were dogs, they said. Give them the world and they’ll still dump you at the drop of a hat for some skanky cow. Ginny countered that Leon wasn’t like that. Her friends were insistent. They offered to treat her to a massage at the spa and a night on the town. There was a new dance club in SoHo with amazing appletinis and lots of cute boys. Ginny politely declined.
Leon’s tattered, empty wallet washed up on the banks of the Hudson one day. The police assumed he was the victim of a mugging gone wrong. Find the body, find the perpetrator. They never did. His file was marked with a ‘Cold Case’ tag and put to rest. Ginny’s friends urged her to move out of her apartment. Too many memories. And could her tiny welfare allowance really handle a two-bedroom flat? Inexpensive bachelorettes were opening up in the East end. She needed a fresh start. Ginny ignored them. She knew that Leon would come home one day. It was just a matter of helping him find the way.
She consulted his library of books for help. Reading was a trial but she persevered, making her way through most of them. She came across a treatise on telepathy. It mentioned communicating with the dead through thoughts and emotions. One method advised burning incense and staring into a lit candle. Human energy could be channeled into the penumbra of the flame, whatever that meant. Eventually the conscience self would ‘detach from the flesh’. It would rise into something called the Astral Plane and ‘interact with the souls of the deceased’. Ginny thought it was the stupidest thing she ever heard. She lit a candle anyway. It was a giant, pear scented globe from Williams and Sonoma that her sister had given her for Christmas. She stared into it for an hour but nothing happened. Her head ached from the candle’s horrible smell.
Other books suggested mediums and séances. Mediums weren’t exactly common in Ginny’s area of town. There was Madame Zola, who had a kiosk at the Greensboro Mall across the bridge in Jersey. She charged fifty dollars for people to look in her crystal ball (which Ginny suspected was plastic). And séances were out of the question. Lighting a bunch of candles would set off the apartment’s fire alarm. She couldn’t afford to annoy her landlord. Religious stories were a little more helpful. There was one about Saint Anthony, patron of lost things. She could pray to him for help. Granted she wasn’t a Catholic but maybe Saint Anthony wouldn’t mind. On the other hand, could Leon really be considered a thing? It was insulting. She dove back into the books. History textbooks were next. She read of ancient tribes building shrines and sacrificing money, jewels, perfume – sometimes even people – to gods. Every now and then it really did bring about a miracle. Ginny supposed it was a good idea, but what did she have to offer? Rent had nearly drained her savings. Most of her belongings had been pawned. Surely she had something? She would sleep on it.
By the next morning, she knew what to do. First things first. She made a trip to the bank and ordered the teller to hand over her remaining savings. He complied with raised eyebrows. Next, she went to the bulk store and made a huge order. Sacks of flour. Butter, sugar, and unsweetened chocolate. Fruit and nuts. Grand Marnier, brandy, cooking sherry, and Jamaican rum. To be delivered to her apartment as soon as possible.
As the delivery boy hefted cartons into her pantry, she retrieved her bakebook from the cupboard under the kitchen sink. She set to work with a magic marker, crossing out all the recipes she had made. Two hundred in total. Seventy-six down. One hundred and twenty-four to go. She had no time to lose.
Ginny spent many days and nights measuring, stirring, baking, and tasting. Her kitchen counters creaked with the weight of desserts. Soon they spilled over into other rooms. She barely noticed that time did little to degrade her creations. Weeks passed and jellied salads remained firm and cool. Ice cream cakes towered without melting. Pastries stayed bakery fresh. At last she came to the last recipe. Mexican tres leches cake. Leon had once said that it was his favourite dessert. Ginny was nervous. Maybe she should wait until she could hold her own with top chefs? Nonsense. Now was as good a time to try as any. She got to it, and it turned out beautifully.
She had just finished placing the last strawberry garnish when a slight rustle was heard. She whirled around to see Leon standing in the kitchen. He was wearing the same ratty wool suit he wore the day he disappeared. Her spoon clattered to the floor. How does it taste, he asked. Ginny stared at him. A few minutes passed and he still stood in the kitchen, waiting. She levered a thin wedge from the cake with shaking fingers. Well?
She took a dainty bite, chewed, and swallowed. Different, she said. Different, but good.
About a month later, Ginny’s neighbours complained of a moldering smell. The landlord feared the worst. She had been late with her rent after years of paying like clockwork. He pried her apartment door open and burst inside.
The flat only held a few pieces of furniture and some books. Large quantities of crumbling baked goods were heaped in mounds. Each swarmed with cockroaches, maggots, and flies.
A plate holding two forks and a fresh piece of cake sat on the kitchen counter. Its edge scalloped with two perfect bite marks.
Surita Parmar is a Toronto based writer and filmmaker who recently graduated from the Canadian Film Centre. Her screenwriting credits include the short films Rattan and Minus Lara. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to Vietnam War movie soundtracks, watching America’s Next Top Model reruns, and eating peanut butter from the jar.