Lida didn’t cook. Lida baked. Right now a chocolate layer cake piled high with frosting because that had always been Alema’s favorite, as a little girl. Oh, what a girl. Flirty blond hair that flapped around her shoulders and curled even without the puffy pink rollers Lida bought one Christmas. Knees free of scabs, skin so pale she wore long sleeves in the summer and dabs of white on her nose through autumn. Those blue eyes pure like nature: a bunny lost in a field. Bright bathing suit straps crisscrossing her body, nothing like those heavy woolen suits Lida and Milenka wore as youngsters, their hair trapped beneath bathing caps.
Sometimes Lida pretended Alema was hers, that she was a daughter she found curled in a bucket as if by magic instead of being born to Max and that woman he married who couldn’t even last as a wife.
Meringue, too. That was another favorite. Lida made the pie light as a dream for Alema, recreating the same pale color of the girl’s skin. Mermaid-monster, child of the sea. Alema was raised in Harrisburg but Lida always knew she would leave that place first chance, jump ship. Ship. Chip. Chocolate chips, hot and soft right out of the oven: another memory.
These days, Lida kept the memories stacked and waiting in her oven, as obedient as furled cinnamon rolls. Which Alema only liked without nuts. She was funny that way. Funny also with her friends back then, little girls who spoke a type of language, slang Max called it, that Lida didn’t understand. Though she and Milenka were fast learners of English when they came over. It was good, to be young with another language sitting in your throat: get it out easier.
Alema was a smart one. Came home with A’s on her report cards and made dioramas filled with tiny people, pets, furniture. She never showed an interest in boys as a child, and even as a teenager she studied books instead of bringing dates into the parlor or going out to restaurants with white tablecloths, as Lida had done when she was a girl. It was better, for Alema to avoid that for now. To be smart, and to get the things women of this world were now allowed.
Lida picked up a dishtowel and stared at it, deep in thought. Still. To have a man, a spiced scent floating next to you in the dark, the feeling that he would be the one to catch you in his hands and take you, and claim you, and make you something real.
On the first day of her drive from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, Alema allotted herself three stops for food, gas, and restroom breaks. She was accustomed to working a long day straight through. She took an early breakfast at a highway donut shop, brunch in a sub shop, and finally stopped at a truck stop for a longer break, where she sat at the counter with a bottomless cup of coffee while truckers gave her sideways looks. They left her alone, as she knew they would, because she wore tailored dress slacks and a sheer patterned tunic, her hair pulled back in a strawberry bun. She imagined they stepped between their rigs after eating to place bets on her occupation. Psychologist, lawyer, accountant. None would guess she was a microbiologist conducting research at the University of Nebraska, currently comparing plant and animal pathogens. Later, she thought, these men would return to their trucks and remember the line of her neck to make the lonely Midwest miles pass a little sweeter.
She stopped over in Chicago to spend the night with her friend Margi before making the last long leg of the trip. Margi served a late dinner of duck with chardonnay on the ninth-floor balcony and asked about her trip. Alema tried to describe her grandmother’s town but came up with nothing but run-down stores, a dying coal industry, and towns spliced with train tracks used only to get to bigger places.
Grandma Milenka was a sweet old woman, Alema thought, but she would be better served to leave that creaky duplex and move in with Max in Harrisburg. Lida would have to go too, of course, the sister everyone called crazy but who at least had the sense to never marry. Not that it could have been easy, Alema allowed, considering that Lida and Milenka had to suffer through a generation that placed the worth of a woman on husbands and children.
“My grandmother wants to teach me how to cook,” Alema told Margi. “She won’t take no for an answer. So this should be interesting.”
Margi looked down at their plates. “It might not be so horrible, to know how to cook,” she said. “Maybe you should try.”
Alema drank more wine, said nothing. She couldn’t explain how heartbreaking it was to watch Milenka spend hours bent over that stove, her hands smothered in oven mitts, while everyone else sat there and let her do all the work. Even Alema’s own father took advantage of Milenka, soaking up the meals without even a thank you. That was why Alema had ferried fast food back to the house during her last visit. In that small way, maybe she could bring her grandmother some relief.
“My mother doesn’t cook,” Alema added. “I must have inherited it from her. She never spent a minute in the kitchen.”
“That sounds like your mother,” Margi agreed. She stood up and began clearing the plates. She dumped all the dishes in the sink and left them to soak in a sprinkling of dish soap, and then she inflated an air mattress in the corner of the small apartment. Alema watched all of this and remembered that Margi once confided that her mother entered bake-offs and published recipes in their local paper. That world of creation and care seemed so far away, especially there in a high-rise apartment building with an attached deli and grab-and-go café case.
When Margi went to bed, Alema lay in the dark living room thinking of her mother. How she visited Carbon County and was confronted with all that cooking and those old-world ideas and responded by running away. At least she saved her identity, Alema thought as she drifted off. At least she remained herself.
In the morning, Alema was up at her normal hour of five a.m. and had a quick cup of coffee on the balcony. She breathed the city air and took in the buildings, the feeling of morning life. When she left Margi’s apartment she obeyed the speed limit and watched the miles tick by one by one. The sun came up in front of her as she drove, looping itself over the highway and pulsing toward the sky. When it was time to make the trip home the following week, she’d be driving into the sunset. Alema looked forward to that already, the sun fainting in front of her while Pennsylvania spread thin and thinner into nothing.