Milenka’s kitchen seemed smaller now with this young woman in it. Alema stood tall and thinner than Milenka remembered, with a hint of red in her blond hair that had to be the product of chemicals. She was dressed up and polished like a peach pit, even after that long drive. She stood in the kitchen wearing dress slacks, a rich collared shirt, and silver strands of jewelry dangling down her neck.
Milenka had on a blue print housedress and her green apron because she was going to make dinner. Hamburgers with onion and a side of cabbage noodles: something easy, unthreatening for her granddaughter’s first day. But Alema, it seemed, was already full.
“I ate on the road,” Alema said. When Max handed Alema a can of cola and a Tastykake, she accepted each. Opened the wrapping, pulled back the tab. Sugar, chemicals. Milenka had firm round onions in the drawer, a package of ground beef waiting in the refrigerator.
“Is that Lida?” Alema asked, and Milenka stopped what she was doing to hear the back porch shaking with her sister’s footsteps. Lida threw open the kitchen door, rattling the blinds something awful, and made for Alema. She wore her purple cardigan and the gold cross earrings she put on for special occasions, which up until today usually consisted of church and weekly beauty parlor appointments. She hugged Alema, sending tumbleweeds of perfume through the room.
“I made chocolate cake,” Lida said. “Meringue pie. You should see what I made for you.” She stood holding Alema’s hands and Alema gripped back.
“I’m here,” she said to Lida. “Let’s see what you made me.”
They went out through the door, Alema brushing lint off the back of the purple cardigan.
To have this girl back in the house again, even if she had turned stern in clothing worn by women lawyers on television. To have this child back again. To have this child. Lida took Alema into her house and through the living room into the kitchen. A small kitchen, not like Milenka’s. Not built for a family. Built for Lida alone.
Alema admired the cake. Alema smiled at the meringue. Alema so grown up, a plant scientist. A woman scientist, yet no white coat. She wore shoes with a little heel, her pants hemmed perfectly. “You have learned to sew after all,” Lida said, but Alema laughed and told her, “I have a tailor.”
So. It was true what they said, about women not cooking or cleaning for themselves. It would be nice, to go through life as a man like that. Still. The smell of cake, the whip of meringue. The pride Lida took in how not a whisper of dust could be found within her house, no matter how hard anybody looked.
Alema picked up the pie, its meringue tips dipping like waves. “We should go back to Milenka’s,” she said. “Shouldn’t we?”
Lida reached for the cake stand. She was right, that girl. Ever since Max was born, it was Lida going next door to join everyone else in the house with the kitchen table that seated six. Things would not change now. Alema would go back to her father and her grandmother, and Lida would be alone.
On the way out the door, Lida pressed her fingers to the girl’s blouse. Silk. Slippery, fine. Alema turned but how could Lida get the words out. How could she say, you were the daughter I waited for. You were the life I waited on, and you never belonged to me at all.