She’d spent the entire morning in the kitchen finishing the three cakes that had been ordered for that afternoon. Behind her, the TV replayed the images from the attack, the same ones over and over for the last two hours. Amanda wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. Her two daughters, on the other hand, had their eyes glued to the screen. Sometimes Amanda saw them as two little boxes of warm skin and she wanted to open up their heads to see what they were thinking.
Since the divorce, the girls didn’t seem interested in anything except for TV and clothes. The television set had to be on at all times, tuned to Channel 57 (the British news station), and every morning they had to have a clean outfit to wear: panties, socks, pants, shirts, and their school smocks. Everything had to smell like it had just come out of the washing machine. They hadn’t asked for this, and they didn’t say a word. For months, Amanda’s daughters hadn’t spoken to her or even conversed amongst themselves in her presence. They had simply begun to sniff the clothes that she set out for them on the bed and they refused to put on anything that had already been worn. It took Amanda just a couple of mornings to understand what they wanted and, maybe to keep a passing phase from turning into another drama, she adapted to the new routine without argument. She sometimes considered setting out something dirty just to see what would happen; maybe they’d speak to her, or start to cry. Anything. Because deep down she missed their little voices. The girls’ voices seemed almost unreal to her. Too sweet and shrill and similar to one another. They were, for her, like the voices of women in miniature. At night, Amanda stuck her ear to the door of the girls’ room to hear them.
Her daughters tried to communicate amongst themselves in English. They were clumsy conversations, interrupted by questions and corrections. Amanda didn’t speak any English, but it was easy enough to figure out that they were making plans for what might happen the next day. The older one spoke the most—Amanda thought she was even becoming a bit authoritative—and she was also the one who knew when they had to lower their voices so that Amanda wouldn’t hear anything really important. One night she heard them talking about their dad. Amanda understood just one word and that was enough.
Two weeks previously, walking the aisles of the supermarket, Amanda had discovered a fabric-deodorizing spray. The bottle was plastic and a couple smiled out from the label, looking at the camera. The woman’s right eye was slightly crooked. At that time her daughters were at school, fifteen blocks from the supermarket, but Amanda glanced from side to side as if she were afraid of being caught testing the fabric freshener on a corner of her shirt. It smelled like fabric softener, a sweet and artificial scent. The next morning, before waking the girls up, she sprayed the perfume on the clothes that they’d used the day before and she ironed them to dry them off and so that the smell wasn’t so strong. The girls sniffed each item of clothing and got dressed as usual. Amanda felt a sense of relief settle into her stomach and she made a big breakfast. Then she spent fifteen minutes fixing their hair to their liking. When she was finished, a perfect braid hung from the head of each of her daughters, down to their shoulders. From the fourth floor balcony, she watched them as they set out for school. They walked hand in hand, each one’s braid swinging like a pendulum, two identical and synchronized pendulums. Amanda imagined that they were two wind up mice. The girls stopped halfway down the block, exchanged a glance, and undid their braids. Amanda thought she saw them laughing. It had been months since she’d heard them laugh.
When the cakes were ready, she put them in their boxes, protecting the decoration with some strips of cardboard, and then she called the client. It wasn’t necessary for her to drop them off in person, the woman told her, she would send a car to Amanda’s house to pick up the cakes. The client would give the driver an envelope with the check.
Amanda washed the last plates, took off her apron, and sat down next to her daughters who were still following the images of the attack. From what she could understand, a bomb had exploded in a London shopping mall. It had all happened on Saturday morning, when the stores where crammed with shoppers. So far, they’d counted at least fifteen dead and dozens of wounded.
The images seemed strange to her. There was hardly any blood, debris, or smoke. Apparently, the cameras hadn’t been allowed into the mall and the reporters had to make do with what little could be filmed from two blocks away, testimonies from witnesses, survivors, and authorities and the few home videos that had been sent to the station. Amanda thought that a sense of the reality was missing. She said this but her daughters just looked at her as if they didn’t understand, as if she were the one who was speaking in a foreign language, not the news reporter.
The buzz of the intercom made her jump up from her chair. It was the car.
Amanda went down with the first two cakes and she stood in the street looking at the driver of the blue Peugeot. He was a man of about fifty, wide and dark, with a thick mustache. His left eye trembled and the right shone with a childlike mischievousness. The man opened the car’s back door and gestured towards the seat, inviting her to get in.
“It’s just cakes,” said Amanda. “Three cakes.”
The driver smiled. “You’ll miss the ride,” he said.
“How are you going to keep them from moving? If they fall it’ll be a disaster.”
“We’ll put seatbelts on them.”
Amanda rested the cakes on the roof of the car and went back to get the one that was missing. In the apartment, the TV was still on, but her daughters were no longer in the kitchen. She called out to the oldest out of habit, because she didn’t like them to be out of her sight. They didn’t respond. She went back out to the street and discovered that the driver had solved the problem: the first two cakes were in the trunk of the car—a trunk so impeccable and sweet smelling that it reminded her of her underwear drawer—arranged in a plastic tray which would fit the three cakes and protect them from any possible hazards during the trip.
“A suggestion from the lady,” said the driver with a smile. “She thought of everything.”
Five minutes later, the cakes were on their way and Amanda was returning to her apartment with a check in the pocket of her jeans. She walked in to discover that the TV was no longer in the kitchen. The silence was uncomfortable. A thick black cable passed through the living room, dividing it in half, and disappeared under the door to her daughters’ bedroom. Amanda knocked but they didn’t answer. The volume was low but she could hear the voice of the British reporter. She knocked again but they still didn’t answer. She stood in front of the door, in silence. She could picture every inch of the room that they refused to let her enter, but she needed to know where they’d put the TV, where they were sitting, how much her daughters’ pink room had been altered by this intrusion. She felt like crying and at the same time she felt that they had freed her.
She returned to the kitchen. The sounds of the street now filtered in. She opened the window to the laundry room to let in some fresh air and she sat down on a stool. She had on brown leather sandals with a strap across her foot that left her toes visible. Her second toe was longer than the rest, giving the tip of her foot a triangular shape. It was a family trait. Her father, her daughters, and someone had said that even her grandmother had exactly the same skinny triangular feet. Her white skin showed a thick blue vein that ran across her foot and throbbed near her heel. Amanda leaned down to press it and she felt the blood coursing through it. She pressed harder and the throbbing became an unbearable pain.
The telephone rang.
“Gorgeous, they came out gorgeous. And get ready, because if they’re like the others, my friends are going to just die. You’ll be flooded with work in a week.”
“The check was all right?”
“Well, dear, work all you want, but remember that in three months is Mariana’s thing and I want you all to myself. Next week we’re going to choose the menu.”
“I could bring the catalogue by your house.”
“I’ll wait for your call then.”
Amanda smiled and looked around. The table was covered with baking pans, clean and neatly stacked. There were aluminum cake molds, a pastry sleeve, jars of spices, shiny measuring spoons and measuring cups. A tray filled with peaches, pears, strawberries, and cherries perfumed the air. On the counter sat eight dessert plates, six coffee cups, the blender, the electric mixer, the sugar bowl, the vanilla extract, the bars of cinnamon, the chocolate, and the cream cheese. In fifteen minutes everything would be put away where it belonged. In another fifteen minutes everything would start all over again: it was almost dinnertime.
Amanda walked through the living room and down the hallway following the black TV cable as if it were the fuse that would tell her where everything began and when it would end. She knocked on the girls’ door and this time she didn’t wait for them to respond but tried to open it. The TV seemed to be right on the other side of the door, blocking it. She pressed an ear against the door. She heard the voice of the reporter and her daughters repeating every word. She heard the sound of papers shuffling, drawers opening and closing. Then she thought they were moving the furniture.
She wanted to ask if they were all right, if they’d open the door; she wanted to bang on the door and push the TV out of the way to get into the room and put everything back where it belonged. But she returned to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and stood staring into it. There was meat, eggs, fresh parsley, lemons, potatoes.
In no time, the pile of raw milanesas became a pile of cooked milanesas and the potatoes were fried golden. Amanda hated the smell of fried food, the oil splatters on the kitchen tiles, and the black smoke of the final batches, but she loved crunchy food. She made a pitcher of juice, cut some slices of lemon, and put two full plates and two glasses of juice on a tray. She left the tray next to the girls’ bedroom door and returned to the kitchen to eat her dinner alone. When she was finished, she washed everything and then returned to the hallway. The tray was there and the two plates were empty.
“Was it good?” she asked.
They didn’t answer.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. We could go to the movies.”
She heard the murmurs of the news and nothing else. Her daughters were already asleep.
Before going to bed, Amanda decided to take a shower to wash away her exhaustion and the smell of fried food. She undressed and felt the cold tiles under her bare feet. She turned on the hot water and the steam began to fog up the mirror. Under the warm stream, Amanda felt her muscles expand and her chest open up. She felt like smoking. She’d quit years ago, but at that moment she would have lit a cigarette to dirty up her lungs, the air, to stain her fingers, teeth, to let the pleasure leave its mark.
Then the bathroom door opened. “Occupied,” she said but she could see the silhouette of her younger daughter who entered as if she hadn’t heard her. She was wearing her purple nightgown. Her older daughter was standing in the doorway. Amanda stayed still under the water as if her daughters didn’t know she was there and she didn’t want to be discovered. The younger girl lifted her nightgown up to her waist, sat down on the toilet, and closed her eyes like she was making an effort to pee. “Ready?” the older one asked. The younger one grabbed the wad of toilet paper that her sister prepared for her, wiped herself, and flushed the toilet. The older one turned on the sink and the smaller one washed her hands. They didn’t turn off the faucet and they left the bathroom door wide open. A few seconds later, the hot water heater clicked off and the freezing water hit the naked body of Amanda, who hadn’t reacted to it in time.
*Featured image: Ariko inaoka