I wrap myself in a warm sweater. It’s October 3rd 2018. The house has felt empty and cold for exactly ten years. Ten years ago my mother left my father. I had just turned six and I barely remember my mother at all. But I do remember the smell of cinnamon. As a kid I had loved everything about cinnamon. Its deep rich smell, it's earthy color, and it's sharp taste. It was what my mother smelled like. Ever since she left my father has become non-existant. The smell of cinnamon had been scrubbed out from every floorboard and every pillow and every dish. My family has unraveled, it's been pulled at the seams and there is no one there to sew it back up. My father usually keeps to himself. He sits in his room staring at the window. He doesn't have a job and I live in constant fear of having to leave the house and everything I have ever known. Often I find empty beer bottles under the table when I’m cleaning up.
Kiko is going to come today to pick apples from our neighbors orchard. She is my next door neighbor. We grew up together, but we don't talk that much anymore. But every year we get apples. Usually we don’t go together but this year Kiko’s mother had insisted. Not like my dad even cares. I hear the gate that connects our garden’s swing open and closed. She's here. I walk down the stairs with my hand on the railing for support, whether it is emotional or physical I don't know, and grab a basket for filling with apples. As I open the door I am stung with chilly autumn air. It's a good thing I wore something warm. Kiko looks kinda awkward as she stands there, surrounded by the lifeless grey sky.
“Hey.” she says. Her voice is muffled by a fuzzy brown scarf, but I can hear her okay.
June 16th, 2005
Kiko and I were running around. She was wearing a dull brown dress but her eyes shone with such a happy blue it was hard to look away. Of course as a kid I didn’t notice this. All I saw was my best childhood friend. She was wearing daisy chains looped around her neck and wrists. In one hand she held a popsicle and in the other, another popsicle. I am one year older than her so I, feeling far superior, had asked her to get me a popsicle. She had stumbled across the yard, her feet thumped on the ground. Her lower lip jutted out in concentration and her eyes were focused on the grassy floor. My mom’s phone sat next to me in the grass, blasting ABC as loud as it could. Kiko gave me my popsicle and plopped down next to me. We sang, or more accurately, shrieked, ABC along with the music. Our parents were laughing at us. But when you are young and with your best friend who cares? I started to lick my popsicle. After three rounds of ABC, my popsicle was still half there. Kiko hadn’t opened hers yet. Then mine fell on the floor. I started to cry. As a kid you never quite realize that there is more where that came from, you just fall apart. Kiko shoved something into my hand. It was a popsicle. Mushy and on the verge of melting away. I stopped crying. I hugged Kiko. She had a goofy little grin on her face. That warm feeling when you do something to make someone else happy. The song switched to something else. I don’t remember. Kiko was making daisy chains and still humming the tune to ABC. I ate my popsicle fast to make sure that one didn't fall too. Kiko placed a daisy chain on my head. I patted her on her shiny hair. She grinned. Her two front teeth were missing. Everything was perfect.
“Hi.” I say back. “Let’s go.” Our neighbor across the street has an apple orchard that he lets all of the children pick from on the third of October. Most of the apples are filled with worm holes but the ones he has that aren’t are sweet and crisp and a brilliant red. We walk across the street in silence. I open the gate for her as we step into our neighbor’s backyard.
I find myself staring at the expanse of bright green leaves and skinny brown trunks. It is like being underwater, where the view is different from below. We get to work on the first trees we see. Pick, drop, pick, drop, pick. I stare at the shiny red apple and I remember. I remember coming here on this day, my birthday, when I was three. My mom had carried me on her shoulders and let me eat the apples right out of her hand. Cinnamon is the smell of happiness. At least it was. I’m not sure what happiness smells like anymore. I haven't tasted it in forever. My mother baked so often. Cookies and muffins, cakes, pastries, scones. Her favorite had been apple pie. She had loved to come here and pick apples and make them into a pie. I would eat slices by the dozens but she didn’t care. My dad said she spoiled me. She told him that I could eat as much pie as I wanted, just for today. Then he would shake his head at her and they would smile as if sharing a secret before my mother would stealthily slip me a fifth slice. I clench my teeth. I hate that she left. I feel some tears on my face. I turn my head away from Kiko, in a hot embarrassment, and tear at the red apples in front of my face. I am tearing them from their tree like I was torn away from my mother. Crows call out to each other in their husky voices. I ground myself. I take a bite of one of the apples. The juice gets on my chin before I wipe it off. The sweetness is so natural and the flesh inside is so crisp and refreshing. They are the heaven I remember them to be. I hear a crunch. Kiko is smiling at me. Juice has dribbled down her chin. I remember coming here together. When my family was still intact. We had chased each other around the tree trunks and stuck our hands out for more apples after we had already eaten more than we could hold. We had always seen who had eaten the most and I always won. Not like it was a fair competition. Those were the times. The ones that smelled like cinnamon and wrap you in their warm blankets. We look each other in the eyes and I know she remembers what I do. Where had all of that gone? I cover up my emotions by laughing. It sounds fake and I know she hears it. But she laughs too, and I can tell she is trying to be genuine. We go back to picking apples. My nose is cold and my eyes are wet. Every moment here is like a knife of nostalgia, twisting deeper into my chest. I feel a hand on my shoulder. Kiko smiles.
“I’m gonna make some apple pie. You could come over and eat some when it’s done. Ya know, as celebration. For your birthday.” I feel a bit of moisture come into my eye. She noticed that my father didn’t celebrate anymore. She has noticed. I never noticed her noticing. I close my eyes. I should just decline. I would get stupidly emotional or something like that. I fear that if I open up, I’ll never be able to hide myself away ever again. I open my mouth to say no. Then, I feel a pair of arms wrapped around my stomach. Kiko. I feel like a child again, a child wrapped in his mother's arms. I start to cry. My knees hit the grassy floor. Kiko never lets me go. I feel so stupid. Crying about something that happened years ago. Crying about something I can’t fix. My basket is only half full.
“You've been slacking off,” Kiko says teasingly. I continue to cry. I want to smile or say thank you or something, but a dam inside of me just broke and all of that water is coming out hard. “Sorry. This isn’t the time for jokes.” Kiko says. She is stroking my hair. I feel like she’s my mother. Now I do laugh. Tears and snot pour out all over my face and get on Kiko’s coat. But I still laugh. My mother Kiko. I feel Kiko’s body shaking too. She’s laughing. Even after all these years we can talk without speaking. I feel her arms leave me but the warmth of attention and the smell of cinnamon linger. We finish filling up my basket when I realize that I never answered her invitation.
“Yes I’ll come. Thank you.” I know she understands. She understands that if I say too much more my internal dam will break again. She understands that the words “Thank you” means so much more than just thank you. They mean that I am finally happy again.
“Great!” She smiles. Her eyes close and I am just staring at her. Her kind face looks so open. If I keep thinking like this I’m gonna cry again. As we are walking out one of Kiko’s braids gets caught on a iron fence pole.
“Some help?” She asks. I try to work her hair from the iron bars but it is too stubborn and won't come loose. Kiko starts to laugh. She is laughing at my frustration but it is so real, her happiness is so, so real that I don’t even care. Unworking her hair becomes easier and the entire time I struggle she is shaking her head and laughing. I had missed the unequaled joy of a friend. We walk back across the street, staggering under the weight of our baskets and collapse, laughing about nothing in particular, on Kiko’s doorstep. Her mom opens the door. When she sees us, hysterical with joy, she gives us a big hug. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, but every moment of breathlessness is proof that I am here and this is happening.
“Come on. We should start the pie.” Kiko says. We hop inside and shake off our coats and leave them in a pile by the door. Kiko’s mom doesn’t complain. We start peeling the apples and cutting out the worm holes. Kiko turns on some music and cranks it up loud. She starts to dance while mixing all the apples together with sugar and cinnamon. She looks like one of those awkward chickens I've seen. I roll out the pie crust. I think Kiko gave me the simplest job because she remembers that I can't bake something good to save my life. Kiko’s father comes downstairs. I laugh at the sight of him in his blue pj’s and his sleepy face. He pretends to be angry and shakes his fist at me, before waddling down the stairs to make himself a cup of intensely sweetened coffee. My heart warms and fills with a feeling that I only have memories of. Love. Everything smells warm and sweet. The apples have filled the air with their delicate fragrance. Kiko slides the pie into the oven and slaps the flour off her hands. Then she glances at me slyly. Her hand comes out of nowhere and makes a flour handprint on my cheek. I laugh. How can you not? That's what best friends are. They bring out the weird parts of you and make them normal.
We sit on her couch and talk. We tell each other how things have been and catch up on everything we missed. Apparently she has been loving science. Genetics especially. She rants about how great the teacher is and talks about her scientific admiration and uses a lot of terms I don’t understand. I try to avoid talking, but she coaxes me into it. I tell her about school and how I spend as much time away from home as possible. When I feel like I’m going to cry again, she tells a joke or gives me a hug. Her parents leave us alone after she has started talking about genetics. I get the feeling she has talked about it before. Once we have nothing else to say Kiko gets some water to boil. Soon, a teapot starts to whistle it's tune. Kiko makes some tea for us. She walks over to the couch, two cups of tea in her hands. She hands one to me.
“Cheers.” Our cups clank gently against each other. We smile and sip our tea. The air smells like cinnamon.