The best cookies are the ones you never forget.
A dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and still dotted the landscape with accents of white where the morning sun hadn’t burned it off. Instrumental Christmas carols filled the kitchen and hallways, at a soft volume that would allow for casual conversation. The tables were draped in red, with just enough chairs set out to accommodate the expected number of guests. Megan had hosted at least a dozen cookie exchanges before. This one was different. She invited all the usual suspects. Sue from the PTA. Emily from the bridge club. Linda, Cindy and Caroline from church. Lori and Melinda, wives of Frank’s coworkers. Neighbors Janet, Beth and Andrea. And Jessica. Jessica was new to the neighborhood, moving into a house a few blocks away about two years ago. She was younger than Megan and most of the other guests, married to a gas company big shot 17 years her elder. Megan hadn’t met Jessica yet, and if everything goes according to plan, she will only ever have to meet her once.
Flour, butter, sugar. A cookie recipe lists the required ingredients, which must be combined in the right proportion, in the right order, and to the right extent, else the cookie won’t turn out. A labor of love, to be sure. The ingredients, once combined, can’t be separated. They become something different altogether. Something more than the simple sum of their individual parts. A mixture that brings out the best qualities of each ingredient, complimenting them with the best qualities of every other ingredient. When subjected to intense heat, the mixture spreads and rises, seemingly coming alive, solidifying and maturing to a finished product. It takes care, attention to detail, patience and trust to produce a great cookie. These are qualities that Megan, like every great cookie baker, had in spades.
The first to arrive were Beth and Andrea, who always come together. They’ve long been the friendliest of Megan’s neighbors and if she had any true allies today, it would be them.
“Megan, how have you been?” said Beth.
“I’m good. How have you been? How are the boys doing, I haven’t seen them for so long it seems,” Megan replied.
“We’re all doing good.” Beth made her way around the kitchen to Megan and embraced her. “Listen, if there’s anything you need, just let me know. Someone to talk to. Somewhere to go for a few hours. Just let me know.”
“Yeah, anything you need, we’re here for you,” added Andrea, who didn’t overhear what Beth had said but anticipated the nature of the exchange.
Megan sighed. “It’s tough, but I’m ok. I’m going to get through this.”
Sue followed, as did her haughty descriptions of the local PTA, eliciting eye rolls from Megan, Beth and Andrea.
“Can you believe they voted to support the school board’s position to prioritize purchasing field turf for the football field instead of renovating the cafeteria? What planet are they living on?” You know what they say, same song, different day.
Emily was next to show, followed by Linda, Cindy and Caroline, who usually coordinate their arrival time to avoid having to interact without the comforting presence of each other. The cookies were beginning to pile up. There were chocolate chips, pizzelles, coconut clouds, peppermint meltaways, gingersnaps, lemon snowflakes, and snickerdoodles. Cookie exchanges such as this require strict etiquette. Cookies are to be exchanged, not eaten, no matter how delicious they look. Regular guests often revel in this display of restraint, like it’s an extreme sport of some kind and they are athletes at the top of their game. Before long Janet arrived. Known throughout town as a procrastinator, Janet is almost always late, and has a neatly packaged excuse every time.
“I’m sorry, there was a fender bender on Shank Road, took me a few minutes to get around it, but I made it, and so did my cookies!” Janet said, unaware that no one believed her.
Next were Lori and Melinda, who in years past would have been among the first to arrive, but not this year.
“Hello. How is everyone?” Lori said in an impersonal tone, making sure to remain at least half the length of the kitchen away from Megan, lest an uncomfortable encounter occur. They knew, and Megan knew that they knew. The last to arrive was Jessica. The room fell silent as she entered. A look of bewilderment washed over the faces of Megan and several of the other guests, few thought she would actually show.
Flour, butter, sugar, baking soda. In a lot of ways, the process of baking cookies is like marriage. A good marriage is the combination of the right ingredients, in the right proportions, in the right order, and to the right extent. These ingredients, love, trust, compassion, friendship among them, combine to form a mixture greater the sum of their individual parts. A mixture that brings out the best qualities of each ingredient, complimenting them with the best qualities of every other ingredient. When subjected to intense heat, as every marriage is at some point, the mixture rises and solidifies, maturing to a finished product. When Megan and Frank tied the knot, she knew the roadmap to a happy, healthy marriage, it was written as clear to her as a cookie recipe.
The ingredients for a cookie require a baker to mix and prepare them, shepherding them from the humble beginnings of their journey, when they are just piles of powdery, sticky ingredients separated in mixing bowls on a kitchen counter, to its glorious conclusion when they emerge from the hot oven as a single, delicious compound. The ingredients for a successful marriage also require a caretaker, someone to see that the ingredients are properly mixed and prepared, to see that the process is followed, that shortcuts aren’t taken, that every meticulous step is accomplished. Megan humbly served in this role, carefully molding their marriage into what it had become. She toiled away in the kitchen for years as Frank climbed the ranks of the insurance firm, accumulating social equity that she in turn benefited from. Her reputation spread through town, then to the next town, and the next. By the time they celebrated their twentieth anniversary, their two children were off to college, Megan was widely regarded as the best cookie baker in three counties, and Frank began to stray.
“Hello, thanks for inviting me. I see everyone around the neighborhood but haven’t had the chance to meet most of you, I’m Jessica.”
The guests introduced themselves one by one as Jessica made her way around the kitchen. Megan watched from behind the island, a blank stare on her face, in disbelief that she was here, in her kitchen.
Flour, butter, sugar, baking soda, eggs. Megan could sense it immediately. Frank was distant, cold. He looked at her differently, treated her differently. Where there was once a goodbye kiss before he would leave for work, there was now just a ‘see you tonight’ or a ‘have a good day’. Where there was once affection, there was now indifference. Where there was once compassion, there was now animosity.
What bothered Megan the most was the work she had put in, the scale of her investment in their marriage. The care she had taken to make sure the ingredients were combined in exactly the right proportions. The attention to detail to follow the recipe step by step, not jumping ahead. Every meticulous step, she saw it through to the bitter end, part of the larger plan she knew it was. The patience she had shown in allowing their marriage to rise and solidify under the intense conditions of early financial hardship, rearing young children and raises them through adolescence and eventually college. And the trust she had in the process, the recipe, following it to the letter, as if it were printed on faded, wrinkled paper stuffed in the pages of a family cookbook. She had nurtured their marriage from its infancy, when the two of them were nothing more than a collection of powdery, sticky ingredients separated in a series of mixing bowls on a kitchen counter, until they emerged from the heat of the oven, forming a single, hardened batter. She didn’t mind that Frank seemed oblivious, that he rarely acknowledged her contribution, so long as he was committed. After laboring for years to mold their marriage to perfection, she had to watch as it crumbled into a thousand tiny pieces, rolling along the counter or floor into every crack and crevice, never to be found again. How could he be so haphazard? How could he not respect what they’ve built?
In the middle of it all was Jessica, who had become the subject of Frank’s attention. Megan stood by and watched for eight months as the two snuck around, thinking she was unaware. As they casually met for lunch day after day. As the business trips began to pile up, to places Frank never had to go before, with very few details about the purpose, and always coinciding with Jessica also being out of town. They thought they were so sneaky. They thought no one knew.
Jessica eventually made her way through the kitchen to Megan. “Hello, this is a nice house you have. Thank you for inviting me, you’re very kind. I can’t wait to try these cookies I’m taking home today.”
“You’ve been trying these cookies for a while now, haven’t you,” Megan said to herself, under her breath.
Astounded by the relative ease with which Jessica had interacted with her, Megan stammered through an uncomfortable response. “Yes. I mean, good. Good that you’re here. I’m glad, happy, really. Yes the cookies, we’ve got some for you.” One thing was certain, this wasn’t Jessica’s first rodeo.
Jessica continued with some small talk, to which Megan nodded intermittently. Maybe she could just reach out and choke her. Or a knife. The knife drawer was within arm’s reach. Maybe she could grab a knife, surely Jessica and the other guests would assume there was a good reason for her to be getting a knife. Then she could cut her eyes out, or better yet slice up that pretty face a little, leaving a scar that would render her grotesque for the rest of her days. Or maybe she could just cut right to chase, thrust the knife into Jessica’s chest and done with it. A knavish grin broke across Megan’s face as the content of Jessica’s empty words fluttered by. How could he do this to her? Did he think he had somehow earned the right to stray? That the money, or the house, or the popularity, or the social status had bought her off. That he had settled a debt, provided what was owed, and was now free to do as he pleased. Did it mean nothing to him? All of the work, all of the effort, the years spent building their life, raising their children. How was it so easy for him to throw it all away? To take for granted all of her support, like he was entitled to it. To turn this beautiful house into a prison, where the only remaining joy for Megan was the three minutes in the morning when she first woke up, before she remembered what her life had become. Is this his prize? This young, thin, blonde serpent slithering through their kitchen, leaving a trail of slime behind her. She thought she was so smart, she thought Megan had no idea what was going on. Maybe she even got a thrill out of showing up, like she was living dangerously, tempting fate.
Beth, noticing the reddening of Megan’s face, called Jessica over to her to discuss a proposed gas line project in the area, diffusing the situation and freeing Megan to interact with the other guests. The next few hours passed with the laughs and conversations that are typical for these events, until it was time for the exchange. As is common practice, every guest would get four cookies from every other guest. The room immediately transformed from a social hall to a place of business, managing the cookies required the full attention from all guests. Beth helped Megan distribute her snickerdoodles, carefully grabbing groups of four and placing them on the plates that each guest would take.
“Oh no, not those four,” Megan said, as Beth reached for the four snickerdoodles at the back of the counter. “Those four are special. I’ll take care of them.”
When almost all cookies were distributed, Megan gathered her four special snickerdoodles and placed them on Jessica’s plate, being careful to avoid detection. After all cookies were exchanged, it was time for the ladies to part ways, another successful cookie exchange in the books.
“This was a great time again, you always put on a great show,” Beth said.
“Yes, thank you, and Merry Christmas,” said Andrea.
“Happy Holidays everyone,” added Linda, as the guests began making their way out the door to their vehicles.
“Be careful not to slip, it might still be a little slick,” cautioned Megan. “It was great having everyone, hopefully the cookies are all great.”
“Thanks again for inviting me,” said Jessica. “It was a fun time, can’t wait to try these cookies.”
“I’m sure you can’t,” responded Megan, a wide, pernicious smile across her face, while waving with one hand. When all guests had left, Megan sat down in the kitchen and soaked it in, it would be her last cookie exchange, she had a meeting the following week with a divorce attorney and had plans to relocate after all the legal wrangling had concluded. She had put it off just long enough to get to host one final gathering, to get to stare down Frank’s new fling just one time before blowing the whole thing up, and it was glorious.
Flour, butter, sugar, baking soda, eggs, milk. Milk of magnesia. A labor of love, to be sure.