For Antoine de Saint-Éxupery who taught me about shooting stars
“Thank you! Enjoy your birthday party,” I smile at the blonde little boy with a red dinosaur shirt and blue tennis shoes as I hand his birthday cake over to his mother. I pause at the counter, my finger tips softly drumming as they make their exit past the small wooden tables and through the bakery door; the bell dings. I make my way swiftly to the door, flipping the sign to indicate closed.
Bella walks from the back of the kitchen, her pink apron covered in a flurry of flour and sugar. She smiles at me while brushing some strands of dark, chestnut hair from her face. I’m listening to chatter in the kitchen as I start to sweep and mop the floors. I join my colleagues in the kitchen where I grab a red bucket, fill it with a sanitation solution, and grab a towel. “So, only two more weeks; how does it feel?” inquires Annie. She looks up at me from the humongous mixing bowl. Her blonde curls are tied back in a precarious ponytail.
“I feel OK about it all. It is what it is. I’m ready for the next journey,” I tell her. Annie shrugs before adding in her large bowl of eggs to the dry ingredients.
I stop back to the lobby and place the bucket on the wooden cashier counter. After mopping, I sanitize the mop before I wipe down all the tables and chairs. Bella swings into the lobby with white boxes; the bakery’s logo of a little boy staring at a shooting star adorns the top. “Do you want some of these cookies? I think Mark will be impressed. We don’t have many left from today,” she observes. All three of us leave together. The bakery’s sign still glows along with Herb’s Herbs neon green sign on our left.
On Monday morning Nick slides the chocolate chip cookies into the display case while I lose myself in a love song with a banjo. Nick goes back to the kitchen for a few more cookies, then some cupcakes, and finally, our signature pastries. I do everything I can to not look at him, to not watch his strong arms flex with each tray of goodies. I do everything I can to not imagine his rough fingertips on my smooth cheek. I do everything I can to not think of him so close to me. I’m scrawling numbers on inventory sheets. “Hey, Marnie,” Nick starts and I turn to him. I make the mistake of staring into his soft, brown eyes and noticing his stubble from the weekend. Nick adjusts his pants because they’re half a size too big before telling me, “Uh, Mark is gonna have me take over ordering so you can just give the inventory sheets to me.” I nod at him obediently.
Friday morning and we have twelve cake orders for the weekend. I’m glad Nick spends the day in the kitchen. Mark spends his day in the office, asking vendors if they can get more ingredients. It’s a rush that the bakery hopes for, but never counts on. Towards closing time, Mark pops out of his office; he flips the sign. I’m surprised, but he just mumbles he’s out for a smoke. A young man, dressed all in black, approaches our store front. He saunters in. “I’m sorry, sir, we’ve closed early,” I call out from behind the counter.
“I’m here for an interview. My name is Alex,” he tells me and I pause my cleaning. I stand up straight, brushing the long black tendrils from my ponytail out of my eyes. My cheeks are flushed from the day. I clear my throat. “Ok, let me go see if Mark is ready for you,” I tell him while he takes a seat. I knock on Mark’s door and he mumbles something about being there soon and to give the interviewee a cookie.
I offer the tray to Alex. His skin looks unnaturally pale against his black t shirt, black hair, and black skinny jeans. But his eyes are blue. I smile at him and he chooses Chocolate Chip. I return to my usual cleaning. Mark strolls out, his baker’s belly bouncing with each step. Mark’s eyes are always bloodshot. He rarely wears an apron so he is always covered in his craft. He grunts out some questions; Alex mumbles back some answers. I tell Bella there’s an interviewee in the lobby and she spies with me from the kitchen. After about twenty minutes, Alex takes his leave. When Mark’s back is turned he looks at me and winks.
Sunday morning is Alex’s first day. Mark explains to the team that Alex will be on the front end, with me. Alex will be my replacement. I walk him through a tour. We pause at the bulletin board in the backroom, littered with past and present schedules, our contact list, and reminders to wash our hands and clean up after ourselves. Alex glances up at the sign I made, MARNIE’S LAST DAY ON SUNDAY! COME SAY GOODBYE OVER BREAKFAST FOR DINNER AT LUCY’S DINER! 7PM-8PM.
“Can I come?” he asks me. I nod at him, he winks at me again, and heads back to the lobby. I walk him through the Point of Sale system and explain which orders will be picked up for today. Until then, I tell him we have to wait to be needed. We take seats on two small stools tucked behind the counter. I begin to ask Alex about himself. I learn he’s just moved from Oregon. When I inquire what brought him here he tells me it’s about the sunshine.
“What about you? What’s a pretty girl like you up to in the last week of summer?” he asks me. I blush. I swing my feet from my stool and resist his gaze. The phone rings which I answer. I quickly scrawl down the cake order before taking Alex to the kitchen with me to ask if we can make it.
“We’ve got a request for two dozen cupcakes and a smash cake. Any flavor. But they want it by 2pm today. Party theme is the first birthday of a boy. And they want blue elephants decorating it. I checked, we have a topper,” I tell Annie. Annie rushes over to the fridge, checking our inventory before giving us the go ahead. I take down the customer’s information. I have Alex run the payment in the system for practice. “I don’t do much, I’m starting my senior year in a couple weeks,” I tell my feet. Alex was staring at the wall art but turns his attention to me when I speak up.
“You don’t seem seventeen,” he replies.
I meet his blue eyes, “No one ever says I do.” We sit, staring at each other for a moment.
“What’s up with the little boy and the shooting star?” Alex breaks the silence and indicates the cartoons that adorn our walls.
“It’s Mark’s favorite book. It was written by a French man. I guess it’s pretty famous.” I say.
Alex hops from the stool to go stand under a drawing of a rose. “This one is my favorite,” he tells me. We stare at the curves of the petals and admire the thorns along its body. “You know, guys like flowers, too. It’s always expected that a guy should get the girl a flower, but it’d be nice if they got us some, too,” he muses.
Alex makes me laugh all week. On Wednesday during clean up, he blows flour in my face. He challenges me to see who can fit the most marshmallows in their mouth during a particularly slow hour on Thursday. Friday, we have a contest to see who could get the most cake orders for the weekend. I am pleasantly surprised and a little disappointed that Alex wins the competition that day. “So, I won and that means I would like your number,” Alex tells me. I blush beet red while punching my information into his phone. He smiles and we clean up for the evening.
That night, Alex texts me hello. We spend the evening talking about work and his life before he came to Colorado. He tells me that he left a girl behind whom he loved very much. Alex is older than me by three years, just like Nick. A moment later, Alex asks me to meet him at a cafe for coffee.
We meet up on Saturday at 11am, before our evening shift starts. I arrive for coffee first and order a vanilla latte. A small beat up white car pulls up, Alex says something to the driver, and heads over to me. Alex orders a tea and I make fun of him, “Why ask me out to coffee if you don’t drink coffee?” Alex just winks at me. We sit on cold metal outdoor chairs.
We talk for a few hours and then Alex goes quiet for a bit, “Do you think you’d want to be my girlfriend?” he asks me. He takes my hand for the first time.
Sunday is my last day and we all go out for pancakes for dinner. Alex sits next to me. He holds my hand the whole time. I’m surprised, but Nick shows up, too. It’s his first one in months. I feel his eyes as Alex kisses me. Bella remarks that we’re a cute couple. Nick focuses on his waffles-watching the syrup nestle into each little square. Before leaving, Mark says goodbye to me and looks at Alex, “You take good care of her.” I feel Alex pull me in and kiss my cheek. He promises Mark that he will. Annie takes a picture of all of us sitting in the red leather booth.
After the photo, Nick keeps his eyes only on mine for a moment as he says, “See you later, Marnie.” It’s a promise he can’t make me, but, for a moment I forget Alex. I remember Nick and our inside jokes. I remember the way he called me Marshmallow all summer long. I remember his messy handwriting on personalized notes for me to find each morning on the cash register. I remember telling Bella I liked him. Her laugh echoes in my mind as I realize, I may not hear it again. Not the way I used to.
School starts soon for me and Alex still has to work. So over text, we agree to meet for a picnic. We walk around a beautiful lake near his home and enjoy sandwiches in the grass. I also packed him a surprise dessert, some homemade brownies. When I pull them out Alex winks at me, “Are these special brownies?” He seems excited.
I laugh at him, “Of course they are, I made them for you!”
“No, no, Sweetie, I mean are they special?” he repeats the question.
“Yeah, Babe, I made them for you from scratch earlier today.” I say, my brows furrow slightly.
“Baby,” he takes my face in his and I stare into his blue eyes, “Baby, I love you. You’re too good for me.” He laughs and takes a bite of brownie.
“You love me?” I ask him, stunned. It’s been barely two weeks since we met. I smile. He nods at me, a mouth full of brownie.
“I ought to marry you,” he lifts a brownie and winks, “And teach you how to make these real special.”
My senior year is in full swing and per Dad’s advice, I’ve taken a couple weeks to hunt for the next job opportunity. I decide to interview for a few different nannying opportunities before eagerly taking a job caring for the Jacobson boys: Carter and Elliott. Carter is nine and Elliott is five. I meet them at their home after school; Jane, their mother, takes a few hours to run errands or take one of the kids to an appointment.
One Friday evening, I watch them while their parents go on a date night. I spend the night texting Alex asking him how he’s doing with the busy season. He says that Nick and some of the other guys are going out for dinner. I tell him to go have fun and be very safe. Once I put the boys down for the night, I head over to the couch. I wake up to the sound of my phone ringing, it’s Alex. “Hey babe!” I yawn a greeting to him and check the time. It’s around 10:30pm.
I hear someone calling out, “Take the shot! Take the shot!” I hear club music loudly blaring through the speaker, “Babe? Hello? Alex? Can you hear me?” I call out as loud as I can. I’m cautious. The Jacobsons could come home at any minute. I wait a moment, turning down the volume on my phone as more music blares through, “Just one more beer, man!” I hear Nick say. I’m surprised.
“Alright, one more beer,” I hear Alex respond. I’m nervous, Alex is 20.
“Who are you calling, Baby? Alex, put away the phone,” I hear a sultry voice.
The phone disconnects. My heart shatters. I feel it. I feel the moment that woman calls Alex “Baby”. I burst into tears. Loud, obnoxious, angry tears. He’s at a bar. He’s drinking with a woman who calls him “Baby.”
That Friday, I confront Alex in the park during our usual after school picnic. His eyes have bags under them. I wonder if it’s from the busy nature of the shop or if it’s from his late nights at the bar. Alex sits cross legged in the grass and pulls apart his sandwich. He tosses out a pickle as I say, “You know, you called me last Friday.” Alex puts his sandwich back together and gives me a puzzled look.
“When?” he asks me while taking a bite.
“When you were out at a bar,” my voice is quivering. I’m cold, despite the fact that it’s 80 degrees out. My palms sweat.
“Baby,” Alex starts, he puts down his sandwich and leans over to me so he can take my face in his hands, “What’s wrong?”
I stare up to his blue eyes and swallow the lump in my throat. “What’s wrong is you’re out drinking with some girl calling you ‘Baby’ at 10:30pm on a Friday night.” I feel my lower lip quiver as tears begin to fall.
Alex wipes them away, “Baby, I like havin’ a little fun. Don’t you worry. I love you. Remember?”
“Don’t do it again, ok? It’s not right to be drinking under age,” I say.
Alex rubs his hand on my goose fleshed arm. He leans forward, shedding his jacket and wraps it around my shoulders as he kisses my cheek, “Baby, don’t you worry. I’ve been drinking and smoking since like 14.” I don’t feel better. Alex returns to his sandwich laughing, “Baby, you are just too good for me.” I open my mouth to protest, but he seals it with a kiss and I melt into him as we fall into the silky grass. His dark curls are slicked back and I notice how thin he seems to me without the jacket on, a thin t-shirt to keep him warm. I inhale his scent, nestling in. I notice the strange perfume again; it’s stronger now with the jacket around my shoulders. I suppose it’s a new cologne.
“Baby, keep the jacket,” Alex instructs me before I drop him off at home. I smile big before kissing him goodbye.
On Monday, I head over to the Jacobsons after school. After playing on their backyard jungle gym I’m a bit cold and grab Alex’s jacket from the back of my car. I wrap it around myself and smile. I fix the children's supper of mac and cheese. We color until Jane gets home who tells the kids to head to the playroom for a bit after hugging them. I tell her everything went well. Jane tells me to take a seat.
“I need to discuss a very serious concern with you,” Jane begins. She tucks a lock of her short, brown hair behind her ear. She looks worried. “Marnie, we’ve noticed a very specific smell and we have a concern that it may indicate an exposure to our children. We were young once; we understand we live in Colorado. However, we absolutely can not allow our children to be exposed to marijuana.” I stare at Jane for a moment. I want to rip Alex’s sweatshirt off. My skin burns with embarrassment and tears fill my eyes.
I clear my throat, “What smell? I don’t understand. I have never touched drugs or alcohol! I would never dream of exposing Carter or Elliott to anything like that!”
“Honestly, I can smell it on you now,” Jane says softly. She looks down at me.
I ball up the sleeves of the sweatshirt in my hands, “Jane, I really don’t understand. I’ve never done drugs or alcohol.”
“Sweetheart, do you know anyone who might be in your life who smokes marijuana?” asks Jane. My heart drops. I know where I recognize the scent now: Herb’s Herbs-Medicinal and Recreational.
In that instant, I put all the puzzle pieces together. Jane lets me go. I drive home sobbing. I toss the jacket in my backseat.
I call Alex five times.
He doesn’t answer.