The cupcakes are burnt, but she eats them anyway.
His arms on the counter a rest for his chin, transfixed gaze spelling out his fascination with her. “You’re like an animal.” He teases. Still, though, opens his mouth, into which she tosses a piece of the cupcake. The melted chocolate leaves a smear on his lower lip.
“It is good.” His brows arched high up in seeming mockery, though he finds the cookie—still emanating the nutty flavors in his mouth—genuinely palatable. They always come out wrong, his words; he wants his words to wrap around her and make her feel safe.
She rolls her eyes, and let out a chuckle, then she looks down at the mess, some so burnt the outer edges are smoldered rings of charcoal.
“No, I mean it, it’s nuttier.” He reassures, “If only Nancy’s classmates weren't so stuck-up, we could just use this batch.”
“You’re so mean.” Though she, too, is tired and wants the old ones to make do. Plus, she is still waiting for his appreciation, a show of gratitude, for the fact she rushed home, to bake for Nancy, his niece, who currently lives in their house.
He never learned how to cook, let alone bake, though he would do anything to have one more oven-heated, packaged dinner with his mother, sitting in front of the TV, laughing their heads off when the talk-show host mispronounced a guest’s name.
He kisses his wife on the cheek. “Hey, let’s make some more. We still have time.”
“Just imagine, though, how much our son would love for us to prepare for his bake sale.”
He sighs—anything, now, can lead to this topic as if she is simply ready to ambush him every second. “Our son? His? How do you know it’s a he?” He recovers, wrapping around her, nose nuzzling her shoulder.
The coarse skin of his chin comes to her as soothing. “I don’t know. I can sort of picture us, fumbling for his basketball shirt,” she says, waving at the trash can’s sensor, and swipes the burnt circles down into the gaping mouth, “wrenching a skateboard from his hands, or telling him to stop using your aftershave.”
“You’re way ahead, you know that?” He loosens his arm-lock.
She turns and rummages in the fridge for the butter, “Maybe he’d be a world-renowned chef when he is ten or something.” Her feigned blatant nonchalance reminds him how this conversation has driven into a cul-de-sac every time.
The shift in the compression of the atmosphere is as clean as the butter hitting the countertop, with an inflectional flop. The fridge door eases shut, suction draining air into its cavernous and impersonal insides; the rattling bottled condiment on the door transports him back to his childhood where the banging of a fridge door signaled anger. Soon, though, clinking of the bowls being pulled out of the cupboard replace the rattling—she slams the new bowls down without putting the used ones into the sink.
“He could even,” She opens the fridge again to pull out the carton of eggs, “potentially,” she shrugs, the dainty necklace undulates with the movement of her collar bone, “cure cancer, or something like that.”
“How about we let the client decide?” He forces a smirk, imbued with the smugness he presents to his clients, when he knows he has the upper hand in the negotiation.
“What do you mean?” The eggs dangle in the air.
“The changing direction of a company’s marketed product always caters to the customers.”
Her lips pursed, words held prisoners.
“The doctors say we can hear his, or her, heartbeat, then we decide if it’s a go or no-go.” His voice goes down, frustrated with his words, lost in the rift between them.
She picks up the box of flour, the slit precariously wide, and shakes its content into the bowl. Bits of the dancing flour goes up her nostrils, rancidity assaults her, making her wonder if the flour has gone bad, so had the cupcakes because of it. Some flour goes on the floor, some defiantly lands on her foot. Too late. There is no putting the flour back into the box; they flutter in the air, as the wind goes, as our breathing goes. Too late, it’d be too late; the cells would have settled around his heart, his lungs and his veins; he’d see with his eyes inside her womb, hear with his ear, and he’d decide he’d be happy, or sad, for his entire life.
“Come on, can’t you see I’m trying?” He sighs from across the living room.
A thought swims to her as she watches the mound of flour, it’s pale and foolish there in the cold and sleek bowl. Her fingers fumble with the carton until they clasp onto the smooth surface of an egg. She holds it out, daring her manicured nails to cut into its shell, so fragile and wildly protective. “What about an egg?”
The resorting to metaphors makes her squirm, but all prior discussion strategies failed them. She almost senses the squirming come from her abdominal region; she senses the probing of the tube at the hand of the gynecologist, with every millimeter’s advance their son’s happiness is constructed; she sees the lined screens beside her head, bold words announcing her son’s fate; she feels millions of codes, calibrated, whispering information to one another in careful coordination, as arranged in them are her son’s futures, every possible one.
“What about it?” He flops down in the armchair with the rigid upholstery, air escaping from the cushion underneath like it feels disappointed—defeated, even—with how the conversation is proceeding.
“A chick, or what would become the chick, does not choose whether to be born or not, it doesn’t choose whether it is born with a limp foot, or whether its comb is smaller if it’s a rooster, only its parents’ genes, or their life habits, or for god’s sake, their tendencies, decide those things.”
He senses a half-concealed insinuation somewhere in her words, yet he chooses to ignore it.
“And God.” He fixes his gaze at her, and sees her like he did on their wedding day—yet something is out of place. When Gabby sipped much wine and started to speak ill of her in their school days, to which she simply said with a grin, ‘That’s right,’ and raised her glass of champagne; she knew only keeping calm and quiet would gain her the upper hand. He remembers staring at her lips, creases appearing around them, and wanting to kiss her so badly. Now he wonders if there was something else, he didn’t quite see, lurking behind those eyes, fixed onto her friend.
She starts again, the egg now held tightly in her palm, “Have you heard that cows listening to music will produce more milk? But we never hear that they have better calves, and we never hear from the goddamned calves about whether listening to music in the womb makes them feel better. That’s just not feasible,” Her cheeks flushed, she exhales with arms flinging in the air, “with the heartbeat and all that.”
“So you’re saying we just do it?”
“I’m saying we’re should follow the rule of nature.”
“Nothing about this is natural. And the egg in your hand is made from a lab,” He squirms on the armchair, its stiffness presumably digging into his back, “I miss how eggs used to taste. Don’t you?”
“They taste exactly the same. And you know it. Besides, there’s no Salmonella, and whatever horrible diseases eggs could possibly contract, which poisoned so many unsuspecting farmers and their customers in the past. This,” She rolls in her palm, “is all the better for the world.”
“You sound an odd mixture of a nutritionist with a bad reputation and an infomercial.” He focuses his gaze on the floor. Five years’ worth of argument—which is what this is becoming—he knows her; there’s something else she’s not saying. He studies the tiles, that he and she, engagement rings kissing together in their held hands, chosen from the building material dealer five years ago; she pointed at the beigey-green tiles with the swirling pattern and said they reminded her of her childhood. They bought them. His own childhood home had wooden flooring.
“You think I’m not for real.” She says.
Seconds tick, and the pressure of her folded arms expands from across the kitchen to the living room, to where he sits, still as a statue. He can feel the eggshell breaking.
“I just feel like you’re pushing everything. And when the eggshell cracks, it’ll be too late.”
The shell bursts with the gouging of her fingernails, bits of the runny yolk and the slimy whites splatter the counter.
He gets up. “See, lab-eggs can’t even crack open properly. They aren’t any different because they are some scientific breakthroughs.”
She reaches for some tissues. “It’s a choice, it’s a choice, I know that. But progress will happen whether we want it to or not, and if we receive promise that absolutely no harm can be done, why would we run away from it? Tell me why.” The hard swipes against the countertop are her way of saying: I know you can’t.
“Let me.” He steps out and puts his coarse hand over hers, the wedding bands clinking together.
Her voice rings out behind him, “Our friends are all eating the eggs, Mark and Shannon, my friend Gabby and her husband are also eating them. They love them.” Redness in her face recedes, replaced by an indignant pride, and possibly embarrassment.
He cleans, half-squatting.
“Maybe Mark and Shannon are going to be the parents of a world-renowned musician, a scientist who will get us all on the moon, but I don’t even care about those possibilities. Maybe they’d just be happily raising a kid who is going to be happy all their life—just because they eat these freakin’ eggs.”
Her voice, alone, can shatter the delicate eggshells, he thinks.
“You’re thinking I’m unreasonable and selfish because I’m loud.” She moves to crack another egg, shaking hands her terrible allies.
“No, I don’t. Stop acting like you know what I’m thinking.
“Just tell me this, then, who wouldn’t want to live a happy life?” She half-turns, “We can ensure that,” enunciating every word.
“I know, but it’s this predetermined shit that I can’t justify to myself.” He raises his voice as he, heading for the trash can, feels his wife cower, anticipating his next move. But he simply wraps her from behind. “Do you understand? The chicks, the eggs, they don’t have a choice, but they are who they are.” His mother's voice rings out in the back of his head, as she sat cradling him—a free-spirited child who wanted nothing more than to run and to pick the herbs their neighbor planted in the backyard—in the rickety chair of their patio, the beautiful daisy waving at him, daring him to come near them and to yank them from the roots; his mother was saying, behind him, how one of a kind he is, how precious and special her boy is. She was also saying how she’s never going to let him go lest the vines on the lattice take him away, as her fingernails dug into his arms. He felt like she continued to see as him as he was, even when she saw unreal things in the world. She kissed him at the back of the head, sounded like a cork being released from a wine bottle.
His arms around her, he is trying to grasp at her anger, melt it, and wring her unbudging thoughts. She has some concerns that she’s harboring—she knows—but it’s out of a protectiveness and not malicious destruction of this delicate bond; she always feels like they’re walking on tightrope, one that used to be strong enough to hold two people. Since they have decided to take this next step, though, it has been wearing thin by each day’s stalling, or eruptive, repeated discussion that yields no result—the endless fight between two clans, and no one is claiming any land when the sun goes down. Now she adopts an outsider view, that of an audience member watching the tightrope walker, with air tentatively slipping into her gaped mouth, hoping he doesn’t fall.
Just as he thinks this bout of argument-discussion has come to an end, she says, beating the mixture in the bowl, “What about the hen?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if the hen doesn’t want the egg? We need to prevent that.”
He stands alert, feeling the air is choked between the lungs and trachea. He used to think describing a person’s breathing is stupid and nonsensical, until the time he sat alone, in that room, until the subtle thrumming of a person’s breathing simply stopped, flatlined, and he, a child, didn’t know what to do with the silence. So he waited, for a person who could again breathe air into the room, their mold-infested, floral wallpaper-lined room—the pattern was some type of vines so old the hues of green turned black. One wooden floorboard raised in corners, hiding underneath a time capsule he and his mother buried when she was better, walking and smiling and drawing daisies for him, with all the wrong colors. He waited until the sunlight disappeared from his mother’s gaunt face, until it decided it could no longer graze against something so unlively. He waited for his father to tell him why the breathing, to which he had listened to intently, had just stopped.
His father simply scooped him up, like his mother—so still inside the crumpled covers—was something dangerous.
“Are you talking about my mother?” He turns, bits of egg yolk stuck on his fingers, and walks to the windows.
“I’m so sorry.” She says, “That it happened to her. She didn’t choose it, and it happened to her. But we have to think for ourselves.”
His outline in sharp contrast with the murky cityscape beyond, dotted with contorted sources of illumination, “There was no help. We didn’t know what to do with it. Hell, it didn’t even have a name.”
“I know, this is how progress has granted us. We can avoid those things.” Fear spreads through her body, emanating from her palpitating heart; she senses with these years’ of loving each other, that he is resisting. She inhales sharply, needing him to listen to her breaths, her presence—she can be another anchor in his life, when the sky has taken his original one, too cruelly, when he was just a child.
“The doctors, they said…”
Her heart clenches in envisioning him holding their child, who started to point at things that don’t exist, just like his mother used to.
She walks across the tiles, “The doctors said schizophrenia might be hereditary.”
His fist clenches and relaxes within long silences, he sees dots of whites amongst the fields, daisies, still waving at him. Finally, he says, “You’re right. We shouldn’t take any risk.”
He stands still, lets her embrace him.
“We’re walking on tightrope.” She whispers into his shirt.
The two busy themselves with filling in the molds, the chocolate chips, sealing the remaining flour, the cocoa powder, the butter, and putting them back. They need more muffin tins, which, stuffed at the very back of overhead cupboards, are taken out by the two’s combined efforts. All through the swiping, sealing, peeling, the brushing of hands, and the tucking away of loosened hair, no more words bounce between the two.
As they stand before the oven, they picture the chocolate chip melting inside, the air bubbles expanding, the cake batter rising; they envision Nancy’s prideful smiles when her cupcakes got sold faster than her classmates'; they pray to God for them not to burn.