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Daphne

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Competition Entry: Mardi Gras

When people think of me they think of food. They say I have a relationship with it, almost as if I’m married to it.

I confess it bothers me. It’s Ed I’m married to, and some people in this neighbourhood would do well to mention that a little more.

I don’t deny I like cooking. I love baking. It’s shaped me. Christmas at church, I’m the one who brings the fruitcake that they swoon over. I'm the one who advises the ladies of the choir about gingerbread houses. ‘Daphne,’ they’ll say, ‘you got the touch.’ And around this time of year, just as the first spring daisies pop through the grass, nearby neighbours will poke their noses in the air and sniff the cold air and say, ‘That’ll be Daphne in her kitchen, preparing for Mardi Gras.'

And they’re right, pretty much always. The kitchen is where I am this morning and every morning. I got up early today to make my Mardi Gras King Cake. But if I happen to be making more noise than usual, if I happen to be banging cupboard doors a little loudly, that’s because I’ve had enough of being seen as a domestic. Had enough of cooking, baking, washing, sweating. That’s all I do all day. No-one to talk to but the bread in the oven.

Make no mistake, at this moment my neighbours will be dressed to the nines and beyond. In a few minutes they’ll open their front doors to line the sidewalk and if they pass my home on the way they’ll catch a scent and say to each other, that’s Daphne in the kitchen. I am a moment’s fleeting thought before they turn to cheer the Mardi Gras parade as it passes, before they dance with their arms in the air. Everyone will be there except me. Even Ed might rouse himself out of bed to watch the parade, especially if that young stick insect from next door, Esme, is hanging around.

Ed may be my husband in the eyes of God, but in those same eyes he’s also a philanderer. I knew it before we married, so I don’t absolve myself of guilt. Ed told me on our first date that he was born with a wandering eye. The strange thing is he really does have a lazy eye; it's busy looking somewhere else while the other pays attention to you. So I wasn't sure if he was being metaphorical or literal, and I was too shy to ask. That first night, as we walked arm-in-arm down the street, I wondered if I could face life only having half Ed’s attention. But each of us, I reasoned, has our burden.

In those days we were crazy and happy to have found love, and as soon as it occurred to us (about six weeks into seeing each other) we scooted over to Vegas and were married by an Elvis impersonator. There wasn’t much memorable about our nuptials, but I remember the line of couples waiting behind us to be wed, and at the moment Ed and I exchanged vows, I saw him partly looking at the next bride-to-be in line.

‘I couldn’t help it,’ he said after, ‘it’s a physical condition.’

In the years since, I’ve looked after my Ed, no-one can deny that. I’ve cleaned and I’ve clothed him and, boy, I’ve fed him. He loves my cooking, but lately seems less taken with the consequences of my cooking. By which I mean my size.

I was never the slim type. I never hid my fondness for eating. But I got bigger after we married and he's teased me ever since. Just this morning as I was getting up to make his breakfast, he said, ‘You got more folds than a paper hat.’ He laughed to make it clear it was a joke we were sharing, but the manner in which he said it made me feel I was something on his plate that he’d rather not eat.

I want to please my man, and I have enough religious sensibility to take my marriage vows seriously. But when you’re in the kitchen from noon to dusk, the only way you can please yourself and others is through food. Ed’s rarely here. It’s not that he has a job to go out to – he’s waiting for the right opportunity – but he has places to go all the same, and, like a tomcat, he only returns for meals.

And this morning I've decided that I’ve had my fill of those who see only my size and not the soul within it. If it’s the case that what I produce is more valued than the woman inside, then maybe they should see that woman.

That’s why I'm dragging a sack – the size of a child – out of the pantry and leaving it in the middle of the floor. I stare at it, growling. With one grunt I upend it and flour empties out in a cloud of dust.

For a minute everything is vague. I can’t see my own hands through the white, choking mist. Coughing, I feel my way back towards the cupboards and open one door, fingertips searching for the sugar tin. When I grasp it, I tuck it into the crook of my arm, keeping a hand free to reach the little tubs of sprinkles – purple and green and orange – from the cupboard above the stove. I tip everything out onto the flour. I grab a box of eggs from the countertop. That too, is emptied onto the pile.

I stand there for a few moments, arms akimbo, as the heap I have made slowly comes into view. Its peak rises higher than my knees. I am breathing heavily. I don’t know my own mind clearly, but I don’t feel bad, and you know what? I would feel even better if I got out of these clothes.

I hook my arms under my sweater and pull it over my head. I unzip my jeans and after wrestling a while, work them down and step out of them. I am talking to myself, instructing my arms to reach around, unhook my bra and let it fall by the pile of flour and sprinkles and eggs. Telling myself to pull down my panties – why should I be ashamed? – and flick them to the side with my toe.

Now things are clearer. Looking through the kitchen, into the hallway, I see the silhouette of someone on the threshold. Someone so skinny I don’t know how her joints can hang together. It can only be Esme from next door, here to see what all the noise is all about. 

I don’t acknowledge her. Why should I? Why should I tell her, like I always do, to come in and get comfortable and share some spiced cake, when I fear she has designs on my man? I look through her. I hear her words to me – Daphne, Daphne, what are you doing? – but they wash over my nakedness. I look down at my body. When my skin, frosted with light sweat, is exposed to the kitchen’s unforgiving light, I don’t dispute that there is too much flesh for my bones: my skin falls in neat, overlapping layers down my front. That’s the way I am and I don’t mind it anymore. 

Now I open the fridge door and grab the pitcher of milk. I move back to climb the flour and I hold the pitcher above my head. I can see from Esme’s expression that she knows what I’m about to do. I upend the pitcher and the milk cascades with thrilling coldness over me.

I’ve always been proud of my hair, of the afro I’ve maintained through fashionable and less fashionable times. But it’s liberating to feel it flattened into nothingness by rich milk showering onto it, breaking over my shoulders and running in thick rivulets down my sides, my thighs and my calves before pooling, then disappearing into the flour around me Esme stares, her eyes as round as cookie-cutters.

I ain’t finished yet. I bend my knees and lower myself. I am a substantial woman, but the soggy, cold pile supports me as I lower myself. I am in the comforting embrace of food. I wallow, my arms flapping and digging the damp flour over myself. I turn around, basting myself in the flour and sprinkles. I close my eyes in pleasure for a minute, and when I open them, Esme is holding onto the wall for support.

Esme and I hear it at the same time. The growing cheers on the street outside, the instruments, the discordant celebratory notes of trumpets, clarinets, drums. The noise rises and heads our way, gathering into a tune I recognise. The Mardi Gras parade is approaching.

I stop bathing in the flour to listen. I haven’t taken part in a Mardi Gras for years. I’ve always stayed in the background, baking. Not today. I work my way onto my knees, and rise, inch by careful inch, until I’m standing.

I step carefully across the kitchen, through into the hallway. I pause to examine my unrecognisable torso in the hallway mirror. Of course, I am large, but do not see my shape. I see my body, and its colours: brown and white and purple and orange and green. I am not sure if I am beautiful, but I am sure that this is who I am. And because I think this, my soul rises, my hands rise and I pirouette past Esme at the front door and down the steps. I leave white footsteps in my wake.

Outside I push through the crowd lining the sidewalk right onto the street where I slip between two floats. I am already dancing: pliés and petit sauts and grand jetes, movements I have always wanted to perform, from when I was a child, but was always too scared to. I do not hear catcalls or criticism; I only hear the cheers from the crowd or the smatter of applause, the background of music that pushes me on. And soon, I have gone way past my own home, into the depths of the city.

*

I am told I am allowed one call from my jail cell, and I suppose I can consider myself lucky that Ed is at home to answer. He asks me what in hell was I thinking of running about New Orleans naked as the day I was born? What would the folks at church think? Esme had to lie down, Ed tells me, she was so frightened. What sort of fellow has a wife who would do that?

I grip the telephone receiver as I confess to Ed I don’t care much what the folks at church think. And if Esme wants to know what I’d do with her opinions, she can bend over and I'll be happy to show her. And Ed, I say, the sort of fellows who have wives like me should be damned grateful. Ed wonders if I’d been drinking. He’s never heard me speak that way.

I tell him I haven’t got started. I plan to do a lot more speaking like that. But first, would he mind sorting my bail and finding someone to challenge the charge of indecency the police are waving in front of me?

I can hear Ed breathing heavily on the other end of the line, which means he’s listening. I say that, while he is at it, would he be so good as to bring down some clothes, because all they’ve given me is a towel that wouldn’t preserve the decency of a mouse.


*

By the time Ed arrives, I’m about the only one left in the cells. I’m pleased to see him and I’d surely smile if I could move my face, but everything has dried and cracked on me and I must look like one of those statues on a Parisian bridge. But if such things are good enough for Frenchmen to admire, they’re good enough for Ed.

Ed and I, we look at each other through the bars.

‘What’s the purple stuff,’ he says, finally, ‘all over your body?’

I look down. ‘Sprinkles.’

‘Your hair’s gone flat,’ Ed says.

‘I know.’

In the distance, we hear a cell door being unlocked and someone swearing.

‘What’s all this about, Daphne?’ 

‘You know what it’s about, Ed,’ I say. ‘Deep down you do.’

‘Police tell me they ain’t going to lay charges, so that’s something.’

‘Ed, I don’t even care about that. We got to sort things out between us. We got to be honest. There ain’t been openness between us from the moment we married.’

Ed looks down, so I carry on. ‘I was born to be this size, Ed, same way as you was born with that wandering eye of yours. Doesn’t mean I’m not due respect. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to be loved.’

‘Uh-huh,’ he says. He drags the toe of his shoe in a delicate pattern across the floor. I can see he’s thinking.

‘I do love you,’ he says eventually.

‘It’s not enough to just say it, Ed.’

‘How about – how about I try to give up my wandering eye, for a while?’

‘What do you mean by a while?’

‘Maybe,’ he says, with a tiny smile, ‘‘I could give it up for Lent.’

I brush some flour from my arms. ‘That’s not much of a start, Ed. Not much at all. We’re going to have to work on that. But it's something we can build on. Now get me out of here before I lose patience again. I’m hungry.’

Published 
Written by Pnin
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