Margaret suddenly had a yearning for cake. Chocolate cake. She had six boxes of cake mix to choose from in the pantry. She took two from the shelf and set them on the counter. One looked very dark, and that was attractive. But the other said “pudding in the mix,” and that clinched it. No woman with a hankering on a hot Saturday afternoon in summer could resist the promise of pudding in the mix.
So Margaret put the dark one back — she might make it for a special dinner for the man she’d been seeing — dark chocolate was rich enough that you wouldn’t eat too much and fall into bed in a chocolate stupor; it also pumped you up to stay awake for any late night activities that might be on the agenda.
“Mom?” Jane was at the back door, dripping slightly in a bathing suit. She’d been swimming at the neighbor’s pool.
Margaret decided not to say anything about the water.
“Can I talk to you?”
Margaret smiled to herself. The girl was in the mood to talk. Nagging about the water dripping would have shooed her away. “Good save,” the boyfriend would have said.
Jane sat down on the cushioned bench in the kitchen. Again Margaret said nothing about her wet state.
“I was just talking to Christine.” Christine was a fourteen year-old who lived down the street. She would start high school in the fall.
“Hmm?” Margaret poured oil into the cake mix.
“Christine says you don’t usually like it your first time.”
Margaret stopped stirring. There were still light brown, dry lumps in the batter.
“Does she know that for a fact?” Margaret’s voice came out more jagged than she’d meant.
“No. She said her mom told her.”
Margaret resumed stirring.
“So?” Jane asked.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Margaret said, not looking up.
“Well, what would you say?”
“Hold on.” Margaret measured the water carefully, then added it to the batter. “Okay.” She started stirring again. “I would say that it depends on how much you care about the person.”
Jane stared at her, unblinking.
“I mean, for a woman, it seems to be important to care about the person you’re with. And the more you care, the more you like it.”
“There are girls at school who do it with all the boys, and they say they like it. They can’t care about all those boys, can they?”
Margaret thought about this question while adding two eggs to the mix. It seemed to her that it was a sort of wet swimsuit situation. If she freaked about the fact that girls at her daughter’s middle school were having sex, the conversation would be derailed. Finally, she said, “You’re right. Not all girls…” (She brought herself to use the word.) “…have to care about the guys they are with. But I did.”
This was a wild swing, she knew. It was a popper to the right field where she’d never hit one before. She must be spending too much time with Gary, she knew, to be able to think of it in this way.
“You did?” Jane’s eyes were wide.
“Yes. I did. When I had sex, before I got married — a few times, not a lot — it would vary for me depending on how much I liked the person.”
“Yes. I did.” Margaret repeated.
“So, Mom,” Jane said slowly. “Did you care about Daddy the most? Is that why you married him?”
Margaret put down the pan she was greasing. To answer this question meant going back in time, in a kind of warp speed, before the amiable distance she had with Tom now, before the charred feelings of the first year after the divorce, before the sour taste of the two years when she felt the split coming but was too afraid to say anything, before the happiness — yes, that’s what it was, plain and simple — of the early years of Jane’s life, back to the beginning.
“Yes,” she said, honestly. “I loved your Dad more than I’ve ever loved any other man.”
“Even Gary?” Jane gasped.
“Yes.” Margaret looked at her daughter plainly. “I like Gary, but…” Gary was a lawyer with two sons. He insisted on paying whenever the five of them went out for pizza or to a movie, and this annoyed Margaret. Sex with him was good, but she really couldn’t imagine moving into his house, full of boys’ baseball uniforms and model airplanes and posters of the solar system. And he wasn’t the kind of man to move into a woman’s house. Margaret knew, in that moment, that it would be over with Gary, and soon. “But I don’t love him.”
“So,” Jane began. “Then why aren’t you with Dad now?”
It had been years since Jane asked this. The therapist had told them, when they split up, that she would come to understand it in new ways every few years.
“Did the sex get bad, Mommy, at the end?”
Clearly, when Jane was five, Margaret hadn’t envisioned this conversation.
The simple answer was yes.
But Margaret wouldn’t say it.
Instead, she took the white plastic spatula she was using to scrape the brown batter into two metal cake pans and held it out to her daughter.
“Here,” she said. “Taste this.”
Jane jumped up. “Really?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
The girl brought her mouth down around the thick liquid clinging to the soft plastic and closed her eyes.
“Good?” her mother asked.
“Mmm,” the girl moaned and smiled.
“There are raw eggs in there, did you know that?”
Jane pulled it out of her mouth with a jerk.
“But you like it anyway, right?”
The girl hesitated.
“That’s how sex is. Sometimes it’s sweet. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes there are things about it you don’t want to know.”
Margaret took the spatula from her, filled it up again with batter.
“But you know when you like it,” Margaret said, and then flung the viscous mix at her daughter. It landed in her light brown hair.
“Mom!” Jane shrieked.
Margaret did it again. It landed on the small mound of her swimsuit top, covered its orange hibiscus flowers in chocolate.
“Here,” Margaret said, passing Jane the bowl with one hand after filling her other hand with the dark sweet stuff. “Get me,” Margaret said, smiling. She licked her index finger and waited.
Jane stood up and threw a large wad right at her mother’s face. Margaret laughed and came closer, grabbing her and smearing her daughter’s arms with it.
They both dove into the bowl again and again until all the batter was spread over them.
“Now lick your arm,” Margaret said seriously.
“Go ahead. Do it.”
Jane did, tentatively.
It was warmer and waterier than it had been before. Jane could sense the tang of chlorine and the salt of sweat on her own body, too, underneath the velvet brown. There would always be, the rest of her life, the memory of this taste in her mouth whenever she would make love.
“Jane, honey,” Margaret said softly. “It doesn’t matter what’s in the batter as long as you like it. As long as it tastes good to you.”
Jane took another lick.
“That’s the important thing. It has to taste good on your own skin.”