Cupcakes in Wonderland
March licks her pink-frosted fingertips, one by one, while the old woman nears death in the adjacent room. Consuming the sugary swirls of hydrogenated fat is a small act of rebellion as her mother-in-law degenerates in a rented hospital bed. March leans back in the mahogany dining room chair and plots the route she will take to run it off tomorrow, but James has already noted her cupcake indulgence with disgust.
“It is the dose that makes the poison. Paracelsus. Sixteenth century. One physician quoting another,” he says.
James finds comfort in the predictability of life’s cruelty but March sneers in its face. Shove it, she thinks, her mouth foaming pink.
“Let’s make sure we thank the visiting nurse for these treats tomorrow,” March instructs her son Clay. She squashes the final bites of the second sugar bomb into her mouth.
James abruptly pushes away from the table and storms out to visit the husk of his mother. He will hold her hand and examine her warping face as he does each night. Tonight reality is most clear: there is nothing else he can do.
Clay giggles as March bares her pastel teeth, and then he does the same. They are beasts, the two of them, finding levity so near death. The entire exercise is nonsense anyway; Clay has a whole life ahead of him, and March has perhaps half left—more than enough to pretend that death belongs to other people.
After March sends Clay upstairs to get ready for bed, James finds her at the kitchen sink. He grabs her arm and spins her around, whispering furiously, “I SAW you at the pond today. I saw what you did.”
Truths about March’s marriage: James is a workaholic whose true loves are 1. His mother 2. His work as a surgeon 3. Clay. You’d have to ask him where his March fits into the equation. Try this scenario to test the math: If his family were on a sinking boat to whom would he throw the only life preserver? March imagines her plump rear would make a tasty shark treat. The early years with James were golden, but the light had shifted way before Mrs. Wolcott moved in to die.
It all returns to the body, because the body is the most important thing to him. “Consistency is key,” James reminds March as she creeps into her forties and pokes at her squishier stomach in complaint. He means keeping fit, and she wants to say, But we’re aging. And I’ve still got my legs!
She wants to say, Consistency breeds boredom. I am bored.
He’d actually started using the line about consistency seventeen years ago, after she’d miscarried. For a year she’d deliberately kept the pregnancy weight because it was the thing she had left to carry. James’ insistent impatience finally compelled her to back the gym, back to the trails, and she’s been running ever since. She’s good at it now. She’s a March hare.
James’ face is red as he pushes her against the sink. His moustache has a flake of frosting in it. March reaches up to wipe it away.
“Don’t touch me,” he turns away. “I saw you,” he repeats.
She takes a slow breath as she turns the water down to a dribble.
“Saw me?” March plays the fool.
“Yes,” he speaks through his teeth. “With that kid. How could you? And in public?”
But she has no regrets. She’s been flailing in the water for months, and James has either pretended not to notice, or has refused to throw out that life preserver. The boy was a life raft of some kind—and when you see a raft in these circumstances, you swim to it.
They hear the nurse talk to her patient in the living room in a soothing voice. She calls out to them. “Come in, please.”
For the last three months whenever March left Alice Wolcott with her nurse in the mornings, her mother-in-law made comments. She was especially concerned with the state of the house: “James likes a clean house and a slim woman, you know!”
When it rained, March was a gazelle furiously pounding at the gym treadmill. The mirrored wall allowed her the view of the space behind her machine. Cotton-heads bused over from the Breezy Retirement Community valiantly pumped iron with the gay trainer. The mentally disabled teenager, who had cleaned the bathrooms for as long as March could remember, propped the bathroom doors open with his buckets of industrial cleaners to peek at March. He was perhaps sixteen or seventeen—safely older than Clay. She flounced along in her pink shirt, her yellow hair matted with effort. The boy’s gaze sent warmth from her chest up her neck. No one stared at her anymore like that.
March named him Pete, and he lived in the neighborhood. He mowed his mother’s lawn, walked the dogs, rode a bicycle. At the gym he tracked her with his eyes, a predator in rubber gloves. She liked feeling hunted—a symptom of a midlife crisis. In the fourth decade it had become clear that every life cliché is founded in a real experience and as the dim light of understanding life brightens, all she wanted was to turn away from the bare bulb swinging before her. How much illumination can a person face? So what if March enjoyed the disabled boy’s interest in her? Life progresses along according to some schedule she couldn’t alter.
Back at home Alice Wolcott yelled at her, “My damn water glass is empty again.”
“On my way,” March called from the garage entry and forced a smile.
Mrs. Wolcott was frightful, propped up against puffy white pillows. She had transformed into a stick-creature, a praying mantis with needle-thin arms and wide, sunken eyes.
“Nola is using the ladies’ room,” she informed March and, on cue, they heard the sound of the toilet flush in the guest bathroom.
“My water. Now.” It seemed she had never used a friendly tone in her life. March snatched the glass from the bedside table and wondered how many people would show up at the funeral.
“Oh, Mrs. Wolcott, I will get that for you,” her nurse sang out, appearing suddenly beside March at the kitchen sink, accompanied by the smell of rosewood hand soap and something more antiseptic. She was some kind of saint.
“Thanks.” March turned to go upstairs to shower. Even aside from bearing witness to terminal illness in her living room she had an exciting suburban day ahead of her: errands before lunch, grocery shopping, Clay’s school bus arrival, etc.
The dark wood groaned beneath March’s weight and Alice’s voice followed her up the stairs. “It must be nice to spend so much time at the gym instead of tending to your home.”
As March stripped and passed the bathroom mirror, where she tried very, very hard to not make a single judgment about her forty-three-year-old body, she flipped through her mental Rolodex of Alicisms. Over the course of her eighteen-year marriage to James, the cruelest were pinned in March’s memory. When her hormones were scrambled after a miscarriage: What did you do to your face?—only teenagers have acne! When March refused to spank Clay as a toddler for misbehaving: When that boy turns out to be a serial killer you’ll realize your mistake.
In the shower March watched a spider slip along the wall and moved her body so the spray washed it away. She squealed and shuddered as it makes a final, spiral scurry a bit too close to her feet before the water pounded it down the drain. A tickle of joy danced across her mind.
On March’s way out to the gym the day everything changed, Mrs. Wolcott harped, “Dear, if you would drink cod liver oil every morning like I do, you wouldn’t look so haggard.”
She was rewarded for politely ignoring the comment when a hunky guy fell off the treadmill next to her like something from a television commercial. She stifled a laugh and briefly made eye contact with him.
He shook his head and blushed.
“Couldn’t do that again if I tried.” He flashed a grin that would wet the panties of any young woman, but not those of an older, cynical creature like March.
“I rarely run on these things. Just warming up for weight work.”
The Hunk looked mid-thirties and resembled a young Dr. James Wolcott: tall, dark, and athletic in the real-life functional way (I run trails with my dog on weekends!) rather than the useless gym-rat way (I spend all my money on supplements and my time on power lifting!). March offered an apologetic smile and reminisced about sex with James a decade ago. Middle age does men no favors either.
As the treadmill spun its endless scuffed black ribbon beneath her, March wondered how Clay would look when he’d grown, since it won’t be like her or James. At ten, Clay was a changeling, a man-child, all puppy feet and hands but his eyes were the same as when they adopted him as an infant after that first lost child turned into three lost children and then March couldn’t do it anymore. She dragged the back of her hand against her wet temple, as if she could wipe away those difficult years. James agreed to adopt Clay instead of “fooling around with God’s plan.” Somehow James navigated the place where science and faith intersect. Examples: birth control: yes, abortion: no. Medically intervene to help create life: no, perform life-saving measures with a colon-cancer patient: yes. March found fault in his logic.
She looked up at CNN on the overhead televisions and noticed Pete spraying cleaner on a rag, his scrawny arms seemingly bolted together at the elbow, and wiping down the elliptical machines. He needed to get out in the sun. He stared at her, pushing at the nosepiece of his glasses. Her eyes caught the blip of the red numbers on the treadmill interface, a commercial for deodorant on the television, Pete’s earnest face.
She smiled and sucked in her stomach. Was his fixation her imagination? She wanted to be special. She wondered if Pete had ever been kissed. March pushed the pause button and grabbed her water bottle, flustered and sick about where her thoughts had gone. Maybe Alice’s criticisms got down to something important about her.
As March slowed to a walk, Pete was suddenly beside her, touching her forearm. She seized the railing as if it were craft that might whisk her away into hyperspace.
“I can do that for you, Miss,” Pete said slowly, deliberately. His voice was surprisingly deep. He smelled of window cleaner and bubble gum.
March seized. “No, no. That’s fine. I am almost done.” She glanced at The Hunk slowly stretching to her right.
“But it’s my job,” the boy persisted. His voice became higher, nervous, like Clay’s sometimes sounded from time to time. Up close March saw that his fair skin was dabbled with pimples and that his lush lips were rosy, pure.
“Looks like you have a fan,” The Hunk said too loudly, his earphones still on.
The boy’s hand still touched her arm and his thumb began to make little circles on the tender underside before March came to her senses and pulled away.
“All right. You can clean the machine,” she said, looking directly at Pete, dizzy.
He smiled widely. “Thank you very much.”
She snagged her keys and water bottle, spun away and left the gym without looking back.
She’d liked the way his thumb felt. It reminded her of the way Clay mindlessly played with her hair sitting in her lap when he was small. But those three gentle circles Pete had made on her arm had also felt a little bit the way James gestures along her throat when they lay together in bed. It all comes back to the body.
The nurse calls out to them again. “Please. Mrs. Wolcott wants to speak with you!”
James’ fury changes to panic. His hand reaches for March’s as he turns to the living room. “Come with me.” March acquiesces.
The warm glow of a far-table lamp sets a near-romantic tone. Alice shares her important thought.
“You can thank me for every bit of the man James has become.”
The thing is, March does. She really does.
When March returned from her encounter at the gym with Pete that afternoon, Nola dumped heavy looks in the kitchen as she warmed chicken broth. For days she had made worrisome clucking noises when James and Clay left for work and school as if Alice might pass while they were out living their lives.
After Alice’s afternoon nap, March read an old Reader’s Digest aloud. Home from school, Clay hid upstairs playing video games. Because Alice insisted the drapes be drawn, March squinted at the articles in the dim light. Stripes of light from the window on the door cut through the fluffy carpeting and spread menacingly towards the hospital bed.
“Why are you reading so slowly? I’m dying, not deaf!” Alice scolded weakly. She wheezed as her oxygen tank whirred next to the bed. There was no longer any bite in her bark, March realized. That this made her sad was more than a little confusing.
The feeling that March could too could not get enough air built until she popped her up from her seat like a piece of toast and she scurried to the back door.
“Alice, I’ll be back in a minute. I think I hear something outside,” she called out as she dug beneath the old bag of peas in the freezer for her cigarettes. Then she slipped out the kitchen door to the backyard. She’d started smoking again a few months earlier after missing the bad habit of her twenties, which, by no accident, coincided with the time Alice moved in. Nola has caught her smoking once, but James and Clay were nary the wiser. It belonged only to her.
March leaned against the house and surveyed the grass for thistles and dandelions the lawn service people missed with their industrial-strength poisons. In the distance a voice shouted “Mark! Mark!” which was funny because March had lied about hearing something outside when she escaped Alice, and now it’s as if her lie has come to life. There was a pause and the plea began again. She’d finished her cigarette and her head buzzed as she re-entered the house to find some gum.
Snapping bubbles, March stretched her torso across the granite countertop and perused the Poultry section of a cookbook, dawdling to avoid Alice. She could hear Nola reading. March daydreamed about greasy take-out from the local fried chicken spot on the corner of Main Street. She poked at her rear through her black yoga pants.
The doorbell rang and a minute later Nola called out, “Mrs. Wolcott! You should come!”
On the porch stood a pretty young woman who smiled broadly at March as if she knew her. Worry creased her eyes.
“Hi, I’m Caroline. We’re going door-to-door asking if anyone has seen my brother, Mark.”
March stared vacantly at the girl’s freckled face and noted her lovely natural blond curls with envy. She patted her own straightened, starched head of hair and produced a vague smile.
“Mark? I thought Mark was a lost dog.” She realized she’d had no basis for this assumption. “Well, goodness. Please, come in,” and March gestured for the girl to enter the house.
The girl turned gray at the sight of Alice propped up in her metal bed, waving her arm and declaring, shrilly, “Now who’s this? A girlfriend of Clay’s? Arriving unannounced?”
“No, this is Caroline. She’s looking for her brother.”
“I really can take only a moment,” Caroline faltered. Of course she didn’t want to spend more than half a second in a room with an ailing stranger.
“Yes, of course. How old is Mark? How long has he been missing?” March admired the way the sun bounced off the girl’s hair. She was in her early twenties and if she ever ate more than one cupcake at a time, it certainly didn’t show.
Clay thundered down the stairs and was suddenly at her side, curious about the pretty visitor.
“Mom! Mark is missing?”
“That poor boy,” Nola shook her head. “I do hope he’s not hurt or lost.”
March looked at all of them, bewildered. “Who is Mark?” How do they all know him?
“That slow boy who walks the dogs,” Clay said.
Caroline cut in, “We prefer ‘developmentally disabled.’ But yes. He’s got dark hair, glasses. Real thin.” She shifted on her heels.
“Can I go outside and help look for him?” Clay asked brightly.
“Let’s go together,” March said, as it clicked in her mind that this was the boy from the gym. Mark is Pete.
Outside the “Mark, Mark!” song was going strong and a few groups of people canvassed the tree-lined streets. Caroline peeled off to ring the doorbell at the next house and March and Clay walked about half a block down and approached a set of mothers and children.
“He’s been missing for about three hours now,” a brunette mother informed them.
“Too little time to involve the police of course,” added her taller friend. Both women held the hands of small blond children.
“We’re all just so worried about him—Mark! MARK!” the brunette continued. “Normally he never deviates from his schedule and he doesn’t leave the house without asking”
March was confused by how intimately these women spoke of Mark, as if the whole neighborhood held him dear and knew his family so well. She felt oddly disconnected but bolstered herself with the belief that no one but her knew him as Pete. No one but she had felt his gentle hand on her arm.
“Can I go with those guys and look for him, Mom?” Clay pointed to a group of four kids about his age, maybe a little older, marching purposefully as they wailed the Mark song. It was an anthem. Mark, Mark!
“Yes, go on. You have your watch, right?”
Clay nodded towards his narrow wrist.
“Mark the time and be home in no more than one hour.” He’d already gone, released to his contemporaries.
“’Mark the time’? Is that like, a joke or something?” the brunette huffed, rolling her eyes.
But of course it wasn’t a joke, because he wasn’t Mark to her. The name meant nothing.
“No, of course not.” March produced a fake smile. “You know what though? I’m going to head off now myself to look for him.” She broke into a slow jog, as if she had some real sense of where to go.
It was May and the dandelions were proud and high. March jogged furiously past them. The urgency with which she cared about finding Mark was nearly the same as that day she and James had lost sight of Clay at a carnival. She would find him because she had to.
Before long she’d left the subdivision and was running along the commercial district thoroughfare. When she spotted a lone figure sitting in the grass next to the retaining pond in front of CVS, March almost choked on her excitement and darted across the street, her breath unsteady.
Mark sat with his legs pulled up against his chest, his arms wrapped around them like a taut rubber band. Trance-like, he watched the small fountain erupt from the center of the lily pad-choked pond. March approached cautiously.
Her voice was soft as she called his name and walked to where he sat beneath the shade of a young tree.
He turned his face slowly towards her, relaxing his tight grip on his legs slightly.
“Are you okay?” She brushed sweat from her forehead into her hair.
When he recognized her, Mark smiled in a helpless way that brought tears to March’s eyes. He made her into something special.
“Yeah,” he finally said, still smiling. “What are you doing here?”
March stepped closer and told him that everyone was looking for him. She swept her arms out and pointed back towards the subdivision. “You couldn’t hear everyone calling your name?”
But as she sat down next to him, March could hear nothing but the sound of the fountain splashing in the pond and traffic rushing by. She laughed. “I guess not. Not from here, anyway.”
“No, and I’ve been sitting here for a while.” He made small pauses between each word, articulating carefully, presenting them to March like small gifts. He had not taken his eyes off of her.
He still flustered her, even though the power had shifted in March’s favor. “Your Mother would very much like you to come home now. Your sister Caroline, too. Would you like to walk back with me?”
“Because I’m watching a frog.” Mark pointed towards a lily pad near the edge of the water where, in fact, a small dark green frog squatted glumly.
“Would you like to watch him too?”
She couldn’t force him to go home and she hadn’t brought a cell phone with her to call anyone. So she nodded.
He whispered shyly, “I like frogs.”
“Tell me about it.” Sitting in the high grass felt wonderful. She stretched her legs out in front of her. She thought about the last time they were this close and the memory made her shiver as her body cooled from running.
“They sit still for a long time and they wait for bugs. They don’t move until one comes along.” His eyes were fixed on the frog .
“You like that they are patient?”
March curled her legs up toward her chest, mirroring Mark’s body language. “I try to be patient but I’m not very good at it,” she confessed.
Mark turned his stubbled face toward her and beamed. “I think you’re good at everything,”
Surprised at the very idea, March laughed and she assured him it wasn’t true of anyone. Then time did that bendy thing where everything happens both quickly and slowly and Mark leaned towards her and his face was smashed against hers, his lips just missing hers and hitting the upper edge of her top lip and her nose. She pulled away and locked her arm against his shoulder to create a distance.
“We can’t do that,” she told him, her voice shaking, and she fought the sob in her chest.
Mark’s face was wild with joy, like he’d caught the moon. No one had looked at her like that in the last twenty years. She unlocked her arm and pulled him towards her, kissing him on the mouth. He tasted like bubblegum. Then she hugged him to her, breathing in his clean, sweaty smell. She had ideas of doing other things with him that she folded up in her mind like a piece of origami paper until it was so tiny it dissolved and become a part of her. She stood up before it could get any worse.
“What if I told you that everyone in the neighborhood has been looking for you for hours, patient as frogs, and that I was the one lucky enough to find you?”
“I’m lucky,” Mark smiled up at her.
“I think you are,” March agreed, and she held out her hand to help him up.
“Look,” she pointed to the pond, “Your frog is gone.”
“That’s okay,” Mark said as they turned away from the pond.
They held hands all the way back to the subdivision.
“My mother-in-law is dying,” March said as she spotted the first group of searchers coming towards them along the curving sidewalk. “And it makes me feel like I’m much older now because of it.”
“Don’t worry. Even when you die I’ll still love you,” Mark said appreciatively. And then, like a little boy: “Frogs die too.”
Once people realized March had brought him back, the anthem enthusiastically changed to “We Found Mark!” She was practically a neighborhood hero.
“Thank you, Mother,” James pats his mother’s freckled hand. He is confident in her love. March knows that all his life, Alice has spoken to James no differently than she has to March: curtly barking bossy commands and bits of advice, only rarely including a special, affectionate sentiment. For the first time it occurs to March that this form of communication is not independent of her love for both of them.
“Read to me,” Alice whispers.
James nods and pulls a magazine from the bedside stack to begin 10 Ways a Dog is a Family’s Best Friend! He looks at March and she touches his hair, mouthing, “I’m sorry.” James shakes his head, forgiving her? Not forgiving her? He starts to read.
After a few minutes Alice interrupts, “You should think about getting a dog like this article talks about. Boys should have a dog. James always had a dog when he was growing up and I always say it helped raise him.”
Clay’s allergies to dogs make the conversation ridiculous.
“Yes. James still talks about his German Shepherds like they were his brothers.” March assures her.
“He does, because they were! Keep reading.” Alice waves her arm in slow motion at the little rectangular magazine in her son’s hand.
There was no hiding from this thing now, from her own aging, no hiding from who James was and all they’d lost along the way. Maybe Alice was who she was because she hadn’t been able to accept growing old, and the anger had poisoned her early on. March would stay there with her and James through the long night.
1 reply on “Cupcakes in Wonderland”
This is by far the best short story I’ve read in a long, long time. Well done!!!!