Eggs, milk, oil. She adds them without thinking, she knows the measurements by heart. Even if they’re all wrong, there is no time to reconsider. A phone is gripped between her right earlobe and shoulder, and she’s headed straight for her laptop. Yes, we can add a comment to clause 5. No, let’s remove the definition in clause 2.4. Slumping into a swivel chair, she continues to instruct her associate, all the while whisking a yellow-white froth in a bowl.
It has been a long Friday, at the end of a long week, and it isn’t over yet. Their folks will be over for her husband’s birthday dinner soon and her clients are closing a deal at the Sheraton tomorrow morning.
Why waste time baking? Well, she ordered in dinner and had her house-help lay the table, put on some fairy lights. Now she’s feeling sheepish about not having done anything personally. She knows what they will be thinking – his folks, and hers – such a sorry little thing, can’t keep a house, can’t make one good meal. They will dismiss her in their minds before the entrée is served, and spend the rest of the evening sermonising about the importance of a work-life balance.
What she would like to say – before the conversation snowballs into the life-changing benefits of having a baby – is that none of them knows what it is like to be her. Sure, they have all worked, and diligently, at some point in their lives. Earned the bread, raised a family. But none of them had to do all of it, all at once, under the strain of such high expectations – her own and everybody else’s. Command a whole team at the firm and submit to the temper tantrums of the cleaning lady back home. Show up as a ‘counsel to watch out for’ in legal magazines and as the ever-abiding daughter-in-law at Saturday brunches. Sustain two lives, as two diametrically opposite people, every single day.
She won’t say any of this to them, of course. She loves them too much to imply they don’t know what they’re talking about. They dread being out of touch, inadequate. They’re never keen to talk about what she does at work, as if afraid that she might say something they won’t understand and somehow leave them behind. She envies her husband’s easy self-assurance: he never thinks twice before talking about himself, and they rather enjoy watching him overtake them.
Back in the kitchen, the help has put the flour, sugar and cocoa powder together. She adds them to her bowl and turns on the electronic whisk. Round and round goes a mix of emotions, leaving behind countless ripples. Equal measures of guilt and ambition, an ounce of exhaustion and a sprinkle of self-restraint.
The fluff glides into the mould like a freedom contained. She watches the cake for a while after placing it in the oven, thinking back ten years. Her twenties: a time when all was expectant hope and rising ambition. All plans were within reach, and all were hers alone. A loving partner was somewhere in her idea of a perfect life, but somehow he existed in a vacuum. No familial duties or professional sacrifices to make it work. Just a happy thought-bubble with her and a certain black silhouette against major tourist attractions across the world.
Thirty minutes later she is showered and dressed, hovering over the living room, checking lights, crockery, seating arrangements, then double checking just to be sure. Too late to fix anything now, her pragmatic side exerts itself. Think of the cake at the end of it all!
In the kitchen, they are already patting on the butterscotch frosting. His favourite is chocolate, but this was the only flavour available on the drive home and parking nausea overtook her will to be experimental. She evens it out nicely.
Dinner-table conversation is not much worse than expected, and she is smiling more than expected. A sense of achievement has settled upon her in secret: dinner organised, face made up, cake set, transaction nearly closed. She feels like a superhero, though no one else cares for the difference. The server comes and whispers urgency into her ear, plucking her away to the kitchen abruptly.
Her messenger and the cook are both bent forward, peering at it when she enters. They shuffle aside for her to see, and she flinches. Unmissable, deep, riverine cracks throughout the frosting.
Hands on knees, she stoops for a closer look like the others, suddenly struck by a deep sense of camaraderie for the frosting, half expecting it to tell her how it came to be in this sorry condition. No words are necessary however. She knows the story as if it were her own. They discuss plausible causes behind her in whispers: the layers were too heavy… it must have subsided… maybe it just couldn’t breathe, so much moisture in the air these days.
Odd ripples rise up from her stomach, gurgle at her throat, and erupt at her lips in loud bursts of laughter. She collapses to the floor, head thrown back, hand on stomach, haw-haw-ing uncontrollably. Tears run down the corners of her eyes, her insides hurt, but she can’t stop laughing. She doesn’t want to. It feels so good.
The folks rush in to see what the chaos is about. They are all cramped in her kitchen now, watching her with concern. What is going on? Is something wrong with the cake? Is something wrong with her?
For once they are right, she grins to herself. But says nothing. It will take a long time to explain. And anyway, no one cares for the difference.