Authors: Meg Donohue
How to Eat a Cupcake
For my parents, whose love and support embolden my dreams.
And for Phil and our girls, who are my everything.
eople frequently make the assumption that I'm unreliable. I chalk this up to the fact that I'm perhaps a bit too creative and flour-flecked in my dress and I'm not a hedge fund manager, dot-com entrepreneur, or lawyer. Oh, and my hair is curly, which I guess pegs me as unpredictable. Hair, apparently, is the new window to the soul.
Of course, no one actually uses the word “unreliable” when they describe me. Instead, they throw around coquettishly hyphenated words like “free-spirited” or “independent-minded,” which mean they think I'm one of those flighty, dim, devil-may-care gals who arrive forty minutes late for everything, if they arrive at all. The accusation could not be further from the truth. When I tell you I'll do something, I do it, thank you very much. When I say I'll be there, I'm there on time.
Still, I'll admit that as I stood in the middle of the St. Clairs' stone courtyard for the first time in nearly a decade, I ever-so-briefly considered turning on my heel and getting the hell out of Dodge. Before me, an enormous hulking beast of a mansionâthe closest thing I had to a childhood home, home to the best and worst friend I'd ever knownâloomed silent, windows glinting in the early evening sun. While I stood there, hesitating, the bright, confident scent of Meyer lemon cupcakes wafted up from the box in my hands. It was hard to decide which was worse: envisioning the fallout of going back on my word to Lolly St. Clair, or being scoffed at by a dozen plucky cupcakes. I drew myself up as tall as my five-foot, three-inch frame would allow and marched across the remainder of the courtyard and up the front steps.
A long-faced maid with crisply parted black hair and swipes of blush as aggressive as war paint opened the door. I immediately pegged her as a temporary hire for the party. Visible make-up on staff members had always been near the top of Lolly St. Clair's lengthy list of pet peeves, and, foreseeing the torrent of scorn that would inevitably befall this unsuspecting woman, I felt a twinge of sympathy for her. Or was that solidarity?
“Hi,” I said. “I'm Annie Quintana.”
My presence seemed to baffle her. I didn't blame her for being confused; I wasn't wearing the black staff uniform, but I also wasn't dressed up enough to be a party guest. She stared at me, blinking her mascara-caked eyelashes rapidly, and finally looked down at the box in my hands.
“Oh,” she said. “You're here with the cupcakes.”
“That's right. I'm here with the cupcakes. They brought me as their plus one. I'm a lucky girl!” I gave a little laugh, but she didn't seem to be in the mood for camaraderie. I was beginning to suspect Lolly had already had a few choice words with her. She turned away, mumbling something over her shoulder that I interpreted as an invitation to enter.
I took a breath, lifted my chin, and then followed the maid into the St. Clairs' soaring foyer. The frenetic, multicolored Jackson Pollock painting I remembered wellâand later studied at Calâstill hung above the rich brown tufted bench I'd sat on so many times as a kid. Twin curving mahogany staircases were bathed in the sunlight that poured through a round skylight two stories above. If the foyer was any indication, nothing had changed in the St. Clair house over the last decade. I wasn't surprised. Evelyn and Thaddeus St. ClairâLolly and Tad to their inner circleâwere fixtures in the most exclusive echelons of San Francisco society and steadfast in their good taste. It was like walking into a time warp. I half expected to look up the stairs and see Julia St. Clair smiling her Cheshire-cat grin down at me, her schoolgirl uniform tailored to near-couture perfection, Jewel's twangy yodels spilling out from her Discman headphones. Thankfully, this was impossible. Julia, like me, was now twenty-eight years old and long removed from her Devon Prep plaid. Last I'd heard she was living in New York City, vice president of a venture capital firm.
Just what Julia St. Clairs' bank account needs
, I'd thought when news of her impressive-sounding job had trickled through some funnel of e-mails and landed with a twinkly little plunk in my in-box:
a few more zeros.
As the maid led me into the kitchen, Lolly St. Clair materialized in front of me, her slender, Chanel-clad arms wrapping me in a surprisingly robust embrace. If I'd put on some weight over the previous ten years, Lolly seemed to have somehow shed the same amount from her already thin frame. She felt fragile in my arms, as bony as a bird. A tiny, squawking, bizarrely strong bird.
“Oh, thank goodness it's just you!” she rasped into my ear. “I nearly died when I heard the doorbell. I'm sure you haven't forgotten that early guests are as welcome as the plague in this home.”
Before I had a chance to cough menacingly into her hair, Lolly pushed me to arm's length, her fingernails biting into my shoulders. Her pale blue eyes searched my face. I returned the steady gaze, but any changes in Lolly would have required a magnifying glass to identify. At sixty-one, she glowed with a Faye Dunawayâesque, bobble-head beauty, her hair dyed and coiffed in a perfectly appropriate white-blond, jawline-skimming do. Thanks, undoubtedly, to the efforts of a highly skilled surgeon, her skin was luminous and taut without succumbing to that trout-in-a-wind-tunnel look so many women her age seemed to be sporting.
Having completed her own inspection, Lolly pulled me close again. “Hello, my dear,” she said quietly. “Lovely little Annie.”
I was determined not to fall into the web of memories that her voice instantly spun through my head. Instead, I looked over her shoulder at the kitchen. But this was a mistake. Immediately, my body grew tense. I guess I'd assumed the St. Clairs would have changed something in the kitchenâif nowhere elseâout of respect for my mom, or out of sadness, or regret, or even just to avoid any morbid associations. But everything looked exactly the same. There were the sand-colored granite counters webbed with intricate gold veins that my fingers had traced countless times; the stacked ovens Julia and I had baked pizzas in during slumber parties with a gaggle of middle-school girlfriends; the long rectangular window framing an absurdly postcard-perfect view of the sparkling bay and majestic Golden Gate Bridge that made my heart beat a little more strongly each and every time I saw it.
. The word pierced my thoughts like a poison dart. Is there any more complicated word in the English language? So much packed into one simple syllable. In Spanish, there's only one word for both home and house:
. But we English speakers like to complicate matters. My eyes fell for only a moment on the white marble-topped kitchen island where my mother had spent so much time so long ago. I tried very, very hard not to look down at the floor where my mother had been found.
“Well,” I said, extricating myself from Lolly's arms a second time. “I see you've really let this place go to hell.”
Lolly barked out a laugh, wagging her finger at me. “And I see you're exactly the same. I'm finding it hard not to ask if you've studied for your history test, young lady.”
“Go ahead,” I said, warming to her. Even with those sharp little nails, Lolly really wasn't so bad. “The answer will be the same.”
She sent the maid, who'd become remarkably less dour in Lolly's presence, to bring in the rest of the cupcake boxes from the car I'd borrowed from my friend Becca. It was Becca, in fact, who'd convinced me to accept Lolly's request to cater the desserts for her Save the Children benefit.
Are you insane?
Becca had sputtered when I told her I was planning on saying no
. Think of all of those rich people eating your cupcakes! You're going to pass up that opportunity for what? To make your eight millionth almond croissant for Valencia Street Bakery? To walk another mutt around Dolores Park, scooping up baggies of crap?
It was, all in all, a convincing argument. And so there I was, back at the St. Clairs' as hired help. Lolly's bonbon-sized diamond ring had nothing on the chip on my shoulder that day.
The truth, I knew, was that Lolly could have had her pick of any pastry chef in San Francisco. She threw lavish events at least once a month; her address book was thick with caterers and party planners and nonprofits worthy of St. Clair fund-raising soirees. But she had continually contacted me over the years, sending precisely worded e-mails and leaving the occasional brisk voice mail, undeterred by my infrequent response. It wasn't that I didn't like her, but just that I had spent much of my life attempting to untangle myself from the St. Clair world. I knew Lolly well enough to know that she was the classic give-her-an-inch-and-she'll-take-a-yard type. Still, when she somehow discovered that I was working as the head baker of a small cafÃ© in the Missionâa historically Latino neighborhood I sincerely doubted Lolly had ever driven through, much less dined inâI had to respect the woman's tenacity.
“My favorite!” she cried, opening the box of cupcakes the maid had left on the counter. “I can't believe you remembered. Lemon. What a relief. I was a teensy bit nervous you'd bring some awful
flavor. It's bad enough I'm serving cupcakes to grown-upsâno offense, Annie darling; they're all the rage, aren't they? But if you'd brought some ridiculous flavor like
, I just don't know what I would have done. If I wanted to taste
, I'd spritz air freshener on my tongue.” Lolly cringed as much as her taut face would allow. “Sometimes I fear the whole world has forgotten how delicious subtlety can be. Thank goodness for the classics.” She hesitated. “Did youÂ .Â .Â .” She paused again, studying me. “Is it your mother's recipe?”
“As best as I can remember. I never found her recipe book.” I glanced again at the marble island at the center of the kitchen. “Actually, I thought while I'm here I might look around for it. That is, if you don't mind a broke baker snooping through your fine silver.”
“I suppose we can make an exception this one time. We never did have anyone move into the carriage house after .Â .Â .” Lolly's voice dropped off. She studied her pearl-colored nails, collecting herself. When she looked up, the ripple of emotion that had momentarily crossed her face had stilled. She took a deep breath through her nose, her chest swelling beneath her pewter blouse. I imagined her looking in the mirror each morning and thinking,
Impeccably arched brows? Check. Sculptural cheekbones? Oh yes. Megawatt smile? Indeed. Now, let's go save some children.
“Well, live-in help didn't seem necessary,” Lolly continued, “once you girls were both off at college. It's just me and Tad now, rattling around in this big old house.”
I tried to keep my smile in check. Lolly and Tad might not have their household employees living on the grounds anymore, but I was willing to bet my best cupcake recipe they were still surrounded by helping hands every waking moment. After all, for nearly twenty years, the helping hands had been those of my mother.
When she was sixteen years old, pregnant, and disowned by her devoutly Catholic family, my mom, Lucia Quintana, fled Ecuador for a cousin's couch in South San Francisco and remained there until the day she landed a nanny job with the St. Clair family. Even though I knew those details of her story as well as I knew the recipe for classic yellow cake, I still found them hard to understand. How had my tiny, teenage mom, her stomach just beginning to stretch her shirt uncomfortably taut, summoned the courage to leave her whole life behind and ride a network of buses thousands of miles to a foreign city where she knew only one person?
Through a program offered by the city, she eventually found herself perched on the edge of a plush, opal-colored couch in the grandest living room she'd ever seen. Using the faltering English she'd picked up cleaning homes for the previous two years, she'd explained to Lolly St. Clair that she had a daughter, Anita, the very same age as Lolly's Julia. The fact that she had a child turned out to be a bonus in Lolly's eyes; complications during delivery had ensured that Julia would be the St. Clairs' only child, and Lolly thought it would be nice for Julia to grow up with a playmate. Though I heard this version of the story many times over the years, I knew Lolly well enough to know that her motives hadn't been entirely self-centered. Beneath her well-tended exterior, Lolly hid a soft spot for those in need, and who was more in need than a single, unemployed immigrant with a toddler in tow? Not long after that interview, my mom and I moved into the carriage house of the St. Clairs' Pacific Heights compound. Right up until the day she died, neither of us ever lived anywhere else.
s I arranged six dozen cupcakes on the white Limoges platters Lolly had set out, I admired my handiwork. Lolly had been right to worry about my flavor tendencies. In my mind, there was nothing better than a cupcake with a funny little twist. I liked bold pairings of fresh ingredients slathered high with decadent, old-fashioned waves of icingâorganic pear and chai tea cake topped with vanilla-ginger buttercream was one of my current favorites. But Lolly St. Clair had more classic taste, and so I'd made an array of delicately flavored Meyer lemon, vanilla, and mocha cupcakes for the benefit. The cupcakes were smaller than my usual oversized creations, and I'd topped them with smooth buttercream icing on which I'd placed fetching little fondant birds and butterflies that I'd molded by hand. The cupcakes looked, in a word, lovely. But how did they taste? Two words:
Lolly insisted I join the party, but not before she gave my clothes a silent head-to-toe appraisal. An ancient anger bubbled inside of me as she dubiously added up the pieces of my outfit: purple knee-length tunic, black leggings, chunky turquoise bracelet, gold hoop earrings, my dark, wavy, ever-untamable hair falling loose down my back. At least I'd stepped it up from my usual thrift store finds.
, I thought, sticking my chin out and meeting her gaze straight on.
I don't fit in.
Despite my defiant train of thought, all through Lolly's evaluation I was anxiously spinning that bracelet around and around my wrist.