[my novel in progress]
CHAPTER 1: The Cake Conference
“I had another panic attack this morning,” Lola said.
She and her best friend Gabby were settling in at their usual table in the far corner of their favorite bakery-café.
“Oh, no!” Gabby said. “The water thing?”
The women were meeting for their weekly cake conference. Their mini-retreat. A chance to take a short break from chaos and compare notes. And, of course, to eat. Their husbands, Eddy and Brian, had no idea about this secret rendezvous. And Lola and Gabby wanted to keep it that way.
Their standing order was delivered to the table five minutes after they sat down. After depriving themselves of dessert all week, they were not to be denied their chocolate blast on the seventh day. This was the pact they continued to honor.
Six-layers of oozing chocolate fudge beckoned. Three layers of cake alternating with three layers of cheesecake. Crammed on top of each towering piece were 25 small chocolate–peanut butter cups. Gabby always counted to make sure there were twenty five. At almost two thousand calories per slice, the dessert was aptly described on the menu: Decadent Death: More than one piece might be fatal!
“It averages out to less than 300 chocolate calories per day,” Gabby occasionally reminded Lola.
“Yeah. And that’s why I’m on the rowing machine every morning for an hour,” Lola said.
Having been same-floor neighbors and close friends for ten years, Lola and Gabby shared most of the important happenings in their lives. Which was not to say they always agreed. But in 2013, daily life in a New York City high-rise with their families was often intense. And Gabby, especially, was prone to having a short fuse.
As usual, they savored the first few seconds in respectful silence, gazing devotedly at the two pieces of Death in front of them and inhaling the intoxicating aroma of chocolate. Then they got down to business.
“So, another panic attack … what happened?” Gabby asked before taking her first bite. She had known for a long time that Lola was terrified of open water, including lakes, rivers, ponds, oceans … and swimming pools. Lola had spoken many times about waking up from a drowning nightmare with her heart racing and lungs tight from holding her breath.
“April’s teacher, Ellen Drowne, called me this morning,” Lola said. “She was desperate, begging me to volunteer to help with swimming lessons in the pool for the second-grade class. She said she contacted all the other parents and I was her absolute last hope.”
“What did you tell her?” Gabby asked.
“Like an idiot, I said I would!” Lola squinched her face. “A teacher’s helper. In the pool! What was I thinking?”
Gabby looked over at her friend who was staring at the vinyl red-checked tablecloth. Lola looked as if a water spout of mental terror was whirling frantically inside her head. She hadn’t taken a bite of her Death. Gabby decided it was not the time to tell a joke about Ellen Drowne’s unfortunate name.
“So, there’s no other parent available to help out?” Gabby asked.
“No,” Lola said. “If I can’t do it, she’ll have to cancel the class for this term.”
Lola often described her affliction as “the fear-demon that lives in my head.”
It was a long time ago when Lola was first tormented by a fear of water. As an adult, she had sought professional help for her phobia, but multiple sessions of hypnotism and psychotherapy brought no relief.
One time, on the advice of a relative and figuring she had nothing to lose, Lola decided to try a purgative remedy. In Chinatown, she purchased some small packets of burdock root, buckthorn bark, and rhubarb powder. At home, after brewing the ingredients to make a tart herbal tea, she drank a large mugful and went out to walk along the Hudson River as a test of her courage. But at the first sight of water frothing close to the riverbank, she turned tail and speed-walked home, shaky and sweaty. It was dumb to think that a purgative would purge my mind, she later told Gabby.
Then there was the time Lola had hopped on the number 1 subway to visit a bodega in the Bronx that advertised Nuyorican Potions. The clerk told her about a potion that was supposed to boost self-confidence. Lola was skeptical, but she bought a tube of the lemon-scented salve anyway. After hurrying home and slathering the potion on her body, she once again took a walk to the Hudson River. And, as before, approaching the riverbank she felt the need to escape. Seeing a dead fish floating on its side near the shore didn’t help and she hurried home, aware that her heart was racing.
Lola looked up from her piece of Death.
“I’m sitting here almost paralyzed with fear,” she told Gabby. “The thought of being a parent volunteer in a pool makes me almost stop breathing. I can actually feel the water wrapping around my neck like a chokehold.”
“Let’s get out our coloring books,” Gabby said trying to sound cheerful, “and we can throw around some ideas while we color.”
The two women always brought their coloring books to the cake conferences. Lola was almost finished with her second book. But Gabby’s habit of multitasking while coloring meant she was taking forever to complete a Johanna Basford drawing of a peacock.
“While I’m coloring, how about if I do some internet research on swimming lessons for you?” Gabby asked.
“Sure. Knock yourself out. I’m not ready for lessons though,” Lola said.
“Oh?” Gabby asked. “Why not?”
“For one thing, I’m clumsy. I could slip and drown just getting into the pool. And what if the lifeguard doesn’t feel like saving a 40-year-old woman from drowning? The water will be way too cold for me, anyway. With my Caribbean blood, I need warmth!”
Gabby looked dubious, but Lola was on a roll.
“I doubt I can find a swim cap big enough for my Afro. What if the lights go out? I could drown in the dark! What if I lose control of my bladder and start to pee? I hear the water turns color.”
“Stop it!” Gabby was trying not to laugh with a large bite of Death in her mouth.
“I’m sure you can find an extra-large cap for your big hair. Next you’re going to tell me there are no swimsuits to fit you.”
“Well, now that you mention it, it will probably take me a long time to find one that I like,” Lola said. “I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not buying any suit that requires painful waxing.”
“Well, that narrows it down.” Gabby, taking advantage of her ambidexterity, was coloring with her left hand while searching on her phone with her right. “You do know there’s a word for what you’re doing, right Lola? It’s called ‘procrastinating.'”
Lola took a large forkful of Death.
“I prefer to call it being realistic,” she said. “Anyway, I could eat this cake every day and not get tired of it. Wasn’t it Bette Midler who said that after 30, your body has a mind of its own? Now that we’re in our forties, we should be enjoying our Death with ice cream.”
“Yeah! Two scoops of double-fudge chocolate for each of us, next time,” Gabby said, and looked up from her phone. “Woo-hoo! Here’s contact information for a teacher who gives private lessons for ‘swimmers with jitters.’ That’s you, Lola. You’re a swimmer with jitters. And that’s an understatement. Here, call the teacher. Her name is Carol.”
“Thanks, but not right now,” Lola protested, refusing to take Gabby’s phone. “I don’t like to be rushed.”
Gabby dialed the instructor’s number anyway, with the hair-on-fire expression she wore when she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. A woman answered and Gabby thrust the phone at Lola.
By the time Lola finished her cup of coffee and phone call with Carol, she had signed up for ten prepaid swimming lessons.
“Carol convinced me that she’ll have me enjoying the pool in no time,” Lola said. “I hope she’s right.”
“That’s great! I’m a bit nerve-wracked about going back to grad school,” Gabby said. “Maybe Carol can help me, too, haha.”
Just then Lola’s phone buzzed with a text message from Mo. Lola showed Gabby the message:
“OMG!!!! do u have ANY idea what ur saying??? ur soooo clulss mom!!!!!”
“I’d say your teenager is having a mini-meltdown about something,” Gabby said. “What have you done?”
“I have no idea,” Lola said. She scrolled through her previous text messages to Mo that day trying to decipher the reason for Mo’s rant. She usually added AML at the end of her texts to Mo, instead of typing out All My Love. She noticed a message where she added AMF by mistake. Neither Lola nor Gabby knew the meaning of AMF.
Lola sent a reply text to her daughter: “???”
Mo replied “look it up!” And added: “I told u use voice 2 text app!”
Gabby grabbed her phone to look up the meaning.
“Oh! Here it is! AMF stands for ‘adios mother-effer,'” she told Lola.
“Good to know!” Lola said laughing. “Well, at least now I know Mo reads my messages.”
Lola and Gabby both had errands to do before the afternoon was over.
“I guess it’s time I bought a swimsuit,” Lola said with a look of surrender.
They brought the cake conference to a close and thanked the bakery owner, as they always did, for her delicious chocolate Death.
Parting outside on Broadway, Gabby shouted over the noise of the traffic to Lola who was halfway down the block.
“Hey, Lola! AMF!”
“Right back at you, girlfriend!” Lola shouted.
To be continued …