(Inspired by the weird lady I saw at Whole Foods a while back.)
Erin is mostly floating through her days now. Her therapist says this is not progress, but Erin can't see how it isn't. Today she smiled, staring up at the blue sky and clouds piled high and it was okay. It was alright. Someone smiled at her in the parking lot on the way into the grocery store and she did not grit her teeth or clench her fists. She didn't wrinkle her nose or untuck her shirt. Sometimes she would do that, untuck her shirt, when confronted with unwelcome hellos. People never knew what that meant, or what to do, and Erin got great comfort from the reality of it, the quiet confrontation, the subtle aggression. It sent a message: leave me alone. She was sure of that. Because people usually did leave her alone.
She was there to pick up a cake from the bakery, and see? This was progress. Because it was a cake for her sister's baby shower, and even though their mother had said she would take care of the cake, Erin had decided otherwise. "I can do this!" she'd insisted. In her pockets her hands made the symbol for OK. She pinched her pointer finger and thumb together in a firm circle for emphasis. "I want to," she swore.
To her therapist later that day she'd sobbed. She had honestly thought it was okay. Maybe the circle of her fingers had tricked her into thinking it was fine, but it turned out she had unresolved feelings. "I don't even know what flavor to get!" She'd wailed. "I don't know how big it should be! I don't even remember what she's naming the baby!"
The therapist had offered gentle guidance. "You can ask these questions of your mother," he'd said. "These questions are simple enough." Erin thought of all the other questions she was working on asking her mother and swallowed back bile.
Of course she hadn't asked her mother anything. Instead, she'd googled "baby shower cake my younger sister is pregnant before me chocolate frosting" and come up with (eventually) some ideas. And it occurred to her, oh miracle of miracles, that the baby was going to be named Reed. She was almost 80 percent sure. Maybe 78 percent. And she knew how to get a victory out of this. She'd order the cake from her mother's favorite grocery store, the organic one with overpriced food stocking the shelves.
In her mind she envisioned the reveal of the cake. "Welcome To The World, Baby Reed," it would say in elegant lettering. The cake would be moist chocolate with chocolate buttercream, because, if she remembered correctly, chocolate and buttercream were her sister's favorite.
Erin is getting better, they would think, taking bites of the delicious cake. Her mother would nod in surprised approval. The thought of it sent a shiver down Erin's spine.
This idea had been sustaining her for awhile now, and it was enough to keep her floating through her days, smiling at blue skies and fluffy clouds. She couldn't smile at strangers, not yet, but she wasn't untucking her shirt at them. Progress.
Pushing open the doors to the grocery store, Erin was met with a blast of cold air and her own reflection in the glass. She felt a frisson of pleasure, because she knew how she looked to people. Small, petite, with white-blonde hair that fell down to the middle of her back. Bright blue eyes. Perfectly adorable skirt and silver jewelry. Inside the store she felt an inadvertent wave of superiority wash over her. I'm better than you people, she thought, clutching her handbag to her middle and running a finger over the weave, counting the squares. Somehow her fingers found the OK shape again and she dropped the bag to her side abruptly, physically shaking her fingers apart.
This was going to work, she decided, plunging ahead through to the bakery, studiously avoiding eye contact with the other grocery store patrons. I may even talk to the clerk directly. Look her in the eye. I just might.
At the counter a large woman in a white apron was smiling at her expectantly. "Hi!" the woman chirped and Erin plowed ahead confidently. She hoped.
"Hello," Erin returned, meeting the woman's eyes, determined not to even blink. I'm doing it! She thought. I'm really doing it! "My name is Erin. I'm here for the Baby Reed cake. Chocolate. Chocolate Buttercream."
The woman's smile slipped just a little, but Erin decided to let it go. "Just a second," she said, and crouched down to the bottom level of the bakery case. Moments later she was holding out a white box.
"Here you go!" the woman said. "Take a look."
As the woman lifted the lid on the box, Erin felt the whole world around her come to a halt. Even her brain stilled, just a little. Sure, it was just a cake. But this was more than a cake. This was some kind of salvation. This was a victory. She'd been needing one for so long.
Her heart fluttering, she smiled widely at the clerk and looked down into the box.
Welcome To The World, Baby Reid.
Erin thought her heart had stopped.
She looked up at the clerk, alarm coloring her blue eyes a darker shade. Everything came to life at once, and she was suddenly aware of how quickly her blood was singing through her veins. She felt panicked, and a hand fluttered up around her throat. She dropped her handbag onto the counter, and without thinking, she found the other hand inching toward her waistband to untuck her shirt.
Somehow, somehow, she stopped herself. "It's spelled wrong," she gasped out.
The woman stared at her blankly. "What do you mean?" She finally asked. "It says right here." The woman pulled the order off the side of the box and waved the paper in Erin's face. "See? R-E-I-D."
Erin wanted to be annoyed with the woman, but she realized, heart plummeting, that the woman was right. Erin had spelled it wrong when she wrote it out for the clerk. "No," she whispered, going white, and the woman took a step back. "Well, look, we can fix it. I will just smooth out the I and replace it with an E. It'll just take a sec. No worries!"
Somehow Erin felt a burble of laughter well up in her throat and it escaped, unbidden, like a sudden bursting hiccup. "I did that. I spelled it wrong." She felt tears sting her eyes, thought desperately of her mascara, and pulled it together. She forced another laugh, this one louder and longer. It danced over the heads of everyone in the store, and she imagined they turned to look at her. They would admire her musical laugh and the way her blonde hair shone under the lights.
"No, no. That. Is. Hilarious," she enunciated carefully. "My own nephew's name! I spelled it wrong! Ha!"
The woman allowed a smile to creep up her face, wanting to be in on the joke. "So I'll just fix it real quick. Hold on just a sec."
She turned to go, but Erin stopped her. "No! No. Don't worry about it. It will be hilarious at the baby shower. No. Symbolic. Like: Nothing in the world is perfect! Nobody is perfect! Welcome to this big, imperfect, delicious world, Baby R-E-E-D. That's what I'll tell them."
"Uh...okay?" The woman said, handing the box out to her hesitantly. "If you're sure....?"
"Sure! Sure, I'm sure. I love it. The world really works out for the best sometimes, doesn't it?" Erin took the box and set it down on the counter carefully. "How much do I owe you?" The woman told her, and as Erin reached out for her handbag, she quickly pulled her blue silk blouse from the waistband of her skirt.
The woman was now looking at her strangely. Erin rifled through her wallet, pulled out a VISA, and smiled brilliantly at the woman. She felt the reassuring untucked, loose feeling of her shirt hanging over the front of her skirt.
Easy. This is easy, she thought as she paid the woman. She kept smiling while the woman handed her a receipt. She kept smiling as she left the grocery store, carefully bracing the cake box against her front. She kept smiling.
Inside her car, the air conditioning blasting against her face, Erin shot a look at the cake box sitting so blandly in the seat next to her. Slowly, she reached over to open the box.
Welcome To The World, Baby Reid.
Erin's right hand clenched into a fist, and before she knew it, she had rammed her fist straight through the misspelling. Chocolate cake and frosting oozed around her balled fingers. She smashed the cake again and again and again, then looked up at the guileless blue sky and piles of white clouds. The big, delicious, imperfect world, she thought. She thought about progress and licked the chocolate from her fingers and drove to her sister's house slowly. She would tuck her shirt in when she got there. It would be okay.