That’s Nothing

We made the cake the night before.

1am driving home from bonfire conversations under the stars, my phone buzzes in my lap.

Where are you? Tam asks, hinting at the hours I know she’s already spent cleaning the house, amidst putting the three little sisters to bed.

On my way, I tell her. What do we need to do? 

And then we’re standing in the kitchen with the lights on low, casting short yellow shadows over the neat piles, the wiped counter. The day’s long hours etched on his face, he leans against the dishwasher while I mix cookie batter, eggs.

He pours the milk while I stir. Tam cleans the office while, down the hall, the rest of the family sleeps.

The clock ticking towards 2am, I unload the dishwasher while Tam sweeps. The scent of vanilla cake wafting from the oven mingles with the bonfire smoke still in my hair, and his sweater, and the dish-soap steam rising from the dishwasher.

Slowly, as if already in a dream, we finish the tasks, say goodnight, close doors on a long, working, waiting Saturday.

The next day, we’ve more than an hour between arriving home from church and the first buzz of the front door.

We’re three in the kitchen then; Tam and I and El Papa, too, rotating around one another, taking a turn at the sink, at the stove, at the fridge.

In the front room, three little girls step barefoot across the freshly-vacuumed carpet. The two youngest have arranged their egg hunt candy in piles, sorting foil-wrapped chocolate and off-brand jelly beans into rows and aisles.

The potatoes I made yesterday, two hours of peeling, cooking, layering, sit covered in the basement fridge. The cake is there, too; both spuds and dessert tucked into shelves already heavy-laden with a building’s worth of surplus food, drinks, groceries.

The kitchen counter empties, briefly. Papers, trinkets, plastic cups from the play kitchen filled with hair ties and assorted coins are swept off the speckled surface, leaving it unfamiliarly bare. Then, slowly, the space fills once more.

On one end, stacks of plates. Butter dishes. Salad bowl. On the other end, vases hold nearly every fork I can conjure from the cabinets, a napkin-lined basket awaits the rolls, who in turn await their time in the oven.

I swirl between kitchen and hall, move in quick, light steps through dining room, living room. Grab a dish, meet a guest. Check my phone, tidy a corner. The buzzer rings once, then again and again as the clock ticks towards 2pm, and with every buzz, the hum of conversation, of memory and story, of did you hear and do you remember grows yet stronger.

The bacon-wrapped dates, a dish we’ve anticipated since the morning, arrive, tucked safely under an arm and an umbrella. The press in the kitchen is tight then; our tummy-sucking, arms up, slide sideways rotating around one another grinding to a halt in the wake of the delectable appetizer.

It takes five minutes for each date, encased in crispy, dripping bacon, to be pried from the pan, set out on the largest serving tray that Tam can find. Five minutes and nearly 20 of them have been consumed, even before the tray leaves the kitchen.

There’s a list on the fridge. Dry erase-written sum of the dishes to be served. I’m standing there in front of the fridge, erasing things accomplished, when Tam leans over to check the ham, one hand pulling the oven door open, the other reaching into its heated center, meat thermometer extended.

Amidst the sound and the movement, there’s a moment’s pause. I watch her brow furrow, follow her eyes as they dart to the oven dial, then meet her wide eyed gaze as she darts to turn the dial, cranking it higher. The list and the ingredients, the cheese tray and the hummus bowl; it’s all there, it’s all served and ready, and we’re here in the packed kitchen with a ham that’s not been cooking properly.

What’s wrong? Someone asks, stopping short on her way through the kitchen, her eyes catching our own in that one, anxious instant. Nothing, we laugh, smirking at each other as she steps over the threshold, down the hallway.

And really, it is nothing. More than twenty guests, sitting in huddles throughout the living room, leaning into the conversation, heads and shoulders thrown back to laugh: that’s something. A kitchen counter laden with food, and standing against the counter, watching athletes and grad students heap their plates, returning once, twice for another plate: that’s something. Standing around the dining table, swapping corny jokes and puns long after the meal has been finished: that’s something. Collecting dishes, arranging and rearranging stacks to be washed with the helpful hands of a kind cleanup volunteer: that’s something. Sitting together, a family of seven so rarely in one place at one time, on the couch after all have left, clinging to the moments of wholeness: that’s something.

But a ham that needed another 30 minutes in the oven? That’s nothing.

~Natalia

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