The Cinnamon Roll Year
I am surrounded by a dead woman’s things. She died in her eighties, a retired teacher beloved by many. I rent her furnished place. It is over twice the size of the one-bedroom apartment for which I paid a little bit more back in Los Angeles. I lived in that city for eight years, and now I live here.
I have been told so many times that the original owner did not expire in this house that I am almost certain she did. I am surrounded by her eclectic collection of framed paintings and prints, so I know that she loved art. Her relatives tell me she traveled with a pack of friends — “the girls” — and had a vibrant social life in her elder years. She sounds pretty great, and I quite admire her taste in furniture.
She passed away a month before the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in the United States. I am glad she got out while the getting was good.
Nobody lived here for months. Then, in October of 2020, I put my things in storage in California and moved here to be closer to my family. A lot of Americans have been doing things like that, in our plague year.
I am sitting on her plaid-upholstered couch right now. It matches the easy chair. The carpet is probably thirty years old, and I need to vacuum it more often. I will probably stay for a few more months. I may move back to New York City, where I spent most of my twenties and a little of my thirties. It is a luxury to have such options — to have any options, these days.
I am still very tired from 2020, and we are only one terrible week into 2021. I don’t suppose you are over 2020 yet, either.
Last year was a car wreck; it was a body you loved hooked up to tubes and machines; it was as fantastically ungracious and terribly banal as a flat green line on a screen built to display horror stories.
It was undelivered packages at the holidays, because a sociopath and his fetid, seeping father wound failed to destroy the election but still managed to ruin Christmas. It was a three-hour wait on a call with the unemployment office. It was the realization, finally and for good, that somebody you liked or even loved will always choose the wrong side of history, even if to do so is to leave you and yours out in the cold.
It was things baked out of anxiety, out of fear, out of some primal urge to stave off the end. I baked and cooked, messily. Maybe you did, too. Meanwhile, the bodies piled up in the refrigerated trucks in New York City, as they pile up in Los Angeles now.
One in five people tested for COVID-19 in Los Angeles County receives a positive result. This week, someone in LA dies of COVID-19 every eight seconds, and it will soon get worse. I remember just a couple weeks ago when it was only one death per ten seconds. I remember months ago, when the numbers were much lower, when I would listen to KCRW and drive to Dodger Stadium or to a municipal parking lot in Crenshaw to spit in a tube. Those halcyon days.
I ate a lot of refined carbohydrates last year, before and after the election. Often I shared my culinary experiments with my neighbors in Northeast Los Angeles, dropping off a little package as a socially distant surprise. They were very good to me, and I tried to be very good to them. Small things like that help at a time like this.
I made pasta with my pasta machine, roughly the same way my great-grandmother did (or so I flatter myself). I made “keto” pancake batter and then added a bunch of white flour (the real devil’s powder) so it would taste better. I tried my hand at soft pretzels. Mostly, though, I baked cinnamon rolls, my childhood favorite.
There is little a cinnamon roll can’t fix, at least emotionally, for five to fifteen minutes. There is something healing in the whole process of mixing, kneading, watching the dough rise, kneading it again, watching it rise again, forming the rectangle, spreading the melted butter and sugar and cinnamon, and rolling it all up. You can refrigerate the dough if you don’t have time to bake it right away. Refrigeration can help with a lot of things.
When you are ready to slice the dough — and you must slice it, or else you’re making a long cinnamon log, which might actually be pretty great — you strive for uniformity, and even if you fail, the whole misshapen batch still ends up rising in the oven to make the entire home smell like paradise.
You can’t bake away everything, but you can try. Bake, go to therapy (ask for a sliding scale, some of them will work with you), read a good book, vote: these are good things. Hope is not dead. It’s on life support.
In November, we chose a decent man over a demagogue. I did not believe Kraft Dinner Palaptine would be defeated, and then he was, and I was glad. After the election, friends said he would soon be prosecuted. I said that would never happen. But I also said we’d never flip the Senate, so what the hell do I know? I know that I am cynical, that’s what.
A lot of his formerly loyal Republican minions in the House and Senate are changing their public tune now, primarily because their filthiest, stupidest white cousins showed up at their office this week to shout “I LOVE YOU!” in front of all the other employees. I suppose it must be embarrassing when the veneer of respectability is gone and all the other suits see who you’ve been kissing behind the shed for years back home.
When Republican voters and their elected Nazis claim to be “horrified” by the events, I laugh. The Republican elites do not wish to be associated with this type of Republican, because while most of these Cracker Barrel Braveheart cosplayers have more than enough money, they are of, shall we say, a different breed than Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. Positively déclassé, if you will.
I do not mean that they are poor, although that’s a popular myth. Trump’s voters are mainly middle-class and upper-class whites. This was evident among the pathetic, violent horde on Wednesday. It takes money to afford fancy tech to broadcast yourself in a silly costume like you’re auditioning for an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as Murderous Cult White #5. Travel to D.C. doesn’t pay for itself. No, this was a fun, flirty super-spreader vacation for the economically comfortable, volunteer hole-lickers of the loser-in-chief.
Economic anxiety? Did those motherfuckers look anxious to you?
I have no confidence the Trump family will do any time. And if so, what of it? Adolf Hitler attempted a coup with his cronies in 1923, and spent nine months in prison. Doesn’t seemed to have harmed his career. Ivanka has been trained from birth at the Eva Braun School of Deportment. She may well become the next senator from Florida.
Men like Trump get away with it. They get lucrative book deals, ever-younger wives, and television shows. When he grows older and, eventually, reaches the end of his life, he will be comfortable, afforded the very best of end-of-life care, the stuff he and Mitch McConnell and all the other Republicans have done their best to make inaccessible to all but the very wealthy.
I believe they are all guilty of negligent mass homicide through their inaction, incompetence and outright lies about the coronavirus. But they will never suffer for it, not really.
On Wednesday, the day that collection of rotting mucus plugs stormed the Capitol, 259 people in Los Angeles County died of the coronavirus. My thoughts this week have been as much about what’s happening there as what’s happening in D.C. It has not been a soothing time.
People here ask me how it could get so bad back there. “I thought everybody was so progressive,” they say in wonder. “I thought they were so into health. Also, did they see what happened here, or over in New York? Was it in the news over there?” Los Angeles is 2800 miles away, but when you are raised in New Jersey, the City of Angels may as well be on some other, far more glamorous planet.
“Narcissism is a powerful drug,” I say, and don’t add more. I’m not a shrink, and I don’t want to sound like one of the seemingly endless Instagram meme accounts created by some woman who is so enraged her boyfriend dumped her that she has designated herself an expert on clinical narcissism based solely on her abundant knowledge of other meme accounts and one to five shitty self-help books. Although it’s a decent way to make money nowadays, especially if you throw in a weight loss tea sponsorship.
I suppose I could call what has happened in Los Angeles a plague of white selfishness. I was in Los Angeles for nearly all of 2020. I have gotten the annoyed texts from friends, the ones with photos and videos of nearby parties of self-involved maskless fools, nearly all of them mediocre white people in their twenties and thirties, likely fueled by coke up their noses and crystals up their asses because they read in their primary news source (Instagram captions) that coronavirus can’t touch good vibes, sweetie.
There are so many wonderful individuals in Los Angeles County, a diverse array of good and thoughtful and kind humans from every imaginable background. Most of the ten million humans who live in that 469-square mile swath of land do not shove rose quartz in uncomfortable places, or go wild at pandemic pool parties with their friends and a series of stimulants. They’re busy doing innumerable other things, quietly and sensibly. But the selfish ones are killing them.
Despite the pleading of local and national public health officials, a lot of people who live in Los Angeles County traveled on planes and through airports at Thanksgiving, or at Christmas and at New Year’s, and then they returned. They helped cause the nightmare currently unfolding in that city. So did ineffective governance at the city, state, and federal levels.
Deeply ingrained economic conditions conspired to force many people to choose between showing up at an unsafe workplace and getting underpaid versus staying home safe and losing their apartment, their food budget, their car. A lot of them got sick, or were asymptomatic and carried the illness to others.
They are blameless. The others are not.
No one can do this thing perfectly, but there are ways to be better, to be wiser, to be more cautious and to care more about one’s neighbors. The several months of advance warning, of the wall-to-wall coverage of what New York City and Italy and China endured? Apparently it was all for nothing. And now here we are.
Or there they are. I am in New Jersey.
Last year was a year when family started to matter a bit more — family of origin, family of choice, take your pick. In October, I took my own mediocre white self back to the state where I was born and raised. We have plenty of useless fools here too, mind you, but mask-wearing is more widely practiced, and a deep undercurrent of unglamorous pragmatism runs through much of the Northeast.
There are plenty of Trump signs near my place, and plenty of Biden signs, too. There’s one fancy house I occasionally pass with GOD 2020 posted outside next to the standard-issue Trump fellation decor. I flip the house off whenever I see it. I love God, but like Indiana Jones, I hate Nazis.
The third smallest state in the Union has approximately nine million people, which isn’t a lot, but we are tiny. New Jersey is the most densely populated state. Like LA County, we’ve got the (ancient and very low) mountains, the ocean, and the forest. We don’t have a desert, but we do have a gigantic swamp. People here are cranky and mostly unglamorous and often very funny, and they will yell at you if you get too close — I’m talking about in normal times! You can imagine what happens during this era of the mask.
New Jersey has done alright. Like me, it could be doing a better job with this whole pandemic thing, but it could be doing much worse. It’s not as beautiful as Southern California, and not nearly so sunny.
I miss my friends back home, though it is not my home anymore, at least not now, and I worry about them. They are pretty smart about masks and social distancing, but some of the people around them are willfully ignorant. As I said, it’s a fantastically diverse city, but there is a subsection ruining everything: the hottest girls and guys in every small town in America go out there to get famous, and then they breed, and the common sense deteriorates with every new batch.
Picture the worst product of celebrity culture — say, somebody who refuses to understand why her mother was jailed for buying her a college education based on lies, and doesn’t really care, either. Then picture four generations of that type. Now multiply that family by thousands, and give them the bulk of the money and power in one city. And so it goes.
I try to distract myself. Creativity has not been the easily accessible distraction it once was.
Last year, I tried to write — first at my desk in Los Angeles, then at the dead woman’s desk in New Jersey. I wrote some essays that I liked, but I had set a big goal of writing a book proposal and a TV pilot. The former would show that I could still write a YA novel, and better than my first effort; the latter would show that I could still write a television script, and way better than my first efforts.
I could hardly get going on either. Each bit of progress would stall out. I have written books and scripts before, but last year it felt impossible to do long-form creative work that required weeks or months of concerted effort.
I don’t know if it’s due to ten months of plague, or because I haven’t tried to write a book or script since I got sober a couple years back, but my brain is different. My creativity is different. My focus is different. I used to think I was only as good as what I produced, and now I do not think so, which is a good thing, because I’m not producing much.
For most of my twenties and thirties, my biggest driving passion was work. But I turned forty soon after I moved to New Jersey, and I have found that I enjoy other things — like hanging out with my cat, listening to audiobooks, brushing up on Spanish via a silly phone game, going for walks under nearly-leafless trees, strolling Central Park with the ghost of Frederick Law Olmsted, and visiting my family to foist cinnamon rolls on them. You know, real wild shit.
I came home for many reasons, and one of them was an impending addition to our close-knit family of weirdos. My sister-in-law went into labor last week, on Friday, New Year’s Day. My brother drove her to the hospital, and her sister and sister-in-law stayed with my nephew.
I fell asleep, forgetting to turn on my alarm, and awoke Saturday afternoon to photos over text introducing me to my new baby nephew. There was my sister-in-law, still wearing her mask when they put the baby on her chest. There she was with her mask off once the doctor and nurses left the room, smiling and somehow looking much lighter and brighter than I, personally, felt. What a babe! There was my brother, grinning with his new son.
My brother’s name is Steve, but was almost a Beth. I was going to be Scott, but instead I am Sara. The new baby has his own good name.
We couldn’t visit the baby. These days, you usually can’t visit people in the hospital, whether they’re being born or they’re dying.
They stayed at the hospital for two nights. I woke before dawn on the day the new baby was to come home, baked a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls, and called the diner to order a pile of breakfasts for everybody. I have been going to that diner since my junior year in high school. A stretch of highway nearby is named after one of our family members, a guy who died in World War II and won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I hopped in my borrowed car, swung by the diner, went to Tim Horton’s for various caffeinated beverages, and got to the house in time to greet my nephew and his other two aunts in their pajamas.
It was different from when the toddler was born. I flew cross-country, checked into a hotel near the hospital, and started day drinking with the other aunties and an uncle on an outdoor patio near a restaurant that used to proudly serve a gigantic sandwich called The Fat Bitch. It has been renamed, yet lives on in the memory of thousands.
We are all a few years older, and my friends/sister-in-law-in-laws had done a wonderful job decorating for the baby’s arrival. We had finished eating and were drinking our Tim Horton’s and watching Schitt’s Creek (one of the aunties is from the blessed nation of Canada) when I realized something.
“Dammit,” I said. “I forgot the cinnamon rolls.”
But we were full anyway, and when my brother and his wife and their newborn son came home, we were there with our masks on and our phone cameras out, recording my older nephew’s tentative curiosity and then lack of interest — just as I’ve been told I reacted to his father when I was around his age. When you’re three, a small human blob is less interesting than toys and TV.
To my absolute delight, I got to hold my tiny nephew, with my mask on. I couldn’t kiss him, but I could marvel at how light he was, and how perfect. Dark hair and olive skin like his dad, blue eyes like his mom, and tiny elf ears with a funny little indent like my dad and I. “Like a Vulcan, but weirder,” somebody once said to me, and I took it as a great compliment.
We had all decided that once the people in our little pod received negative coronavirus test results, we could hold the baby without masks on, and kiss him and hug him. I took my test and I waited for a few days at my place.
Except when I am very depressed, I do not mind living alone. I like it here. At night I sit on this plaid couch and plug in a star-shaped lamp made of tin, with little star-shaped holes punched out all over it. The lightbulb inside sends small star-shadows all over the wall. My great-aunt sewed an angel Christmas tree topper for me when I was small, and I have it out now on the dead woman’s marble coffee table. Christmas is gone, but I think I will keep it out for awhile. I smile at it, and I light a candle, sometimes more than one candle, and I turn out the regular, non-star-shaped lamps.
Sometimes I listen to an audiobook — I just finished Father Thomas Merton and Dr. John Wu’s interpretation of Chuang Tzu, and before that was Laurence Fishburne’s narration of The Autobiography of Malcom X. I have listened to dozens of audiobooks over our plague year.
Sometimes, I don’t listen to anything — I look at the shadows and the light.
Sometimes my gorgeous fat cat, Polly, sits on a pillow on my lap, and she naps. She is a California girl, and we’ve been roommates since March. I recently discovered that she likes to eat snow.
Sometimes I lay on my back and look at the stars on the ceiling while Polly sleeps on my stomach. To do this gives me more joy than I can say.
Time is different now, and everything is slow, except when it isn’t. Writing gives me trouble, but I can read. Thank the God of 2020 and 2021, I can read. I read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey. I have been revisiting pieces that were assigned in high school or college, selections from anthologies I had to buy at the college bookstore.
It had been in the back of my mind for many months, but a few days ago I sat down and re-read the 1983 Raymond Carver short story “A Small, Good Thing.” I hope you will read it, as I will not do it justice, but here is a brief summary: A mother orders a cake for her young son’s birthday, decorated with his name, but never gets to pick it up. The boy is injured in a hit-and-run, and taken to the hospital.
His birthday passes as the parents wait and wait, agonizing, wondering if he’ll come out of the deep sleep his doctor refuses to call a coma. They take shifts waiting and sleeping in his room. When the mother goes home to shower or take naps, she receives increasingly menacing phone calls from someone she can’t identify. He uses her son’s name. None of it makes sense.
This goes on for days. At the hospital, doctors can’t figure out why the kid won’t wake up. The parents brace themselves to see their child wheeled off to surgery. And then, before the boy is taken away, the father notices that the child’s eyes have opened.
They leaned over the bed. Howard took the child’s hand in his hands and began to pat and squeeze the hand. Ann bent over the boy and kissed his forehead again and again. She put her hands on either side of his face. “Scotty, honey, it’s Mommy and Daddy,” she said. “Scotty?”
The boy looked at them, but without any sign of recognition. Then his mouth opened, his eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.
When the grieving couple returns home, they get yet another menacing call. Ann realizes at last who it is — the baker, pissed off that she didn’t pick up and pay for her cake.
In the middle of the night, they rush off to confront the baker, who is first confused, then annoyed, then afraid, then terribly sad and sorry. Of course he had no idea their son was injured, or dead. He begs them to sit, and they finally do. He apologizes profusely. Ann says, wearily, that she had wanted him dead. He understands. He urges Ann and Howard to eat, saying, “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.”
He talks about how lonely his life is, with no wife or children of his own, and it seems he had really wanted a family, and how it’s not an excuse, but how he sees he has grown bitter, tired of baking cakes for other people’s celebrations. He is worn out and cynical. Like a worried parent, he pushes food on them, and they accept, and the sad trio talk until dawn. We never learn his name.
In my memory, he only gave them fresh bread. But when I re-read the story, I realized with a start that I had one detail wrong.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them.
I sat on the dead woman’s couch and considered the little surprise. I felt that it must mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what. In the fullness of time, I may yet.
A couple days later, my test results came back negative. I went to the house of my brother and my sister-in-law. My older nephew still wants to watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” as many times per day as he is allowed, so we watched it.
It turns out that a couple days after his brother came home, he ran to his room, unprompted, and came back with one of his old toys to give to the baby. That’s a good sign. Your little world turns upside down, and what’s a blessing to others may be strange and a little unpleasant to you, but you figure it out. Love helps. He is surrounded by love.
My sister-in-law nursed the baby, and then I asked if I could hold the baby, and she said, “Of course.”
He is little, and he smells very good. He makes tiny noises and he is generally very relaxed. Nobody is sure where he gets that from.
I have never wanted to have a child, but I do enjoy children, and I love my nephews, and it is good to be around them. One small good thing, and one tiny good thing.
I am quiet now, but I am never bored. My brain is different. Maybe yours is, too.
The year is still new. Go eat something, if you can. To eat is to live. We are not done yet, you and I and this shaky thing we call a country. Not just yet.
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