A bright spring noon and there’s Nicole, brunette and as trim as I remember her, sitting at the café table along the sidewalk. “Lauren!” she says and jumps up. “Wow. So glad you came. What a wonderful reunion for my birthday.”
We hug and I say to her, “You look so good, Nicole.”
“You do, too.”
“I can’t believe it’s been, how many? Five years since graduation?”
“Yeah!” Nicole says. “We’re really looking forward to your concert tonight.”
“My first in
. Here’s a… here’s
a present for you. I hope it’s not too big.” Asheville
Nicole reaches into the decorative bag and lifts out a snowy white hoodie emblazoned with a Duke Blue Devil. “Perfect, it’s perfect!” she says, holding it up.
We squirm into our chairs, order salads from the gorgeous, flirty waiter, and catch up on news. Lunch arrives in the middle of our relaxed talk about travel, classical vocal music, and a battle against weight for me; a semi-career, marriage, and children for Nicole.
“Sorry I couldn’t come to your wedding,” I say. “Oh, your birthday reminds me. Your twin brother. How’s he doing?” Nicole had often spoken of Steve when she and I were roommates, and I always hoped to meet him.
“He’s great. Though he’d rather be married by now. A girl who he liked a lot shied away recently because of his medical condition. Did you hear he developed Type One diabetes in his final year of culinary school?”
“Nooo! What a cruel twist.”
She gives me a bemused look. “Yeah, a cruel twist, especially since desserts, pastries, and candy were his passion. He always had a sweet tooth. He kept getting thinner and we thought it was his frantic schedule. Then one Friday he called home and said his vision was blurry. Mom and Dad thought it was eye strain and suggested he rest over the weekend and go to the campus clinic on Monday. The nurse knew right away—they see one or two late onset cases every year. They gave him insulin and sent him to an endocrinologist.”
“He’s on a pump and lives a disciplined life. Almost a normal life. It’s a condition that could kill him, if he doesn’t take care of himself. He could go blind or lose his legs.”
The waiter reappears with the diabolical timing of his profession; he whisks up our plates and asks, “Thinking dessert? We have a sinfully delectable chocolate cake today. A dark decadent cake with luscious raspberry sauce. You’ll love it, I’m sure.”
How clichéd, and bad even without the subtle innuendo in his voice. I shouldn’t, and almost say yes, but Nicole speaks first. “Thanks, but no.”
“Are you diabetic, too?” I ask her.
“Just saving for later.”
The waiter turns to me. His attentive brown eyes might make me believe he cares.
“I’ll take a piece.”
“Good choice. Awesome,” he says and glides away.
As I watch him disappear, the conversation pauses, a long caesura, a cessation in our duet, and I’m feeling buzzy and encumbered like I’ve eaten too much, like muscle memory from past indulgence. Nothing about this cake is right. I glance at Nicole who’s watching me. In college she always was sensible in demeanor and secure in her relationships, but she still managed to be empathetic to me and must know what I’m feeling now. The waiter glides up, places the object before me, and moves to the next table.
“Guess what?” I say to Nicole, “I’ve changed my mind. I’ll wait until later, too.”
“Good choice,” she says, with a sigh, as if I had nearly failed an easy exam.
She knows the subtext from our college years. Not long ago I would have offered this waiter my latest CD, or left it as a tip with my card, an invitation to drinks in my hotel room…
We pay the bill, stroll along the sidewalks, peer into antique shops, stare at the weird and fascinating pedestrians, admire the eccentric architecture, and breathe the breezy mountain air.
Nicole stops to send a text message. “Just touching base with hubby,” she says.
On a corner I drop a twenty for the fiddlers playing earthy Swedish tunes. “Your brother,” I say at last. “Did he finish culinary school?”
“The diabetes set him back, but he graduated with his class. He took an incomplete that he made up later.”
“So, what’s he doing now? Did he change focus?” With this, I’m certain Nicole has finally caught my interest.
She only grins and I don’t understand. She keeps grinning. Then I see behind her into a window full of pastries and chocolates, the window with the shop’s name painted on the glass. The tables inside are crowded with people sipping from cups and munching food. Nicole is already opening the door, and the charming bell atop issues a soprano trill. A fruity, caramel aroma pours from the doorway.
What an odd coincidence, our being right here, The Cruller Twist.
Noisy chatter with a backdrop of music, a cello sonata. “Welcome girls,” the man in fashionable dusty white says as he steps away from some customers. He looks good, better than Nicole—a masculine version of her—and taller. He’s wearing glasses and hasn’t shaved since yesterday. “Happy birthday, dear sister. I have something special for you.” He bends to kiss Nicole, leaving her with a floury cheek. “I’m Steve,” he says in a quieter tone and takes my wilted hand.
Nicole and I slide into a corner booth, and he waltzes up with two plates of a divine miracle, a lit candle placed in one of the portions. “All organic,” he says. “You’ll have to help me, Lauren. Tell me if anything’s wrong, because I seldom taste anymore. Not even my sugar-free treats. It makes abstinence easier. Like the deaf composer, don’t you think? Or the celibate priest who conducts weddings.”
Nicole takes a breath for her candle.
“Wait. Wait,” he says. “Let me grab some toasted pecans, another candle, and I’ll join you. Coffee, Lauren? I hear you’re a singer.”
The poor soprano up front trills again, and in maneuvers an athletic guy with a toddling cherub at his hand and a chubby cherub in a backpack. All smiles, they approach our corner. “Surprise!” the guy says. The toddler climbs into Nicole’s lap and blows out her candle.
Surely, this is paradise. Right place, right dessert, and Steve—a man with generous self-control. I wonder if Nicole would have brought me here if I had eaten the cake back at the café.
It’s not my birthday, but I make a wish.