Linnet smells the enticing scent of baking bread and smiles. It is 5:30 a.m., and the baker below her apartment is right on time.
Outside the sky is still dark. The birds are only beginning to stir, their chirps like church murmurs before service.
She stretches in bed, cozy under the soft cotton cover, and is grateful for all that she has had in her life. This is the first part of her practice, giving thanks. She may no longer eat regular bread, gluten being a thing of the past. But she may still rejoice in its warm, homey scent. She may still picture the baker, a tall, curly-haired man with a quick smile and muscles that move under his gray t-shirts like stealthy creatures under a calm silvery sea. She imagines what it must feel like to touch their sleek shapes, to feel his sculpted skin against hers.
If my face were a slice of bread, she mused, would he touch it? Might he eat it? If I were to die tomorrow, might I choose that way to go, in his hands?
She lets her own hands drift down, across her breasts and linger, then travel below, as she imagines his mouth on her.
Imagines the dark shadows on the hospital x-rays, the icy metal of the table, the sharp surgical blades that she has rejected.
She shivers, pulls herself deeper into her ivory cocoon, and hears her stomach growling in protest.
She is hungry. This almost never happens these days.
Linnet slips one foot out of bed and winces as it hits the cold wooden floor. She slides out of bed and moves to the stairs, wrapping her arms tight against her sides, fighting a wave of dizziness as she climbs down the stairs, and moves towards the front door, picking up speed as she stops only long enough to grab a robe.
Today, she will eat bread. Gluten be damned.
Down at the bakery, the front door should be locked. It should not open for another thirty minutes, and yet it does, and the blast of warm, yeasty air envelopes her like a lover’s embrace. A bell tinkles as it shuts behind her. She hears jazz playing in the kitchen. And she hears him, Rafael — the baker — singing.
Rafael pushes open the swinging door with his hip, delivering pans of cooling sticky buns to the counter and startles when he sees her there.
“Oh!” He says, his eyes running down her robed form, before placing the tray on the counter. She notices his arms, taut from pounding the dough and holding the trays.
“I’m afraid that we are not open yet,” he says, just as she backs away.
“I’m so sorry. I’ll come back.”
“No — espera!”
He gestures to sit, and grabs a plate, putting a hot bun in front of her. Mouth-watering cinnamon and sugar notes waft up, tickling her nose.
Rafael grins. “Enjoy, on the house. Let me put coffee on. We can eat together while we wait for the bread. It’s a multigrain today, you will like it.”
Linnet becomes aware that her mouth is hanging open. She closes it, then opens it again.
“How did you know I was here for bread?”
He smiles again, and a dimple appears in the stubble of his left jaw. His teeth are very white. “That’s what people always come for, this early.”
Linnet is eating her first bite of the bun when something changes. The coffee has transformed the air, which smells and tastes like caramel. The sweet, sticky dough, so long denied her, is melting in her mouth like magic, she can taste the colors — gold and chocolate and cinnabar — like delicious medicine, and she feels that there is no need for the surgery, that she has been cured, and if only she had tried this earlier. If only her mother, and her aunt and her grandmother, and her great grandmother before her, if only they had all tried this bakery, they would all live forever, and life would be good again, and cancer research would not be needed. If only.
She is eating the bun, and then, suddenly, she is the bun. She is being hefted up in his strong hands and tossed onto the counter, and rubbed this way and that across the breadth of it, her body flattened and shaped into something luscious — croissants, perhaps? More sticky buns? And she is all of the ingredients — not only flour but also sugar and butter and cinnamon and she is in his mouth and in the air and in the sky and it feels so good and with a burst of flavor — like an exploding firework — she is free.
A few minutes later Rafael smiles, sated, as he finishes his morning prep, the last buns have gone into the oven, and he is sprinkled with flour and exhausted, but in a good way. He sings as he cleans the counter, a healing song, of love and loss and rebirth during a time of sickness and poverty, a song that his mamá sang to him, and his abuelita sang to her, and her abuela to them before that, and he misses them all fiercely, but he is at peace.
Outside, the sky is painted with hues of rose and peach and lilac and the birds are singing happy notes that rise higher and higher, along with the passage of the sun.
One tiny finch flutters in front of the bakery, nabbing crumbs, before soaring off with the rest of its flock. A breeze carries a glittering dust in the air, but whether it comes from the baker’s open window, or whether it begins there, in the street, no one knows.
And that is enough.