Pancakes

He is always shining his light on her just like the sun, and she shines because of his light just like the moon.

Amy cracks an egg to stop her mind from going over last night’s dream. She pours the milk in a bowl slowly and mixes everything using a balloon whisk. The white liquid orbits the beige planet once and merges with it to become one smooth, thick batter. She whisks clockwise, then counterclockwise, pausing to shake out her wrist in between — she thinks only about the consistency. Does she need more milk? Maybe she should have used almond milk instead. The right thickness is the key to a fluffy pancake. She whisks a little more, and when the batter gets to her ideal consistency, she sprinkles a pinch of salt as if it’s the magic ingredient to heal her grief.

Making pancakes seems simple, but to make the perfect pancake, precise steps need to be followed. Every step is meaningful. She feels the same about what she has been through this week. She turns on the gas, places a pan on the stove. Heating up the pan properly to prevent it from sticking is a trick she learned from her dad. As she waits, she tries to remember the dream. Fragments of the sequence flicker in front of her eyes. She wrinkles her eyebrows and holds her breath, but they disappear before forming the complete images. Did she drink too much wine last night?

Standing in front of the stove with a spatula in hand, she closes her eyes to dig deeper into her memory. That’s right, she was at the airport, waiting for someone at the arrival gate. But who was she waiting for? The only thing she remembers is the image of her waiting at the gate and her sweaty hands. She gives it another five seconds, but she shakes her head and revives back to make some pancakes.

Thin, vapor-like smoke curls up from the pan, hinting it’s more than ready to cook up anything that comes into contact with it. Amy lowers the heat to medium-low and sprays oil on the surface. She switches from spatula to ladle and scoops a good amount of cream-colored batter onto the pan. The sizzling of the batter excites her; the baking smell is soothing. It transports her back to the kitchen counter of her childhood home. Suddenly she is ten years old, swinging her legs on a stool, gazing at his hunched back while listening to the sizzle of the frying pan. Sometimes he turns around to smile at her, but he never takes his eyes off the pan for very long. She’s never been a morning person, but she always woke up early on Saturdays for his pancakes.

Now, in the tiny kitchen of her own apartment, she turns around knowing there’s nothing but empty chairs. What is she expecting? She turns back to the pancake, waiting for the edges to set, and bubbles to appear on the surface.

An empty shell would be the best description of how she felt this week. She stayed in bed until noon, ate nothing, and turned off her phone. She kept repeating different scenarios in her head about the night she rushed to the hospital to see her dad. When her mom called her at work, she took off her apron as slowly as possible and got in a cab as quickly as possible. She forgot to take her change from the cab driver, and she didn’t even hear when he yelled at her back. Her older sister Emma was already by the bedside, wrapping her dad’s hand with both of hers. He was lying on the bed with tubes stretched around his body and face. He didn’t look like the father she used to know, but she wasn’t sure if this was because of the sickness or the fact that she hadn’t seen him in the last three years. Tonight is my last chance, she thought. He didn’t move or speak, but he was still alive. She hoped he could still hear her.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.

She noticed the waffle keychain she had brought back from Belgium hanging on the bed frame. Her eyes began to water and a single tear flowed down her cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

Amy thought his eyelids moved a bit, but maybe it was wishful thinking. They sat all night on the cheap hospital chairs in silence. Mom and Emma looked exhausted. They had taken care of him over the past year, and perhaps they were ready to say good-bye. But Amy wasn’t.

In the morning, they packed all of his belongings and left.

When enough bubbles surface on the uncooked side, she slides the spatula between the pan and the pancake, making sure to separate all the sticky parts, and flips it over. Her hands move instinctively, and her brain is on auto-pilot. The golden side is on the top now; the other side sizzles. Another couple of minutes until both sides are golden. She keeps observing the pancake unconsciously. Perfectly round, it looks like the moon floating in the night sky.

“You can turn up the heat a little here,” The voice is unmistakable. Her father’s voice.

She knows it’s in her head, but she wants to follow. She turns the stove knob to the right, bringing the flame’s whisper to a hiss. She starts counting in her head but soon her thoughts get in the way. She loses count. She’ll have to trust her trained instinct. She slides the spatula under the pancake, picks it up carefully, and lays it on a plate. The smell of pancakes fills the kitchen and immediately he is back with her again. Maybe this was a bad idea. Making pancakes seems to hurt more than heal.

From here, the second batch is easier. The same process, but Amy pauses and repeats the instructions in her head, savoring each moment to follow exactly what he had taught her. She coats the pan with a new layer of oil and pours the mixture in the center. A small round shape gets bigger and bigger — from coin to coaster to CD. She imagines it would keep expanding in the universe forever if it weren’t for the edges of the pan.

“That should be enough.” her father’s voice brings her back to herself.

He was the kind of dad who bought her ice cream whenever she wanted, even though he knew it would make her mom angry.

But she remembered the time when her dad flared up after she asked his permission to go on a solo trip to Europe over a summer break.

“Not on your own,” he said.

“Daaad, I’m nineteen. I’m not a baby anymore.”

“Yes, you are. You’re only nineteen.”

“I’m already nineteen. I can travel on my own and I can figure things out. I took a French class in high school, and I know a few friends there.”

“No. No way.”

Amy slammed the door behind her and went back to campus without saying good-bye. That summer, she told her parents that she was interning at a pastry cafe called Buvette in the city, while secretly buying a 65L backpack and a round trip ticket to Belgium.

Nobody saw her off at the airport, and nobody was waiting for her when she arrived in Brussels, but she felt like a new person when she exited the airport. The long careless summer days freed her from stubborn, serious old Amy. The Belgian desserts she ate brought sweetness and lightness to her days. Every interaction brought a new insight, and everything seemed meant to happen exactly the way it had happened.

But the weight of the backpack reminded her of the guilt she carried. When she came back to New York, she dropped off the backpack in her dorm before driving to her parents’ house.

She gave the keychain to her dad as a gift from the pastry cafe where she pretended she’d worked the last four weeks.

“The white Belgian waffle is our signature dish at Buvette,” she explained. And from then on, in all her stories about the summer, she replaced the word ‘Belgium’ with ‘Buvette.’ He twirled the waffle keychain around his index finger while he listened to her stories. She watched it spin as she talked, so as to avoid looking at him directly. Her shoulders ached a little as she walked out the front door.

The bubbles surface, pop, and make dents on the pancake like craters on the moon. Amy slides the spatula under the pancake, flips it, and taps a few times on the freshly cooked side. She doesn’t try counting, but massages her shoulders while she waits. When both sides turn the perfect golden color and strange swirl patterns appear, she brings the pan closer to the plate and stacks it on top of the first one. Bigger than the first, it hangs bluntly but looks cute. She knows some chefs try to make pancakes look imperfect on purpose, but she hates calculated imperfection.

She glances at the desk calendar next to the plate and notices “Father’s Day” in red text under June 21st. The gift she had ordered online a while ago would be delivered to his house next week.

The last round of pancakes needs to be the best one of all, and it usually would be since she’d already practiced twice by then and mastered the technique. The same procedure, the same movements, the same temperature and time — only more pressure.

Switching back from the pan to the bowl, she strips off the remaining mixture from the wall of the bowl using a rubber spatula to make the last perfect pancake. She gives a short laugh. This was his habit, never hers.

The last one comes out the best, but she shrugs her shoulders and leaves it in the pan. She washes all of the dirty dishes and baking equipment, then rushes around the kitchen finding other things to do. She tries to finish cleaning before the pancakes get cold, but she’s only pretending. She puts back the plates from a dish drainer, organizes a cabinet, and cleans a microwave. When she runs out of things to do, she finally places the last pancake on top of the stack.

Before sitting down at the kitchen counter, she grabs berries and maple syrup from the refrigerator. Her dad always saved this part for her. Memories keep coming back and she isn’t sure if she’s ready to have this pancake.

A knife in one hand, a fork in the other, she looks down at the piled-up pancakes for a while. They look fluffy and delicious. Maple syrup drips down the sides. Despite her unwillingness to start, her stomach growls, and her mouth waters.

She cuts a small piece and closes her eyes to taste it. The sweetness of the maple syrup entwines with the not-so-sweet pancakes. It doesn’t taste the same as the ones he used to make for her, but better. She thinks he would be proud to taste her professional pancakes blended with his own techniques. She tries not to blink, but the pancake gets a little saltier as it mixes with her tears.

When she closes her eyes crying, the images of her dream re-appear in the back of her eyelids. The figure is clear now. Dad was at the airport. She thought she had been the one waiting because it felt so real, but she was just watching him waiting for her. He’d been there all along, then and now. He is always shining his light on her just like the sun, and she shines because of his light just like the moon.

A few years later, she is promoted to head pastry chef in the cafe. “Thank you, dad,” she whispers, just like whenever something lucky happens to her. When she finds her lost wallet, when the rain stops just after she exits the building, and when a new recipe goes over well. In the evening, she walks home from work to feel the fresh air and take off her work armor. As she nears her house, she looks up at the dents on the moon and feels hungry.

Writer. Traveler. Yogi. Hiker. Always chasing a cat and searching for home.

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