“If I hear, ‘You have such a pretty face’ one more time, I am going to scream. Really. It won’t matter who said it and it won’t matter where I am. I am simply going to scream.”
Jemma cradled her old school, low tech, corded landline phone in the crook between her shoulder and cheek. She stirred her coffee, the spoon clinking angrily off the sides of her favorite mug.
“Okay, girl, take a deep breath. Calming breath. Close your eyes. Think peaceful thoughts.”
The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Ashley Van Drenner—nee Ashley Smith—who had been Jemma’s old college roommate, her best friend, and the epitome of virtually everything that Jemma’s life was not.
Thin, smart, beautiful, married, thin, a mother, thin, in a house with an actual white picket fence, a well-behaved Portuguese water dog, a new Volvo station wagon, and pretty much perfect hair 24/7. And thin.
Jemma often wondered why the two of them were such good friends.
Well, we are both smart. That’s one thing I have in common with her.
“And who was the callous offender today?” Ashley asked, hearing the need to unburden in Jemma’s voice.
“Today it was Mrs. Cummins, a nice lady, an older lady—which is polite code for . . .”
“Blue hair!” Ashley shouted. She had a tendency to provide punch lines before the speaker could get to them. With her, it was an endearing trait.
“Yes . . . blue hair. Extremely well permed blue hair. Too bad she’s a steady customer. So I’m tying the boxes up with string . . .”
“What kind of cupcakes did she buy?”
“What kind of cupcakes did she buy?”
“Does that really matter? Is it really germane to the point of my story?”
Ashley giggled. “It might be. I need to know if you want me to take sides.”
“Okay. Root Beer Cupcakes. And you’re taking my side, by the way.”
“Maybe. And they sound delicious.”
“They are. They were today’s special.”
Ashley murmured an “Mmmmm.”
“So, anyhow, Mrs. Cummins . . .”
“Of blue hair fame.”
“Yes, of blue hair fame. Well she goes ‘Tsk-tsk-tsk,’ which lets me know what’s coming.”
“Yes, it does. ‘Jemma,’ she says, and I’m afraid she’ll either grab my cheek like my very Italian grandmother or lean back and assess my looks—you know, the way artists do when they’re studying a model—and then she tells me I ‘have such a pretty face.’ I like being told I have a pretty face . . .”
“Don’t we all?”
“Yes, but this never happens to you, Ash—what’s coming next, I mean. Mrs. Cummins leans back, and I’m praying that she remains polite and civil and leaves my weight as an unspoken topic. But she doesn’t. ‘Just a few pounds, Jemma. How hard could that be? You have the face of a model. An angel.’ Again.”
“Did you yell at her to stop? You’re always threatening to do that, Jem. Get up the courage this time?”
“No. But if she hadn’t already paid for the cupcakes, and if I hadn’t wrapped them up, I think I could have thrown one at her.”
Ashley sighed, as only a true Southern belle can sigh, filled with nuance, regret, and humor, all at the same time. “Atta girl, Jemma. My hero.”
After Jemma said goodbye and put down the phone, she took a deep, cleansing breath. Two of them. Some topics needed more cleansing than others. Weight was one of those topics. Ashley was the only person in the world who did not treat Jemma’s weight as an affliction to be cured.
Maybe that’s why I like her so much.
Jemma closed her eyes, breathed in deeply one more time, and tried to push the unsettling thoughts away and out of mind.
Talking things out is supposed to help, right? Diffuse the anger by letting it go. Right?
She squinched her face into a tight, wizened grimace, prune-like.
But talking it out seems to have made me more inventive at expressing said anger, and I’m still upset.
“What do you think, Durwood? Am I over my angry mood? Can you tell I’m still upset?”
Durwood raised his head, which was often the extent of his involvement in Jemma’s diatribes. He snorted and tried to focus his eyes on Jemma. Durwood, an older bulldog, gave the appearance of always waking up with a hangover. Jemma didn’t really know hangovers—other than what she saw on TV or the movies—but Durwood looked like he could easily have acted in The Lost Weekend. He tried to grin at her, but bulldogs don’t grin well. It looked more like a snarl that stopped mid-growl.
But he tries.
It appeared that Durwood might be considering getting up and waddling over to Jemma. But he’d already had a second breakfast (like a hobbit) and had no pressing needs or urges at the moment. So he snorked again and merely kept his eyes open.
I know he’s only watching me to make sure I don’t eat something without telling him.
Jemma decided she wasn’t really hungry, not exactly, but not not hungry.
I could eat something. Like half a sandwich. What do I have a taste for . . .?
She shook her head, trying to clear those food thoughts out of it. Instead of fixating on eating, Jemma grabbed another coffee pod from the drawer and made herself a medium-sized cup of dark Italian roast coffee with a generous splash of half and half and a full packet of the yellow artificial sweetener to temper the bite. She told herself this would be her last of the day—her last after nearly a half-dozen cups prior.
Durwood had no use for coffee and once he smelled the acrid aroma, he shut his eyes, rolled onto his opposite side and started in on his mid-afternoon nap.
Jemma carried her cup to the large, upholstered chair-and-a-half by the front window. From there, she could see down Main Street. It was one of the pluses of living downtown in a small town. There was always something to see, but not all that much of it—not nearly enough to be overwhelmed. And after a long day’s work, Jemma was ready for a few minutes of downtime.
Spring Hope is like Dickens described. It is the worst of places; it is the best of places. It is the best because of the tight community where everyone knows everyone and cares for everyone—and the worst of places because everyone knows everyone and cares more than they need to about everyone else.
Though I do love it here. I guess. Sort of. Mostly. And where else would I go?
Jemma DaVia, owner of The Last Cupcake, a cupcake shop/coffee house/gift store/reading room/local hangout in Spring Hope, North Carolina, wasn’t sure if living above the store was a good thing or a curse. It did shorten her commute to all of a minute. But it also made her horribly available to the people she hired to help her run the store when they ran into insurmountable and unsolvable problems—which most often had to do with the store’s recalcitrant cash register or the fussy thermostat.
Jemma was passionate about her business, the art of making things that looked fabulous and tasted even better. But it was a passion that lay mostly hidden, like a log in a swamp, hidden by moss.
I love baking and I love this business. But I can’t share that. If I start going on about how much I enjoy what I do . . . then people will think that I’m merely overcompensating for being fat. It’s like back in high school. There was always a homely girl, or fat girl, or girl with a lisp or a limp—who had a ‘lot of school spirit.’ That’s code for having a defect of some sort. So I love this work, I love what I do, but I am not going to go on and on to people about it.
She sighed, mentally, to herself.
Funny how the rest of life can be pretty much like high school was . . . with all its trauma and heartache and posing and posturing. I thought we would all be mature and over all that by now. No such luck.
But today, Jemma wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to think about Mrs. Cummins. She wasn’t going to compare herself to the perfect Ashley. She wasn’t going to think about the vet-recommended adenoid surgery for Durwood to stop his loud and craggy snoring. She wasn’t going to think about the commercial she saw last night on TV for a miracle weight-loss pill or about all the unsuccessful diets she’d tried. She wasn’t going to think about getting the motivation to go to the local Curves workout salon to lose “a few pounds,” which was really a lot more than a few. She wasn’t going to think of going to the same singles night at church with the same 17 people that had been in the group for years. She wasn’t going to think of what cupcake variety she would offer as a special tomorrow.
No, instead of all that, instead of the typical subjects that circled round her conscious thoughts most days, she was going to think about something else altogether.
Two things, actually.
One: where to go on her annual two-week vacation—when she closed the store and went . . . somewhere . . . by herself, usually.
And two: what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
Jemma sipped at her coffee and took an internal wager on which subject would be settled first.
Not a betting woman, nonetheless, Jemma picked number one.
Little did she know that resolution to number two would follow soon thereafter, much like the night follows the day. . . and so on, and so on.
At arm’s length, in the bookcase under the front window, Jemma had stacked several cascades of travel books. One stack was for U.S. travel. There were a lot of American places that Jemma had not yet visited. Her total of visited states was a measly 28 of the 50—a regrettable ratio, if she had been asked. Some of that tally was incidental or accidental, like the time during one of Jemma’s infrequent flying experiences when her flight to O’Hare in Chicago was briefly diverted to the Milwaukee airport because of thunderstorms. She felt unsettled about marking off Wisconsin on her state list tally—but she had been there. Rules are rules. There was another stack of foreign travel books: Europe mostly—Italy, England, and France, but mostly Italy. She had never ever been to any of those places. She just dreamed about doing it someday. She spoke English, of course, took French in high school, and knew how to swear in Italian (Thanks, Nonna D.) The rest of the countries could wait. There was another stack, a smaller stack, of books on Australia and New Zealand. That would be a long, long trip from North Carolina, but . . . maybe one day.
She put her coffee cup down and pulled the top book off the European stack.
The book was Adventures for the Single Woman in Italy. A well-meaning friend from the church single’s group had given the book to her on her last birthday—one of those mid-thirty birthdays that single women really, really don’t care to celebrate. And the gift-giver, sort of, Jemma thought, lived vicariously through Jemma’s experiences, which Jemma also thought was a very plaintive, sad situation. Jemma’s life was not interesting enough to be lived vicariously by anyone.
“Single girls . . . single women in small towns have it hard,” she would say when commiserating with her small core of other single women friends. “We’re too old for singles bars, for sure, and who would want what you get at a bar? All the good single men are taken. We sort of have to wait for them to get divorced, get therapy, and get back into the dating pool.”
Jemma dismissed these unhappy thoughts from her mind. She had read somewhere that unhappy thoughts eventually manifest themselves on a person’s face, and she had no room for error on hers—not with her body.
No, I will start to plan my trip. That is a happy thought. And I’ll prevent a few wrinkles by thinking happy thoughts.
She flipped through the pages: Rome, Venice, Milan . . . all the traditional spots that tourists have to visit. The Amalfi Coast—the Italian honeymoon spot—was one place she would avoid. It would be like going stag to Niagara Falls.
But going to those places sort of means signing up to go on a tour, and I don’t want to be the only single woman on a couples tour, and I don’t want to go on a ‘singles-only’ tour either. That thought scares me even more. A clutch of polyester, gold-chained Lotharios looking to make my Italian vacation ‘memorable.’ No thanks.
There was a map of Italy buried a few books down, which she slid from the stack and unfolded.
She traced with her finger the roads leading out of Rome, to the north and east.
What was the name of the town that Nonna D. always talked about? Ascoli something or other. She said it was near the Adriatic Sea. Near mountains.
She squinted at the small names, holding the map to catch the afternoon sun. Jemma was determined to avoid wearing glasses as long as possible.
They say that your eyes go south when you turn 40. Not yet! Not yet!
And then she saw it: Ascoli. Actually, the full name of the town was Ascoli Piceno. It was a hand-span away from Rome on the map. North and east, like she remembered Nonna D. telling her. By the Sibillini Mountains. And the Adriatic Sea was not that much further east.
Okay—there it is: Ascoli Piceno. It’s almost a big town. Sort of. I wonder if my mother knows anything about her husband’s and in-laws’ ‘old country’?
She sat back and let the afternoon sun warm her face. She wondered how hard it would be to fly to Rome and rent a car and just drive to Ascoli, to her paternal ancestral home. She knew that European drivers had reputations for being aggressive and fast and unforgiving. But they had to have some slow, careful drivers in Italy. There had to be cautious grandmothers in Italy. She could fit in with them, right?
Then she shook her head.
I can’t do that. That’s a trip for a woman of adventure. It sounds a little scary. I could never do that . . . could I?
She folded the map, carefully, but instead of slipping it back into the pile and burying it, she laid it on top of the bookcase. And then she sighed, a big girl sigh.
That word was way too familiar to her lips.
Later that evening, when “Wheel of Fortune” was just about to air, and just after her short late afternoon nap, Jemma hurried downstairs, got into her Volvo station wagon, now over a decade old and smelling of cupcakes since it often had to double as her only delivery vehicle, and drove across town, a seven-minute trip, and pulled up to the Shady Arms Retirement Village.
Shady Arms? Who wants shady arms?
That’s what she thought when she and her mother had first visited the facility six years prior, which was three years after her father’s death. The family homestead was way too large for Jemma’s mother to care for adequately, and Jemma wanted no part of a beautifully ornate, aging, money pit of a 19th-century Victorian with death trap wiring and inadequate plumbing.
So for the last six years, Mrs. Maria DaVia called a one-bedroom apartment in the retirement facility her home. Not spacious, though it was more than adequate and up-to-date.
And she liked it for the most part. She didn’t like that her only child did not visit her often enough.
“But I come two or three times a week, Mom,” Jemma would plead when accused of parental abandonment.
Her mother would sniff the air as if noticing some unpleasant cooking aroma, then look away, resigned to being neglected.
It was a game, they both knew it was a game (at least Jemma hoped her mother saw it thus) and that they were both almost trapped into playing week after week.
If that was the only dysfunctionality we have between us, Jemma would tell herself, but it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
“You missed the opening puzzle,” her mother said as Jemma let herself in. “It was an object.”
She wanted Jemma to guess.
“That’s an animal.”
“Okay then, how about a key ring.”
Her mother appeared dismayed.
“Not even close. It was a washing machine.”
Pat Sajak introduced the second puzzle of the night and Jemma’s mother shushed her with a wave of her hand.
This is important stuff.
While the contestants shouted out letters with great optimism and enthusiasm, Jemma flipped through the stack of mail on the small dining table. Her mother gathered it all together, not really able to understand anything more complex than the weekly ad circular from the nearby Piggly Wiggly.
“Fryers are 89 cents a pound this week, Jemma. You need fryers? That’s cheap.”
Jemma never needed any fryers, but would agree with her that it was a very good price.
The stack held the usual assortment of advertising, which was always tossed. There was a newsletter from a missionary her mother had given a small donation to last year. There was a bill from MasterCard and a bill from the dentist and a sheaf of notices from Medicare that always looked important and which Jemma dutifully filed away without knowing why she needed to keep them. She made out checks for the two bills, noted them paid, sealed the envelopes, and filed everything away—all before the final game and the big moment.
The contestant failed to come up with the words “Stroke of Genius.” Jemma was pretty sure she wouldn’t have gotten them either. Who asks for a K?
After the show ended, Jemma’s mother turned to her and smiled. “How’s the store? You sell much today?”
The day’s receipts looked to be healthy for midweek. Far from getting rich, Jemma’s income would be comparable to an elementary school teacher (with tenure)—which is the profession that her mother had wanted her to follow instead of “this crazy idea to sell cupcakes. I can get cupcakes at Piggly Wiggly. Why would anyone go downtown for cupcakes?”
Jemma sat on the couch with her mother. “You remember Nonna D., right?”
Maria looked perturbed. “How could I forget that woman? She was foul-mouthed. She was mean. And she drank too much wine. She never liked me. No forgetting that. And she smoked.”
“Stinky Italian cigarettes. Smelled like burning trash.”
Jemma knew that the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship had been testy at best. However, the feisty older woman had been overwhelmed with joy by her only grandchild, which turned out to be Jemma—a child that could do no wrong. But apparently she did need to be fed the proper amounts of “good, home-cooked, Italian food,” which her mother apparently had failed to provide.
Maybe Nonna D. was the real reason for my weight problem.
The vivid memory of being plied with meatballs popped into Jemma’s mind. “Mangia, mangia, figlia—eat!” her grandmother would often say as she piled more food onto her granddaughter’s plate. The memory brought mingled feelings of love and disdain. So Jemma just tried to focus on steering her mother away from the bumpy parts of her own memory of her mother-in-law.
“The town where she was born—wasn’t it called Ascoli Piceno?” Jemma asked.
Maria nodded. “Less than a half day’s drive from Rome, she said.”
“What was the name of the small village where her parents were from? Dad’s grandparents.”
Maria tightened her face. Her memories, these days, could be a hit or miss affair. Short-term remembering was hardly there any more, yet the long-term memories seemed to come more easily.
“Starts with an A, I think. Aruba?”
A seven-night stay on that Caribbean island was one of the grand prizes in tonight’s “Wheel of Fortune.”
“No. Not Aruba,” Jemma replied. “I almost remember her telling me about it. It was up in the hills. Took most of the day to walk to the main road. That’s where great-grandfather and great-grandmother grew up.”
“No. That’s in Ohio. Your cousin Lucinda lives there.”
Maria brightened. “Arola,” she said with finality.
“Yes,” Jemma replied. “That’s the name. Arola.”
Then Maria narrowed her eyes. “Why are you asking about that?”
Jemma had debated on this answer, because she knew the question would come up. She knew her mother and how she thought. She had decided to simply tell the truth. She was getting too old to play charades anymore.
Not charades. The game where you don’t tell the truth . . . I can’t place it. I guess charades is close enough.
“I’m thinking about going to Italy for my vacation this year.”
Maria did not hesitate a moment.
“Not with a friend?”
“I don’t have any friends who I would be willing to travel with—or that could afford it.”
“Yes. That’s where Ascoli Piceno is. In Italy.”
“Yes, Mom. I’d like to see where Dad’s family came from.”
“By yourself? A single woman? What will people think?”
Jemma sighed. She often sighed in the presence of her mother.
“I don’t care what people think. I don’t know if I’m going to go or not. But I might. Maybe.”
“No. You’re not. People will think you’re a . . . loose woman . . . gallivanting all over by yourself like that. It’s not proper.”
Jemma chose not to battle her mother just yet.
“I haven’t decided yet, Mom. I said maybe.”
“Well, stop your thinking. It’s not done. That’s all. It just isn’t. You could visit the Grand Canyon. There’s a group from Shady Arms that’s going. They’re taking a bus, I hear. Very safe way to travel.”
Jemma began to count. One, two, three, four . . .
The statement came at eight. That showed great restraint on her mother’s part.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about any of this if you were married, you know.”
One, two, three, four . . .
On the countdown, at six, the anticipated addendum followed.
“A few pounds, Jemma. You do have a pretty face. You have to use the right bait if you want to catch a man.”
Jemma smiled in response. After two decades of the same argument . . . discussion, perhaps, she had learned how to deal with it. Nod, smile, and reply cheerfully, “You’re right, Mom. I’ll try. I promise.”
The words, now so familiar to Jemma, were said, almost as a doxology, a chant, which has lost all its meaning through endless repetition.
On the way back to her apartment, Jemma found herself thinking about the same things she often thought about after leaving her mother and the Shady Arms Retirement Village.
Talking with my Mom seems always to end in the same place: me promising to do something that I can’t do. It’s not from lack of trying. I have been on several hundred different diets. I’ve tried everything. 20 pounds off, 21 back again.
Willpower? It is NOT that. Honestly. It is not. My body seems to like exactly where it is at—weight-wise.
I am so tired of being unhappy about how I look. And everyone who says ‘just a few pounds’ has no idea of how hurtful that sort of advice can be. It’s more than just a few pounds. I’m tired. I feel good and my health is good, for the most part, but I am tired.
No . . . weary is a better word for how I feel. World weary.
Jemma let out a big sigh as she turned onto her street.
I know that being the way I am may doom me to singleness for the rest of my life. If it were so, well, I guess I’m growing into acceptance of that. I have lots of good friends and a great business. Why don’t people just accept that? Why don’t I accept that?
I suppose it is the curse of being the last cupcake: No one takes the last cupcake . . . do they? They have a limited shelf life. All the leftover baked goods are either thrown away—or given to the homeless shelter.
And I am the last cupcake. An extra-large cupcake. With extra icing. And a cherry on top.