Several years ago, at the worst possible time, my dresser began to fall apart.
The drawers groaned complaints when I pulled at them. Splinters pricked my palms as I grabbed for socks in the middle of the night. The handle of the bottom drawer had come off altogether, so I just left it open, and the legs of my jeans were always trying to sneak out to party on their own. Even though it had seen better days, I didn’t want to let it go.
I didn’t want to let it go because it had seen better days. Fifteen years ago, the dresser was home to my brother’s favorite red sweatshirt, his jeans, sweatpants, button-down shirts, and sweaters. It was dark, handsome, and substantial—the kind of thing a real grown-up would have in his apartment. I was envious. I remember visiting my brother in his tiny studio near Times Square. We would sit on the floor and lean against the dresser—practically his only furniture—while we ate his special mushroom pasta and talked about our plans.
When I inherited it, the dresser became an important landmark in my own life. Instead of filling it with our clothes, my husband, Augustine, thought to turn it into a makeshift hutch. Heavy cookware in the bottom, then stacks of plates, mismatched glassware, and cheap silverware, all the way up. We propped a faux-glitzy mirror on top and set out our alcohol. Not the bar at Balthazar, but nice. It was the beginning of our home together.
But those days were long over when I woke up one sunny summer morning and all of a sudden saw the dresser in a new light. My brother had died. My divorce was looming. Big pieces of veneer were flaking off, exposing the cheap wood underneath. Desperate to start over, I decided to get rid of it right away.
I had the good sense to take out all the drawers, but still the thing felt like an elephant’s casket when I tried to budge it. Big and blocky, but also fragile somehow. It was completely unwilling to help me get on with my life. I think it was actually fighting me. I managed to slide it out the front door of my apartment and into the narrow hallway. I pushed and pulled and shimmied and got it to the edge of the first set of stairs. Six floors down to the curb, Fresh Kills Landfill, and a new start.
Cooking is a necessity—everyone needs to eat—but baking is different. No one needs a chocolaty cake or a delectable sweet to survive. That is, until that moment when a chocolate cake is exactly what you need to survive.
I decided to get under it. I would slide the beast down the stairs, guiding from the bottom. I thought my determination would overcome any weakness in my actual muscles.
I wrestled it down one flight, but then something shifted above me. The only thing I hadn’t planned for was gravity. In one quick and heart-stopping motion, I was pinned against the rickety iron railing of my apartment building’s stairway, five flights up.
The sharp wood corners dug into my forearms. The veins in my neck popped out against the strain. The old railing creaked. I thought about yelling for help, but I was still too full of pride. So, I stayed there, quivering and shaking from the strain and the fear, the dam holding back my panic and tears about to burst. No one was coming to help me. There was no one to call. No one was worrying about me. No one would know if I got hurt. Either this thing crushes me or I push back and get out from under—those were my choices.
Somehow, I managed the latter. I battled the thing back into my apartment, closed the door, and sat down on the floor, depleted, sad, and alone. For the better part of an hour I sat staring at the wall, surveying my situation. And then I stood up and reached for the blue and white bag of bread flour.
Excerpted from The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life by Samantha Seneviratne. Copyright © 2019. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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