She runs to the kitchen, her bangs suddenly long enough for her to misjudge the door but somehow she slides in behind the table just fine. We have no time as her mother will be downstairs soon, chainsmoking and calling every minute for her to get dressed. But right now, a birthday party is underway. A coffee cake made from a plastic brick of coffee beans is being decorated with plastilene candles. The guests are propped up when they begin to sag sideways. The room smells of the pork roast I have in the oven, smoked paprika and cumin, coriander and a little shake of Old Bay's because I miss home more than usual today.
She directs me, guides me through the miniature party. She helps the little yellow man make a wish. Her wish. The same wish every time.
And then she is gone.
The long minute when I go back upstairs is the most difficult. Going back down the courtyard with the sound of my flipflops echoing back at me, avoiding the gazes of the old ladies on their folding chairs, paper fans in their hands. Turning the key in the lock, hearing nothing but the curtains, the low wind flipping the windows around - this is the saddest sound in the world.
Sometimes it feels like all I ever say is goodbye.
I make rice, tortillas from scratch, warm up the beans. The kitchen smells heady, fatty, salty. I sip cold white wine from a tiny glass.
N turns the lock in the door. A sound to break the empty space, the familiar jangle of her keys as she slips into her house slippers, shopping bags swaying from her wrists with fresh avocados and limes I forgot to buy.
I start the guacamole as she sits at the curve of the table, picking at the corners of the tortillas as I grab them from the pan one by one and hide them under a towel. Rolling the next one out in the flour scattered across the table she smells the meat.
"Oi." She says. "Pork again?"
I nod once.
She rolls her eyes.
We will eat it all, barely leaving two tortillas for breakfast and some chilaquiles.
Some people say I am obsessed with food, with cooking, with noodles and spices, condiments and exhausting procedures. N knows better. She knows it keeps me sane. She knows that nothing says I love you like a frittata, or the warm, round flourless chocolate cakes I make at midnight. She knows that if I ever stop cooking, I will stop living.
Late that night, I cannot sleep. N's face is turned into her pillow, the Aphrodite curve of her stomach glowing in the half-light as I watch her for a moment. I wander into the kitchen, get a glass of water. Walking through the living room, stepping gingerly over E's latest lego masterpiece I stand for some time.
Yes, I say to myself. Yes.
I put the empty glass on the kitchen table and notice the sky reflected in my giant saute pan. Far too big for the cabinets, it hangs like a trophy on the wall, as if I earned it at one point.