Jimena heard the tinkling of the bells against the glass of the outer door as they closed it behind them. She put her book down on the bench and listened closely to hear the two turns of the key that signaled the end of the workday. The echo of voices trailed away across the courtyard and out to the street. She listened for the creaking of the big gate and, when it slammed shut, it meant that the last worker had left for the day.
She could hear the buzzing of insects hovering in the jacarandas out in the garden. The birds began their noisy flight home to the rubber tree; behind them would come the night.
This was how Jimena liked to tell the time in the afternoon, ever since they gave her the implant and taught her how to hear. She closed her eyes and permitted herself the gift of the auditory part of life. When the workers were gone, she came back inside from the balcony.
By then, Emilio was ready to take a stroll in the garden where he was finding his new reason to live. They chose this property because it seemed practical to them to live and run the business in the same place, but they were always trying to carve out spaces that were for them alone. The garden was tucked behind the house and they decided to put in a fruit and vegetable garden way at the back. It was three years now since they had set up the modern nursery shed where they eventually planted their first seeds.
They left the garden as the silence of twilight fell. They wore its scent on their skin and their lips were stained red with blackberries. That afternoon was special: Emilio was going to go back to the bakery for the first time since the accident.
Jimena opened the door and Emilio hesitated briefly on the threshold. Within, the silence continued, interrupted only by the hum of the refrigerators’ motors. The air was redolent with the fragrance of the bread baked during the workday. On one side of the room, the coolers were vibrating and, on the other, a droplet of water dripped from the faucet. Smiling, Emilio sighed and walked directly to the area where the work tables were as if he could see them there. He bumped into a chair next to the sink and sat down to listen to Jimena’s movements. She turned on the lights.
The workers for the first shift will start getting here around 4 a.m. There’s time enough to pause and savor these small moments, said Emilio softly.
Jimena busied herself measuring the ingredients. She dispensed some quantities of flour onto the scale until she had the exact amount. Every time she plunged the scoop into the canister, the dry sound of the slight shifting of fine white powder sounded like a hello to her. She quartered a piece of butter and placed one cube on top of another until she had formed a sculpture on the aluminum plate. As she weighed the salt, the sugar, and the yeast, she recalled the chemical interactions that happened depending on the order in which they were mixed.
If she had pressed the matter, Jimena would be a food chemist now. How she would have loved to have attended university! But she wasn’t even able to speak. She couldn’t avoid noticing the odd looks of the neighbors who were her age, their mocking and sometimes pitying expressions. She preferred their ridicule to their pity because at least then she could laugh along with them. She hated the keening sounds that emerged from her vocal cords. Before the operation, she couldn’t hear them, but she could see them reflected on the faces of those who could. How she would have loved to devote her life to her studies and focus on important things! The formulas, the lab experiments, not those jeering faces. Back then, the university wasn’t set up for someone with her disability, although if she had gone on to study on her own, she probably would have specialized in research and then she would have spent her life in a lab testing the chemical reactions of elements. Medical science had advanced and, now that they had operated on her, she could speak and hear. But for her, it was too late.
With Emilio, Jimena feels different. Even before the accident, she never saw on his face even the tiniest hint of displeasure at her way of speaking. She squatted to measure horizontally the exact quantity of water in the measuring cup and to fill the row of containers: a glass bowl for the liquids, a wooden basin for the solids, the cubes of butter, and the chunk of yeast. Nothing was wasted. Emilio could tell them apart. She went over to him, put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him to let him know that all was ready.
Emilio felt Jimena’s warmth and her lips and he embraced her. This form of communication that they had developed after he lost his vision and before the operation that allowed her to hear her voice would always be theirs.
Emilio stood up.
It’s been so long since he put on his work clothes and his white baker’s smock, Jimena thought excitedly.
Emilio picked up a piece of soap and, as he lathered up with the rapid motions of his hands under the running water, scenes from his professional life passed haphazardly through his mind. He turned off the tap, smelled the towel that Jimena handed him, and dried his hands. The surface was immaculate.
As he slid his palms across the table, something like a ceremony of reconciliation with life began for Emilio. Jimena sifted flour over her beloved’s hands and became transfixed by the silent white drizzle that little by little formed a small volcano.
Emilio paused briefly before digging his fingers into the mound that finally formed on the table. Jimena dropped in the pieces of butter and Emilio’s fingers randomly traced the edges of one and then another. Jimena added water and watched how the little rivers flowed around Emilio’s hands, which plunged deep into the flour. Slowly, some parts became moist before the ingredients were fully mixed.
Emilio would have preferred to keep feeling the contrasts between the different textures, but the cubes of butter were rapidly melting from his body heat. He started to work the dough expertly, just like in the old days. His fingers, at various moments interlacing, extended and contracted like the most efficient of instruments, and his palms pressed down until he achieved the smooth and increasingly supple consistency of the mixture. It was a scene that Jimena knew well but that invariably held for her the fascination of the very first time.
Emilio let the dough rest briefly. He stood there holding an egg with the tips of all ten fingers pressing against each other, just delicately enough so the shell didn’t break.
So strong and so fragile at the same time, said Emilio out loud. Like what we are given at birth because at any moment we might lose it.
Emilio remembered when he awoke in that hospital bed and felt the bandages on his face as if he were in a nightmare:
I felt completely trapped as if I were in a cold, wet tunnel and your voice was barely audible at the other end. Surrounded by a faint and distant light, I began to fall into a deep abyss. Only your gentle voice warmed me and let me know that I wouldn’t stay in the nightmare, though I would always be inside that dark shell where I hunkered down and learned how to perceive with my other senses the world outside that I would never again see with my eyes.
Emilio’s thumbs cracked the shell and the colloidal substance dripped and moistened the dough which had only just begun to take shape.
So much wasted time trying to hold on to what we no longer have, he said.
Jimena gazed sadly at the expression that passed across Emilio’s face as he peeled the sticky clumps off his finger and then continued to knead.
You just have to keep at it until you achieve the right consistency, he said.
Jimena imagined the soft, firm pressure of Emilio’s hands kneading certain parts of her body the way he did the dough. She knew that if she took two steps forward and brought her lips close to his neck, he would tremble with pleasure. She would have embraced him, she would have sat on top of him, and, with her legs wrapped around his waist, she would have placed her face against his cheek and chafed against it softly. Clinging tightly to each other, Jimena and Emilio would have kissed, but the goal was not to pay attention to the dough he was kneading for the first time in so long. That was what he was returning to.
Emilio blushed when he felt the warmth from Jimena’s body.
The flour is as silky as your skin, he said and picked up his pace so he didn’t cook the dough with the heat of his hands. He beat it against the table. He pushed it forward with all the strength in his body and then back again. Drops of sweat flew off his brow. When the dough achieved the desired elastic consistency, he paused for a moment to form a ball and feel the density of it in the palms of his hands, how it was at once soft and heavy. He put it down to rest and covered it.
Jimena emerged from her trance and went over to turn on the oven. On her way back she lifted a corner of the cloth covering the dough. She loved to see how it grew and to know that eventually, it would double in size.
By stretching out each piece and rolling it under his extended fingers, Emilio formed three loaves. Jimena took them away to bake. While he scrubbed his hands and arms with fragrant soap suds under the tap, she cleaned off the work table. Then she washed the receptacles they had used and put them away.
Jimena smelled the aroma of crunchiness and went to take out the loaves. Just as she opened the oven, the temperature reached its maximum heat because the timer they had installed after the accident had triggered the automatic shutoff. She found the tray they kept for the items that the bakers were allowed to eat during the workday. She left two loaves there and was amused to find herself smiling: this was the way they would find out that Emilio was back. She placed the third loaf in a basket and turned off the lights.
Jimena and Emilio walked out into the backyard with the haste of desire. Jimena pulled the door shut and heard her key turn in the lock and the slight shiver of the glass. Emilio was already on his way upstairs. Jimena caught up with him. First floor, second floor. The apartment door was open. Once inside, he waited to wrap his arms around her waist until she had placed the bread on the windowsill. She managed to close the door with her foot.
Jimena knew that the aroma of the crunchy loaves of bread would float out into the street tonight and waft through open windows all over the neighborhood. Emilio had returned.