The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

May 31st, 2016

The Question Is

The question isn’t why this store that carries a hundred and fifty kinds of cake mix doesn’t sell one bag of Queen Guinevere Cake Flour. The question isn’t how long it would take to drive down Route 17 to Chef Central to pay eight dollars for a three-pound bag. The answer is: longer than the sitter can stay. The question is: What would Amy Albrecht-Ross do?

Dr. Amy Albrecht-Ross would never find herself in the A&P at this hour because she planned Reverend Ross’s birthday celebration weeks ago. It’s not as if his birthday is a moveable feast! She whispered into each of her four children’s rosy little ears their role in Daddy’s birthday festivities before she flew out Monday morning to present at the Aphra Behn Society, then back to teach on Tuesday. She ordered the cake, or, more likely, prepped the ingredients before she left, so she could cream the butter and slip the pans into the oven the moment she walked through the door. The children recited a poem they wrote in Daddy’s honor and presented him with sweetly grubby handmade gifts and cards. Reverend Ross was delighted. Professor Albrecht-Ross photoblogged the occasion on Pinterest.

No, what Dr. Amy Albrecht-Ross would do is never the question.

The question is: would Paul know the difference between a Betty Crocker Super Moist Golden Vanilla cake and a meticulously constructed Rose Levy Beranbaum All-American Downy Golden Butter Cake concocted from ingredients that include Queen Guinevere Cake Flour, which this store does not carry?

That, too, may not be precisely the right question.

Why bake him a cake at all could be the right question. Anyone whose birthday falls on a Wednesday late in the semester can’t expect his wife to bake him a birthday cake, especially when she teaches all morning, then attends faculty meetings all afternoon, and the birthday boy’s office hours don’t end until seven o’clock, after which he has a long commute. By the time he gets home, the girls will be in bed.

Why not just wait til the weekend to celebrate?

But if it’s only November and he already feels December distant, lost in midterms, department intrigue, tenure worries, and the book due in February, wouldn’t a cake seduce him back? Isn’t a woman who smells of butter and sugar and vanilla, but who can also keep up with her husband intellectually– keep up?–more accurate to say, surpass him, as she did in grad school, where such extraordinary things were expected of her that none of their friends can quite believe which spouse is stuck teaching freshman composition in community college and which landed the tenure-track position at Fordham–isn’t that woman too precious to drift away from every semester until he emerges two weeks after finals, dazed and blinking in the light of marriage and family? Won’t she be just fractionally further away every time, that much harder to summon back?

Would a cake from scratch be any more efficacious than one from a mix?

And why does no one else seem concerned? Why have six or seven other women maneuvered around the cart to grab jars of artificial chocolate frosting, pumpkin pie filling, corn bread mix–for God’s sake! What could be simpler than corn bread? What was even in the box?–graham cracker crusts, brownie mix. They say excuse me and look annoyed, but then again, shouldn’t they be annoyed at someone frozen in the middle of the baking aisle, contemplating cake mixes at dinnertime a week before Thanksgiving? What do they imagine the woman is doing?

It’s none of their business, and what are they doing, anyway, buying all that fake garbage? They may as well just buy their pies of gratitude from a good bakery. It will taste a lot better and save them from the charade of pretend baking. No bowls or blades to wash, either.

But anyway, that’s not the question.

The question is: why carry a purse that weighs ten pounds and drags at the neck and shoulder? Phone, tablet, notebook, wallet, student papers, Hannah’s little ballet slippers, a novel. Why not just leave it all in the car and bring only the debit and discount cards? But professorial dresses don’t have pockets, and carrying a small, light, backup purse with only the objects needed in the A&P is too much to aspire to at present, far too Amy Albrecht-Ross.

The question could be why dresses so rarely have pockets.

A better question is why anyone in her right mind would bake a cake when Le Gateau Suisse is only nine miles away.

Better still: who is crying? Or is that two people crying? Who cries in the A&P? Then again, isn’t the riotous excess of options, the tens of thousands of micro-decisions that constitute every expedition through this temple to consumer choice and evolutionary irrelevance enough to make anyone with even a fraction of her soul intact sob with gratitude, guilt, and despair?

Does one still believe in the soul?

That can hardly be the question right now, can it?

Does academia ruin a person for normal life might be a valid question. Another: is it better to keep reading the text of the baking aisle, or just to get on with Tuesday evening?

Still another: why won’t that child stop howling? Furthermore, if one began crying in the A&P, how would one ever stop?

The question is, essentially: if baking is about domesticity, and domesticity is the rarefied, exalted ideology of female subjugation made sweet and proper and pretty, the friendliest face of fascism, as it were, then why does the most feminist husband among the alpha males of Alwyn Park, a man whose dissertation was a Marxist analysis of HD and Muriel Rukeyser, love nothing more than when his wife bakes for him?

No, not nothing more. Why does he love to spank her, with his hand or belt or hairbrush, until she is aflame and whimpering, then penetrate her from behind, grinding her face into the sheets or the carpet, her arms spread wide?

Why does it bore both of them any other way?

To put it still more succinctly–is baking, at its root, the patriarchal ideology of domination and submission rendered in sugar and fat? Is baking simply sex in the kitchen?

Is there a conference paper hiding somewhere in these questions? An article? Can the baking aisle be a legitimate text for scholarly inquiry? Who would even touch that? Feminist Review? Journal of Material Culture? Cultural Anthropology? Some Marxist journal? Were those any easier to get into than the Woolf or Modernist ones? Three articles in five years do not constitute a ticket out of Mooreland Community College. Maybe BDSM and cake mix do.

The question remains whether any tickets out are ever available, once a decision is made. If one had stayed in Missouri, alone in the faculty apartment, teaching five classes of polite, earnest students per year, one would have published two books by now, at least, plus articles and conference papers. One would be tenured at Missouri, or perhaps on tenure track somewhere more impressive. But, then, no daughters, and likely, no Paul. Twice a month was not enough, the frequent flyer miles no substitute for frequent meals, frequent lovemaking. Six more months in Missouri, and the shy, dark-eyed medievalist in the office across the hall would have filled in the lacunae and annotated the aposiopeses in one’s long-distance marriage.

Fordham outranks Missouri. Children trump ambition. The only solution to the two-body problem is to subtract one body from the equation. One brain.

The question is not whether having children was the right choice. Margot had won that argument with her first scream of life. A newborn’s immediacy resists interpretation. A baby represents–no, not represents; is–that rarest of all things: an absolute. By her very existence, Margot, and three years later, Hannah, negated the question of whether their being was the result of prudent decision-making. They were irrefutable. A third child is not yet unthinkable.

A legitimate question remains, however, about whether these choices betoken the squandering of an expensive education, a question Mom and Dad politely refrain from asking, though, as their other daughter, the childless pediatric nephrologist often observes, they have every right to be furious with the result. But that raises (not begs, as one constantly had to remind students) a further question: if motherhood and community college mean that one has wasted a world-class education, is the damage permanent? Could one start over, out west again, perhaps, where a doctorate from the University of Chicago commands awe? Could that path wind far past the ranks of Fordham and onto something greater? Could an academic career have a caesura?

Maybe not. Amy Albrecht-Ross gave birth to each of her children in late May or early June. Professor Albrecht-Ross took no chances.

If the damage, however, were permanent, then couldn’t one simply give up? Join a book club? Watch those cable series everyone always tweets about? Take up tennis again? Stop feeling guilty about time wasted on the Internet? Learn, if it is not too late, how to relax?

Dr. Brenner, the chair of the English Department at Mooreland Community College declared at the tenure appointment, “You can teach here until your grandchildren have to drive you to work.” The years instantly spooled out ahead, skin collapsed into wrinkles, hair drained to white. Dizziness compelled sitting. Tenure, then, was not a prize. It was a life sentence.

Is it necessary, then, in the evenings after dinner, dishes, homework, bath time, bedtime, and grading, to join Paul in his study, log on to the Fordham library with his credentials, and read journal articles, take notes, formulate question after question in hopes that one might give rise to a theory? Is there any point, in the absence of colleagues with whom to volley ideas?

Why doesn’t Paul want to talk about Woolf these days?

The question is not why that woman on the PA system believes that children will love their mother if she brings home warm bread from the store bakery. The question is how she knows them so well. Baking a cake will have much the same result. They’ll say someday at the shiva, “Mommy baked the best birthday cakes, didn’t she?” Her children shall arise and call her blessed.

Why do we call it “performing gender identity,” anyway, as if anyone ever does it on purpose? As if a woman at home with young children won’t slip unconsciously into patterns as ancient as the archetype of the hearth-tending Divine Mother? As if giving children a sane upbringing didn’t require, on some level, the abnegation of certain crucial aspects of the mother’s identity? Require the mother, on some level, to embrace, even celebrate, the death of those precious facets of her soul?

Are we back to the soul again?

Why does the ability to name patriarchal tropes grant no power to destroy them?

Is it even possible to bake this ridiculous cake tonight is an outstanding question. When will there be time? After the children are asleep? But if he comes home exhausted at 9:30 to a house that smells like caramel mousseline (tricky to make, but divine in texture, smooth as the inside of the cheek, light as a butterfly kiss, sweet as pleasure itself), won’t the smell charge up his limbic system, draw him instantly out of theory and politics, students and colleagues, traffic and bridges, and return him to his senses? Would Paul be horrified–decent midwestern Lutheran that he was, Marxist feminist that he is–to recognize the atavistic charm of what arouses and satisfies him?

The question is whether irony is funny anymore.

Has Dr. Amy Albrecht-Ross ever stood, paralyzed with indecision before a display of cake mixes while other shoppers pushed and wove around her? Nonsense. Amy Albrecht-Ross is not a woman paralyzed with indecision about anything. Surely, she would have tweeted it, or Instagrammed an indecisive selfie, or composed a meditative blog post about it, connecting it to one of her husband’s Episcopal homilies, or maybe to Julian of Norwich.

The question is whether one can constantly read against the text of one’s life and still live it.

The question is why people are crying in the A&P.

The question is whether there is any point in asking these questions, once all the choices have been made and the consequences manifested.

The question is why I, too, am now crying in the A&P, and whether this is, considered correctly, hilarious, and–more to the point, if it is possible to stop either laughing or crying.

The question is: what time does Le Gateau Suisse close?

The question is: who is that screaming in the meat department?

*

Julie M. Goldberg is a writer, librarian, and teacher. Her fiction and essays have appeared in River, River, Mothers Always Write, Magnificent Nose, and on her blog, Perfect Whole. Julie lives in the Lower Hudson Valley with her husband and their two children. She is an obsessive reader, an occasional jazz singer, and an enthusiastic baker. “The Question Is” is a chapter from her current work in progress.

What motivates her to create?
In my early forties, I came to understand that I would die whether or not I ever finished writing the book I’d been dreaming about for years, and decided that I didn’t want to die without having written it. Procrastination born of self-doubt would not extend my time by one moment. It was urgent to create. And now, as I work my way through my second book (a chapter of which is “The Question Is,”) it remains urgent.