“THE THIRD ECLAIR”

I’ve always liked sweet, creamy treats. Other desserts (pie and cake, for instance) were mere excuses to consume large quantities of ice cream or whipped cream or – even better – both. If I think back as far as I can remember, there isn’t a time when this was not the case.

I was weaned on café con leche, with a strong emphasis on the leche. It was more like hot chocolate than coffee. I especially loved the nata, the thin layer of film achieved by scalding – on the very verge of boiling – the milk. I would sit on my mother’s lap as she drank her morning coffee, dunking her buttered bread into it. She would skim the nata off the top of her beverage and present it to me on her spoon. Nata was considered a mistake by some; for me it was a dairy delicacy.

Dairy has forever been my go-to category of comfort foods: puddings, ice creams, whipped creams, custards, even yogurts. I enjoy cheeses and other savory versions of dairy, but given a choice, creamy and sweet is my preference. That café con leche I enjoyed as a little girl probably had 3-4 teaspoons of sugar added. Dodging the bullets of dairy and sugar addictions was clearly, from the start, never my destiny.

During the first few months of my son’s life, my body didn’t just enjoy things creamy and sweet; it craved them. I was an emotional/physical/hormonal wreck, and I needed comfort big-time. Julian and I were not bonding well, neither one of us was enjoying a decent night’s (or day’s) sleep. I was off center and off balance, and if his ceaseless crying was any indication, he was out of whack as well.

It was the dead of winter in Boston. I felt trapped in the house with a colicky two-month old. Venturing out meant preparing the baby and myself for the harsh elements. This typically took about an hour, starting with changing his diaper, dressing him in layer upon layer of clothing, squeezing each tiny, chubby limb through impossibly long and slim sleeves and pant legs.

Then there was the part about making myself presentable. That was no small feat either.

Inevitably, the moment I was ready to set Julian into his car seat and finally head out the door, he would produce a perfectly timed poopy diaper. I’d have to remove all his clothing, change his diaper, and dress him all over again before leaving the house. So when we did venture out, I needed to make it worth my while. Grocery stores, bakeries, cafés, even ice cream parlors were regularly worked into our excursions.

My friend, Francine, had recently given birth to her second baby, and I hadn’t visited yet. But if truth be told, the real reason for venturing out her way was the French patisserie close to her home. They made the best éclairs. Their custard fillings were thick, yet silky, there was a choice of vanilla or chocolate, the pastry shells were crispy, light perfection, and the glazed icings were sublime. As I dressed Julian for our field trip, my mouth was already watering, imagining the chocolate custard sitting on my tongue and slowly being savored and swallowed. It was pre-orgasmic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we arrived, the parking lot was full, but I knew exactly what I wanted and the plan was to get in, get my goodies, and get out. That’s how I justified parking right in front of the bakery in a “No Parking” zone. More importantly, it’s how I justified leaving Julian in the back seat, asleep. Why wake him? Why hassle with getting the seat out, and lugging the whole “sack of potatoes” into the bakery for what was going to probably be less than five minutes? He was finally sleeping, finally quiet, which was so rare and so precious. I was going to run in, get two éclairs – chocolate for me, vanilla for Francine – and run out. A quicky.

As I slammed the car door shut, and before I stepped into the bakery, I was aware I’d skipped a step. Not literally, in terms of my feet on the pavement, but in some other way I couldn’t quite yet put my finger on.

I proceeded into the warmth of the bakery anyway, and was immediately engulfed by a warm, sweet blanket of deliciousness. I perused the display of pastries. The colorful fruit tarts, the multi-layered Napoleons, the cream puffs sprinkled with powdered sugar, the chocolate mousse cups. I could imagine the taste of each one, the next one yummier than the last. I exercised monumental self-restraint and limited my order to the original plan: only two éclairs. After all, I still had “baby pounds” to lose.

I paid for the éclairs, and put my thick, wintery gloves back on before accepting the pink box tied in red and white string. I could not wait to get to Francine’s to dive in. I was already regretting not buying three.

As I stepped out into the iciness of that early March Boston morning, and spotted Julian’s tiny head in his car seat in the back of my Honda, I suddenly realized what step I had skipped: the car keys.

I had left the car keys inside the car. And I had locked the car. This was back when cars didn’t yet have that ingenious, mother-saving safety feature which prevents the doors from locking if the keys are still inside. It was only 1990, and I was screwed. It was colder than 20 degrees outside, possibly in the single digits. All I could wonder was whether AAA would arrive before I’d have to start calming myself with the contents of the little box.

I stepped back into the bakery, panicked. I needed the bakery’s warmth to defrost my brain and help me think. I asked the lady at the counter if I could use the phone to call AAA. I had to admit to her what I’d done, what a dangerous mother I was. Then I had to admit to the AAA lady who answered my frantic call that my baby was locked inside the car and that it was fucking cold outside. I didn’t actually use the “f” word, but that’s how cold it was. Could they please hurry?

I could see the car, and even Julian’s little woolen cap from inside the bakery. I announced to the room what was going on. Everyone wanted to step outside to see the oblivious cherub asleep in the back of the car while we all waited for AAA to arrive. It had become a community event.

I was embarrassed and feeling like someone who couldn’t be trusted with another human life. A BABY for crying out loud! MY baby! I wondered to myself how many more times I would screw up, put Julian’s safety or perhaps his very life in jeopardy.

I wondered what qualifies anyone to raise a child. Just because I was the oldest of four, just because I’d been babysitting since I could make a phone call, lock a door and change a diaper, just because many friends – including Francine – had already crossed the Motherhood Bridge and had reported back to me in nauseating detail about childbirth and its aftermath. None of that meant I was qualified. Only two months into my own experience of motherhood, I knew if there’d been an exam to pass, a license to acquire, I would have been left wanting. And it wasn’t just me who knew this; now there were witnesses.

Help arrived in less than fifteen minutes. I managed to keep my paws off the two custard-filled goodies safely tied up in the box. During that time I nervously paced back and forth between the car window to peer in at Julian, and the inside of the oven-heated bakery so that I could feel my toes again. However, while waiting for the hero of our story (the AAA guy who would come equipped with the proper tool to pop the lock), I used the time to calm myself. I eagerly and shamelessly devoured a third éclair.

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