Maxwell Harris stood teutonically tall, straight, and sublime but for a scar down his left cheek and black eyes that did not admit to a difference between pupil and iris. When he entered the bakery the bell rang as the door disturbed its rest. He cleaned his snow encrusted boots upon the fading mat, pulled the scarf from around his face and throat, and let his gaze move right to left across the glass case before settling upon what he without fail called the sweetest pastry in the shop. To counter the familiarity and silliness I stared into the mirror daily and taught myself to blush.
I knew I would join him after dinner not when I replied yes to his invitation but when at bar -- where shadows were the norm and pockets of light hid in the corners -- after our second bottle I expounded upon why I loved baking. "Don't you want more?" he inquired, "With your intelligence and drive ..." but, I insisted, that when I handled the dough, pounded it, pushed and pulled and tore it, kneaded it and tested my endurance, avoiding finishing too quickly, adding the right amount of yeast, forming it into loaves between rising periods, finally putting the buns in the oven, then I was ecstatic. "It's the perfect mixture of the ground seed of a grass with a single-cell fungus, add water, let chemistry and physics build a strong gluten matrix, and to think that in some cults it is treated as flesh!" I continued, more to myself than to him; he was no longer staring into my eyes.
"You look just like her," dad always said, the only thing he told me that has stayed in my memory. "Her eyes, her hair, that thing you do with your hands and lips when you talk." The look on his face was admiration and pride mixed with something else, a contaminated, remembered longing, and the discomfort it produced only subsided when he vanished and I found myself with a foster family known more for explicit rather than subtle pain.
Maxwell's eyes were not dissimilar. "It's impossible to find the perfect woman," he had proclaimed over our first glass. Without sugar yeast starves; they are just two dry ingredients. We dipped bread into olive oil.
"Onions," I explained on a couch in Maxwell's house, "like garlic and their cousins have two stages. In one seeds produce a bulb, and in the other these stalks surrounded by leaf tissue and gifted with a shallow root structure sprout a stem that then leads to a blossom, and more seeds. We plant seeds to get bulbs, and bulbs to get seeds. Imagine if people did that!" He did not reply, so I left out tales of photosynthetic snails that, upon consuming algae, absorb but do not break down chloroplasts, instead using them to supplement their food supply. Or the bacteria and worms whose neurological influence upon the host organism leads to behavior modification that benefits the parasite by improving the odds of it being passed on up the food chain. But it was always a multi-part cycle, I wanted to exclaim; what if these organisms merged, became something new, not hybrid or chimera or mule, but a self-sustaing new being.
"No," I replied to the question whispered in my ear, "this isn't my normal foreplay, just trivia from my years as a gardener." He snoozed. It was afterplay. The members of the onion family contain sulphur compounds, I continued only to myself, different in each species, which lead to the smell, the bite, the tears in the eye, but they contain a compound that, when heated, transforms and the result is many times sweeter than sugar.
Gardening had preceded my stint as a mechanic and while I fantasized about gene splicing and those laboratory endeavors far beyond my educational level, I settled for grafting, tying together cuts of different plants to one root system, a process entirely responsible for the world's wines -- the sweeter European grapes but the hardier New World roots -- and in my free time at the nursery I nurtured many potted beauties that through natural means would never have blossomed.
As I awoke from a nap to multiple touches, inquiries, and intrusions he assured, "I am not a sex fiend though. I'm just a mammal." Nodding in feigned understanding I smiled, and, somewhat more enthusiastically, purred.
Oxytocin, "quick birth," a mammalian neurotransmitter and hormone, released after distension of the cervix, after stimulation of the nipples, and during orgasm in both sexes, is involved in social recognition and bonding. Whether cause or effect, it is a wonder, but still only one of many non- and misunderstood chemicals. "I need you," he stated, his fingers pinching knots near my neck, the flats of his hands pushing the flesh of my back, and then the gripping of my shoulders and pulling back. My skin became satiny under his caress.
"I shouldn't have slept with you, that was a mean thing to do." As he slept I had looked in his mouth and seen the perfectly aligned rows of teeth. Now we sat across a circular table from one another, I with a top-fermented ale, he a lager.
"I mean, it was nice and all, but it wasn't polite." His pores were small and tight, clean. Neither blemish nor birthmark nor mole marred his face, back, chest, or arms. His lips turned downward, the neck made tension visible, his right hand shook as he lowered the glass, and I pushed a napkin across to him. Beer pooled on the wood.
"I didn't know what I wanted or what I was doing." Normally one cannot know the result until implantation, so I stayed for weeks to be sure.
I came to Maxwell by way of the bakery and the bakery by way of Donato, bespectacled, beaproned, balding and and wearer of a drooping white mustache under which I knew his lips moved but I never saw the mechanism, hidden as it was behind that walrus-like facade. He built, repaired, and rescued clocks, the older the better, his friends, he said, and I somehow felt he had been raised among a tribe of a Frankensteinian automatons, clockwork men who tick tick ticked the day away in perfect time and harmony, a music of the spheres made manifest. And I felt at home. From the bakery he purchased hard rolls every morning and so when I left I wasn't really saying good-bye. I saw him still; perhaps Maxwell, too.
"Sorry about the whole thing. You seem great, I'm just not the type, I guess. I'd probably have let you down anyway." Maxwell's eyes were moistened. "Relationships may just be too much pressure for me in the end. I tend to freak out and flee into the bushes." I stayed with Donato three years after leaving the garage, where I had learned large-scale precision, but with the old man and his never trembling hands I came to appreciate those things barely visible to the eye, yet in the end I knew I had to leave again; with him, with the machanics, and with the plants I discovered technical magic but still nothing new.
"You know how I keep my apartment really, really clean? I like my life to be like that, and when you involve other people things just get messy." The banter and excuses did not cheer him. I pushed back the chair and walked to the door. Happy hour was ending.