LIBRETTO

Flan|Mariana McDonald

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    Getting the sugar right−that was the hardest thing. 

    Caramelizing the sugar, taking it from white crystals to a gleaming dark golden-brown liquid. That took patience.  It was the secret of good flan, a dish in her family for generations, made for holidays or special occasions like a birthday or engagement. 

    Every time she made it she could see her mother leaning over the stove, watching like a guard as the sugar slowly melted. 

    This is what makes flan flan—separating it from just plain custard,her mother would say.  “Turning everyday sugar into something completely different and special. For that, you have to pay attention.” 

    Whenever her mother enhanced the waiting with a glass of wine, she became serious and talked about how making flan was a lot like loving.  She thought her mother was right about that.  Making flan was a process, to be sure. Eggs and vanilla and condensed milk lined up on the counter, with a cup of sugar measured for the pan. 

    Once the sugar, like bits of snow, had turned to a stream of molten sweet, the cook swirled the liquid around the insides of specially-selected dishes. The best were porcelain or glass or even tin, like the molds her grandmother used.  Round shapes were good, with enough height for two inches of eggy mix, poured in once the golden lining cooled and hardened.  

Then the pans were placed in a sea of water in a larger pan for baking, which made the sugar become liquid once again and kept it from becoming rock candy. 

    She thought this part of making flan said something about how people got along. We need space and time and the right climate to get back to ourselves, she thought. We need the freedom that water can give.  

    But the way flan most reminded her of loving was the final step, serving flan.  

    After the flan was baked and cooled on a rack, the cook put it in the fridge overnight to congeal. The next day she would bring the pans out to stand at room temperature for half an hour. Then, with a knife, the cookwould slice around the edge of the custard rim, freeing the flan from the pan as it is flipped over quickly, letting loose the golden juices of the treat onto a plate.  

    For her, that was like loving—how you had to be willing to take that risk, turn things upside down, to discover things about each other. The way flan has to be revealed by being made topsy-turvy, unloosing a swath of sweetness. 

    Too many times, when first learning to make flan, she ended up with a broken or lopsided mess, a gooey mess she had to clean up.

    This time she thought of something else, something that reminded her of her friend Margarita.  

    The strainer. Once the ingredients are mixed in a bowl, they’re stirred with a wooden spoon, then strained twice to make the mixture smooth. This strainer was a rounded semi-circle that reminded her, blushing, of a woman’s breast.  A woman’s breast she had to fondle as she removed the dregs of eggs from it.  

    Margarita. She remembered the night of the church supper, when Margarita had saved them all from a fire in the kitchen by placing a blanket over the stove’s flames with a calm in shocking contrast to the pastor’s wife, panicking with the fire extinguisher.  

    She was Itato her friends—the affectionate diminutive—but she was tall and huge. People said Margarita was “that way,” that she had a “friend” one town over, who had left her husband for Margarita.  

    In the church these bits of “news” were bandied about with the pretense of sharing information, but she knew better. It was just like when she went to the country north of the lake, and people made pointed comments about Black people, or immigrants, expecting her to nod in enthusiastic agreement, not realizing she was an immigrant too, with color in her family’s skin and blood for centuries. 

    It made her mad. But it wasn’t always easy to stop them at church and say “So what? What does it matter? After all, the good book says to love everyone.” She knew that at the heart of it, they were just afraid. Afraid of what they might feel themselves.  

    Every time Margarita walked into a room and the room grew silent, she could tell they had been gossiping about her. One night after clean-up Margarita looked at her friend with a mix of frustration and sadness. The church was active in the community, always reaching out to those who needed help.  Margarita looked her in the eye that evening and sighed, “You make wide roads, open roads for so many. But you will not cede a narrow path for us.”

    She might see Margarita tonight, at the church party for the birthdays of children born in that month. It was a way of celebrating all the children, and helped the families that couldn’t manage a party, what with layoffs and so many people out of work. She had decided she’d make flan each month for these parties, as long as she could manage it. 

    She relished the small ritual of packing the pans of flan—she’d made two—in a big cardboard box stuffed with old newspapers, to secure the flan for the ride to the church. She put the cardboard box in the trunk of her fifteen-year-old sedan and set off.  The party was at suppertime and it was Saturday. That meant the traffic wouldn’t be too bad, and there’d still be plenty of light. 

    She recalled one time driving to the church at night to pick up her nephew from softball practice. She hardly ever drove at night. Not just because her eyes were getting bad. It bothered her how much everything looked different at night. Turns that she took with grace in daylight simply disappeared at night, and driveways became invisible.  Not that she was afraid of mishaps. She was a careful driver. But getting lost? So easy! She felt a fool asking for “nighttime” directions. It was easier to stay home. 

    But this afternoon she glided along with confidence and a glimmer of what she might call feeling fancy free. Flan for the party—for the parents, really. That would bring smiles.  A chance to see friends and their rascal kids.  The radio was on full blast with a raucous piano tune, making her feel she was in her own bubble of joy.

    He came from the other direction. No one knew why he was driving so fast.  Was he in some bubble of his own? Drunk, or on something?  They remembered it afterwards, talked about how he sped in and out of lanes like a bee in search of flowers. It was probably not just the six- pack he’d consumed that made him accelerate, oblivious to the sea of cars all around him, like a water skier coasting over the tops of a wide wake, behind an unseen boat. 

    A meth boat, some said, who’d seen how the glassy peril came in and wrecked their communities. Saw people mugged, robbed, killed by it.  If they were lucky enough to stay alive, they turned into black-mouthed twigs that whipped about like shadows.

    The piano was repeating a twinkling pattern that made her smile when he blasted into her like a bomb as she pulled away from the stop sign. The impact was so intense that her car was lifted from the road, rolling over again and again, crumpling like a fistful of aluminum foil. 

    The roof hammered her head like a nail, and pieces of windshield reshaped her face.  Her whole body gushed a crimson that swirled about and covered the car doors.  The trunk was jammed open and the cardboard box flew into the air. 

    The flan dislodged, flipped and landed, broken, oozing golden juices like blood.

Mariana McDonald

MARIANA MCDONALD is a poet, writer, scientist, and activist. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including fiction in About Place Journal, So to Speak,  and Cobalt, where she was a finalist for the Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. She co-authored with Margaret Randall the recently-released Dominga Rescues the Flag, about black Puerto Rican heroine Dominga de la Cruz. She lives in Atlanta.

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