apricot tarts

jessica soffer • winter/spring 2017

I am feeding my father small bites of a buttery apricot tart from a French bakery. It is his third of the day. My mother wakes up early in the morning to get her hands on a good quantity of them, to hoard them in case the baker takes a day off. Just in case. Just in case. She asks me if I’ve seen any of her cash and then she remembers, she’s been spending it on the tarts. They’re not cheap, but they’re all he’ll eat and he must eat. It’s the least she can do, she says. Keep him eating. Whatever he wants. He doesn’t open his eyes to see me bring the food to his lips, a spongy triangle of cake with a gem of an apricot on top, but his teeth are gentle as they open and close around my fingers. He’s an old dog. A kitten. It occurs to me to ask him to bite me. I want to see him try. There have been times when I’ve taken bites for myself. In the past year, my mom has given him delicious things—dark chocolate speckled with kernels of crisp sea salt, sesame bagels covered in white caps of cream cheese and zigzags of Zabar’s lox, dilly lobster salad exploding from a glistening, toasted potato bun—and I, without his ever knowing, have snuck a bite here and there. To be sure we weren’t poisoning him. Because I was hungry. Because they were delicious. Now, it’s the apricot tarts alone that he will eat. They are round and warm-colored: pudgy faces with two apricot halves, like flushed cheeks, perched on either side. Sometimes, they are dusted with confectioners’ sugar and always they are well done around the edges, which is why I eat those parts, telling myself the burnt bits will make the cancer worse, will scrape the delicate roof of his mouth, will not be missed. Eventually though, despite themselves, I lose my taste for the tarts. They leave a thin film of butter on my fingers that, no matter how well I wash, refuses to budge. I wake up at night thinking that my husband must be baking. Instead, I find that I’m sleeping with my fingers over my mouth. It is them that I smell. My husband is lying beside me. The stove is not on.

I suddenly realize that I’m starving, and the tarts are the only thing I can bear to eat, and the only things that will fill me.

On the day after my father dies, I go to the French bakery. They’re fresh out of tarts. I call two other bakeries and they too are sold out. I wander around the city aimlessly, under the pretense of merely getting some air, but I’m nothing if I’m not persistent and if I cannot buy the tarts, I will make my own version of them. I go to supermarkets, fruit stands, gourmet stores, bodegas. Nothing. Nowhere. I find preserves and vinegar and tea, but they’ve got nothing fresh. No one has anything fresh and I must have them. It gets dark and my cell phone is screaming at me. There are people wondering where I am but I can’t summon the energy to explain. I call no one back. I keep walking. Eventually, I find myself at the home I share with my husband, four miles from my mother’s apartment, where I claimed to just be heading outside for some air. I put an English muffin in the toaster and, defeated, take out the apricot jam but before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep with my clothes on, facedown on the bed. When I wake up, it’s late evening and the smell of butter is everywhere again, but it’s not on my fingers and this isn’t a nightmare. On my bedside table are three apricot tarts, fresh and alert. My husband is making tea at the stove. He found them. He found them. I suddenly realize that I’m starving, and the tarts are the only thing I can bear to eat, and the only things that will fill me.

JESSICA SOFFER is the author of the novel Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Her work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Redbook, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She teaches fiction and food writing at Connecticut College and Stony Brook University’s MFA program and lives in Sag Harbor, New York.