A Taste for Love: Chapter 23


“Contestants, today you will be baking Hokkaido milk bread, otherwise known as shokupan. This popular Japanese bread is made using the tangzhong roux method, which gives it a light and fluffy texture. The recipe you’re working with also incorporates orange zest and ginger, so remember to balance those flavors. You have one and a half hours. Good luck.”

I wait until the bakers have begun working on their recipes before sagging against the display table. The adrenaline that kept my voice steady seeps out of my system, leaving behind shaky hands and weak knees. I manage to escape to the hallway and collapse into a chair. A wave of sweat suddenly takes hold, but the cool wall grants me reprieve as I lean against it.

Mom steps out a moment later, and she puts a hand on my forehead with concern.

“You don’t look so good. Are you coming down with something?”

I gently move her hand away. “I’m fine, Mom. Just tired.”

“Were you up talking to Grace again? What could be so important at that time of night?”

“Noth—” I stop myself. “Her heart’s been broken, and she needed someone to talk to.”

“And what do you know about a broken heart?”

Her tone is sharp, but not condescending. Rather, it’s threaded with worry, and for a second, I’m tempted to tell her the truth about everything. Ultimately, I keep things vague.

“A heart can be broken in lots of ways. I don’t have to feel exactly the same to sympathize.”

“You can do that without staying up all night,” Mom chides, “but I know you’re trying to be a good friend.”

It’s a small acknowledgment, but it’s enough.

“Thanks, Mom.”

She tsks. “Can you tell her to get upset during the day, though? You need to sleep.”

“Mom!”

She says it with such a straight face I almost take her seriously. I roll my eyes but chuckle along with her. It’s a nice change from yelling at each other.

“You picked a very good technical,” Mom comments a little while later, her eyes flicking to the open doorway. “Milk bread is easy to get wrong.”

“Well, I figured this was the best way to find out who’s going to rise to the occasion.”

I can see the wheels turning in her head, and then her eyebrows shoot up.

“You’re quite funny, you know?”

I chuckle. “Are you surprised?”

“Actually, no. Jeannie’s always been the quieter one. Too serious, I think. You’re full of life.”

I’ve never heard anyone describe me this way before, much less my own mother. It’s jarring to hear her say it without a hint of criticism.

“That’s why I worry about you. You want so much, so fast. You need to slow down.”

And . . . she’s back. I was starting to think she’d hit her head or something.

Mom regards me with a slight frown. “Your dad says I’ve been too hard on you. That I hurt you when I compare you to Jeannie. Is this true?”

Not trusting myself to speak, I stare down the corridor and nod. She exhales deeply.

“I only ever wanted the best for you—for both of you. You might not believe it, but I worry about Jeannie too.”

I turn back to her. “You do?”

“Of course.”

“Then why are you always after me?” I ask, picking at a loose thread on my shorts.

“Because I’m preparing you for the road ahead. Jeannie sticks to what she knows, but you like to dream big. That means life is going to be harder for you. You have to learn to take the falls and get right back up.”

“It doesn’t mean you have to do the shoving.”

I slap a hand over my mouth. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. Mom stares hard at me then, but she nods.

“Okay. I’ll try. But only if you promise to listen to me more.”

Did we just have a heart-to-heart like I see on TV? The one where the mom hugs her daughter to the swell of touching music? I twist toward Mom with an expectant smile, my ears perked for the sound of a faint melody.

She recoils in her seat. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Right. So much for that idea. I make a show of adjusting my shirt.

“Nothing.”

She shifts her attention to a spot on the wall across from us. The sunlight streaming in from the windows highlight lines and wrinkles I’ve never noticed before. Bags have taken up permanent residence beneath her eyes, a sign of the stress she’s endured.

Most people would have closed up shop or delegated their work while hosting this contest. Mom has kept the bakery running like normal except the nights before competition rounds. On those days, she’s in the kitchen preparing for the next day.

“I’m sorry the contest didn’t go as planned this year,” I say.

She pats me on the arm. “It’s my own fault. I didn’t screen the contestants as carefully as I usually do.”

“Because you were trying to set me up with one of them?”

Once again, the words slip past before I can stop them. I haven’t confronted her again since the night I came home late. Her hand stills, but she twists in her chair to face me.

“You never see the good in yourself, Liza. You only try to be like everyone else, to be more American, to date outside your race. I wanted you to be proud of your own culture. To know there’s nothing wrong with dating someone of your own background.”

I feel a sudden lump in my throat. She thinks I’m ashamed of myself. But that’s not true. I mean, hell, I was kissing an Asian boy just the other day.

The memory sends my thoughts in a completely new direction, one I was not prepared to visit just yet, and my chest tightens. I shove it back into the dark corner I relegated it to before.

“I know who I am, Mom, and I’m proud of it. All of it.”

She frowns. “Then why won’t you give the boys I bring around a chance?”

“Because you only pick them based on your criteria! I’m the one who has to date them, and you’ve never asked me once what I like or want.”

“What you want isn’t always what you need, Liza. You’re not old enough to understand that.”

“Maybe, but I am old enough to know what makes me happy, and that’s getting to choose who I date,” I insist, pulling my hand away. “I need to learn for myself what’s right and wrong for me. Isn’t that what you want for me too?”

For once, Mom’s staring at me like she’s really seeing me. She draws a breath, but Chef Anthony sticks his head out.

“Fifteen-minute warning, ladies.”

We stand up to stretch our legs, and I lean a shoulder against the wall.

“Is there at least one boy in there you would date?” Mom asks softly.

There was. But he turned out to be worse than all the others.

“I don’t know,” I mumble, scratching my ear. “I haven’t exactly gotten to know any of them that well.”

“Not even James or Ben? That’s who you were out with that night, right?”

I know she won’t let it go if I don’t say something, so I lie.

“We spent most of it eating and talking about random things.”

And taking a moonlit walk. And holding hands.

“Shut up,” I mutter to myself.

“What did you say?”

“Uh, just that it’s time to go in.”

I lead us back into the room, and five completely different breads greet us on the table. Some are weirdly shaped, and others are dry or soggy. To be honest, none of them look appetizing. Nonetheless, we slice two pieces from each for judging, and Mom sticks to her promise to let me do all the talking.

“This one wasn’t proofed for long enough. That’s why there’s not a good rise.”

“Whoever baked this one left it in too long. It’s burnt.”

“There’s no orange or ginger in this one. Not sure what happened.”

“Oh! Too much ginger. It overwhelms the other flavors.”

“We can’t eat this one. The dough is raw in the middle.”

When Mom and I turn away to deliberate, it takes us far longer than before. There are no clear winners this round. Not even James pulled off a decent bake from the look of things. It’s like he’s purposely trying to get eliminated. A terrible thought enters my mind.

What if he’s the one who sabotaged the bake this morning?

Mom’s voice pulls me back to reality. “Do you agree with this ranking?”

“Yeah. It looks good.”

We face the contestants and announce the plates from worst to best. David’s bread is at the bottom, and bakes from Ben, James, and Edward are above him in that order. Surprisingly, Albert doesn’t gloat when he hears David is at the bottom. In fact, he gives his twin brother an encouraging smile.

When Sammy is announced as the winner of the technical, he lets out a whoop as his family claps loudly in the audience. Part of me is glad I don’t have to congratulate James on another win, but a tinier part of me is disappointed he’d accept such lazy baking. I would never present something I wasn’t a hundred percent happy with.

“Well, this has been quite the turnaround,” Chef Anthony comments. “I don’t envy you judges. Please go deliberate on this week’s bake.”

Normally, Mom and Mrs. Lee would make the final decision, but since the milk bread recipe was my idea, I’m invited to join. Once we’re seated around the table in the break room, the negotiation begins. Mrs. Lee is quick to critique James’s bread right off the bat.

“His highlight lacked finesse. And his technical? How do you forget to set the timer on your oven? I expected a lot more from him, especially having won two bake days in a row.”

“But that’s just it. His baking has been solid until now,” Mom counters as she scoots forward in her chair. “And so has Ben’s. Today was a bad day for everyone.”

“Not everyone. Sammy did really well on this challenge,” I offer. “Plus, I snuck a taste of his grandmother’s orange cranberry loaf, and it was delicious.”

“I agree,” Mrs. Lee states. “It was a phenomenal bake, and his technical came in first too.”

Mom taps her pen on the table. “That leaves Edward and David. To me, Edward tried too hard to one-up the rest. Both of his breads tasted the same.”

I’m surprised she’s being so hard on her golden boy. I hope it’s not because he wasn’t successful getting me to agree to a date. Mrs. Lee purses her lips.

“Yes, but Edward came in second on the technical. His flavor did need some work, but the bread itself was well baked. On the other hand, David’s highlight wasn’t too bad. It was simple, but well executed.”

“Yet he came in dead last on the technical,” Mom points out.

I glance from one woman to the other. Have all their judging sessions been this . . . civil? There’s still a chill in the air, but at first, they could barely stand to look at each other.

“What do you think, Liza?”

I freeze in the middle of scratching the back of my head. Mom wants my input? She arches an eyebrow.

“Well?”

“Uh, we should consider the bigger picture, maybe,” I say, clenching my hands to keep them still. “Like, look at their past bakes. To determine who should go home.”

Mrs. Lee leans back with a smile. “You’re quite good at this judging thing.”

“I watch a lot of Great British Baking Show. I learned it from them,” I confess.

Mom smirks. “Yes. For once, her obsession with Netflix has paid off.”

After several more minutes of discussion, we make our decision and return to the bakeshop. It’s Mom’s turn to announce this week, so she positions herself slightly in front of the rest of us.

“Bread is extremely tricky to get right, and it showed today. Every one of you had difficulties, and only some of you overcame them. I’m sad to say the one who will not be continuing on to the next bake is . . . David.”

He doesn’t look remotely surprised, and he acknowledges the decision with a subtle lowering of his eyes. His mom and brother are in the audience, and Albert hugs him impulsively as he walks by. I guess blood is thicker than batter.

“As for our brilliant baker today, we have someone who stepped up to the challenge and made his grandmother proud. Congratulations, Sammy!”

I clap in earnest, happy to see him win this round. On our walk back from deliberating, Mom explained he’d been close to being a runner-up the last two weeks. If anyone knows how it feels to be second-best, it’s me. I press a hand to my heart when he runs into the audience to hug his grandmother. I hadn’t noticed she was here until now, but her wrinkled smile lights up the whole room. When his family asks me to take a photo for them, I oblige. By the time I hand them back the phone, James and Ben are gone.

With the day over, we all pitch in to clean things up. I kind of wish Nathan wouldn’t, because with every kiss he gives Jeannie, I get more and more annoyed. I know I promised Grace I wouldn’t get involved, but Jeannie deserves to know the truth.

When we finish, Mom, Dad, and I head home in one car, while Nathan offers to drop Jeannie off. Mom stops by my room as we’re all getting ready for bed. She leans against the doorframe in her favorite pajamas, a striped linen set one of her friends brought her from Taiwan.

“Thank you for helping out. It could have been a disaster.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I was thinking. How would you like to create the technicals for the rest of the competition?”

What did she just say? I stare, motionless, like a scared guinea pig. Mom doesn’t notice and keeps talking.

“I never did find the recipe book, and I—”

“Yes, yes! Um, I mean, I’d be happy to help,” I answer.

“Good, good. Then I need you to start working on filled-bun recipes in the morning, so get some sleep. That means no talking to Grace until dawn, got it?”

“Okay, Mom.”

It’s a white lie, but I think of it more as a half-truth. If Grace is fine when I check in with her, I’ll go to bed. Otherwise, I can’t abandon her.

Mom tucks a lock of my hair behind one ear, cupping my cheek with her hand.

“I’m proud of what you did today.”

“No buts?”

She smiles wryly. “No buts.”

Once she closes the door, I jump up and down on the bed to celebrate. I wince when my head accidentally bumps into the ceiling fan. Mom’s voice pierces through our shared wall.

“What was that?”

“Nothing!”

I sit back down and grin. So this is what it feels like to win.

I like it.


“So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

Jeannie props her chin on her hand. It took me two days to drum up the courage to talk to her, and now we’re here for a late lunch at Morning Thai on the pretense of a sisters’ day out. I picked it because it’s small and typically quiet outside of peak lunch hours. Now, sitting beneath the dim lighting and banana-leaf-shaped fans, my stomach twists into knots. Our waitress stops by to grab our orders, which buys me a few more minutes. I ask for the basil chicken with brown rice. While Jeannie glances over the large menu, I fiddle with the straw of my Thai iced tea.

Once we’re alone again, Jeannie wiggles her fingers at me.

“Am I going to have to tickle it out of you?”

I try to smile, but it ends up like a grimace. “Before I tell you, you have to promise me you’ll listen to the whole thing before making a decision.”

“Okay,” Jeannie says slowly. “Now you’ve got me worried. What’s going on? Is it James?”

The mere mention of his name is a knife to my chest. I force myself to answer.

“No . . . I mean, yes. Kind of?”

She drapes her napkin across her lap. “That’s not helpful, Liza.”

Just do it. Just tell her.

“Grace told me Nathan tried to kiss her the other night.”

I wince instinctively, expecting her to pelt me with the utensils at her side. Instead, there’s nothing but silence. I chance a peek at Jeannie and find her frowning at her glass of water. Maybe she didn’t hear me.

“Jeannie, I said—”

“It’s not true. She’s lying.”

“What?” I stare at her, slack-jawed. “Why would you say that?”

“Because Nathan told me this would happen. He warned me James was the type to hold a grudge, and that he wouldn’t stop trying to ruin his life.”

Nathan’s version of James doesn’t sound at all like the one I know, even with everything that’s happened since last bake day. Of course, I keep that to myself as I cock my head to the side.

“So? What does that have to do with Grace?”

“Come on. You’re smarter than that.” Jeannie crosses her arms over her chest. “It doesn’t take a genius to see Ben goes along with everything James does. Now that he’s dating Grace, they probably convinced her to say Nathan kissed her so I’d break up with him.”

I gasp. “Jeannie, that doesn’t even make sense! It’s Grace we’re talking about. You’ve known her almost as long as I have. She would never lie about this sort of thing.”

That gives Jeannie pause. She’s the only one besides me who’s aware of what happened with Eric. Doubt flickers in her eyes, but she ultimately shakes her head.

“Nathan has been nothing but the perfect gentleman since we started dating. He wouldn’t do that to me. He cares about me.”

Her voice cracks, and she casts her eyes down to the table. I lean forward so I can look her in the eyes.

“Jeannie, he had me fooled too, but just because a guy’s nice to you doesn’t mean he’s not cheating on you. I know that firsthand.”

Unexpectedly, she recoils. “And just because your boyfriends cheated on you doesn’t mean mine will.”

That stings. Since I had to hide my exes from Mom, Jeannie’s been my closest confidante. I’ve told her things even Grace doesn’t know.

“That’s not fair, Jeannie, and you know it.”

Our argument has caught the attention of several nearby tables, and they stop what they’re doing. At this point, I don’t care if they hear everything. Jeannie narrows her eyes at me.

“What’s not fair is my baby sister trying to ruin the one good thing in my life.”

I swallow the acid in my mouth as our food arrives. It’s not like I have any appetite left.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I hiss across the table. “You’ve got everything. The best grades, a gorgeous apartment, a modeling career, and you’re Mom’s favorite.”

“Oh yeah? For your information, the guy who owns the apartment is moving back in the fall. I’m going to be homeless unless I can find another place to stay. And that modeling career you’re so envious about? I haven’t booked a job in months because I’m too ‘generic’ looking.”

She pauses, chest heaving. I can do nothing but stare. Why didn’t she tell me any of this before? Jeannie nails me with accusing eyes.

“Maybe James is the real reason you’re saying all this about Nathan.”

I gape at her. “Excuse me?!”

“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t want to believe your perfect guy is in the wrong.”

I’m stunned. Tears spring into my eyes, but I make myself say the words anyway.

“For your information, James and I aren’t even talking. The minute he found out my sister was dating Nathan, he dropped me. The only reason I came today was to protect you, but I guess you’d rather get your heart broken too!”

I stand up and storm out before belatedly remembering we came in one car. Rather than having to ask Jeannie for a ride home, I walk a little ways down the shopping center and call an Uber. I duck behind the corner of a building when Jeannie rushes out the door. She gets in the car, and a few minutes later, my phone starts going off.

It’s her.

I decline the call, and the three that follow. She eventually gives up and pulls out of the plaza. Good. Let her explain to Mom why she’s coming home without me.

I get a text saying my driver is close, so I step back onto the walkway to wait. The door to the cafe on my left opens, and someone takes a few steps before stopping.

“Liza?”

Ugh! Why now?

“Ben.”

I swivel toward him with a guarded expression. At least he’s alone this time. His face is taut, but hope shines in his eyes as they dart around me.

“Um . . . are you here by yourself?”

“Yes, I am.”

Hearing my tone, the smile falls off his face, but he manages to resurrect it.

“Are you going somewhere?”

I glance toward the main road. “Home.”

“Right now?”

I squint at him. “Why do you care?”

“Well, um . . . can we talk?”

“Are we going to talk about why you broke up with Grace?” I challenge. “Because if not, I’m leaving.”

A black sedan pulls up, and the driver rolls down his window.

“Are you Liza?”

“Yep. That’s me.”

I step off the curb as the driver gets out and opens the door for me.

“Liza, wait! Please.”

I try to make myself get in the car, but the desolation in Ben’s voice roots me to the spot. Damn it. He steps around me and hands the driver a fifty-dollar bill.

“Here. Take this for your trouble. She won’t be needing the ride anymore.”

The driver peers at me through his sunglasses. “Miss?”

I squeeze my eyes shut before smiling apologetically at him.

“Thanks for coming, but I’m going to stay with him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Definitely. I’m fine.”

Once the car turns out of the plaza, I eye Ben warily. He rolls his shoulders.

“Is there somewhere we can go to talk in private? You can pick where we go.”

It’s a weekday, so Boba Life should still have a couple of booths available. I point in its direction.

“Take it or leave it.”

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset