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FIRST PLACE WINNER
by Diane Maciejewski
I squinted into the glare of the late morning sun. Recognition flamed into a burning need to strike at my enemy. The woman before me cocked her hip and repeated her order. “One Carrot Crunch and one Chocolate Chaos cupcake, please.”
The milling crowd at the Farmers’ Market receded, replaced by Susan – the woman who had stolen my husband. Relaxed and smiling, she apparently had no idea who I was, but I could never mistake her face. I’d found her picture in Bill’s wallet while searching for singles and held on to it as a reminder to keep my heart to myself.
Three years with Bill hadn’t changed her. Chestnut hair brushed against her shoulders, and her face remained line-free, a claim I could no longer make. Dressed in a coordinating, plum jogging suit, she made my khakis and T-shirt look frumpy.
I gritted my teeth, longing to wipe the smile off her face with coarse sandpaper. But this wasn’t the moment for revenge. I had a reputation to uphold as the Maple Lake Cupcake Lady.
As I shoved Susan’s cupcakes into a bag, I deliberately smeared the cream cheese frosting and poked my thumb into the bottom of her Carrot Crunch.
“Who’s next?” I growled as I grabbed her money.
The tang of barbecue from a nearby concession primed shoppers for the cupcakes I’d baked the evening before. Since setting up a stall in the Farmers’ Market, I’d developed a loyal following for my three varieties. I also stocked a couple dozen giant-sized, Chocolate Chunk cookies, mostly for the kids, but it was the cupcakes customers came back for.
My location was prime, squeezed between Henry Witter’s Honey, hive-made by local bees, and Dan Berk’s Dairy, with his seven varieties of artisan cheeses. Sales were helped by the photos of homeless cats and dogs I’d posted next to my Peanut Free sign; all my profits went to the local animal shelter where I volunteered.
Cupcakes were my hobby. I’d started baking a decade ago when I married Bill. He loved sweets, but had an allergy to peanuts that made him break out in hives. Before peanut warnings were slapped across every packaged brownie and cookie, he’d had some nasty experiences.
Unlike his brother, who swore he could smell even a trace of peanut oil in a product, Bill’s nose failed him every time. My cupcakes were the answer to his gluttonous prayers.
When I discovered Bill’s cheating, I was sorely tempted to replace the canola oil in my recipe with peanut. But despite how he’d hurt me, I placed the blame for his infidelity on Susan, the younger woman who’d convinced him to jump back on the tilt-a-whirl during his post mid-life crisis.
Now I imagined them snuggled up to each other in bed, munching on my cupcakes and licking frosting off each other’s fingers. I bit my lip; the image still hurt. I hoped she wouldn’t come back, but she showed up the next week.
“I love your cupcakes. They remind me of the ones my husband brought me when we dated. He’d never tell me which bakery sold them; said it was his little secret for delighting me. Unfortunately, they went out of business shortly before he proposed.”
A jolt went through me. “He brought you cupcakes?”
“Mmm, sweet isn’t it? He loves your cupcakes, too. Think I’ll take him a Coconut Concoction this time.”
I snapped open a paper bag so hard it ripped. I yanked another from the pile and threw in her order. He’d brought her cupcakes! My cupcakes! The ones I baked each week for his supposed Friday afternoon office meeting.
I’d lapped up his lies of how his boss loved the Carrot Crunch and his secretary swore I baked better than her grandmother. What a fool I’d been! Now I understood the inscription Susan had written on the back of her photo, “For my loving cupcake.” Bill had been courting her with my cupcakes! A sandstorm of anger swirled through me.
The last of the blueberries were for sale when Susan stopped by again. Her eyes were puffy, her hair gathered haphazardly at the back of her neck. Her jogging suit pulled tight across her hips; she looked like she’d been on an eating binge.
“Give me a half-dozen of the Chocolate Chunk cookies.”
“No cupcakes today?
“I never want to see another cupcake as long as I live. They remind me of my husband, the rat.” She pulled out a crumpled tissue and blew her nose.
“He’s been…oh, never mind. Just give me the cookies.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “Has he been cheating on you?” She nodded and walked away.
I wanted to punch my fist into the air and shout, “Yes!” Betrayal and loss were her companions now. The score was evened and she’d gotten what she deserved. Satisfaction spread through me like Henry Witter’s honey on a warm buttermilk biscuit.
After a few days, though, something began to niggle at me. Susan had paid a price, but how about Bill? He always came out the winner, moving from one woman to the next, discarding us like ripped rag dolls.
Old doubts about myself came sneaking back with my anger. Hadn’t I been good enough for him? What about his first wife and Susan - were all three of us lacking as partners? That couldn’t be. It wasn’t us; it was Bill who lacked what it took to make a marriage work: loyalty, empathy, compassion, and commitment. Wasn’t it time he paid a price?
Each week after that, I held a special box of Coconut Concoctions in reserve while hoping for Susan’s return.
Green beans, yellow squash and pumpkins came and went, but not Susan. Then, as I took down my Peanut Free sign on the final day of the season, I heard her.
“Any cookies left?”
“Not a one,” I said as I took in her doleful expression. “How are the husband problems?”
“I’m divorcing him. Haven’t told him yet; been getting my finances together.” She frowned. “I was really looking forward to those cookies.”
“I do have a few cupcakes left.” I looked her in the eye. “Coconut Concoction. Bill’s favorite.”
“How do you…? Do you know my husband?”
“I know him well.” I took a deep breath and plunged in. “I’m his second wife... the woman he left to marry you.”
Her eyebrows shot up like flying Frisbees. “You’re Donna? He left you? But he told me you’d left him for another man and broke his heart a year before we met.”
It was my turn to be surprised. “You didn’t know he was married?”
She shook her head in denial. “No, of course not! I never would have gotten involved with him if I’d known he was married.”
We looked at each other, taking one another’s measure, acknowledging our common experience. I saw myself in her: the pain, the disappointment, the shattered dreams, fear of a lonely future and long nights, huddled tightly against a pillow, hoping for a faint whiff of his scent. She saw the same in mine.
She held her hands out to me. “I’m sorry.”
I believed she was. We’d shared a man and shared the pain. Like me, she was a victim of Bill’s philandering. I stepped around my shuttered stand and squeezed her outstretched hands.
“I have fantasies about making him pay,” she said. “I'd love to ring his neck.”
I smiled. “I have a better idea.” I handed her the box I’d been saving at the back of my stand. “Let me tell you about these cupcakes.”