“What’s king cake?”
Five of us have come into the kitchen to refill our wine glasses. Four pairs of eyes are scanning me in confusion. The silence breaks with someone’s machine gun-like titter.
“You’ve never had king cake?” one of them replies, hand on her hip.
Shifting my stance, drumming un-manicured nails on the granite counter top, I’m suddenly aware that my clothes are all black. My eye-liner, thick and black. I feel like a northern-urban-vampire next to their muted peaches, sages, and creams. I’m trying to cling to the words my husband said to me as I left the house—“You have to treat the whole thing like we’re expats. You’re an ambassador from the North.”
“I’ve never even heard of king cake,” I smile, “I’m such a Yankee.”
They all look down, then up to different spots on the walls. I thought teasing myself with their word would be appreciated. But it’s clear it’s their word, and I am not to use it.
I wish Amy Lynn would walk in the kitchen right now. She’s an old friend of mine from New York City. We’ve been friends for twenty years, and she’s partly responsible for our move south to Asheville, North Carolina. She grew up in Mississippi and speaks North and South. My husband and I have been here two months, and Amy Lynn insists I need to get out and meet people on a regular basis. I know she’s right. She’s invited me to tag along tonight, although not exactly my demographic, to attend her women’s church book group.
I was doing fine while we were discussing the book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, although I did say, “Ugh. All those annoying letters,” and, “So your only problem with the book was that a woman asked a man to marry her? Really?” Thankfully someone said, “Wine refill in the kitchen!” I catapulted out of my chair towards the bottle. I shouldn’t have strayed from Amy Lynn’s visible perimeter. She’s in the other room discussing annoying letters. I’m on my own. Me. Them. The king cake.
“King Cake, as in Christ the King,” one of them answers, with a melodious drawl.
Just one week ago my husband and I had gone for a drive. We’d gotten twenty minutes out of Asheville and were on some back roads. We made a wrong turn and pulled into a gas station to turn around when we saw it. In a grassy lot between the gas station and an industrial looking building was a large white cross, at least half as tall as a telephone poll. In bright red block letters it read, “BLOOD SECURED REDEMPTION.” We looked around for the church. There wasn’t one.
The woman continues, “You know, for Carnival.” She’s searching my eyes for a light of recognition like a nurse searching a patient’s eyes for consciousness.
I’m ashamed of my prejudices. I want burning crosses, Footloose, Confederate Flags on Ford pick-ups, and Nancy-Grace-haircuts out of my head. How would I feel if they assumed that I was rude—pushy—a horn honker, or was pals with the Mob Wives? I think to myself what nice people these are and what an asshole I am. I’m an ambassador from the North, for Christ’s sake, I tell myself.
Another lady leans in, “Don’t you know about Mardi Gras, hon?”
Nipples and beads?
In a small voice I reply, “In New Or-leens?”
“Yes!” they say, laughing and clapping, “like in Nawlenz!” They are relieved.
What New Orleans has to do withNorth Carolina I have no idea, but I’m shutting up now.
“See, the king cake has the Mardi Gras colors,” the woman, whose name is Darla, says.
I didn’t know Mardi Gras had colors. Is she a Summer? A Winter?
The cake is a circle with a hole in the middle, like a big doughnut with purple, green, and gold sprinkles. She politely cuts me a slice. The inside looks and tastes like coffee cake. It’s good.
The rest of the women enter the kitchen, “Oh, the king cake!” someone exclaims. “We have to see who gets the baby Jesus!”
Amy Lynn winks at me. I must be grey.
Darla continues to educate me. “There’s an itty bitty plastic baby inside the cake. A tiny baby Jesus. Whoever gets the Jesus in their piece of cake is supposed to have good luck for the next year, and has to host the next king cake party.” She smiles and nods at me, continuing on to someone else, probably glad to be done with the lesson.
“Thank you,” I bow, in self-appointed-ambassador fashion, my tongue now searching the cake in my mouth for the plastic Christ. She didn’t say how itty bitty. Is it a Chiclet-sized Jesus? A BB-sized Jesus?
Darla winds up with Jesus, who is about half the size of a golf ball.
Later that night, back home at our tiny rental house, I go over the day. Don’t use the “Y” word. Check. King cake. Check. Nawlenz. Check. Don’t eat the baby Jesus. Check.
My husband asks if I had a good time. I lie and tell him yes. I can’t dump this on him. Not while he’s laying out his clothes for substitute teaching in the morning–one of his three part time jobs. Not while he’s asking me if my right arm is still sore from scooping ice cream all week–the only job I can find. Not while we’re putting ear plugs in our ears to drown out the sound of our drunk twenty-something neighbor setting fire to a pile of stolen wood pallets for a bonfire and playing Cornhole with his drunk friends.
I lie in the dark and remind myself why we came to Asheville–to start over.
The decision to leave New York City was a culmination of many things, including 9/11, the mistake of ditching artistic pursuits for corporate sales and law school, a nervous breakdown or three, a bad cocktail of prescription drugs prescribed by an incompetent psychiatrist, and an overall loss of selves–all in and around an age ripe for a mid-life crisis.
Somehow we didn’t let go of each other, and after the dust settled, started a search for a new town. A place to reclaim our artistic selves.
Out of the blue I got a call from Amy Lynn who was coming through New York with her husband. I hadn’t seen her in six years. They were living in Asheville, and when I filled her in on all we’d been through and what we were looking for, she said, “You need to see my town.”
Four years later we’re still here. We’ve found other artists, writers, friends, community. Our jobs have improved. We bought a house. It’s not perfect, but we have each other and our work-in-progress-selves.
After we moved I learned of Asheville’s history of being a healing destination dating back from 1795 into the 1930’s, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald and O. Henry. I guess we had good instincts. And some luck.
I now have a better understanding of why North Carolinians are eating New Orleans king cake. It’s because they’re the South. The South is comprised of many Souths, but together they are The South. I can’t name it exactly. It’s a deep bond the rest of us can’t know. The only thing I can relate it to from my personal experience is being a New Yorker. Even in vast differences there are unspoken understandings.
Once a year I drive north to see family. Driving down the steep curves out of the little bowl that’s surrounded by Blue Ridge Mountains, I uneasily look back over my shoulder, not wanting to leave the isolation. When I return, my shoulders sink down as the road winds up and up and up, and away from the world. Some say the reason Asheville has become such a unique and creative city is because its isolation has bred ingenuity. The price I pay to enjoy that is that I remain an ambassador from the North.