Note: written for my creative project in my short story class. My first try at an original story in a long time. Feedback is appreciated and gets cookies. :)


the moo

-

My day begins at four A.M., when I arrive at the pâtisserie, unlock the door, and start baking. It's not even light outside; one of the few things that's nice about my pastry shop is the back window in the bake-room. When the sun rises not too long after this, everything takes on a golden glow, a little preview of what everything will look like once it comes out of the oven. I don't stop working, though. Baguettes and croissants don't make themselves, and I'll have customers to feed in just a few hours. Knead the dough, let it rise, shape it, brush it with egg wash, bake, rinse, repeat. It's a mindless routine, but a comfortable one, and I never feel fully awake until an hour later, when the smell of fresh bread fills the air. Amazing.

It's day three hundred and sixty-six of my pâtisserie's life. Its one-year birthday, if you will. Joyeux anniversaire. Or, as my parents would say, sheng ri kuai le.

-

My love affair with France began when I was six years old.

"Which one?" asked my mother. We were in a tiny dusty bakery tucked away on the other side of Chinatown, and because it was my birthday, she had promised I could have whatever I wanted, no questions asked.

"This one," I declared, pointing a chubby finger at a tray in the glass case of confections. I had no idea what it was, but the tall chocolate center circled by finger-shaped cakes was so pretty that my mouth was already watering, wondering if it could possibly taste as good as it looked.

My mother glanced, frowned. "How about that one?" she suggested instead, indicating a small, round, fat pastry with four little red circles stamped on the papery white top. There was no mystery here; by then, I knew the taste of a red bean bun by heart.

I shook my head stubbornly, shiny black braids swinging. "Bu yao. This one." Even at six, I knew what I wanted.

My mother tsked, sighed, gave up. "Okay."

I think she would have fought harder that day if she'd known what she was getting herself into. But we didn't know then that this conscious decision of this and not that was only the beginning, that this tiny taste of France was literally calling my name; as it turned out, the dessert was called a charlotte. It was just as good as advertised, and then some. And ever since then, I've been trying to get there from here, fighting the ties that hold me.

"Let me go to France," I begged in high school, dreaming of university at the Sorbonne and the world's best pastry at my fingertips. I'd had to take Spanish at my parents' insistence, sure, but I was always a quick learner, and surely immersion was the best way to pick up languages, anyway.

But they wouldn't. "Too expensive," they said, "too far away."

So I did what they said, attended college in California and came home for weekends practicing my French accent. After I graduated, I bargained with my parents and used the money I'd saved them with my scholarships to enroll in culinary school. I learned the art of choux pastry, how to make the perfect chocolate ganache, and stack the whisper-thin layers of millefeuille pastry over puffs of vanilla-scented whipped cream. By the time I graduated again, I could do anything my teachers asked. You needed the fluffiest, airiest meringue? Ask Charlotte. The flakiest puff pastry? Ask Charlotte. The most delicate, melt-in-your mouth truffles? Ask Charlotte. My pastry was golden, and so was I.

But despite all that time spent separating eggs and sifting flour, I somehow ended up right back here. In Chinatown. Don't ask me why, parce que je ne sais pas. Holly Golightly liked pastry and French, too. It's a good combination, and not just at Tiffany's.

-

Jacob comes in at seven. He's smart and good at crunching numbers, basically any Chinese mother's dream except that he somehow ended up here at the pâtisserie with me, working dough and fixing my accounts on the side. Oh, and he's white. So we keep him out of sight in the back. His idea, not mine. He knows everything about business, and usually I do whatever he tells me to do.

"Quit with the charlottes and start with the buns."

I scowl. "No."

I did say usually.

He shrugs. "Suit yourself." He busies himself with measuring out flour and sugar and baking powder in the amounts I need for my recipes so I can just throw them in the mixing bowl and go. He's fantastic. I'd give him a raise if he said I had enough money.

An hour later, I open the oven door to check on my croissants, and God, they're beautiful. Puffy, golden, piping-hot perfection. A king would kill for croissants like these. The customer who bites into one of these is going to love me. France would be proud. I'm a genius.

"Seriously. You should get on the buns."

Jacob clearly has no idea what he's talking about.

By opening time at eight o'clock, the croissants are bundled into baskets to keep warm, the baguettes artfully arranged just-so in a tall, boulangerie-style container, and the pastries are tucked inside their display case, just ready and waiting for some lucky customer to choose one and die of bliss. The chalkboard with the day's special—buy two of anything, get a free croissant!—scrawled on it is outside the door, the coffee is bubbling, and I can't wait to get started. Today is going to be a good day, I can feel it.

So when the first customer walks in at 8:05, I have my game face on. I'm ready for anything. Bring it on. "Good morning, what can I get for you today?"

And she does. "I want a taro root bun and pineapple cakes."

I can't help it; my smile slips just slightly. "The madeleines are just out of the oven; wouldn't you like to try one of those today?"

The heavily lipsticked Chinese woman shakes her head, stiff black curls barely moving an inch. Her drawn-on eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead as she stares at me. "No, thanks."

I sigh. "The taro root buns are on a tray over there and the pineapple cakes are in a basket in the corner," I direct reluctantly, indicating the far end of the pâtisserie. "Pineapple cakes are three for a dollar."

She nods, and, taking the wicker tray I hand her, moves off to pick her poison. Taro root buns. I offer her madeleines that would make Proust cry, and she picks taro root buns. What a world we live in today.

The doorbell rings again, and a little boy trots up to the counter. Pulling myself together, I smile. "Hi, what can I get for you today? A pain au chocolat? Langues de chat?" Both chocolate croissants and the long, thin cookies nicknamed "cats' tongues" are very popular with French children; why should Chinese kids be any different?

But he, too, shakes his head so fast his straight, shiny black hair flies. "I want two almond cookies," he announced, holding up two fingers, just to make sure.

I offer a weak smile. "Two almond cookies, coming right up," I say as I move to the smaller display case and pick out two of the yellow-orange, crunchy cookies I always hated as a kid and drop them in a paper bag.

"Thanks!" he breathes devoutly as he drops four grubby quarters on the counter and runs out the door. I can hear him chomp into the first one from outside, and it kills me, I tell you. He could be having the best French pastry this side of the Atlantic, but no, he wants the almond cookies. Kids these days.

The door jingles again and two tourists, probably a married couple, sally in. How can I tell they're tourists? Well, for one thing, no one in Los Angeles has quite mastered that Southern drawl yet, and for another, they ask the question every Chinatown resident is has come to hate: "Excuse me, do you speak English?"

"Non, je ne parle pas Anglais," I'm tempted to reply back, and for a second I toy with the idea. But much as I hate to say it, I could really use the business. "Yes, I was born here."

The tight, panicky faces of the tourists unwrinkle just a bit, now that my foreignness is revealed to be a sham. Their next question: "Is this "The Moo?"

I hate to do it. It pains me to say it. But I have to: "Yes."

I must be masochistic or insane. Either way, I definitely wasn't thinking when I named my pâtisserie "Le Moulin Rouge." It was a nice play on words, I thought, a throwback to French culture while still symbolic of my Chinese face. Red is a lucky color. There are no windmills in China; maybe if there were, they'd be considered lucky, too. A was a nice play on words, I thought. I just forgot the one thing I should have remembered above all else: there was absolutely no way a Chinese tongue could wrap itself around the l's and the r in the name. Even if it made me cringe, they could hear no difference between "Le Moulin Rouge" and "Reh Mourrin Ruge." Eventually they just shortened it to "The Moo." I'm not exactly sure which one is worse. And even the people who probably could pronounce it—like these tourists here—don't, because they inevitably get here by asking the locals. Who call it "The Moo." Wonderful.

"Oh, good," beams the husband, taking out his camera, "everyone said you have the best Chinese pastries here. What would you recommend?"

"Well, actually, sir, our specialty is the chocolate charlotte," I hedge, pointing to the glass display case where three miniature charlottes sit in a row, pristine and perfect. "And," I add perkily, "today, because it's our one-year anniversary, you get a free croissant with any two items!"

The man gives me a blank stare. "Are those Chinese?"

I resist the urge to bury my head in my hands. "They're French desserts."

"Well, we really wanted something that tastes like Chinatown, you know?" pipes the woman in her long, drawn-out tones. "Something really authentic." She says the word much like her companion does: in a hushed, reverent voice, like she is searching for the Holy Grail of Chinese desserts. A field explorer, searching for that rarest of butterflies.

I wince. "How about two slices of green tea roll cake?" I suggest resignedly. "The locals love it, and it goes really well with coffee. And you still get your free croissant," I add.

"Oh, no thanks," says the husband, waving me off, "we'd just like the Chinese stuff, please."

It takes a good amount of willpower not to pelt the couple with "the Chinese stuff" as they leave half an hour later, bags stuffed with cream buns and sun cakes and egg tarts. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and mine comes with the knowledge that half of what they think "tastes like Chinatown" is really Western-influenced. Like the roll cake and the egg tarts, for instance. Tourists always ask for the real thing, but I've learned that what they really want is the fantasy of China and its opium-smoking mandarins and daringly-dressed concubines. So I deliver.

Jacob sticks his head out into the storefront during a lull after the first customer finally leaves. "I told you," he intones, pushing his glasses up, "just stick with the buns."

I sigh. "Oh, shut up."

-

I didn't even start out with any of the Chinese pastry in here. When I opened, I gave Chinatown my best, everything that had taken so long to learn in culinary school: Meyer lemon tarts, apple galettes, millefeuilles (obligingly labeled "napoleons" for those poor souls not in the know), truffles. Bûches de Noël in December. King cakes in January. Art in pastry.

But no one would have any of it. Family friends would come in, look around, and buy a pity tart before leaving, shaking their heads all the while. My father came in and bought croissants by the bagful, but I later found out he dispensed them to the children lining the streets long before going home.

So to make some extra money I started selling flaky red bean buns, sesame seed-sprinkled sun cakes, golden-colored pineapple buns. Pastries I've known how to make since childhood, when my mother taught me how in hopes of redirecting my sweet tooth to the proper ethnicity. Delicious, Chinese desserts that are utterly unsophisticated and simple.

And the thing that really gets me? It worked. They sold. Nobody, apparently, cared that it takes twice as much time and artistry to create the perfect éclair than to deep-fry a Chinese doughnut. Look at these, I want to scream, look. Please. Just give it a chance.

But they don't. They never do. And so my picturesque French pastries sit neglected while the locals raid the back of the storefront for their taste of home. I want that, too, but my mind flies across the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. I want it all.

-

The rest of the day is just like this. Customers flit in and leave with their pick of the product. Most people buy mooncakes in anticipation of the Mid-Autumn Festival that isn't too far away. Much against my will, I've stocked up and spent some extra hours baking them, and it's a good thing, too, as Jacob tacitly reminds me later.

"Only two trays left in the back."

He's gone before I can answer, but I roll my eyes anyway. Sure, mooncakes are nice, but what is the attraction of a ridiculously rich pastry covering lotus-seed paste that glues your mouth shut? How could you pick that over the delicate taste of the charlotte? There's no comparison. I just don't understand.

But no one ever wants the French in me. Case in point:

"Red bean buns," grunts the old man who comes in twice a week for his red bean bun fix. He says they taste just like home. I wouldn't know.

"Hi, Mr. Li," I reply cheerily in Chinese. "Wouldn't you like to try something new today? I have a Bosc pear tart I really think you would like…"

"Red bean buns," he repeats firmly, sticking out a well-creased five-dollar bill.

I sigh. This is an old man stuck in routine; there is no point even trying here. As he leaves with his two bags of red bean buns, though, I call after him. "Wait! Mr. Li, don't forget your free croissant!" I grab a plastic-wrapped croissant and hold it out, smiling so hard my teeth hurt. Please take it, please take it, please take it, I have so many…

He eyes it with suspicion. "Bu yao." Shaking his head, he scurries out the door, mooncakes in hand. It's the same thing I said to my mother all those years ago. No, I don't want that when I could have this. No. I wonder if this is how she felt.

The door jingles again, and as I look up, I groan. Oh, no, not today of all days…

"Hi, Charlotte," says my mother, clicking into the pâtisserie, followed by my sheepish father and twenty of their closest friends. Note the sarcasm there. The most amusing thing about this? I don't even know why she named me Charlotte. Nobody we know can pronounce it correctly. Everyone just calls me "Sharrot." You can imagine what being called something that rhymes with "carrot" and "ferret" did to my middle school social life.

"Hi, Mom. Want some cream puffs?" I ask hopelessly.

"You always ask, and I always say no," she reminds me. "When will you stop being so silly?"

I sigh. "I'll get your mooncakes."

As I move away, my father plucks at my sleeve. "I'll take some," he whispers shamefacedly.

I sigh again. "You don't even like cream puffs, Dad."

"I want some," he insists, and I shrug okay, yes, I'll let him do this for me. It's a nice gesture on his part, and I appreciate it, I do. I just wish he really liked them, that's all. But we keep up this fiction, to make ourselves feel better about the fact that no matter what we do, he will always choose mooncakes over cream puffs and I will always take my charlottes over red bean buns.

-

By sunset, my pâtisserie is picked clean of the ham and egg buns, sun cakes, cream buns, curry beef triangles. There are only crumbs left in those baskets. The other side of the pâtisserie, though, is crammed full of delicacies left to go stale. Croissants amandine, macarons, even the Proustian madeleines are still snugly tucked in their baskets, a bit faded but still delicious. It's criminal, it really is.

"You're going to have to give up and admit defeat one day, you know," says Jacob as he empties the till and starts counting bills.

Crossing my arms, I lean against the counter. "No idea what you mean."

He doesn't even look up. This conversation is rote, routine by now, our responses automatic. "Yeah, you do."

I sigh. "It's not my fault if they don't know good dessert when they see it."

"True," he acknowledges. Jacob puts the stack of bills down and stares at me through his glasses. "But still. Half of your pastries aren't selling, Charlotte. We can't even give them away. This is no way to run a business."

"You know I've never been great with numbers," I say delicately, brushing flour off my apron and onto the tiled floor.

"That's why I'm here. And I'm telling you now," he continues in the same, unyielding voice. "You can't keep tossing half your stock every day. You're in Chinatown. French doesn't sell."

I roll my eyes. "Mooncakes. It's almost time for the Moon Festival; it only makes sense. It doesn't mean—"

"Yes, it does," he persists seriously. "You should think about it. I know you don't want to, but if you keep doing this every day, you won't be able to keep this place. You're already behind on rent, as it is. You sell out of your Chinese stuff every day. If you just made more of those, you'd break even. If you stopped with the stuff no one's buying, you'd actually make some money."

I don't even want to look at him. Chinese stuff. There is no art, no glory in Chinese stuff. No matter what, I can't give up.

Jacob sighs. "Just think about it."

-

After Jacob leaves, I lock up, and lug the bag of leftovers to the homeless shelter. Druggies and addicts don't pay me, sure, but at least they eat the evidence of my failure. I go home, shower, turn out the light. Just before I fall asleep I imagine real pâtisseries in France—the famed macarons of Ladurée, tiny hole-in-the-wall places tucked away in back alleys, a place of my own with a line stretching clear to the next arrondissement

It's a nice dream.

-

My day begins at four A.M., when I arrive at the pâtisserie, unlock the door, and start baking. It's not even light outside; one of the few things that's nice about my pastry shop is the back window in the bake-room. When the sun rises not too long after this, everything takes on a golden glow, a little preview of what everything will look like once it comes out of the oven. I don't stop working, though. Baguettes and croissants don't make themselves, and I'll have customers to feed in just a few hours. Knead the dough, let it rise, shape it, brush it with egg wash, bake, rinse, repeat. It's a mindless routine, but a comfortable one, and I never feel fully awake until an hour later, when the smell of fresh bread fills the air. Amazing.

It's day three hundred and sixty-seven of my pâtisserie's life. Just another day in Charlotte's life at "Le Moulin Rouge." Nothing special. Just me, at "The Moo."

-

.end.