Zoe Karpin

Zoe Karpin is a short story writer and has been a teacher for many years. Her short stories are published in Mascara, Sudo, FemZine, Going Down Swinging, Dot Lit, Hecate, and forthcoming in Kalliope X.



How it Happens

Her first permanent appointment and a regular income; she could pay her way with her lover.  Her new faculty room; her face turned to sunlight streaming through the north-facing window, needing to be here, needing to be somewhere – why not here? As events had worked out and oh to belong eventually – part of this scenery like the great eucalyptus, its limbs raised over the building and girth so wide -three people could rest against it.

 At morning break. She was slim wearing a tight grey pencil skirt plus black pumps but weary. Up late at night preparing work for students, no way around this, the early days.

In the centre of the room dolmades and cheese were set out on the large table; her inaugural group morning tea.  Food graciously displayed on hand for consuming. Winding strands of long dark hair out of her face, I must join the eating.

Her fellow instructors gobbled the dolmades. The vine leaves used in these dolmades, ‘freshly prepared following an old Greek recipe off the internet,’ the cook said. 

‘Go on Olivia’, take two.’ They were watching.  You have not eaten our food before. Smiling, liking dolmades and expecting to want more, a dolmades hovered near her lips. However, so disappointing- not enough lemon, too greasy and the rice so gluggy. Swallowing though, bit after bit. Dissimulation – she had to do work for the next instruction, sunk into her seat at her desk. Olivia, not fussy, not unhealthy, not obsessed about her weight, was just demanding of quality when there was no real obstacle to acquiring it. No war or famine, poverty nor any other cataclysmic event stood in anyone’s among the staff and so many sources of information about good cooking; books, internet, tv etc. No excuses. The rest of the faculty were still gobbling the dolmades- a whole heaped plate of them and still praising them. Suzy unloaded cheese and cucumber sandwiches from a large plastic container onto emptying plates.  ‘Wonderful, yummy.’ many said. 

But she kept her head on her work; not so nice-processed cheese and vanilla pasty bread.

 But everyone, even Jasmine in the desk next to her, who ate tuna salad every lunchtime, praised the sandwiches.

 The bell rang. I am released to teach.

 After 4:00 pm there, alone- working back, gazing at five dolmades wearing tutus of oil and crumpled sandwiches, the leftovers on the enormous table in the heart of the room, abandoned like her to get stale. The cleaner was not fancying them but muttering, ‘What a wasteful lot you are.’

Her face aflame with shame.  She prepared and cooked exact amounts of food for her purposes.

If she forced all the food down together however- the excess greasy oil in the dolmades would counterattack the staleish, insipid bread of the cheese and cucumber sandwiches. And more -even though the cheese was a processed mildest cheddar, synthetic like, and the cucumber was sliced in unforgivable thick slices she might slosh it all down with a hot cup of milky tea.   

She was there working; swallowing and chewing away, the cleaner vacuuming around her.  But regret hit her hard. Later. As if there had been a military assault on her taste buds. She insulted them, too; her mother and grandmother who passed on to her appreciation of good cooking. 

Then Jasmine made cannolis. She was not Italian, but she was so proud of them, a special for the latest monthly faculty morning tea.

‘Look – please take one,’ she said to Olivia. ‘ I’m a good cook, you know.’ Once again to Olivia. 

Olivia blushingly,’ of course, I’ll have one. What had Jasmine been sensing? 

Not even having to taste the cannolis- to know they were ill conceived, too thick and doughy, white instead of brown, not fried enough.  Filling with chocolate not ricotta cheese. A travesty.

 The cannoli.  Any tooth aching sweetness she could get past by drinking her coffee, biting a mouthful like diving into a pool of cold water on a winter’s day. It’s sticky, tacky, soft, gooey, doughy shell more sickening than expected but she was saying unbelievably. ‘I’ll have another.’ She gave Jasmine a thumbs up.  Jasmine hugged her around her waist. She could finish the cannoli under the tree outside.

 On another morning, the head of Department Linda carried a large cheesecake she had baked.  Everyone was saying and laughing. ‘It’s a welcome for Olivia,’ 

But cheesecake is tricky, and the base was soggy and the creamcheese drippy and cloyingly sweet. 

The cake was a gun to her head. She couldn’t swallow more after the first bite but did. Everyone ate their slice and they all said,’ delicious.’

‘How wonderful a head who cooks for their staff.’

‘Give the four pieces left over to Olivia, our newbie. ‘ 

The four pieces were wrapped in cling wrap and then put in a brown paper bag and presented to her, –

She would drop three slices into the neighbour’s compost and one slice to their dog. Certainly.

 A long hold up on the Hume highway homeward bound making it later even, again. The brown paper bag was on the front passenger seat, almost a companion, slightly cosy. Their hospitable  gesture. She yawned and sighed and that slight hunger gnawing stomach, usually dismissible -nutrients in her blood like glucose, amino acids and fatty acids possibly, at a low concentration.

She shoved the three pieces of the cheesecake, one after another, into her mouth, swallowing a double-edged sword of the collegial affinity she was so wanting and the disfavor at the means of its execution.

 Each swallow the cakes’ vileness was less and less irksome. It went on like that. More poorly made cakes at morning tea, more swallowing but less and less disgust every time. Enjoyment even. Pleasure in the desensitization; denaturing, cheapening, debasing and corrupting and she was talking to everyone then, Pete, Suzy, Maria, Janey, Gracie, Andy, Rog, Jazzie, even Linda.