Afternoon sunlight slanted through the window, warming the stainless steel counter and filling the kitchen with the sleepy warmth of a weighted blanket. Returning to work in the ranch kitchen after an afternoon nap felt like sleepwalking in a warm, golden dream—a dream that involved dodging waitstaff, handling hot objects, and wielding sharp knives.
“What should I start working on?” I asked the head chef, my brain trying to surface from the post-naptime haze.
“Probably the caramel halos,” he said.
I nodded. Caramel halos were thin disks of melted sugar that starred as a garnish in the evening’s gourmet dessert. And I knew how to make them.
I found a saucepan and measured two cups of sugar into it. I put the pan on the front burner, twisted a burner knob to “On,” and started stirring. Look out world. Caramel halos coming up.
I felt pleased—a warm feeling that radiated from inside me rather than from the stove burner or from the sunlight pouring in through the window. The summer was going well. I loved my job as a sous-chef, loved the white chef’s coat that I wore during dinner service, loved swirling caramel into designs that looked like caramel-colored cobwebs.
I stirred the sugar on autopilot, waiting for the granules to melt into sugary syrup. In my becalmed brain I felt pride in my skill, a caramel-centered hubris that stemmed more from a nap-induced boost of confidence than from an intrinsic hamartia. My usual caramel-making timidity sat on the backburner, while a golden cloud of caramel conceit swirled around me.
I glanced at the clock. The sugar hadn’t begun to melt yet. Being a good chef takes so much patience, I thought, checking the stove knob and turning it up a notch. Good thing I’m a patient soul.
I stirred onward—sleepily, happily, blissfully. I imagined the final product: each finished garnish looking like a swirl of caramel-colored stained glass resting on a chocolate sphere next to a scoop of blackberry gelato ready to be served in the dining room.
Minutes later, I looked at the clock again. The sugar mounded against the sides of the pan like snow on ski slopes. I sifted my spoon through it, rearranging the white terrain to look for the first telltale signs of caramel.
No melting snow. No melting sugar.
Feeling sharp edges of reality poking my golden reverie, I bent down to squint at the stove knob. Then I lifted the pan and hovered my hand over the burner like a helicopter looking for avalanche survivors.
I had turned on the wrong burner.
At the realization, the golden dream-world of confectionary stardom suddenly shrank down to my size as though deflated in the vacuum packer.
I’d read something somewhere that said, “Confidence smiles. Arrogance smirks.” I’d always wanted to have confidence without pride, to have knowledge of skill without the edge of competition—to smile and never smirk.
But right then, I didn’t smile or smirk. I looked at the pan, at the spoon, at the sugar grains, and laughed.
At the sound, the overconfidence that huddled, embarrassed, against my skin, melted. I think nothing penetrates my pride as quickly as my own laughter. I turned on the correct burner, still laughing and shaking my head.
Hours later, after the last dessert had been crowned with its hard-earned caramel crown and served, I heard the crack of bullwhips outside as I finished cleaning up the kitchen with the rest of the kitchen staff.
The ranch wranglers taught cowboy skills every Monday night on the front lawn. They taught roping, archery, tomahawk throwing, and—my favorite—whip cracking.
As I listened, my hands itched to hold a bullwhip, to listen to the leather whir above my head, to hear the crack in response to a snap of the wrist, to feel the satisfaction of breaking the sound barrier—all by myself.
Twilight had fallen when I finished work. I put off eating dinner for ten more minutes and headed for the front lawn. One of my co-workers from the kitchen staff crossed the yard with his own plate of dinner covered in tinfoil. Almost everyone else was gone except for a few wranglers.
I grabbed a bullwhip from the tangle of leather and paracord bullwhips piled in the grass. I wheeled the whip around my head and snapped it back, listening to the crack that sounded like a gunshot. I enjoyed holding the whip’s leather weight in my hand, hearing its resonating voice speak much louder than my own. I cracked the whip again. And again.
Then I got my plate of dinner from the warmer and re-joined my co-workers who lingered outside to talk and watch the pink glow of sunset on the mountains.
As I returned from the kitchen, I caught the tail end of their conversation.
“Whoa, did you hear her crack that whip?”
“Yeah,” the co-worker eating his dinner replied. “I almost dropped my fork.”
As I peeled back the tinfoil from my plate of dinner, I didn’t smirk. But even the dimming light of evening couldn’t hide my smile.