“Caraway & Rye”
A delicious tale of love in lockdown by TJ Alexander.
They say the way to man’s heart is through his stomach. Never is this more true than in this week’s bite-sized love story from acclaimed author, TJ Alexander, author of the delicious rom-com, Chef’s Kiss.
Recently single Warren isn’t exactly thriving in lockdown; he’s bored and lonely. Luckily, he has his baking skills to keep him company. At first, shy Warren offers up a loaf of perfect pumpernickel to his upstairs neighbor in an effort to ask them to please keep the noise down. But love, like baking, has some surprises in store. Is this a recipe for romance? And can it overcome a surprising secret? Whet your appetite for a romance as sweet as Warren’s banana-nut muffins. Bon appetit!
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“Caraway & Rye”
April 17, 2020
It was lucky that Warren had purchased all his flours and yeast months ago. In the days right after Owen had moved out, a hobby like bread baking seemed just the thing to fill the empty hours. Now it would be a miracle to find five pounds of all-purpose in the grocery store, and instant yeast? You’d have better luck finding lard at a vegan’s dinner party.
Not that he was going to any dinner parties in the foreseeable future.
He tried to focus on the positive: his fifth and final Zoom meeting of the day was over and nothing could stop him from tackling the brown bread project he’d been looking forward to all week. When in quarantine, one had to make one’s own fun. Corporate accountancy certainly wasn’t going to do it for him. He abandoned the cramped bistro table that served as his home office, New York apartments being what they were, and headed to the kitchen.
Pumpernickel was one of the more divisive breads in Warren’s experience. Owen had always hated it, but Owen wasn’t here now, was he? Owen was in Palm Springs “finding himself,” so Warren could have all the pumpernickel he pleased. He’d already over-indulged on white breads these last four weeks (sandwich, milk, potato, and sourdough) and was looking forward to over-indulging on something else.
“Flour,” Warren muttered to himself as he got out the sack of rye flour that had been sitting untouched in the cupboard since January. “Salt…” He grabbed that as well. Then, remembering what his Nana had always said, he murmured, “The browner the bread, the slower you’re dead.”
He’d been talking to himself more and more these days. It helped fill the silence. The one-bedroom apartment, impossibly small for two grown men, was now too big for one. Warren felt like a single matchstick rattling around in a matchbox. It was a good thing he enjoyed his own company, because it was the only kind he was going to get.
A loud thump boomed right above his head. He jumped about five inches into the air. “Dear god,” he said as he stared up at the ceiling. His upstairs neighbor was certainly not being shy today.
The noise had escalated in recent weeks. Whoever lived upstairs was constantly dropping heavy things, or watching an explosion-type action film at an incandescent volume, or playing every single musical instrument known to man in the loudest possible way. While Warren could appreciate a few bars of piano late at night, once in bed, he preferred silence.
He went back to gathering his ingredients on the narrow kitchen counter. He’d lived in 5A with Owen for nearly nine years and, as far as he knew, he’d had the same neighbors for all that time. It was an older Upper West Side building, home to an older demographic, and despite the leaky windows and the radiators that burned far too hot, people tended to stick around. Unless they died. Which, lately—
“Bread,” Warren said aloud. “We are making bread.” He measured out the wheat and rye flours on his trusty digital scale, allowing the certainty of the numbers to soothe him. It was like accounting, but nourishing in a way his job was not.
Early in the lockdown, he’d considered knocking on the door of 6A and asking what exactly his neighbor was doing that sounded like a squadron of bowling balls being unleashed across the living room every night, but Warren was not the type for confrontation. And anyway, everyone was saying it would all be over soon. One month was already gone; three more at the longest, was the current thinking. And then he’d go back to his Midtown office and not have to worry about the annoyances of working from home.
He went through the motions of putting together the dough. He’d studied the recipe back to front between Zoom calls and hardly needed to consult the printed sheets of paper. For a brief moment, he considered being very bold and adding raisins into the mix, but decided to form the loaf as instructed. Once he successfully mastered the basics, he could play around with the recipe.
Somewhere above him, a guitar started strumming. Warren didn’t recognize the song, but he’d heard his neighbor playing it quite a lot in the last week. He hummed a few bars of the chorus and tried to picture the person responsible for all the noise.
Whoever they were, maybe they would enjoy some fresh-baked bread.
Warren paused in his kneading, wrist deep in the dark, fragrant dough. Yes, why not? He could drop off his second attempt—this first one would need to be taste-tested, of course—and if it gave him a chance to politely mention how thin the walls and floors of the building were, perhaps his neighbor would take the hint and quiet down.
It was worth a try. And anyway, it would be nice to find someone he could share his bounty of baked goods with.
Three hours later, the pumpernickel was out of the oven. It was too warm to slice without the edges going ragged, but Warren couldn’t contain himself. There was so little to look forward to these days. He helped himself to the heel of the loaf and slathered it with sweet cream butter, then dusted it with kosher salt. He ate it standing at the kitchen sink, letting the crumbs fall to join the dirty dishes. Overhead, his neighbor had switched from guitar to piano—must have been a keyboard, actually; even a small piano would be impossible to maneuver through their narrow doorways.
Warren chewed his bread, eyes on the ceiling. The pumpernickel was good, slightly sweet with a healthy tang of caraway and rye. He took another bite and tried to place the song his neighbor was pounding out. It didn’t sound familiar, but then again, Warren’s musical education was sorely lacking.
“Pink Floyd?” he guessed aloud, though no one was around to answer.
He finished his slice of bread and began making notes on his recipe. Tomorrow’s loaf would be sweeter.
Warren fashioned his first mask out of an old pillowcase. It was a bit baggy around his cheeks, and the straps pinched his ears down like the tabs on paper doll clothes, but it was the best he could do. He tugged at a corner of the mask and looked around the empty hallway.
He’d never gone up to the sixth floor before. Never had a reason to. The building did not offer roof access, and anyway Warren was not a fan of heights. His life stopped at the fifth floor. Owen used to complain unendingly about Warren’s lack of spontaneity—had even called him boring. Well, today, Warren would be bold.
He stood in front of 6A with a plate of bread in his hands. Was this a foolish exercise? Maybe, but when one was wearing a pillowcase on one’s face, it all seemed fairly relative.
Warren set the plate on the floor outside the door and rang the bell. Then he sprang to the other side of the hall, which he guessed was about six feet from the doorway.
There was no reason to rush, it turned out. As the seconds ticked away, Warren thought perhaps no one was home, but that was nonsense. He could hear thumps coming from the apartment, the same kind he heard on a regular basis through the ceiling, louder now that he was closer. At last the door swung open.
His neighbor was not what Warren had expected. About Warren’s age, mid- or late forties, but the similarities ended there. While Warren usually wore his auburn hair in a neat crop, this man’s reached past his shoulders, falling in dark waves shot through with streaks of gray. He had a beard, too, and one long dangling earring shaped like a crescent moon in his left ear. He stared in wild confusion at Warren on the other side of the hall.
Which ear is the homosexual one again? He could never remember if that was an urban myth or not. Piercings were not a part of his own repertoire, and none of his former friends—Owen’s friends—were the type either.
“Yeah?” The man scratched at his soft belly through a black tee-shirt dotted with holes.
Warren spotted someone’s profile on the man’s shirt. Middling musical education aside, Warren was ninety percent sure it was Freddie Mercury’s likeness. The faded shirt was a stark contrast to Warren’s own WFH Casual wardrobe. His colleagues often joked about being properly dressed only from the waist up for their Zoom calls, but Warren took pride in wearing trousers even under these dire circumstances. Now, though, his pressed slacks and polo felt less like a statement of self-worth and more like the uniform of some door-to-door Bible salesman. How was his neighbor’s shirt even staying in one piece with all those holes? There was one large rip along the seam under his left arm, and Warren could not fathom how something like that even happened to a garment.
Warren was staring. His eyes snapped back up. “I—” He gestured to the ground at the stranger’s feet. “Bread?”
His neighbor looked down and saw the plate. “Okay,” he said, sounding no more illuminated than before. “Bread.”
This was getting them nowhere. Warren despaired that it had taken only a month of isolation for him to lose all his social graces. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“I brought it. The bread. I’m your downstairs neighbor.” He waved in lieu of a handshake. “Warren Cleaves.”
“I’m Mack.” His gaze lingered on Warren’s face. His eyes were very dark and very lovely. “Thought it was just a package being dropped off. If I’d’a known, I’d have—” He covered his mouth and bearded chin with his palm, miming a mask. “If I had one.”
Warren smiled. He hoped it translated through his eyes. “Would you like me to make one for you? Not sure how effective it is, but I have plenty of pillowcases and oodles of time.”
“Oodles,” Mack repeated, the word rife with disbelief.
“Mmhm.” Warren nodded to the plate on the ground. “It’s pumpernickel. I made it. Hope you like it. I know some people don’t.”
“Uh.” Mack stooped to pick up the plate. “Love it. Yeah.”
“You do?” Warren sighed in relief. “That’s wonderful. I put some raisins in this one; they might add a little something.”
“Right,” Mack said. He held the plate at waist height. It drew Warren’s attention to the fact that his black T-shirt rode up quite a bit, exposing a sliver of skin between it and the gray boxer shorts that sat low on Mack’s hips.
Manners! Warren snapped his eyes back to Mack’s face. “I hear you playing music sometimes,” he said. “The floors in this place are pretty thin, I suppose.”
Mack pursed his lips. They disappeared into his beard. “Is this your way of asking me to knock it the fuck off?”
“No!” Warren tossed his hands up in protest. Now that he was here, and his plan seemed so clumsily obvious, he thought it best to abandon it altogether. “Not in the least. It’s just—I’m not familiar with most of the songs. I was wondering, what were you playing last night?”
“Pink Floyd.” Mack’s lips made a reappearance, this time with a faint curl at one corner. “You don’t know Dark Side of the fucking Moon?”
Warren gave a helpless shrug. “Only in passing, I’m afraid. We’re not close friends.”
Mack leaned against the door jamb, cradling the bread in his hands and watching Warren with a twinkle in his eyes. “You’re a funny little guy, aren’t you?”
“Thank you?” Warren wasn’t sure it was meant as a compliment, but he chose to receive it that way. “You’re a very talented musician.”
That seemed to—hm—strike a chord. Mack straightened out of his lazy slouch and cleared his throat. “I mean, I’m all right.” He put a hand into the thick hair at his temple, scratching at his scalp. “Not much else to do. Stuck inside all day.”
“Yes, that’s why I’ve taken up baking,” Warren said. “Helps pass the time.” He hesitated, but only for a moment. Today was a day for boldness. “Any requests?”
“For—” He nodded at the plate in Mack’s hands. “Future bakes. Do you have a sweet tooth, by any chance? I’ve been planning to get into enriched doughs.”
Mack huffed a breath out. “Yeah, man. I like it all.”
“Perfect.” Warren was grateful for the mask, as he was certain his face was doing something embarrassing. He wondered how someone was supposed to end one of these interactions when you couldn’t shake hands. He did a goofy little wave again. “Lovely to meet you. You can leave the plate outside my door when you’re finished with it.”
The stairs were right at the end of the hall, but even so, Warren only made it down one step before Mack called after him. “What about you? Got any requests?”
Warren looked over his shoulder. Mack made quite a picture standing in the doorway. It wasn’t every day you saw a rough-edged biker type holding a loaf of brown bread like it was an infant.
“You mean for songs?” Warren bit his lip under the fabric of his mask.
“Yeah. What do you want to hear tonight?”
He thought for a bit. “Something on the piano, I think.” He pointed at Mack’s chest. “Perhaps some Queen.”
Mack looked down at himself. “All right.” He looked back up. “Around nine good for you?”
“I’m usually in bed by eleven—” Pretty assertive of him, he thought. “—so nine would be great.” Warren watched those expressive eyes dart about like Mack was making a mental note of his bedtime. Maybe he would make an effort to end his musical forays before midnight, now that he knew. “I’ll—well, I won’t see you then. I’ll hear you.”
It was an impossibly dweeby thing to say, but Mack seemed amused by it. Warren saw a flash of white teeth from somewhere in his bushy beard. “Cool. Thanks for the bread,” he said, and ducked back into his apartment, closing the door behind him.
Warren spent that evening battling brioche while songs played from above. He even recognized one or two of them: Champions and the chorus of I Want to Break Free (very appropriate). The bread was a disaster (underworked, flat as a flapjack) so he pivoted to muffins, using up the last of the bananas in his freezer.
He left a plate with five squat banana-nut muffins on Mack’s doorstep the next morning along with a note warning him about the nuts. And including Warren’s cell number “just in case you ever need anything,” though he’d lost his nerve and added in tiny script, “like future requests.” He rang the bell but left before the door could swing open. He heard the faraway squeak and slam just as he sat back down at the bistro table to start his workday.
He received the first text in the middle of an interminable Zoom call: how’d it sound last night
Very modern, he supposed, not to bother with grammar while texting, but Warren could not bring himself to mirror that sort of behavior. I thought it was beautiful.
There was a long stretch of minutes where no response came, so he followed it up with, And how are the muffins?
His phone buzzed. great had two already
Warren hadn’t smiled much of late, but the thought of Mack sitting in his apartment with crumbs in his beard made it easy. When was the last time he’d had a crush on anyone? He felt twenty again, a bubble of joy growing inside his stomach. Useless, he supposed, when someone like Mack would certainly not be interested in someone like him. But what was the harm?
While a colleague droned on about deadlines, Warren discreetly opened a new tab and searched for more recipes he might try.
Thick scones studded with chocolate chips. Spiced flatbreads with frizzled onions. Cinnamon sugar swirled into rich buns. A crusty boule that needed thirty hours of slow proving in the fridge.
Every day, he attempted something in the kitchen, and each time, Mack provided the soundtrack for his baking. When a very loud thump inevitably came from overhead, Warren would receive a text message a moment later with a brief apology. In addition to hauling his instruments around the apartment, Mack was, in his own words, the worst kind of fucking klutz. In the course of their text exchanges, Warren discovered that Mack was not a professional musician by any means, or hadn’t been for a number of years. His most recent job had been tending bar, which was no longer an option for obvious reasons.
even when they do open back up… i’ve got too many health problems, don’t think i want to risk it
Warren wondered what sort of health problems, but decided it was too forward to ask and so instead responded with a very sincere frowny emoji.
Warren, meanwhile, shared bits about himself. His job was a bore, but he was reading some good books lately, like the nonfiction account on the longest-operating pirate radio station turned sovereign nation, which Mack seemed happy to hear rehashed in Warren’s own words. They texted back and forth during the day. In the evenings, if Warren’s baking had gone to plan, they might chat in the hall when he dropped off a plate. In time, Warren even told Mack about Owen, something he hadn’t discussed with anyone, really.
“He got custody of all our friends after the break-up, I’m afraid.” He was seated in his usual spot on the floor across from Mack’s door, mask on in deference to Mack’s high-risk status. “I thought, since it was amicable, no one would need to choose sides, but…” He shrugged against the wall.
“What a bunch of assholes,” Mack said. He was sitting on the floor just inside his doorway, his long legs a sprawl of ripped denim. He was wearing a sleeveless top that showed off the vibrant tattoos on his arms, swirls of red and black flames. “I don’t care if you’re just drinking buddies or whatever, you don’t ditch a friend like that.”
Warren ducked his head, then remembered the mask would hide his smile. It was sweet, the way Mack was so offended on his behalf. “They were all Owen’s friends to begin with. I only inherited them. To be honest, I can’t say I actually enjoyed their company. I’m sure they’d say the same about me.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh.
Mack did not laugh along with him. “Fuck that. I enjoy your company,” he said.
Warren sobered. “You do?”
“Sure.” His head lolled against the doorjamb, long strands of silver-shot hair spilling over his bare shoulder. His eyes were lidded and soft. “Keeping me sane, actually.”
Right. Of course. Warren looked away toward the empty stairwell. He was likely the only real human contact Mack had these days. Surely that was all he meant. If—when—things were different, there wouldn’t be the slightest excuse for two people like them to be around each other. Mack was so cool and punk-rock; Warren was just—himself.
“Well.” He struggled to his feet, dusting off his hands. “I should be going.”
Mack stood with a groan, cracking his back as he went. “Yeah, I need a shower. Hey, thanks for the—” He picked up the plate of hot cross buns from the ground, turning it this way and that so the light shone on the sticky glaze.
“Buns,” Warren said helpfully, and then wished he had never spoken aloud in his life. He could feel his face getting much too hot. The downside of his peaches-and-cream complexion: he went all splotchy when his emotions ran high.
Mack smiled at him, the corners of his mouth disappearing into his beard. “Thanks for the buns.”
Warren escaped back to his apartment, where he could hear Mack’s footfalls above him, then the squeak of his shower knob and the dull sound of falling water. He stood just outside his own bathroom door, peeling his cloth mask off his face. He tried not to imagine Mack undressing and stepping into the shower. His eyes lingered on the bathroom ceiling.
The noise of the water changed. A body was beneath it, disrupting its course.
Warren turned and fled to his bedroom.
It was the first real hot day of the summer, blistering even in the early morning. Warren opened his living room window, then lifted the screen panel and leaned out. In his hand was a miniature watering can.
Warren had taken to keeping herbs in old yogurt containers on the fire escape. He was currently coaxing the dill into producing more than three or four feathered fronds; there was a recipe for potato bread that called for it. He wondered if Mack was partial to dill; maybe he should ask. Although every time he asked if such and such an ingredient was to Mack’s taste, he got a resounding response of, “Anything, man.” Fig jam to filberts, Mack was amenable.
Warren heard the window above him screech open. He paused in watering his sprouts and gazed up through the black slats of the fire escape. Mack’s bare foot appeared, followed by a long, lean leg clad in dark jeans that were more rip than denim. Warren opened his mouth to call out a greeting, but then Mack’s entire body struggled through the window and out onto the fire escape, and Warren caught sight of what he was holding.
Thick scones studded with chocolate chips. Spiced flatbreads with frizzled onions. Cinnamon sugar swirled into rich buns. A crusty boule that had needed thirty hours of slow proving in the fridge.
Even the hot cross buns. Things Warren had left at Mack’s door recently, and things that were weeks old. Why in the world—?
Warren watched through the prison bars of the fire escape as Mack leaned against the railing and began clucking. There was no other word to describe the sound: he was imitating a chicken to the best of his ability, directing his barnyard noises at the street below.
Well, Warren thought charitably, it was only a matter of time before we all lost our marbles.
Then all charitable thought flew from his head as he saw Mack break off a chunk of muffin and toss it off the fire escape. A flurry of feather-sounds came from below. Warren looked down to find a flock of pigeons had amassed on the sidewalk to feast. (Starlings and sparrows, too, but it was the pigeons that really hurt.)
Warren slammed his tiny watering can down on the fire escape, metal clanging on metal. The sound drew Mack’s attention. He looked down between his feet and saw Warren. His eyes went wide.
“If you didn’t like it, you could have said.” The waver in Warren’s voice was a shock. He rarely cried; even when Owen had left in the rented moving van, he’d barely sniffled while hugging him goodbye. The strain of the last few months must have really taken its toll if he was reduced to tears by something as silly as his upstairs neighbor rejecting his baked goods. “I wouldn’t have bothered; it’s just a waste if you weren’t going to eat any of it.”
“No! No, no, no, no.” Mack looked down at the heap of bread still in his arms, then looked around like he needed to find a place to put it all. “It’s not like that, I swear.”
“You are literally, right this moment, throwing it away! I can see you doing it.” A hot tear escaped, running down Warren’s cheek. He dashed it off his face with the back of his wrist.
Mack released a tumble of bread on a step of the ladder that led to the roof. “You don’t understand. I was trying not to be a dick about it!” Mack rounded the fire escape, heading for the opposite ladder that connected their landings.
Warren did not want an explanation. He wanted to forget having ever acted like a fool, foisting his baked goods on someone who would rather feed them to the birds. At least Owen had had the decency to inform him that he was unwanted. Mack had let him come to his door day after day, week after week, with his pathetic little offerings. It was beyond humiliating.
He ducked back into his apartment and slammed the screen panel into place.
“Wait!” Mack fumbled down the rungs of the fire escape. “If you’d let me explain —”
Warren shut the window for good measure, but it did little to muffle Mack’s words and nothing to keep the sight of him at bay. Mack crouched outside the window, his mouth falling open, and they stared at each other through the glass for an uncomfortable amount of time.
“What?” Warren asked, crossing his arms protectively over his chest.
“Your—” Mack mimed something covering his own chin and mouth. “First time I’ve ever seen your face bare, is all.”
“Well, don’t get used to it. I doubt you’ll be seeing much of it again.” He wrenched at the curtains, meaning to close them with a kind of dramatic finality, but the damn things caught on the rod.
“Come on,” Mack called through the pane, “don’t do that. I’m sorry, I am.” The ravenous birds began swirling around the fire escape, swarming over the abandoned baked goods on the ladder above. Mack swatted them away with wild wheels of his arms. “Stupid birds! Get out of here, go!”
“At least they want the bread,” Warren said right up against the glass.
Mack’s panicked eyes met his. “I wanted it, too, okay? I just can’t eat it!”
Warren backed up a pace. “You can’t—?”
“Gluten.” Mack winced, a ruddy blush coloring his tan cheeks. “I’m not supposed to have it anymore. Does bad shit to my stomach, so—” He shrugged.
“Oh.” Warren’s lips parted. That possibility had not occurred to him. “Oh, that’s—” On top of all of Mack’s other maladies, this, too? That had to be a pain.
The pigeons—and starlings, and sparrows—managed to carry away the rest of the bread, fighting in mid-air for the largest bits. Warren could see them spiraling into the sky behind Mack’s hunched shoulders. He opened the window so they didn’t have to speak through the glass.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“Because I didn’t want you to stop coming around.” Mack’s gaze darted away. He tucked an errant strand of hair behind his ear. “And you seemed so—happy. Giving me all that stuff.”
“I was,” Warren said, realizing it was true. He gave Mack a tentative smile. “You really don’t mind me knocking on your door or texting you at all hours?”
Mack returned the smile. “Honestly? Highlight of my day. And night.”
Warren’s breath caught. So it hadn’t been just him. He hadn’t been alone in thinking that there was at least one bright spot in all this horror. His just happened to dress like a Hell’s Angel.
Warren could feel his cheeks going warm. He leaned out the window so he could get a little closer. “You’re my highlight, too,” he said.
Their fingers tangled on the windowsill. Mack swallowed; Warren watched the bob of his throat. “Would it be weird if—?” His gaze dropped to Warren’s mouth, then lifted again. “I know we’ve both been really careful.”
“Haven’t left the house in weeks,” Warren agreed.
“Our own little bubble, kind of.”
“Yes.” Warren’s eyes felt wet again, but this time, he thought the tears might be ones of relief. “Yes, exactly.”
Mack’s hand—that lovely, music-callused hand—slid into Warren’s hair. Warren shivered. When was the last time he’d felt another person’s touch?
Mack was staring openly at his lips now. “Can I—?”
“I wish you would,” Warren said, and then he was being kissed.
After such a long stretch of having no human contact whatsoever, a kiss felt like a miracle. It was a radical meeting of mouths, of noses brushing, of eyelashes batting and little sounds in throats. Mack tasted of toothpaste, which reminded Warren that it wasn’t even lunchtime yet and he was kissing a man who was crouched on his fire escape. Wasn’t the world the funniest thing? Full of surprises.
When they pulled apart, Warren’s lips held a tingling reminder that thrilled him to the tips of his toes.
He opened his eyes. “I could try my hand at other things, though. Macarons, those don’t have flour. Or if I can find some of those new gluten-free mixes—”
Mack kissed him again, and that was the end of that.
Next week on Heartbeat, a short story from Ashley M. Coleman, author of Good Morning, Love.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Ashley’s story!
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