I longed to press Camembert between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, feeling it bloom as it melted, or snap a crisp Linzer cookie between my teeth, refreshed by the cool tang of the jam at the center. But I knew eating those things wouldn't help; they'd taste like garbage and just leave me feeling sick and sad. The hunger was mental, and so, to fill up, I watched The Great British Bake Off.
I'd loved the show for years. While others rolled their eyes at Sue and Mel's puns, I laughed out loud. The bakes, from the signature at the beginning of each episode to the technical challenge and the impossible-looking showstoppers, were riveting to me. "They don't win anything?" my friends would ask when I tried to describe the beautiful simplicity of watching nice people try their hardest to bake things that tasted good. It's hard to relay to those who haven't seen it that the show isn’t about winning or losing but the delight that comes from the way Mary Berry pronounces the word "layers" or the giddy joy contestants (and me by proxy) feel when Paul Hollywood offers a long-withheld handshake. "Sounds boring," my father told me when I tried to explain this to him once. But to me, The Great British Bake Off is the Platonic Ideal of television. However, before I got sick, it only inspired devotion, never the urge to test my own long-dormant baking skills.
It just so happened that the seventh season of Bake Off coincided with my summer of chemotherapy. Four rounds of monthly poisoning had left me cancer-free but with a white cell count so low that I got sick every time I left the house. So I stayed in, and as friends left the city for their summer adventures, the contestants in the tent became my constant companions.
By the time Jane won star baker in the first episode of Season 7, I'd already rooted through my cabinets to concoct a lumpy mixture of Oreo pretzel brownies. I wept as Pastor Lee was squished between Sue and Mel in a farewell hug before being sent back to Bolton to work on his genoise. "Right. Come on Candice, sort yourself out. No more crying," eventual winner Candice Brown told the camera. "Same," I told myself, wiping tears from my lashless eyes.
The brownies were a bust, simultaneously dry and gummy and filled with soggy Oreos; it wasn't just my chemo mouth that thought they tasted gritty, even my partner, Max, couldn't get through more than one. But I didn't care about eating them. I dumped the pan in the trash bin and started over. By my doctor's appointment the following week, I was through as many episodes of Bake Off as I could work into a day, cheering Ruby and Howard in Season 4 one hour and Nadiya from Season 6 the next.
My life became dusted with white flour and filled with chants of "Ready, set, bake." On Bake Off, nothing is more serious than getting yeast dough warm enough to proof or a perfect crack down the center of a Madeira cake. Not work, not family, and certainly not cancer.
"Any side effects from the medicine?" my doctor asked at a weekly checkup. "Besides looking like a goddamn goblin?" I joked, running a hand over my stubbly head. She didn't laugh. I didn't tell her that the main side effects of my chemotherapy were a loaf of bread in the morning and a tin of cupcakes at night. "Rise, rise," the contestants chanted on my TV. "Come on," I whispered to the plaits in the challah on my own kitchen table.
Most times, I didn't even taste my creations. "Come get your cupcakes, or I'm throwing them away," I texted friends. Weeks before, I would have done anything this side of juggling to get them to sit with me a few more minutes, but now, I loaded them down with 36 ginger cakes or a chocolate pie or three pane bianco and shooed them out the door. Mary and Paul were my best friends now, and there was only space in my life for giant bags of flour. My friends took their pastries and went, floating like castor sugar out into a world I wasn't quite ready to rejoin yet.
Having cancer at a young age alienates you from non-cancer life, at least during treatment. I couldn't go to Brooklyn warehouse shows with tender scars where my breasts used to be, and I didn't feel much like nursing a beer at a house party while acquaintances with entry-level jobs at fashion magazines politely ignored the sloppy way I'd failed to follow a Pinterest headscarf-tying tutorial, revealing translucent patches of sickly looking hair still clinging to my death-white scalp or the fact that one of my stenciled eyebrows had melted away in the summer heat.