An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon Crilly has been previously published by Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Haven Spec, and other markets. His debut fantasy novel Catalyst was published by Atthis Arts in October 2022, followed shortly by his first games publication, Bestiarium Vocabulum, from Fat Goblin Games. He’s also an Aurora Award-winning podcaster, conference organizer for Can*Con, and regularly has too many TTRPG interests than he could ever fit into his schedule.
At some point after my wife Jess and I moved in together, I started dabbling in baking. We were low on homemade muffins in the freezer, teaching from home (again), and maybe I’d started climbing the walls a little, so she challenged me to make some myself.
Surprisingly, that first batch went wonderfully, and the second one, too. Jess mentored me (seriously, I didn’t know what I was doing). Buoyed, I decided I was… okay, I won’t say the Muffin Man, but I suspect you were already thinking it.
The first time she let me fly solo, I thought things were going great, as I started throwing ingredients together. Our main floor is open-concept and she happened to be in the sitting room and said, “Oh, you’re doing it that way.” Innocuous. She was surprised, maybe, and assuming there was a good reason I went off script from how she taught me to mix (wet, then dry) as opposed to the truth, which was that I went on automatic pilot and just followed the book (which always says dry, then wet, and uses twice as many bowls). Not a big deal. Still a path to muffins.
Except my pulse started to pound. My chest constricted. There are no protocols or procedures in our kitchen, but suddenly I felt like I’d broken one. Which meant I needed to fix it, now, and avoid the repercussions I expected to follow. Maybe if I moved the bowls around and straightened the counter, we could move past it. I stammered something out—I don’t remember what—and waited to be taken off muffin duty forever. But Jess went back to her book and that was it. No harm, no foul. Just my hands shaking as I moved to the next step.
I wish my reaction came from an inability to take criticism. But no, that was my old life poking at the back of my brain and all through my nervous system. I knew that. Jess would, too, if I told her—but even after years together at that point, I didn’t know what to say. “Shit, sorry, I went on autopilot. Thanks, love.” That would be easy. How was I supposed to explain that her talking to me like a fellow human being made me want to crawl into the cupboard with the pots and pans? “Had a little flashback to my ex just now. No, not your fault. Good old trauma. Muffins?” That wasn’t quite in my vocabulary yet, partly because I was dealing with worry that my whipped-dog tendencies coming up at random were tiring her out—me freezing when she asked what I was working on, as though she’d ever accuse me of wasting my time on writing, or swallowing a tiny thing that bothered me because I’ve pre-decided it isn’t worth mentioning. My brain was raising shields based on nothing other than my own insecurities, creating a worry that Jess will think I don’t trust her, or love her, when I do, more than anything or anyone.
None of which has anything to do with muffins, really, and everything to do with my old life, long before Jess and I met. I had never made them before—because before, time in the kitchen didn’t allow for fun, or experiments, or trial and error. It demanded perfection. Following along. Trying to ignore a cold shoulder, because I chopped the vegetables in a way my ex didn’t like. Redoing a slice of toast because the last one didn’t have enough butter. Or too much. All of which started coming to mind as I stood in a totally different kitchen, with a totally different life, convinced that I was a totally different person, until one comment sent me spiralling into the past all over again.
I spent the whole rest of the muffin process like I was standing on eggshells, worried about even one fragment making a noise if I shifted. Pretty sure I barely looked up, checking every measurement three times and clearing space when I didn’t need to. When the muffins were in the oven and I was cleaning up, it hit me: if I didn’t say something, this would happen every time. If I ever bothered to bake again. And that would be on me.
I don’t remember what I said.
Before I knew it, Jess wrapped me in a hug. Her forehead only comes to my collarbone, but she has this uncanny ability to fold me in her arms. To let my exhale brush over the top of her head, carrying with it the tension that’s built up in my shoulders. As my old life retreats to the shadows, where it belongs, and I’m grounded again in a warm house with a loving partner, reminded that I don’t need to be terrified to get something wrong. Whatever mental load had been weighing down my ability to tell Jess what I was feeling was suddenly a little lighter. Not gone, since it isn’t that easy. But lighter.
Making dinner that night helped. The next time I baked something, not long after, did, too.
Jess and I have spent almost five years together now, and cooking is a team effort in our kitchen. We’ve established a way of working in tandem that sometimes feels supernaturally fluid. One of us knows what to grab before the other asks. We flow around each other to grab bowls or utensils, or deliberately brush past each other with a smile. When one of us has had a long day, typically the other can take the lead. We prefer different tasks and have different strengths; Jess is masterful with a skillet, and I like to chop. No perfection needed. She makes the most amazing cookies I’ve ever had, and I have become… I won’t repeat the name, but you were thinking it.
Not that it’s magical every day—we’re human, and sometimes we still step on each other’s toes or need to not have dinner together at all, because one of us had a Day. But the understanding we’ve built, in the kitchen and outside of it, is a sort of magic I never thought I’d experience. Even if my old life still rears its head from time to time, and likely always will, unfortunately. Recovering from an abusive marriage is like that.
But when that happens, I have Jess. My wife, as of August. And I have the ability to make muffins for her, anytime I like.
Jelly Doughnut Muffins
This is a recipe for perfect, delicious, fluffy muffins with a surprise jam filling in the center. Prepared as written, it produces twelve truly special muffins.
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Remember: Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.