At twenty-one years, Karla Gottlieb officially graduates from ‘family baby' to ‘family disappointment.’
She leaves university with zero terminal degrees, having received no prestigious fellowships or fancy awards, and completely lacking any significant social life. Around the same time that Hermann was doing his dissertation, she was obsessively baking her way through a cookbook of Buzzfeed dessert recipes involving lots of fruity pebbles and hot cheetos.
They were all delicious, obviously.
But that’s kind of the point.
The point is that when she was nine years old, she baked her first perfect genoise sponge and set it in the middle of the dinner table on an heirloom crystal cake plate. She took the trouble of cleaning up the edges with a damp paper towel so it made the perfect centerpiece, shiny, sticky, downy and cotton fluff like a cumulus cloud.
The point is that when she was nine years old she already knew by heart the face her mother would make when she saw it sitting there dripping raspberries, the slow appraisal, the quirk of the eyebrow, the nod. That small approval. Let’s-show-your-father. And she was chewing her nails off in anticipation of the moment.
The point is that whatever Gottlieb Math Gene she was supposed to inherit that would have guaranteed her a pat on the back and full-ride scholarship completely forgot about her, like the majority of her extended family already seems to, but whatever remaining vestiges linger in her hardwiring manifest themselves in an instinctual understanding of baking. Of the methodology. The timing. The measurement.
It’s just like whatever the cartoon rat had going on in Ratatouille.
At twenty-one years old, Karla Gottlieb is the youngest contestant on her season of the Bake Off. She is told in the very polite, very lengthy email containing attachments to all the documents she needs to sign to be on TV ( TV !) that the network is excited to have her. They specifically cite a tray of apricot-basil shortbread cookies she made during her live audition as a “revelation”, something she can’t fully grasp yet because she’s still stress-baking dorito garbage in Doctor Who pajama pants in the dorm’s communal kitchen.
The entire process is, in a word, overwhelming. But for all the headshots and offset spatulas and non-disclosure agreements and brand deals and blackberry custard drying into gross sticky patches on her overalls, she feels like she finally knows what it’s like to get the Genius Grant that Hermann always brings up when their mother asks when he’s bringing home a nice girl. Because it’s not like she’s going to lose.
And then there's Vanessa García.
Bastien is (predictably) the first person to get the news.
That’s even more frightening than being on network television: her brother’s quasi-omniscient instinct for petty gossip that miraculously hasn’t implicated him in insider trading yet. He materializes in her kitchen with a congratulatory wine-and-cheese basket full of fancy candied nuts before she told him she auditioned for the show in the first place.
He’s traded out the usual Brooks Brothers suit she had assumed was, at this point, permanently grafted to his body, for an equally preppy cream cardigan. He hasn’t taken off his sunglasses despite the dim indoor lighting. They’re an exceptionally douchey pair of Ray Bans with wooden frames. An artisanal bottle of craft beer is dangling from his fingertips with the type of smarmy, self-assured ease that means he definitely got it from, like, some hipster microbrewery with cement floors that he’s dying to namedrop.
She’s beginning to suspect that overpriced beer might just be something Bastien can summon out of thin air so he has a prop for whenever he starts talking about Warren Buffett or the NASDAQ or whatever. When she cracks open the oven to take out her scones, the wave of heat hits him directly in the face and he makes a strangled, dramatic squawking noise.
She missed him terribly.
“How’s your baby?” She says mildly, placing her scones on a cooling rack. They’re an experimental new recipe that she’s taste testing for the show- lavender lemon with a heart-shaped pat of honey butter melting on the top. They smell amazing. Bastien lunges for them immediately.
“Great question-” he says, midway through a move that comes across as a lazy sprawl, draping half his stupidly long torso across her countertop. He reaches out with a stupidly long arm and prods a scone before wincing because, duh, they’re still super hot. “-How’s Hermann?” Bastien blows on his finger, answering his own question, “I suspect he’s avoiding me because he thinks I’m going to talk about business school. Which I definitely am. But it still feels so typically immature of him, doesn’t it?”
Karla hums. “Hermann’s in, like, Costa Rica or something, it’s beyond me. Nobody’s heard from him in weeks. The last I heard, he practically eloped with that one professor he’s obsessed with. The one from YouTube.”
“Oh my god?” Bastien reaches out to prod the same scone again, because he’s stupid. His eyebrows steadily climb higher and higher on his forehead. “Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Geiszler’s Most Excellent Biomusicology Kaiju Theater?”
She nods solemnly, swatting his hand away before he burns his finger. “Lars blew a fucking gasket. It was awesome.”
He whistles. “Since when is Hermann the cool one? Christ, I must be getting old.” Bastien delicately cradles a scone in his cupped palms and leans down to gently blow on it in a manner that strikes her as quite tender.
“Neither of you has ever been the cool one,” she says, wiping her hands down on the front of her cute duckling-print apron and beginning to untie it, “The last time I saw Hermann he was wearing a vest, automatically disqualifying him, and you suck up to Lars like it’s your damn job -” Bastien shrugs, still blowing, “-which makes me the cool one by default. I’ve always been the cool one.”
“Well,” he says through his first mouthful, “obviously. But you don’t really count. Nobody cares about you. Dad still calls you ‘ girl’ behind your back so frequently that I’m not entirely sure he remembers your actual name. This is an excellent scone, by the way. Kudos.”
“This is why Hermann doesn’t answer your calls.” Karla sticks her duckling apron in the cabinet under the sink and moves to lean against the counter next to him. Another scone has materialized in his hands like the beer. He lightly jostles her with a stupidly long leg. “Every time I talk to you, without fail, you say the single meanest thing anybody has ever said to me in my life. I don’t understand how you do it.”
“That’s business school,” he nods, “It’s a talent.”
She gives him a sidelong glance that must have come across a lot more baleful than she intended, because Bastien gets that older-brother look on his face that always makes her feel like she’s a two year old who just dropped her ice cream cone and he’s about to give her his.
“Hey,” Bastien says, softly, the sentiment diminished by a mouthful of crumbs, “At least you’re not Dietrich. That guy is the fucking worst.”
The first contestant she meets at their orientation is an American immigrant. A Californian.
An archetypal curly-headed beach bunny who looks like she stepped right out of a Katy Perry music video. Gorgeous in a glowing, unbothered type of way that seems too carefully calculated to actually have been effortless, she has wispy, curling tendrils perfectly framing her face from where they’ve slipped out of the messy bun piled on top of her head.
Her name is Vanessa García and she looks like the word ‘ confection ’.
Vanessa is wearing a mood ring on her thumb and a highly impractical pair of strappy cork-wedge espadrilles that make her (just barely) taller than Karla. Her high-waisted denim cutoffs are so scandalously short that Karla can see the tan lines at the tops of her upper thighs, the edges of a tattoo on her lower back that’s just shy of a tramp stamp. A chunky, silver, heart shaped necklace is dangling against the faintly glimmering skin exposed by a mint green paisley-print handkerchief top.
“ Oh, my god!” She chirps, whipping around as soon as she hears Karla enter. “What’s up, babe?”
It’s so overfamiliar in such a disarmingly friendly way that it almost feels like an aggressively nice intimidation tactic. By the time Karla registers what’s happening, Vanessa has already flounced over and shaken her hand, and the feeling of her impossibly soft palm sends her reeling again. Vanessa smells like sunscreen and patchouli. She has a tiny, adorable duckling manicured on her ring finger. Just like Karla’s favorite apron. Karla can practically hear dramatic french Ratatouille music playing in the distance.
Vanessa pulls her in for a hug. It’s friendly, in that bubbly-sorority-girl type of way that’s instantly disarming, but for the briefest of moments Karla swears she sees something cold in Vanessa’s face. A hard little fragment of something, calculating, almost imperceptible, simmering just underneath the surface. The grip that Vanessa has on her upper arm tightens, like she’s giving a warning. It sends a shiver down Karla’s spine.
Softly, Vanessa’s lips move against the shell of her ear.
“ I’m not here to make fucking friends.” She whispers.
As it turns out, aggressively nice intimidation tactics are kind of, like, her thing.
“I hope you plan on using the Gottlieb Starter!” Bastien says over FaceTime.
The connection is terrible. Her brother looks like a loose smattering of about four pixels, and her own camera is angled somewhere towards the fridge as her phone slowly slides down the Pokemon plush she propped it up against. She’d reach out to adjust it, but her hands are sticky with yeast.
“I told you,” she says, punctuating her sentence by slapping her dough onto the kitchen counter with a wet smack , “I don’t want to hear about the sourdough starter ever again, for as long as I live.”
Her phone makes an outraged crackling sound that she chalks up to the hotel’s terrible WiFi. The producers got her a swanky room to stay in the nights before they film, it’s one of those really luxurious places that offer hot-stone massages and have a row of scented oils next to the bath. She’d spent the day pacing around the hallways in the hotel’s bathrobe, gnawing on her fingernails but trying to spit the disgusting nail bits into the trash can and not sully the perfect, carpeted flooring.
The only real thing she can think to do to ease the stress is knead her worries into bread dough with her brother ranting in the background like ASMR. It’s kind of terrifying how much better than everyone else Vanessa García seems to be at every possible thing. It’s even more terrifying how hilarious Vanessa seems to find that fact.
“You’ve got to use the starter!” Bastien cries, sounding genuinely wounded, “C’mon! That thing has been in our family since the good old days when we could accuse poor people of witchcraft for planting wheat too close to our property line!”
“You sound like Dietrich.” She says. She leans over her phone and uses the camera to wipe off a line of flour smudged across her forehead.
“Please don’t mention that man.” He says, “I’m literally on a vacation with him as we speak. We’re at the lake house. It’s excruciating. I don’t know what possessed me to invite him over-”
Another slap of the dough. “Was it Mom?”
“It was Mom.” Bastien gives a very loud, defeated sigh. “She said it was ‘nice to see her boys getting along’ and I caved. Worst mistake of my life. I swear to god. He’s the most boring man who’s ever lived. If he tries to brag about his stupid kids one more time I’m going to pick up a rock and beat him over the head with it, Abel-and-Cain style.”
On the pixelated phone screen, she watches Bastien give another lofty, long-suffering sigh and kick his stupid fancy shoes up on top of his desk in between his stacks of paper. “The worst part is- wait, oh god, bye, I hear his footsteps, he’s coming, I have to- DIETCH, OLD PAL, HOW THE HELL ARE YOU?”
“You are so fake!” Karla shouts into her phone.
Bastien ends the call with a click.
The tattoo on Vanessa García’s lower back is a delicate, pale pink orchid curling its leaves all the way down the curve of her hip. She has another tattoo tucked just behind her ear, a tiny green button being stabbed through by a needle and thread.
On the first day of production, she wears a gold grill that spells out ‘WOOF’ across her bottom teeth. She arrives in an exaggerated white v-neck and lacey purple bralette, turquoise stud pierced through her belly button, a reusable Starbucks tumbler dripping condensation between her fingers.
Karla learns that she is a “yogilates” instructor who worked at a food truck and moved here to continue chipping away at an impressive degree. The producers can't get enough of her. She claims- in the saccharine, high-pitched, cloying tone she uses for the camera- that she only applied for the Bake Off because The Bachelor UK wouldn’t have her.
She spends the entire morning perched on one of the benches, flirting with the camera crew, tossing her head back and laughing like an old Hollywood starlet. It’s mesmerizing. Fascinating. Infuriating.
Karla Gottlieb is seriously beginning to feel the effects of the competitive streak her father beat into all her siblings.
Karla Gottlieb doesn’t care how much she likes this woman, because she wants to crush her into the dirt.
(She can hear Bastien’s ‘ That’s business school!’ echoing around the inside of her head.)