Cake

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Outside the barn, moonlight bounced off April’s wedding gown. She said, “Keep my cake for me.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “Next year, on our anniversary, we’ll eat it.” I put the top layer of her wedding cake in the freezer. I didn’t know it was a thing.

April was young enough to be my daughter, and I loved her. I had hosted her reception, hired the caterer and florist, decked out the barn with billowy white curtains and a thousand votive candles. When, a year later, she stood in my kitchen with her hands on her hips and shouted, “You ate my cake!” I said, “Mostly I ate the frosting.” She didn’t laugh.

She was tall with thick cascades of chestnut hair. We looked alike, people said. Aunt and niece, maybe. Men wanted to have sex with her. Stunning men wanted to marry her, but she had chosen Jay, with his thick middle and abrupt arms and legs. Before Jay, April and I had been a we, speaking on the phone every night about this man who had led her on or that man she had stood up at the Oyster Bar. I fell so hard for April, I didn’t know what to call it. She was a lawyer who defended battered women. After a cruel week of work, she would take the train up to Rocky Point, and I would tuck her in. We would hike the woods and read on the couch, our feet brushing.

I had been the cake’s steward, or servant, or hostage for eight months when I opened the freezer door. It was a moonless night, and I was peckish for something sweet. I live high on a hill, far from shops, and I didn’t have anything in the house. I lifted out the chocolate-colored box from Shenkmann’s, the famous bakery in Brooklyn, recalling the cake I had bought for April with its thick layer of chocolate ganache over yellow slabs of sponge and hazelnut cream.

A cabinet door was off its hinge. No money to fix it right now. I’d dug into my savings for April. No matter. In the past I had had roles in several soap operas and toured the club circuit with a cabaret act. That work had disappeared, and I didn’t miss it.

I carefully removed the ribbon on the box to slip it back the same way. I opened the lid and looked down at the glossy disc sitting on a circle of gold cardboard. I sniffed. Nothing. Too cold. I swirled a finger around the side and licked off a thin coating of fudge. I swirled my finger around again, and the cake began to come awake. Tiny beads formed on the surface.

Since April’s wedding, she and Jay had visited a few times, but I had felt like an innkeeper, preparing meals and changing linens with a smile I didn’t feel. Five years ago when I met April at a bar on Allen Street, she had presented herself as a runaway from hippy parents who had been in and out of scrapes with the law. She had pulled herself up but was still something of a wild girl, herself. The bar was called The Lotus Eaters, and we got to talking in the bathroom. She needed an aspirin, and I gave her one. We were laughing, looking in mirrors side by side, noting our resemblance, then we sat at the bar and did tequila shots until we scooped ourselves into a cab. I had an apartment on Central Park West back then. After work she would swing over to my place, and we would watch rain sweep across the park and talk in front of the fireplace. Should her future be steady? Crazy? Steady with a bit of crazy? Or crazy with some stabilizing steady? She thought she might want to end up with a house like mine in the country, but she saw a different path to getting there. No matter. My life wasn’t a map.

I don’t remember picking up the knife as I scraped thin ribbons of fudge from the sides of the cake and licked them. April could be exhausting. Who did not have a shitty childhood? Men found her exhausting, too, but Jay was someone she wished to please. They had met downtown at the courts. He practiced corporate law and could be counted on to pay the bills and show up at his firm, leaving April space to switch careers if she liked. She had recently decided to become a rabbi and had begun the studies. I imagined them in a town with good schools and a bustling synagogue. I could not see myself in the picture.

I tossed the knife in the sink. The cake did not look damaged. Maybe the top edge wasn’t as crisp as before. Maybe the frosting on the sides was a little thin in places, but not so you would notice unless you were looking.

A month passed, during which time I left the cake alone. How could she entrust it to me? In New York she had dutifully trotted along to art galleries and plays. She would ask what I thought the art was saying, and I would turn the question back to her. One day we saw a play about a May/December romance, and she told me about a professor she had slept with in college, a Dr. Prosser, who was married. He had told her she had a mind for argument and could have any job she wanted. She told me about other people who had helped her. She said, “I have been calculating for so long, I’m not sure I know how to be genuine.” I said, “That is what art is for.”

She had emailed to say she was pregnant. The baby was due in the fall and she hoped she and Jay could spend some weekends with me over the summer. I wrote I was thrilled and of course they were welcome any time. I was not thrilled. I did not want April here with a crying child and a hungry husband. I went to the freezer.

This time I brought the cake to my bedroom and set it before a mirror. I smoothed the sheets and put the cake on the bed, and it looked dark and mysterious against the pale backdrop. I stripped off my clothes. I have to mention I have been involved with an art project for thirty years: I take pictures of myself naked in front of mirrors. Often I wait to be alone in a dressing room or a public toilet. Once in a hotel room I stripped down after a waiter with dark, curly hair delivered room service. You can see the tail of his shadow as he moves out of the frame. Sometimes I pose with my legs apart, sometimes with them crossed or straight, a woman with small breasts looking at something. The images are not portraits of me or even of her, the woman with the camera. They stand for a state of mind and are intended to change a little the way we look at things.

I took a picture of the cake balanced on my stomach. I could see little hairs standing up. The cake looked like a house on a landscape or the room atop a lighthouse. April knew about the photographs but did not ask to see them. I was hurt. This was the most interesting work I had ever produced, and although I am shy to publish it, I wanted to show it to her. I carried the cake to the kitchen and cut thin slivers from the sides, working my way around, creating a ring of tiny facets that looked circular if you squinted. Absently I scratched the top of the cake as if the knife were a stick, marking doodles in dirt.

I thought of driving to Brooklyn to buy April a new cake. Buying a new cake was going too far. Surely, she would find this funny, a story to tell her children. Remember when nutty Aunt Eliza ate our wedding cake? There was plenty of cake left for her and Jay to eat and remember their happy day.

I visited the cake twice more, slicing off slivers that tasted better each time. The cake was always on my mind. The box I presented to April, who was three months pregnant at the time, was stamped here and there with chocolaty fingerprints, but I thought it looked okay. I had not carved into the cake. It was still round and smooth or nearly so. A cake that has been frozen for a year—well, frozen and unfrozen a few times, to be honest—could it look untouched?

She was beginning to show under her harem pants, a small swell beneath brilliant, sapphire silk. Jay looked taller, his limbs more elongated. Surely, their happiness would make them forgiving. I set out a porcelain plate for their portion of cake and two silver forks. I uncorked a bottle of champagne.

When I had been April’s age, thirty years ago, I had resembled her physically, but I had bumped along from job to job without a plan. I thought you looked for strangers who could become friends and if you were lucky something more. When I first told April about the photographs, she looked surprised and scared, as if she had wandered out on a lonely road into a barbed wire fence.

She screamed when she opened the box, as if discovering a finger or an ear. She said, “Oh my God, Eliza, how could you tamper with this?” Tamper? Tamper with evidence? I laughed the way I do when someone slips on a patch of ice, even if the person is old, even if the person has hit their head and a trickle of blood slips slowly from the wound, even if the person is me.

I said, “I’m sorry,” although I wasn’t. Jay looked from one of us to the other, wondering what to say and kept silent. My fingers felt sticky. My fingers looked like the fingers of a child with the nails cut short. Blue veins crisscrossed my hands like roads where little cars cruised beside cornfields. I said, “Let me buy you a new cake. I’ll drive to Shenkmann’s, now.” I wanted to get out of the house.

She said, “This was our wedding cake. This one, not another one you could buy. Don’t you understand?” She looked at it again as if this time it wouldn’t look so bad. She was at the kitchen counter. I was a few feet away. She poked the air and said, “You ate my wedding. You wanted it to go away.” I said, “No.” She glared at me. I shrugged and said, “Okay, maybe, but I’m sorry. Really, April.” I laughed. It felt like we were breaking up, and it felt weird to be breaking up with her, and I couldn’t tell if she had changed or we had been a bad fit disguised as a good fit. It felt weird not to know, but it was also something I was used to.

Jay touched her shoulder and said, “Easy, April. Don’t say things you can’t take back.” He looked weary and spoke slowly. I wondered how long he would last. She jerked away from him, and the door to their room slammed. He went to her and knocked softly, saying, “Honey, it’s okay. It’s only a cake. Eliza is sorry. We can eat it, anyway. It doesn’t matter that much. It’s only a cake.” After a while, she let him in.

An hour later they were at the front door with their bags. April didn’t look at me. Jay hugged me and said, “Give it time. Thank you for everything. You know April. Give it time.” I said, “Of course.”

As soon as their tires crunched the gravel on the drive, I took off my clothes. The light was flat between the trees. I set the camera on a tripod and shot pictures of myself eating the cake in front of the mirror. I ate the yellow layers and filling. I looked calm. There was something different about the pictures, I could see as they mounted. There was puffiness around my eyes. The corners of my mouth drooped, as if the strings holding up my lips had been cut. I looked old. I looked my age. I wanted to remember April and me with our feet on a stool and no space between us on the blue velvet couch in my apartment. I saw a car stop, a person open the door, and the car drive on. I couldn’t tell if the driver was April or me or which of us was on the road. A good picture comes together barely.


 

Photo by Melly Kay

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About Author

Laurie Stone is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime writer for the Village Voice, she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She has received numerous grants including two from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and she has been awarded the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle. She has published numerous memoir essays and stories in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Nanofiction, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Ms., TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Memorious, Creative Nonfiction, St Petersburg Review, and Four Way Review. She has served as writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute, Old Dominion University, Thurber House, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Muhlenberg College. She has taught at the Paris Writers Workshop and the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in Flux Factory's gallery space. She is currently at work on My Life as an Animal, a Memoir in Stories and The Love of Strangers, Flash, and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone. Her website is lstonehere.wordpress.com.

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