It was a lazy kind of Sunday afternoon when I decided that what I was missing was something sweet. Perhaps it was the way the sky had remained overcast or maybe it was the dread of Monday creeping closer by the hour, but I was restless and hungry in absent-minded, persistent kind of way.
I debated getting up from the couch for awhile, trying to talk myself out of what I was preparing to do. “Cooking means dishes,” I reasoned with myself out loud. Still, as stacks of pots and pans cluttered my daydreaming, I thought of how nice it would be to bite into a rich piece of cake.
I hadn’t had a piece of cake in a long while. I tried to think back to the last slice I could remember. My stepsister’s birthday party came to mind. Maddie had actually turned ten, or twelve, or however old she was, earlier on in the week. Unfortunately for her, she had one of those birthdays that fell on a Monday, or Tuesday, or whatever day it was that wasn’t the weekend. So, this was one of those afterthought cakes that came on an afterthought day deemed convenient for the observance of such a holiday.
I suppose I’ve always been a bit resentful of Maddie. She was the daughter that got to keep my father, after all. I was eight years old when my parents divorced- old enough to understand what I was losing, but too young to really know how to make sense of it. My father moved in with the woman he’d come to have two children with, leaving two behind in his place: my brother and myself.
It wasn’t really fair to say my father abandoned us. He left, but I knew he was out there somewhere. He’d visit on the weekends and call every once in awhile. He left me notes and tried to make things as right as they could be in a wrong situation. Still, like probably every child of divorce, I wanted my parents to be back together so my life could be back together too. That’s not what happened though.
These thoughts left me feeling bitter, and I thought again about the late birthday cake. It was large with blue and white frosting coated in sprinkles. I didn’t really want a piece, but the cake was already being divided and distributed throughout the small crowd. My father handed me a slice on a pink plate and motioned for me to sit down next to him at a table that had been set up with haphazard streamers. I tried to remember the last time I’d eaten anything with my father, and I really couldn’t remember. I don’t spend much time with him now.
The cake was too sweet; it stuck to my mouth in lumps I didn’t want to swallow. There was too much frosting, and even the smallest bite made me want to gag. There were too many sprinkles, and the colors made me dizzy. Each crumb tasted stale and fake, and I watched the party commence with eyes that weren’t really there as my father offered me another piece of something too sweet to be real.
I mentally shook my head and asked myself if I was still in the mood for cake. Another memory came to mind, a better one, and I smiled in spite of myself. I was remembering my name. For awhile, I thought it was cake. “Kate” and “cake” can sound a lot alike to anyone, but they especially did to me. For a long time, my parents let me believe this was my name. It was cute, I suppose.
I thought about sunshine and fields of green. I was remembering the golden parts of my childhood- of Cake’s childhood. I grew up on a farm where there were summers of corn and bare feet. Early mornings were spent watching the sunrise and gathering eggs. Life was raw and untouched when I climbed up on the roof of a small shed where I wasn’t supposed to be with a stepladder and a stack of books I couldn’t read yet. The words were too big, but my world was just the right size.
Turning my attention back to the world I was in now, I made my way into the kitchen. Opening a cupboard door, I found a wide array of cake boxes. I decided on a yellow cake mix and started thinking ahead to frosting. In my opinion, frosting is what makes a cake worth eating. There is a delicate balance between good and overpowering. Too much of something can amount to a whole lot of nothing if what’s being made isn’t worth having.
I checked the back of the box for instructions; it was just one of those easy cake mixes. I added the water, the oil, the eggs, and wondered vaguely about the possibility of powdered milk and butter already mysteriously included within the contents of the package I had just emptied into a large bowl. The oven beeped when it was preheated, and I slipped the cake inside the wave of heat that warmed my face even after I closed the door.
I was cleaning off the counter, wiping up water that missed the bowl, and tossing egg shells in the trash. I hesitated before putting the bowl and spoon in the sink. I had almost forgotten the best part of making a cake: licking the spoon. The batter was sweet, and my heart felt a little lighter.
I had set the timer for twenty-five minutes, but I kept opening the oven door to make sure it was still there and all in one (not black) piece. My mother always says, “When you can smell what you’re cooking, it’s ready.”
I was ready to eat some cake.
Finally, the oven timer signaled and, like clockwork, the smell of freshly baked cake filled the room. I opened the door of the oven, sliding the rack out slightly, and slipped a toothpick into the center pulling it out slowly. Clean. I thought of my mother again with her endless knowledge of all things culinary and silently thanked her in my mind for imparting these little bits of wisdom to me.
As I sat the cake down to cool, I worried about frosting again. I could make some or I could buy some, since we didn’t have any in the pantry that I could see. I called my little brother down from upstairs anyway. Maybe ice cream could count as frosting, I thought, as I pulled out a carton of vanilla. Matt raced down the stairs at the mention of cake, and he didn’t seem to mind when I scooped a large portion of ice cream onto a warm slice of otherwise naked cake I’d cut out with a fork.
It was messy but good. The cake crumbled in all the right places, and I tried a piece without ice cream. This, however, was slightly disappointing. I realized, then, that cake was meant to go with something sweeter than itself. Without its complimenting flavor, it was only half of what it was meant to be and could only be enjoyed as far as its missing link.
I slept on that thought. The next day, I went to the store and bought some frosting. I had decided on lemon, a flavor close to my heart. Lemon was a favorite of my grandmother’s too, and it felt right when I picked up the container and peeled off the lid. I grabbed a spatula and started scooping and smearing the light frosting over what was left of a cake that had been hit pretty hard the day before.
The cake seemed to be thanking me for this blanket that hid all its scars from its hungry past. It wasn’t whole, but somehow it seemed more complete than it ever was on its own. I smiled when I found berries in the fridge, and the letters started forming before my hands fully registered what they were doing. I saw myself in this broken, but beautiful, cake. Its crumbs stood as testimony of its existence like tears that hadn’t quite been wiped away yet. In that moment, this cake and I found the sweetness we’d both been needing. And, in doing so, I like to think we were both “happy.”