Book of Cakes

By Karen Ackland

When asked why she’d never married, Michele replied that she was waiting for her mother to bake her wedding cake. Then she explained her mother had died almost fifteen years before. No one asked twice.

Michele’s mother had excelled at gardening and baking. As a girl, Michele took for granted that all mothers knew the difference between a Crimson Glory and a Don Juan rose; between a fondant frosting and a butter crème. It was not until she was older that she saw anything unusual in her mother’s abilities.

The cakes her mother made each year for her birthday were the highlight of Michele’s childhood. These weren’t simple sheet cakes with store bought decorations but elaborate three-dimensional constructions often based on a book Michele was reading. One year Michele had a striped Mad Hatter’s hat. Another year her cake was a bear with Lemon Honey roses in the pot between his outstretched legs. In common on all the cakes were the white sugary dots her mother used to outline each layer. They reminded Michele of the pearls her mother always wore, a present from Michele’s father.

“I always had trouble with Lancelot,” she said. “I prefer a man who can make up his mind.”

When she was eight Michele asked her mother to write her name on the cake. She was sitting on the turquoise stepladder in the kitchen watching her mother work at the counter beside the sink.

“Why would I put your name on a cake?” her mother asked.

“You don’t have to write Happy Birthday. Just put Michele.”

“The cake’s not Michele.”

“I know that. What if you wrote Michele’s cake?”

“Do you see me making cakes for any other little girls? Who else’s cake would it be?”

“Why won’t you put my name on the cake? Other people have names on their birthday cakes.”

“Do you want a cake like everybody else?”

“No.” Michele tried a different tack. “You tell me to put my name in my school books. You wrote my name in my jacket.” And it wasn’t just the jacket. Her mother had printed Michele’s name on her hairbrush, basketball, and lunchbox.

“That’s different. You take those things to school, and you can’t count on others knowing what belongs to you. At home we know who we are.”

“So who am I?”

“You’re my daughter, named Michele, who is beginning to exasperate me. Now leave me alone or I’m not going to get this cake done in time for your party.”

Sometimes Michele would give her mother hints about what she’d like for a cake. “I’ve been reading about King Arthur,” she told her mother two weeks before her fourteenth birthday.

“Yes, I saw that. What about Lancelot? Has he showed up?” her mother asked.

“He’s at court.”

“I always had trouble with Lancelot. I prefer a man who can make up his mind.”

“Wouldn’t you want to be loved by the two best men in the kingdom?” Michele asked.

“Being loved by one man is enough trouble. I can make a castle, but I’m not rebuilding Camelot.”

Michele did get a castle that year, complete with drawbridge and turrets that tilted away from each other. When her mother brought the castle to the table, her father took pictures. Michele’s friends sang Happy Birthday and Michele blew out the candles that lined the drawbridge. Many of the guests had seen the cakes Michele’s mother made at previous parties, but still they hesitated to take a bite. When they did, they declared it was the best cake they’d ever tasted.

After Michele entered high school, the cakes evolved from whimsical depictions of stories into glittering promises. On her sixteenth birthday her cake was a shimmering dome of bronze-colored marzipan crowned with apricot roses.

“Can’t we save this one?” Michele asked her mother. “It’s too beautiful to eat.”

“It’s just a cake,” her mother replied. “I’ll make another next year.”

“What if we save part of it?” Michele asked again. “We’ll eat part and save part.”

“Which part?” her mother responded. “No, today’s your birthday and today we’ll eat cake.”

“You sound like Marie Antoinette.”

“She wasn’t all wrong. If you want to remember the cakes, look at the photos.” Her mother documented each cake with photos which she kept in a scrapbook.

“It’s not the same,” Michele said.

“Eating the cake next week wouldn’t be the same either. Are you getting too old for birthday cakes?”

“No.” Michele couldn’t imagine a birthday without cake, although she wondered if her mother’s talents were misplaced. Michele expected her own life to be bigger, elsewhere.

One Friday afternoon when she was a senior in college Michele came home and found her mother constructing what looked like an architectural model on the kitchen counter. She wondered if this represented a hidden dream of her mother’s. On an earlier visit, Michele had suggested her mother convert her cake-baking skills into a business and perhaps the conversation had inspired her mother to try something less domestic.

When she came closer Michele realized the model was a three-tier cake where each layer was cantilevered over the edge of the layer beneath it. A handful of wooden skewers were sticking out from the top layer.

“Hand me a juice glass, quick,” her mother demanded. Michele got a glass out of the cupboard, and her mother used it to prop up the cake’s third layer. “I think I’ve finally got this balanced, but there’s no point in taking chances.”

“It’s dramatic,” Michele said. “But my birthday’s months away.”

“This isn’t for your birthday. I’m working out some ideas for your wedding cake. I get tired of those symmetrical cakes with excess icing.” Her mother pointed to the sticks. “I’ll use flowers on the real cake-I was thinking of calla lilies, depending on the season-and wrap their stems around the support.”

“I’m not planning on getting married anytime soon.”

Her mother looked at her. “We like Eddie, you know.” Michele and Eddie had dated since they were sophomores. Michele suspected her parents would be less enthusiastic if they knew she and Eddie were sleeping together.

“I like him, too, but there are other things I want to do first. I’m not like you.”

Her mother stepped away from the cake and looked at her. There was a long pause, but all her mother said was, “Don’t wait too long.”

Her mother never perfected the cantilevered cake. Driving home from Michele’s college graduation her parents were killed when her father fell asleep and crashed the car into the center divider.

That summer Michele watched as many of her friends took off on trips through Europe. Michele and Eddie had planned to go to Mexico, but after her parents died Michele cancelled the trip. She said she couldn’t afford to go, which was true, but she also felt too uprooted to be a tourist. She stayed behind, sold the family home, and moved into an apartment in Santa Monica.

Michele enjoyed the urgent pace of her job in advertising, but she would have worked long hours even if she didn’t. It was easier to stay at work than go home to an apartment crowded with furniture from her childhood. Her life felt lived on parallel paths where part of her knew that her parents were dead and the other part thought that if she hurried to complete all the things she’d planned, she could return home to find them waiting for her.

As it was, she was constantly reminded of her parents. She’d drive around a corner and see a restaurant where they’d gone together. The newspaper said it was time to prune roses, and she clipped the article to send to the family who bought her parents’ house. The green overhead freeways signs announced the distance to Pasadena, a city that was no longer her home.

A year later when her boss was transferred to the New York office, Michele expressed an interest in moving and a position was found for her, too.

“Why would you move?” Eddie asked when she told him. “It’s not even a promotion. Is there something between you and your boss I don’t know about?”

“Of course there’s nothing between us. Why would you say that?” Her boss was a short, bald man in his late fifties. She liked him, but the idea of an affair with him had never occurred to her. “He’s trying to help me. He says that if I’m serious about this business I need to spend some time in New York. You’ll be in law school, anyway.”

“Exactly. It’s going to be hard enough to see each other. Neither of us can afford the time or money to jet-set across the country.”

“I’ll only be gone a few years.” She didn’t anticipate what he said next.

“Michele, let’s get married. You always said you didn’t want a big wedding. We could get married at city hall and still take a short honeymoon to Mexico before school starts.”

“I just lost my family, Eddie,” she replied. “I can’t get married now. Why not wait like we planned?” It was a reasonable response. He was going to school. She was getting started in her career. But they weren’t the only reasons. She didn’t want a wedding without her parents; she couldn’t celebrate without her mother’s wedding cake.

“We’ll be our own family,” he continued.

“I can’t exchange one for the other like that. We’re not goldfish.” She was glad when they quarreled; it made it easier to leave.

The first few months in Manhattan, while she struggled to find an apartment and settle in at work, were hard. When she talked to Eddie she didn’t admit how lonely she felt, how she wondered if she’d made the right decision. She didn’t say how loneliness felt easier, more manageable than grief.

Michele started carrying her mother’s pearls in a small velvet bag in her purse. It wasn’t entirely safe, but neither was her apartment. She favored bolder, less traditional jewelry, and never wore the pearls, although she liked having them with her.

They made plans for Eddie to visit over the long Thanksgiving weekend. A week before he left a message on her answering machine saying he had to postpone his trip. He needed to study and couldn’t afford to get behind. Then she heard from a friend he was dating a fellow law student.

Michele didn’t confront Eddie. She didn’t answer the phone when she thought it might be him, and she didn’t return his calls. Eddie became, like her parents, someone who lived somewhere else. A place where she planned to return.

Michele had two pictures of her mother-one a wedding portrait and the other taken in the hospital when Michele was born. The second photo focused on Michele and cropped her mother in the middle of the forehead. Her mother had disliked having her picture taken and on the rare occasion when someone did snap a picture, her mouth was twisted in a grimace of protest.

Instead of a family photo album, Michele had the scrapbook of her mother’s cakes. Next to each photograph her mother had written Michele’s age and a description of the cake.

Age 7. Banana cake, butter cream frosting.

Age 11. Spice cake, caramel cream cheese filling.

Age 18. Chocolate with marzipan icing.

The brevity of the labels didn’t begin to describe the cakes, although flipping through the scrapbook Michele could remember every one. When she became account supervisor and was no longer referred to as that girl from California, Michele began telling stories about her mother’s cakes. The stories became her signature.

One evening a woman friend came over after work. They were eating Chinese take-out sitting on the floor around Michele’s coffee table. “You’re always talking about cakes, but I’ve never seen you bake,” her friend remarked.

Michele went to the bookcase and brought over her mother’s scrapbook.

Her friend began to flip through the pages. Some of the photos had faded, but the images of the cakes were still remarkable. “Your mother made these?”

“Yes, for my birthday. The cakes were always more exciting than any present.”

“I can see why. You could turn this into a cookbook with the photos as the illustrations.”

“As you noted, I don’t bake. Besides, I don’t have the recipes.” Michele paused. “I have thought about making a book, perhaps using the cakes to illustrate business or design principles.”

“Like what?”

Michele pointed to the cake with the turrets. She ran her finger under the picture as if she was reading, although there was nothing written there. “We know it’s a castle. Don’t explain the obvious.” She turned the page. “Every cake deserves its day. Celebrate your wins.” Several pages further on Michele pointed out a chocolate cake with chocolate chip frosting. “You can’t have too much chocolate. Don’t cut corners.

“I think you’ve got something,” her friend said. “Why don’t we mock up a couple of pages and see if anyone’s interested? We’ll keep the retro, home scrapbook look.”

Michele had just approved the final proofs of The Book of Cakes when she flew to Los Angeles. She was leaving the restroom at LAX and swerved to get out of the way of an on-coming luggage cart. “Sorry,” she mumbled, without looking up.

“Michele?”

She was surprised Eddie recognized her, she felt like such a different person from the young woman he’d known. It had been almost twelve years, and she would have known him anywhere. “Oh my god, Eddie? I can’t believe it, is it you?”

Eddie didn’t hesitate. He stepped forward and gave her a hug. He was wearing a pair of khaki pants and a white shirt with the cuffs rolled up. He looked like a larger, more confident version of himself. “Is this a business or pleasure trip?” he asked.

“Mainly business. One of my clients is holding a focus group out here.”

“Where are you staying?” Eddie asked. “I’ll give you a lift.”

“The Biltmore downtown. I don’t want to take you out of your way.”

“It’s not a problem. It’ll give us a chance to catch up.”

When they reached the hotel he left the car with the valet and went inside with her. “I’ll wait for you in the bar,” he said as she approached the registration desk.

She found him there ten minutes later.

“I wasn’t sure what you drink or I would have ordered for you.”

“A martini, gin,” she told the waitress.

“Remember that cheap rosé we used to drink?” he asked.

“We thought we were so sophisticated. After we finished the wine, we’d use the bottle as a candle holder. I wonder if students still do that.”

“Why not? I suspect it’s a rite of passage.”

As they talked, Eddie’s face seemed to move between familiar and foreign like one of those optical illusion posters. Once she found the familiar, she could always find it again, even when it slipped out of focus. There was something solid about him that hadn’t been there when they were in their early twenties. It seemed neither one of them could stop talking, as if they’d been saving stories about clients and bad dates, career successes and setbacks until they were together again.

She didn’t remember being so attracted to him. She wondered if attraction required a sense of separateness that had been missing when they were students. She could hardly keep from touching his face or stretching her foot under the table to rest next to his. She wondered if Eddie felt the same way. She noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

As if reading her mind, he reached for her hand. “I hate to cut this short, but I’ve an early day tomorrow. And it’s late for you. Can I see you later this week?”

She wasn’t imagining things. He wanted to see her, too. “How about Wednesday?”

“It’s a date. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 7:00.”

Eddie was waiting when she came downstairs Wednesday evening. She’d seen him in a suit before, but now she had the sense of seeing the person he’d become. She wondered how he saw her. The familiarity she’d sensed on Sunday evening was gone. It felt as awkward as any first date.

“I thought it’d be simpler if we ate here,” he said. “The Japanese restaurant is good.”

“How Californian,” she remarked as she read through the menu. “Japanese food with Latin overtones. Not the two most likely cuisines. What do you recommend?”

“Definitely the yellow tail ceviche. How about the oysters, fried edamame, and vegetable tempura to start?”

“Sounds good.”

“Sake or wine?”

“Wine.”

They ordered and fell silent. She was beginning to wonder if they’d said everything they had to say to each other. She appreciated the decision to eat in the hotel. It would be easier to cut the evening short. “We’re quiet tonight,” she remarked.

“Sorry. I’m still winding down after work. And it’s hard to believe you’re here. I thought you were one of those people that had disappeared from my life.”

You didn’t do much to prevent it, she thought. “I know. Sometimes I wonder if you really existed, or I just made you up.” She gestured toward him. “Exhibit A: my college boyfriend.”

“I can’t picture you in New York. I’ve never even been there. I usually travel in the other direction.”

“You should visit. You always said you would.”

Eddie hesitated and then said, “I’m sorry about that time, Michele. I was hurt when you left, and I responded badly.”

She shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”

“It doesn’t change that I acted like a jerk. I’m glad I can apologize to you in person. I know you’ve done well. I’ve been keeping tabs on you.”

Michele raised her eyebrows in question. Eddie continued. “A friend of mine interned with you several summers ago. Debra Collins.”

“I remember Debra. I hoped she’d move to New York, but she joined the agency out here, didn’t she?”

“Yes. She likes it.”

“You have to, or it doesn’t make sense. Eventually you learn to let some of it go.”

“So what are you doing with all your free time?” he asked.

“Free time is going too far. But I am branching out.” She told him about The Book of Cakes.

“I remember several of those cakes,” Eddie said. “The first time I met your parents we had dinner at their house. I’d wanted to take you out for your birthday, but you insisted on going home. I understood when I saw the cake.”

“They’re some of my best memories.”

“One year your mother made cupcakes. There were only four of us at dinner, but there must have been fifty or more cupcakes stacked on a tea stand,” Eddie said.

“I remember. I’d been nagging her to go into business. She got mad and said she wouldn’t bake a cake that year. Instead she made all those cupcakes, each one decorated differently. It was my last birthday before the accident.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“Don’t be. It’s a treat for me to talk with someone who knew them.”

They were the last two people to leave the restaurant.

Michele knew that she was ready for something new. She and the friend who’d collaborated on The Book of Cakes had talked about opening a small café on the West Side that would only serve desserts. They wouldn’t do the baking themselves, but would search out the best cakes and pastries from all over the city. It would be ideal for the singles market, representing less of a commitment than dinner but more than just coffee. She liked the idea, but after seeing Eddie in LA, she wondered if her future was elsewhere.

Many of her friends were moving out of the city to Long Island or Connecticut. Michele thought it was time for her to move, too. She could return to Southern California and buy a house with a garden. Perhaps she’d marry, start a family and learn to bake. There was still time to build a life with Eddie. She knew that two evenings didn’t erase the years they’d been apart, but the years hadn’t erased the connection between them either.

The West Coast office was looking for a director and Michele asked to be considered for the position. She was assured the interview in Los Angeles was just a formality. She called Eddie and invited him to meet her for dinner the following week.

Michele was at the restaurant early-a sushi bar in Little Tokyo-and as she waited she reached into her purse and put on her mother’s pearls. She decided it was okay to be nervous. She wanted to tell Eddie her plans in person, so that she could see his reaction. As she watched him enter the restaurant and scan the room, she took a deep breath and waved.

“Twice in one year,” Eddie said after he was seated at the square wood table across from her. “Is this going to become a habit?”

“I’m thinking about it,” she smiled. She hoped that would provide an entry into a more serious conversation, and Eddie took it.

“It sounded over the phone like you have news.” The waitress approached and Eddie gave her their order. “I’ve news of my own,” he continued.  “I’m getting married.”

Michele wanted to ask him to repeat his statement, although she’d heard him clearly. Finally she asked, “Who’s the bride?”

“Debra Collins. I invited her to join us but she has a lot of last minute things to do before the wedding. She said to tell you hello. Hopefully, we can all get together next time.”

Michele tried to think back over their previous conversation. He’d mentioned Debra, and she’d assumed they’d dated. It hadn’t seemed important. “I’m surprised,” she said finally. She’d give him that much.

“You and everyone else,” Eddie replied. “Most people thought I was a confirmed bachelor. But Debra wants to get married. We both do. It’s time.”

“Congratulations.” The single word didn’t express enthusiasm, but it didn’t convey her shock, either. “When’s the wedding?”

“Saturday.”

“This Saturday?”  It was too soon. On the flight to L.A she’d imagined spending Saturday with Eddie, perhaps taking a drive up the coast or even driving by her parents’ house in Pasadena. They needed time to get to know each other again. “You should have told me earlier. I’m sure you don’t have time for dinner with me. Aren’t there things you need to do?”

“The groom is superfluous at this point. Debra’s mother and friends have taken over. This gives me a chance to get away from the confusion.”

She thought of the evening at the Biltmore and how Eddie had changed from foreign to familiar. She willed him to morph into a stranger again. She was glad that she hadn’t told him her plans.

Eddie reached over to refill her sake cup. “Since you’re in town, why don’t you come?” he asked. “You’ll know many of the other guests.”

How had she gotten everything so wrong? As an account executive working with many clients, Michele prided herself on being able to read expressions, to anticipate objections before they were made, to manipulate a meeting so that she, more often than not, got what she wanted. Not this time. She’d misread the signals. In the eight months since they’d had dinner she’d been making plans to move to California, and Eddie had been making plans to marry Debra Collins.

The next day she withdrew her name from consideration for the job.

At the reception, Michele greeted people she knew from work, and others she hadn’t seen since college. She knew how to work a room, although she realized a single woman at a wedding was always suspect, causing the other guests to check their own versions of happiness. Elaine, an old friend from college came up beside her as Eddie and Debra cut their wedding cake. It was a beautiful cake, numbing in its symmetry, which was nothing like the one her mother would have made.

“It’s a surprise to see Eddie married,” Elaine said.

Michele wasn’t sure how to reply. “They look like they’ll be happy.”

Elaine laughed. “Oh, they’ll probably be as happy and unhappy as the rest of us. What about you? Do you ever think about moving back to California?”

“I’ve thought about it, but I stayed away too long. New York’s my home now,” Michele replied.

“It suits you. You look great.”

That morning Michele had driven by the house in Pasadena where she grew up. As she turned up the street she was pleased to remember the house number, although she hadn’t thought of it in years. The house itself she barely recognized. A few of her mother’s rose bushes remained, although most of them had been replaced by a wide slate path. A second story had been added to the house and a covered porch extended along the front. Michele sat in her car cataloguing the changes, trying to detect the shell of her family home from this larger, handsome house.  It was possible that her parents would have moved away after she left home, settling in a townhouse near the coast. She’d known, of course, that her parents wouldn’t be there; in the same way she knew Eddie had just married another woman. What she didn’t know was how to reconcile her long-held belief that they were all still waiting for her.

A waiter came by and Elaine and Michele each accepted a small piece of cake and a napkin.  Michele imagined her mother examining the napkin and asking, “We know their names. Were they worried we came to the wrong wedding?

If her mother had lived, Michele might have learned to bake. She might have stayed in California and married Eddie. She might have worked in the agency’s west coast office and complained about the opportunities offered to those with New York experience. But none of that happened.

“We’re at the right wedding,” she told the memory of her mother. She didn’t realize until Elaine looked at her that she’d spoken out loud.

“Are you OK?”

“Like you said, it’s a surprise to see Eddie finally married.”

Michele said good-by to Elaine, handed her plate to a waiter, and left. If she hurried, she might be able to catch an earlier plane. In the morning she’d call her friend and say she wanted to lease a place for The Book of Cakes. The idea was sure to be successful. Everyone needed something sweet to look forward to at the end of the day.

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About Karen Ackland

Karen Ackland lives with her husband in Santa Cruz, California. Her essays and stories have appeared in Story Quarterly, Quarterly West, Salon.com, Literal Latté, and many others.  She considers herself a good cook, but never bakes.

2 Comments

  1. martina
    Posted April 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely and painful story! Thanks. I know someone who makes cakes like that, and she went to medical school and became a pediatrician. She is an outstanding human being. It is so sad that Michele couldn’t tell her true feelings to Eddie, and make headway getting the life she might have loved best. Grief has that way of taking away the ability to take risks, to go back into feelings that may cause such pain. To me, this is a cautionary tale.

  2. Posted November 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Hey!! Happy Thanksgiving!! :) :) :) :) :)
    Thanksgiving is 1 of my favorite holidays, and each yr I like to get into the mood-extend the holiday, as it were-by reading “Thanksgiving novels.” Not surprisingly, most of these stories are mostly about family and friends, about coming together to heal old hurts and giving them thanks for the gift of love. . . . ===
    Think You’re Much better Off These days Than You Had been 3 Yrs Ago?

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