Cake

Stacey wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. She let out a long, slow breath then returned to her kneading, her palms massaging, manipulating and working the dough. With a grunt, she dropped the floury ball into a stainless steel bowl, which she then covered with a white towel. The motions were routine and mindless, and she began humming with every step.

Robert stood at the expansive “Whip It Good” bakery windows, watching Stacey move gracefully inside. Although it was closed and the main lights were turned off, the kitchen remained softly lit. Stacey glowed inside, her hair halo-like, her skin smooth. He missed her.

Stacey rummaged through the refrigerator, pulled out a long sheet of cupcakes. With a bulging bag of blue frosting nestled in her hands, she leaned over to circle and circle and circle the sugary topping on the moist pastry. She captured a drip of frosting on her finger and licked it off before admonishing herself and shifting to the small sink to wash her hands. Good thing no one could see her.

Robert rubbed a hand across his chest, the ache for her palpable. They’d been friends since college, had danced around each other and a possible romance for years. They’d taken the big leap a few weeks ago and hooked up. Then they’d hooked up again. And again. Finally, last night, as they’d wrapped themselves around each other in damp sheets, he’d told her how he really felt.

“Stacey, I…” he’d begun, hands lifted helplessly.

“What?” she’d asked, rubbing her nose against his stubbly cheek.

“I’m in love with you.”

Stacey’s mouth had dropped open. Then she’d giggled. Then laughed.

“I’m sorry, Robert,” she’d said. She kissed him lightly. “I love you, too. I love our time together. I love spending the night with you.”

Hope had sparked and died as she spoke. He was only a friend. He’d untangled himself from her, from the blankets. She’d left, pity and confusion clouding her blue eyes.

Stacey fit cupcake after cupcake into cardboard cutouts and folded down the lid of the to-go box. These were apology cupcakes, she’d decided. She couldn’t believe she’d laughed at Robert when the words had spilled out of his mouth. She’d panicked, she told herself. She loved him. She could picture their life together, their wedding – with a “Whip It Good” seven-tiered masterpiece, of course – their children, two girls with his chocolate eyes, her raven locks. She hummed louder, even tossed out a lyric or two of the pop song running through her head.

Robert allowed himself a minute longer to gaze at the singing Stacey, happily at home in her bakery. When his phone vibrated, he fished it out of his pocket, read the message: “Ready 2 go?”

He texted back: “Yea. Meet u at airport.”

From inside, Stacey cleaned up her workspace, checked on the bread – it would go in the oven in the morning after rising – and hung up her apron. She opened up her purse, dug through it for her phone.

Luggage rested on the sidewalk near Robert’s feet. He looked at Stacey, her back to him, her clog-encased foot beating a simple rhythm on the floor.

Stacey swiped through the phone. No messages. Nothing from Robert.

Robert slung a luggage strap across his shoulder, extended the handle of his suitcase with a click.

Stacey, with the cupcakes in one hand, slid her arm through the loops of her purse straps.

Robert waved at the turned Stacey through the window.

Stacey, tapping through the phone with a spare finger, didn’t see the shadow outside.

Robert turned and walked away, his suitcase bumping along the sidewalk.

Stacey turned and walked out the front door. She glanced right and left down the street as she locked the door. Empty.

Robert’s phone buzzed.

“I luv u 2.”

Birthday Wish

She stood at the counter, a cigarette smoldering between her garish red lips. In her hand she wielded a plastic spatula, sweeping it across the chocolate cake’s crumbly exterior. She paced herself, pausing only to lick bits of vanilla frosting from her fingers. The cigarette never left her mouth.

He was going to come today, she was sure of it. She’d baked this lovely cake for the occasion, though she couldn’t remember how old he was turning. But it was the thought that counted, right?

Reaching for the paper bag, she pulled out a container of sprinkles. The spatula fell to the floor, leaving a smear of white on the yellowing linoleum tile. She stepped cleanly onto it, her threadbare slippers stamping the floor with sticky circles.

As she wrestled with the lid to the sprinkles, her leopard-print acrylic nails scraping the plastic, her kitchen phone began trilling. Cursing, she slammed the unopened sprinkles on the counter.

“What?”

“Mom? Is that you?”

“ ‘Course it’s me, who did you think you were calling?”

Her son paused.

“Listen, Mom, I can’t make it today.”

“What do you mean you can’t make it?”

“I’m telling you, I can’t make it. Thanks for the invite, but Sharon invited me to dinner out at the club.”

“Well, shit. Aren’t you special.”

“Sorry, Mom. Maybe next time.”

“You bet your ass next time! After all I’ve done for you: giving birth, providing you with love and care and special treatment.”

“Love and care? Please, Mom, let’s not get into this.”

“Into what? Your ungratefulness?”

“Ok, Mom, fine. Here’s a question: how old am I today?”

She paused, unsure of her footing. Guilt had always been her weapon of choice, at least against others. Against herself, she had an arsenal: opiates, pills, a nice box of wine.

“That’s what I thought. Bye, Mom.”

The phone clicked in her ear. She cradled it in her hand, waiting until the silence gave way to a jarring beep.

With what might have been a sigh of regret, she turned back to the counter, took a deep drag on the cigarette. She blew out the smoke and tapped out the ash onto the cake.

“Happy fucking birthday, Mark.”

She walked through the dingy apartment, past the faded birthday decorations, the wilting balloons, the newspaper-wrapped presents tied with limp ribbons, and into her bedroom. She curled up on the bed, grabbed Mark’s baby blanket, the one she had never thrown away, and rubbed it against her cheek. And she rocked herself to sleep.