13 Ways: Cake
Posted on November 12, 2011
Cake had never met his father. He had lived with his mother, Celestina, in the same two-bedroom apartment all his life. Cake called it their layer. It was the fifth level of a five-story building on 9th Avenue and Carson Street. His grandparents, who owned the building, lived just beneath Cake and Cele on layer four, and his auntie and cousins were beneath them on layer three. The rest of the building, which included a second layer, a first layer, and a basement, was taken up by the family bakery.
Cake was nearly sixteen and only his family still called him by his real name, Javier. His friends had called him Cake for so long that he thought of himself as Cake, too. This was not only because his family life centered around the bakery, but also because Javier loved baking and sharing and eating cakes almost more than anything else. He had a real talent for it, having baked alongside his mother and grandparents and auntie for as long as he could remember.
His proudest moment as a baker had been the completion – on his own – of a ‘57 Chevy for an avid car collector. The man’s wife had been so pleased that she’d tipped him fifty dollars for the work, which was half again the cost of the cake, and his mother had allowed him to keep that extra money for himself.
When he was not at school, or working in the bakery, Cake’s favorite place to be was on the rooftop of their building. His cousins were too small to be allowed up there, so it was one place he could be alone, and yet still feel connected to others. He spent hours staring out at his bit of the city, glimpsing silent moments of people’s lives, fascinated by how the rest of the world spent their time. Sometimes, those he watched would watch back, and Cake would feel a wave of something – a tremor of surprise at being all at once the observer, and the observed, and the observer observing being observed, ad infinitum – that would leave him shaken, and filled with wonder, and glad to be alive.
Cele baked two cakes each year on Javier’s birthday: one which was a replica of the boy himself – or, at least his head – which she preserved, and one which was a cake that everyone could eat. This was the Flores Bakery specialty: cakes made to order, that looked like anything, or anyone, that one could imagine. It had been Javier’s birth that had brought the idea to life, with Cele deciding to mark the end of his first year with a special offering. Baking was what she had to offer, and so baking is what she did. Once the cake was completed, though, she would not consider eating it. Her baby’s one-year-old face – varnished to a high shine, and well beyond digestible – smiled out at passers-by, charming them with icing waves of dark hair, enormous brown eyes, and a smattering of sugary teeth.
In a matter of days, a dozen mothers had dropped by photos of their own children, and put down deposits on their orders. The Flores family flourished, and expanded their repertoire. Over the nearly sixteen years since Javier’s birth, they had designed, baked, and decorated hundreds of edible replicas of their customers’ family members and friends. Generally, the customers wanted a full bust, though some chose an economical version, which included only the face and hair, with less extensive detail. Occasionally, someone would request a full body reproduction, even a naked one, and Javier’s grandmother would pitch a fit about that, calling it pornography.
There were exceptions, though, to all rules. Both grandparents enjoyed showing off their talents with iconic religious figures and fine art reproductions. In such cases, nudity – or at least semi-nudity – was permissible. Nothing delighted the two more than breathing life into folk-art angels, recumbent Venuses, and saints or sinners in various states of undress, all rendered with icings and glazes of surpassing delicacy, which they had invented themselves.
Sometimes, the bakery received orders for replicas of objects representing people’s work, hobbies, travels, interests, or obscure obsessions. Two of their most interesting projects had been creating a series of cakes depicting battles of the Civil War, for a group of military history buffs, and producing a scaled replica of the solar system, ordered by the daughter of an astrophysicist for his sixtieth birthday. This one had stirred up a minor family argument about whether or not Pluto should be included as a planet, but other than that, the job went off without a hitch, and it was this success that had confirmed for the family what they had suspected all along: that anything in the world could be done with cake, if one had talent, skill, patience, and maybe a little magic in their fingers.
“Javier?” Cele approached him on the roof, placing her hands gently on his shoulders, so as not to interrupt his guitar playing. He was teaching himself. This did not surprise Cele. His father had done the same at his age. She had bought the guitar for Javi’s birthday last year, and he had spent many evenings on the roof with it. The restless strumming was beginning to sound tuneful now.
“Javi, your birthday cakes – vanilla or chocolate or whatever else, inside? I will have them both ready on Friday.”
Cake stopped playing and took her hands, but did not turn his eyes up to hers. “Mamma, vanilla is fine. But this year, I want a different cake.”
“Different?” Cele stepped around the bench Javi was straddling, and took a seat next to him. She had not been prepared for a different cake. All fifteen Javiers still smiled back at her, with their bright varnished eyes, as perfectly as the day they were pulled from the oven. There was a Javier showcase in a special section of the bakery, with a spot at the end awaiting this year’s addition. After the flesh and blood son himself, this was Cele’s greatest pride and joy. And now he wanted different.
“Mamma, make me a cake that doesn’t look like me this year, okay? I want a cake that looks like someone else for a change, just this once. Can you do that?” He was nervous. She could hear it in his voice, a strained quality that was different from the changes in its depth and timbre that had been coming on for months.
Cele laughed, imagining what he had in mind. She understood that he was in love, or what passed for love at fifteen, with Gina from down the street. With a mother’s sensitivity to such things, she would watch Javi’s head snap up from whatever he was doing – blending a mix, or serving a customer – when Gina walked in the door. She liked to drop in after school most days to say hello and buy a cupcake. Gina loved cupcakes, and especially ones she knew Javier had made himself. The light vanilla ones with swirls of pastel frosting were Gina’s favorites, which Cele thought suited her. Gina’s skin was pale cream and her hair shone buttery gold, cascading softly down her shoulders. Cele considered how she might one day recreate that vision with ribbons of icing on a wedding cake.
And now, looking at Javi’s face, seeing his longing, she remembered being fifteen herself, meeting Eddie in exactly the same way. Hadn’t that been love, then?
“Okay, my darling son, you would like something different,” she answered. “Well, of course. It is your special day and you will have what you like, so long as it is not naughty. You know how Grandma feels about that.” Cele winked at him, but he looked away, embarrassed, not laughing, and she realized she’d misread something about the moment. She draped an arm across his shoulder, fingering the tiny crucifix she wore around her neck, under her apron. They both looked at the sun setting across the river, and were silent.
When Cake was ready, he began again. “Mamma, it’s not naughty. I want you to bake a replica of my father for me.” He looked at her straight, heard her sucking air in so harsh and fast that it was nearly a gasp. But he would have this. “Can you do it or not?”
Cele was locked in a memory – a statue, staring but unseeing – as the river swallowed the last of the sun. This memory was wholly silent, like a movie before the invention of talkies, and it was one that she had replayed thousands of times over the years. Eddie’s face, above hers, his dark eyes looking into hers while they made love, like he was amazed to find her there, like she might disappear if he closed them. A tape of his music was playing in the background. Shadows darkened the walls of the room as night fell, and after a while, it became harder and harder to make out his face. She’d thought at the time that this was a turning point in their relationship – a loss of shame, a way of seeing into the other, a bonding that went deeper than flesh – in her youth and ignorance, she’d believed she was peering into his soul. Even now, part of her believed that still, though she understood that if it were true, she had misinterpreted what she’d seen there.
She remembered again how swiftly the crisis had unfolded, how four simple acts had cleaved her life into Before and After. She had told Eddie that they were going to have a baby. He’d taken her into their bed, and made love to her with eyes wide open. Then, he’d fallen asleep, holding her close, naked and warm in the dark. And when the morning came, he was gone.
He’d left a letter saying that he’d write when he got to wherever he was heading, and promising to send money. She still had that letter, and the others which had followed it, sent from New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California – places Cele had never been. By the time her belly had swelled enough to feel their baby moving inside her, there was nothing but silence from Eddie.
“Mamma? You okay?” Cake reached over to her, touching her shoulder, and again, he heard the deep and sudden suck of air, like someone trying to breathe under water through a straw, barely getting enough to survive.
Cele stood and looked at her son straight on. “Javi, I will bake you a Daddy cake, just as you like. But after I have preserved it, will you keep it in your room with you? I don’t wish to look on his face every day. It is enough that it lives so vividly in my memories.” She kissed him on his forehead, and walked away before he could answer the question.
Cake could not have told you why he needed an image of his father, but some things do not require explanation. It was enough that he felt it. His family had been poor back then, before he was born, and they had not owned a camera. Even if they had, it would not have occurred to them to photograph one another. That had only changed since his own birth.
All his life, Cake had watched his mother, and had been as sensitive to her breath, her movements, and her desires as she was to his own. Many times, especially when she looked at him, he had caught glimpses of the sadness beneath the surface of her life – mercurial, darting like shadows beneath a door that opened and closed of its own accord – first letting in the light, then shutting it out. He had understood this to be about Eddie Montez. And all his life, Cake had vowed not to be a man like Eddie. Yet who was Eddie? No one much, he thought. Only the one his mother had loved, the one who had left her, taking his guitar and his music and his hopeless poetic grace, and leaving behind a son as a keepsake, a token of their love.
“Cake?” It was Gina, catching up with him half a block before home. This was Friday, around four o’clock, and he could not wait to see Cele’s creation. He glanced at Gina, smiled, and felt once again electrified by her nearness; yet, even that did not stop him.
“Hey, Gina, how you doing?”
She kept pace with him as they neared the bakery.
“I’m good. Hey …” She reached out, touched his arm to slow him down, to get him to look at her. He stopped in his tracks and turned to her.
“I wanted to say, you know, happy birthday.” Leaning into him, she kissed him, just lightly, on his open mouth.
Cake paused, but only briefly. “Thanks, Gina. Wow – really – thanks for that. That’s a great present.”
She laughed. “So what are you doing? I mean, to celebrate.”
Cake thought for a moment, considered what to say. “My family will make a big dinner tomorrow. It’s Saturday, so the bakery will close early. And they’ll bring out a cake and all, maybe even some wine.”
“That sounds real nice.”
“It is nice … but, hey, Gina, tell you what. Would you like to come up to my roof tonight? Would you like to sit up there with me and listen to some music, watch the sun set over the river? Maybe have some cake?” He reached out, fondling a lock of her hair, smiling. “I would really like that.”
“Ah, Cake, I would love to do that. But …”
“What?” He wondered if he’d got it wrong, but knew he had not. She liked him, more than a little.
“My parents have tickets tonight, for some show or something. I’m watching the twins. Can I come maybe tomorrow night, after dinner?”
Cake hesitated. “Well, okay then. But I’m sorry it can’t be tonight. I’m real sorry, Gina. It would have been perfect.”
“You think?” She beamed at him then. He’d never seen a smile so bright, eyes so dazzling.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Okay then, maybe we can try for perfect tomorrow night. I’ll be round about eight?”
She skipped off, in that way that girls could do and look graceful.
Cake rushed into the bakery, barely noticing his family as he slid past his grandparents serving at the counter, and his auntie wiping down tables, and his younger cousins playing in the courtyard. He found Cele in the family kitchen, putting the last touches on a wave of black hair. She concentrated like a painter, not daring to breathe or look up at him, lest she make a mess of her work.
“Is it done? Is that him?” Cake tossed his book bag in a corner and maneuvered around the counter.
“Yes, Javier, this is your cake, as you wished.”
Celestina stood back, tossing her decorators’ tools into the sink, as Cake moved around to have a look at this edible sculpture. He did not speak, but put up his hand as Cele stepped up to the counter with the shellac that she used to preserve the showcase pieces. Then he turned to her.
“Thank you, Mamma. Thank you for this. We don’t need the varnish. I will have it as it is.” Cake kissed Cele’s forehead and moved past her to pull a quart of milk from the refrigerator and a fork from the utensil drawer. “You’ve done a perfect job, Mamma, and I love you. I know this was hard for you.”
Cele kissed him back. “Anything for you, Javi. I’m glad you like it.” Her voice sounded tired and aching and half-strangled. “If you will be on the roof, I might go lie down and rest a while.”
“And Javi, when you go up to your rooftop tonight, look next to the climbing rose. I left your present there.”
Cake settled into his usual spot on the bench, setting his gifts next to him. Near the roses, he retrieved the brown bag that had been tied with kitchen string, and inside it, found two cassette tapes marked “Eddie Montez, Flamenco” and a stack of letters, from different states that Cake had heard of but never visited.
The sun set as usual, and his bit of the city was as alive with the murmurings and rustlings of humanity as usual, but Cake saw none of it, heard none of it. He spent the evening of his sixteenth birthday reading the letters sent to Cele all those years ago, listening to Eddie’s music on her old tape player, and trying to make sense of everything that swelled up inside him, an ocean of feeling at high tide.
When all the letters were read, and the music listened to, and the sun really and truly sunk for the night, Cake grasped the plate upon which the layered replica of his father’s face had been built. He understood that Cele had not made a mistake. That the reason the face staring back at him appeared to be his own was because this was the joke that life had played on his mother, on the both of them. This was the forget-me-never.
Cake ate half his birthday gift, washing it down with the quart of milk. When he was sure the rest of his family would be long asleep, he gathered up his things, and went inside. Tearing off a swathe of wax paper, he wrapped the remains of Eddie Montez’s frosted head, and stuffed it into the brown bag along with the letters and the music, making a bundle which he tied round with fresh kitchen string. He went upstairs to his bedroom, and packed a bag with clothes, toiletries, and the rosary his grandparents had given him for his first Communion, which he carried as a good luck charm. He found the one photo he had of his mother in his dresser, and he took that, too. Finally, he emptied out the metal box containing all the money he’d earned from working at his family’s bakery over a lifetime, and from making deliveries for the Jackson’s deli next door. It was enough to get him by, at least for a few weeks.
Then, with a few simple acts, he cleaved his life into Before and After. He left Cele a letter. Maybe she heard it slipping beneath the door of her bedroom, maybe she did not. Either way, Cake kept moving. He left his keys on a hook in the bakery kitchen and moved through the layers of their home, staircase by staircase, until he reached his own room again. He left down the fire escape, with the sun rising at his back, heading west.
Main photo by Sandra Peterson Ramirez.
Text by td Whittle.