CAKE

Mom will want her cake pan. Mom sent me off after Christmas with my favorite cake, still in the pan. Not slices, but a whole cake. German chocolate. Coconut-pecan icing frosted in waves (Mom’s touch) over a chocolate sponge. Mom bakes it for me every holiday, and on my birthday, I believe. Even when her son won’t come home.

I’ve lived in New York. I live in Austin today. Mom’s in Dallas.

Austin is close to Dallas, closer than New York—when I never got home—but I ride a bike and I don’t make enough money waiting tables at the steakhouse to rent a car for a couple of days very often. I went home this Christmas, and a couple of months before that, for my niece’s wedding.

Should I mail the pan to Mom?

Should I bake a cake first?

I don’t own a cake pan, so this is an opportunity. This apartment, probably the fifth or sixth solo apartment I’ve leased, has the most kitchen stuff I’ve ever owned—a set of plates, bowls, glasses, silver for six; a large pot and a sauce pot; a spatula; serving spoons; a pair of serrated and non-serrated knives; and even tongs, which I use to separate ground meat, probably incorrectly so. But it doesn’t include a cake pan.

Nor a mixer.

Or a mixing bowl.

A wooden spoon to lick?

Nope.

This is my emptiest apartment. (Simple to sort.) The kitchen is stocked, stocked by my standards, but the rest of the place is bare bones. Cream walls. Tan, low-shag, stain-guarded carpet. The circle of rooms through wide white doors. I have a metal folding chair, also cream, pulled up to the built-in desk. I’ve made two stains on the wall on either side on the inset, where I lean my back and prop my feet. (My sister’s husband gave me chairs from his mother’s house—wooden, raw, a branch bent into a back—but I fell right through the old thin seats.) I have a queen-sized mattress on the floor in the bedroom. My mountain bike. A bathroom scale. A full-length mirror.

Mom’s made two homes. I’ve lived in a dozen apartments and never made one.

*

With cake-in-a-box, you add an egg and milk. That’s it.

Originally, cake-in-a-box included the egg and milk, in their dry forms, but a marketer realized that bakers (wives) wanted to feel like they were a part of the bake.

  1. Crack and stir in egg.
  2. Whisk in milk.
  3. Pour batter into greased pan.
  4. Slide work into pre-heated glow.

Cake-in-a-box solves the dry components, so it’s worth buying, but it leaves the wet for your kitchen genius.

I’ll mix the cake directly into the pan. If the edges burn to the sides without me being able to grease them—who owns shortening?—I’ll just eat the inside. I don’t need to buy a bowl I’ll only use once.

*

Mom’s husband complains he never gets cake, his own or any of mine. He never gets a piece before Mom sends it off with me or throws it out holidays I don’t make it home. He posted a picture online of a cake in the trash.

German chocolate cake, it’s my favorite, but it was also Dad’s. (Dad.) He lives in his childhood house with his sister. His mother passed.

Dad prefers pecans in his cake mix. Me, I can’t handle hard surprises.

Mom baked everyone their favorite cakes, Dad and my sister and me. My sister blew candles out on a white cake with strawberry icing some years and wished over chocolate icing on yellow cake or a marble pound other years. My sister never committed to a birthday cake.

Mom baked Easter cakes and Thanksgiving cakes along with cakes for Christmas and birthdays and Valentine’s. Bunnies and turkeys, Cupid in over-sweet buttercream. I’d eat an ear or tail feather, a bow.

Between German chocolate cakes, I indulge in concoctions. I can’t bake. I food-collage. I shellac vanilla wafers in pop-top “wedding cake” icing. I empty salt-and-vinegar chips in mango gelato. I blend canned pecan pie filling with whipped marshmallows if I’m lazy, eating right out of the containers. I scoop a hole in the pecan filling to spoon in white fluff, and then I chunk the first scoop into the marshmallow can. Stir and stir. It’s gross what I get rid of.

What is Mom’s favorite flavor? Does she like cake? I think she prefers fruit pies or cookies.

*

The first Christmas in New York, Mom mailed a German chocolate cake in a care package. She sent the frosting separately in a plastic freezer bag. I saw the buttery coconut temptation first and thought for a second, happily, that this was the gift. The essence of what I want, without the obligatory vehicle of sweet bread. I almost cut the corner off the bag to funnel the icing into my mouth when I saw the chocolate sponge in a pan. (A pan I never returned.)

I shared the cake with my roommates, both of whom ate too much.

Year two in New York, Mom sent me an artificial tree, and German chocolate cupcakes. The tree came in a box along with ornaments and garland and lights. I never put it up. I dragged it outside to the curb and it was gone in a van before I reached my stoop.

Year three, she sent me a tabletop tree with bows and balls and bells glued on the branches, strung in lights, along with the cake and frosting recipe. I plugged the tree in on my desk, and my childhood in red and green and blue and purple flashed onto the walls, warmed my bedroom.

Christmas with Mom was a litter of lights and tinsel and sparkle and awe. A giant tree lit with a thousand dawns and dusks. (Mom’s tree had the most lights, the most!) Store-bought and handmade ornaments. An angel scraping our popcorn ceiling. Cotton drapes of snows on every surface. Elves and heralds on bookshelves and window sills. Papier-mâché carolers sing on the antique sewing machine Mom never opens. Santas from around the world—in his American red coat, in Norwegian furs, in a Taiwanese triangular hat—line up in a row across Mom’s upright piano. Mom hangs wreaths on every door, has baby Jesus under every window, to catch every ray of sun through the day. Anywhere you stand, you can shake a snow globe and marvel at a tiny system.

I met a boy I would furnish an apartment for the same day Mom’s care package came, a boy who’d ruin his life with me. He lived in London. I met him on the last night of his vacation, or his holiday as he called it, at my favorite bar in New York. We played through the city until he left the following morning and then we began a months-long long-distance relationship.

We spoke every day, multiple times, multiple ways. Emails good morning. Nightly video chats. We cursed the Atlantic Ocean in poetry, for keeping us apart, and mailed our insults longhand, on bad big city postcards. (Mom hated my poetry after I called her house dusty, a poem about a tiger Dad carved.) Londoner sent me mp3s of his favorite bands. I didn’t have any, (music is math to me) so I would stay up and find a song online before the sun in his time zone.

I was already on the hunt for an apartment when Londoner and I met, but I stepped up my search after I bought his return airfare three months out. I needed a place of my own by then. My best friend and her husband were sick of me. I would buy in completely: couch with coffee table to prop feet and drain blood back to the heart, dining room table and chairs for guests certainly arriving, a mattress and frame for proper love, etc.

*

Mom sent me a cake to celebrate my first New York apartment. A one-bedroom on the top floor of a two-story house in Astoria, over my landlords, a couple from Guatemala. Wooden floors slanted to a bay window over stalled traffic. I ate the cake out of the pan as I decorated.

The furniture had come in the mail, been assembled, been arranged and rearranged. The futon. The desk. The dining room table and chairs, four. The sleigh bed. Night tables. A dresser (empty if he looked).

I tackled the bare green walls next. I unloaded my suitcases and boxes of any old thing I could display. (I throw most things out during moves, but a few things cling.) A vintage video game lunch box. A collection of action figures. A race car Dad carved. I made shelves using old hardback books, twine, and eye hooks. I bought random old frames at the thrift store (the ugliest) and drew a fake family inside them. A mother, a father, brothers, an aunt, Grandma and Papa. I don’t why I drew a fake family. I assume it’s for the same reason I pick up company jerseys at the thrift store, to wear other people names across my back, so I’m not hurting my own.

My sense of décor comes from my Mom’s seasonal explosions, but from my sister as well. She hung dolls across her bedroom wall with a tacked noose of string around their necks. Every doll she outgrew. The baby doll. The clown doll. The pageant queens.

What did Mom think of that monstrous wall? Mom loved dolls. Collected them in their boxes. A Russian princess in white rabbit, Lucille Ball, and John Wayne were her prizes among many jewels. (I own a crocheted Michael Jackson doll. My grandmother crocheted it as a Christmas present. It has a pink nose on a black face, so I hide it.) The dolls would come out of the closet and their boxes and preen in our curio cabinet until one of us kids ruined it. Maybe my sister kicked a ball through the glass. Or I was caught with a porcelain arm in the bath tub. Mom would carefully pack the dolls up and stack them on her closet shelf, until the next time she thought we were old enough.

*

I hadn’t stocked the kitchen for Londoner’s visit. I had plastic utensils, napkins, and sauce packets I had hoarded from deliveries.

Londoner wanted to cook a dinner for my friends, though, to meet them. I invited my best friend, with her husband and infant son. Two other friends, a couple, also came. My friends hate people, even though they pretend they don’t. They like me because I criticize myself for them.

Londoner and I decided to make lasagna with a Mediterranean salad. We used the cake pan to layer and cook his mother’s vegetarian recipe.

He wanted to buy a glass baking dish, but we had already bought plates and forks and a clove smasher and vegetable skinner and whatnot. I had a dish we could bake the lasagna in. I put my foot down.

Things hadn’t been going well since I picked him up at the airport. He suffered from sciatica, hugging me with one arm as the other massaged his back, but that wasn’t the problem. We had been so warm over the phone but in person we were ex-lovers already. He got off the plane over me.

We had sex, on the couch, right when he got in, but it was bad. He came lazily. Over his dick and my hand like a mud bubble.

He had the audacity to talk to me about a more romantic encounter in Spain. He fucked a boy behind stages at a festival in Barcelona and then followed him mushroom hunting for a week.

“We should have served a dessert,” Londoner says to everyone, undercutting his own party.

“Dessert’s outside,” I say, to rescue us. I list the Ma and Pa patisseries in the neighborhood, the ice cream and yogurt choices, the Spanish place with Crema Catalana.

*

One Christmas, Santa brought Mom and my sister the year’s most popular doll, a line of fat toddlers “plucked from a field.” My sister woke up early and switched the tags on the boxes. (Mom never wrapped Santa’s gifts, so we wouldn’t recognize the paper, but she did write the name tags in her careful, small hand, no loopy disguise or jitter.) My sister claimed the tomboy and gave Mom the golden girl in the green slip dress Mom thought her daughter would love. (Mothers want certain daughters.) Mom couldn’t say a thing without killing Saint Nick.

Someway that story came up at my niece’s wedding reception. My niece is exactly like her mother my sister, a spitting image, light from a star shining years before. I can see her under our childhood tree, swapping tags. Her wedding dress, the tree’s snowy skirt.

Mom baked the bride and groom cakes for my niece’s wedding. The baker fell through at the last minute, something about a sick kid, and Mom saved the day.

After my niece and her husband playfully smashed cake into their faces, arms tangled, I smeared icing over my lip and mustache. I licked what I could off and hid the rest with my hand until I could find a beverage napkin to clean up.

I found a cousin on the groom’s side by the trash. We locked ourselves in a dressing room off the banquet hall.

He dug two fingers into my kidney and I winced.

“You like this?” he asks.

“I do,” I say.

He laughs. “No one does.”

*

Mom’s favorite photo of me hangs on her hallway wall (in her husband’s house) along with a photo of every other person in the blended family. I don’t recognize half the wall. This family is a collage. Curated history.

Mom pulled the photo off Londoner’s social media, I guess through mine. The world is small now, a finger can hook anything with a stroke.

In the photo, I’m in profile on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty on a cold morning. I have on a toboggan and a black and white scarf with a pattern to clash with my red and tan plaid hunter’s jacket. I wear mirrored aviators. I have a full beard. The sun off my glasses or the skyscrapers resolute in the background or my being there, in that harbor, where crowds dared to dream, must be doing it for Mom because I’m heartbroken in the picture.

The night before the Liberty visit, Londoner said to me, after I prodded him, that I do not feel like a boyfriend, a name he hadn’t called me since an email he sent before the flight, and in many emails and texts and handwritten pages before.

(What happened?)

Mom knows this story, but the picture hangs.

*

My apartment smells like burnt butter but a cake now too. Ding! Chocolate’s in the air. I’ve thrown out the bad and begun a new batch of frosting. I’ll nail it and mail it to Mom.

I’ve already written my letter, licked and sealed the envelope. There isn’t enough for a will.

Chad Miller is a queer writer living in Austin, Texas, writing a novel about a forgotten kiss and a second chance. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in No Tokens, Columbia, Jellyfish Review, Gone Lawn, Wigleaf, Elimae, Electric Literature, Flavorwire, and more. You can visit him at www.chadrobertmiller.com.