Fiction

Cake

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 FICTION




It’s Barry’s birthday, so you and your new friend Miranda make him a cherry come cake. Actually, Duncan Hines makes the cake, but you pre-heat the oven and add eggs to the mix. Miranda does the decorations: fresh cherries inserted in the cake’s center hole and

drippy white frosting running down the sides.


    

Miranda’s brow is furrowed, she’s hunched over the cake. She wrist-flicks the tube of frosting like it’s a fat thermometer. Tell her she’s Julia Child meets Jackson Pollock meets Pussy Galore. “Hmm,” she says, not looking up from the cake. “Who’s Jackson Pollock?”


    

While Miranda’s in the shower, change out of your jeans and into the turquoise Chinese-patterned dress you brought along. Open the bathroom door a crack and shout into the steam that you’d love to borrow her mood ring, if that’s okay. Miranda sticks her head out from behind the curtain. She’s twenty-three, six years younger than you, but she looks about eight with her hair plastered down over her skull.


    

“Sure,” she says, pleased, “It’ll look nice with that dress. It’s right there.” She points to the windowsill. Her arm is pale and freckled, dripping with water. “But you better not lose it.” She smiles. “I’ll fucking kill you.”



Be an hour late to the Irish pub in Jamaica Plain. Apologize profusely. Tell Barry, who’s already sitting in a booth with his friends Ann and Jordan, that you couldn’t help it: you were operating on Miranda time. “The girl has to blow-dry every last strand of hair,” you explain, “and then apply a tank of hairspray.”


    

“Hey now,” says Miranda, bumping her hip against yours. She points to Barry’s frothy pint of Guinness. “Yum. That looks good. Can I have a sip?”


    

Barry says by all means. He’s in a fine mood. So are Ann and Jordan, who give marriage a sexy name: they’re young, affectionate and friendly with Jack Daniels. They believe in babysitters and nights out without the cell phone. They enjoy providing gory details about parenting, like nipple burn and an arc of pee in the face.


    

“In the face?” says Barry.


    

“Oh yeah,” says Jordan.


    

“Every time I change his diaper,” says Ann.


    

“That’s why girl babies are better,” puts in Miranda.


    

“Maybe so,” says Ann.


    

Watch her take a sip of her drink and catch Jordan’s eye. Understand the complaints are just modesty — chapstick instead of lipstick. Understand she’s crazy in love with her husband, her little boy, her life.



                    

  



©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION










Split an order of fish and chips with Miranda. Down two Bloody Marys. Take a few Kodak-Instamatic moments when Barry opens his presents: a CD gift certificate from Ann and Jordan; a subscription to Barely Legal from Miranda; a plastic walkie-talkie set and Hard Times from you.


    

“Dickens,” says Barry. “Interesting. How chimney-sweepish of you. Any particular connection with the walkie talkies?”


    

Shrug and tell him no. Tell him you’ve decided that toys are like vitamins: they keep you healthy. Take a few bites of your celery stalk and start to get giggly. You’re not the only one, especially when the conversation begins to pinball around sex: Ann’s eleven-year-old masturbation technique of shimmying up the swing-set poles; Miranda’s first girl-on-girl kiss at age twenty; you in the tent with your fiancé, Caleb, and his brother. (Nothing happened, it was just weird.)


    

Barry and Jordan say a few words about porn flicks, but mostly they just beam. Mostly they look like they’ve died and gone to heaven.


    

“So where is Caleb?” Ann asks.


    

“Paris,” you say, swallowing the rest of your drink. “On business.”


    

“When’s the wedding?” asks Jordan.


    

Tell them you don’t know. Tell them deadlines give you a rash, and besides, it’s fun to irk your parents by setting a record for the world’s longest engagement: they were ready for the wedding — and grandchildren — yesterday, but it’s already been a year and a half since Caleb popped the question at their annual Christmas party in New York.


    

Scan the room for the waitress: she’s nowhere in sight. Say, “What does someone have to do to get another drink around here? Dance on the tables?”


    

Gnaw on the grassy part of your celery stalk. Jordan is saying something about proposing to Ann on top of a mountain, but all you really hear for a second is the tink, tink of Caleb’s spoon against his champagne glass. The room went so silent you thought your eardrum might burst. Remember how Caleb swallowed hard a couple of times before speaking, as though he were gulping down all his doubt, all his nerve, all his love. And when he spoke, his voice was deep and sturdy — a voice you could lean a lot of weight against. You gave your answer and the guests cooed as if a baby had been born into the room. Everywhere you looked you saw smiley faces instead of noses and pores and mouths. Caleb was a smiley face. You must have been one, too.


    

See the waitress and flag her down. Speak rapidly, say, “Hi, yeah, I’ll have another one, anyone else?”


    

“Why not?” says Barry.


    

“I guess one more,” says Jordan.


    

“You bet,” says Miranda.




  

                    

  






©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION










When Miranda announces she’s going to the bathroom, know from the way she narrows her eyes at you that really she’s getting the cake. Five minutes later hear her start to sing happy birthday in her Ethel Merman voice. She’s at least twenty feet away from the booth, and she takes her sweet time getting back, holding the cake out, almost blowing out the candles with her husky notes. The entire pub sings along.


    

Hold Barry by the scruff of his collar so he won’t climb under the table. Tell him to take his cake like a man.


    

“Wow,” he says as Miranda places the plate in front of him. “Wow.”


    

Miranda draws his attention to the hole, the cherries, the come. “Doesn’t it look yummy?” she says, clapping her hands together. “Don’t you just want to lick it?”


    

“Um, yeah,” says Barry. “Although I think I’m going to use a fork. We are in public after all.”


    

Miranda lets out a derisive snort and you feel an odd rush of pride. Realize that in public means absolutely nothing to her: she still does what she has to do, says what she has to say.


    

Barry sucks in a lungful of air and is about to blow, when Miranda shouts, “WAIT!”


    

“Jesus,” says Barry, exhaling off to the side. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”


    

“Sorry,” says Miranda, looking over at you. “It’s just that everyone who’s wearing rings has to put them over the candles. You gotta share the wishes.”


    

“I haven’t heard that one before,” says Barry.


    

“I have,” says Ann, wedging off her wedding band.


    

“Me, too,” you say. Drop Miranda’s mood ring over one of the candles. The stone is heavy, dents the white frosting.


    

“We all set now?” asks Barry.


    

“Ten-four,” says Miranda.


    

Barry blows and everyone in the pub claps. Miranda asks the waitress to take a picture. Ann and Jordan come over to Barry’s side of the booth, and you all huddle around the Birthday Boy, your faces rubbery with drinks and grins. Miranda holds rabbit ears up over Barry’s head, and the camera flash goes off as you are trying to bat down her fingers.



At eleven, Ann and Jordan have to take off to relieve their babysitter.


    

“I’ve got a piece of wedding advice for you,” says Ann, fishing in her purse for her car keys. “Buffet.”


    

“Or better yet,” says Jordan, “be spontaneous and selfish. Go to Vegas just the two of you.” He holds out his hand for Ann and they head for the door. “Happy returns, B-man,” he calls over his shoulder.


    

Barry raises his hand in thanks and turns back to you. “I like this Vegas idea,” he says. “Why don’t you guys get married by one of those Elvis impersonators?”


    

“Yoohoo,” says Miranda, leaning across the table, “attention please. The night’s still young. We need to decide what we’re doing, where we’re going now.” She pauses to light a cigarette, and you can’t help but admire the way she punts, like a soccer ball, conversation topics that bore her.


    

“Luckily,” Miranda continues, exhaling, “I happen to know what we should do.” She looks from you to Barry, back to you again. She takes another drag. Then she announces your next destination: The Glass Slipper, Boston’s one remaining titty bar.


    

Oh really.


    

Raise your eyebrows at Barry. You’ve never been inside such a place before in your life. When you were little, and your parents took you to musicals in Times Square, you thought all the X’s were for kisses. You actually once told Caleb this, and he crinkled his eyes and said he hoped that if the two of you ever had a daughter, she’d be as fucking adorable as you.


    

Worry out loud that this Glass Slipper scene might be scary. The girls could have bruises all over their bodies. The men could have holes in the crotch of their trousers. What if you get there and realize you don’t want to see this stuff.


    

“Yeah, but we could always go somewhere else if it’s really disgusting,” says Barry. “We got my car.”


    

“Come on,” cajoles Miranda. “You know you’re curious. Be spontaneous.”


    

Let out a sharp bark of laughter. Down the rest of your drink. Remind her the seats might be sticky.


    

“Puh-leez,” she says, “it’s not a peep show. I’m not talking about booths.”


    

When you ask her how many times she’s been to this place, she looks sheepish.


    

“Well?” you demand.


    

“Does it matter?”


    

“Well?”


    

“Okay, never. But I’ve walked by it, and I’ve heard a lot about it. It’s a Boston landmark.”


    

Rattle the icecubes in your empty glass. Poke Barry in the ribs. Say, “What the hell.” Say, “I’m game.”



The Glass Slipper’s clientele turns out to be half MIT frat boys, half middle-aged bald men. The frat boys, with their crew cuts, khaki shorts and scuba-diving watches, are clustered around the front of the stage, jostling each other with their tanned elbows, trying to slip dollar bills into the dancer’s G-strings. See that Miranda — like the bald men — is annoyed by their presence. Ask the hostess for a table in the back.


    

Settle in between Barry and Miranda. Watch the boys and the dance show for a while, then turn your attention off-stage. Observe the pimp-guy with the horseshoe pinkie ring and the soggy cigar stub hanging between his lips. He’s busy setting up introductions between the girls and the customers: “Simone, honey, I’d like you to meet Chip. He’s from Rhode Island, too, so I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about.” He slaps the girls on the ass, winks at the men.


    

The manager is one table over from you. Point her out to Miranda. Decide she’s even scarier than the pimp. Her hair is pulled back into a tight gray bun, and most of her eyebrows are tweezed off. She’s smoking and drinking, deciding which girls go on next. Two chunky Hawaiian twins beg to be given a chance. Finally, bun lady snaps, “Okay, but don’t make me sorry!”


    

Feel bad for the twins: they suck.


    

“What the hell is this?” cracks Barry. “A bad Paul Gaugin fantasy?”




  

                    

  






©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION










On line for the bathroom, a bouncer with a tattoo of Curious George on his biceps checks you out. He leans against the fake wood-grain wall, takes a drag off his cigarette, runs his eyes up your body. Be only half aware of standing up a little straighter, of arching your back just the teeniest bit. Be more aware when the bouncer comments on the size of your breasts. “They’re kinda small, aren’t they?” he says, blowing you a smoke ring.


    

“Yeah, but what a nice mouthful,” says the stripper who’s standing behind you, waiting to pee.


    

Wonder if you should thank her for coming to your rescue. Wonder if you should be insulted that she’s talking about your tits. Say nothing. Tap your foot.


    

When it’s your turn to go in, lock both the knob on the door and the eyehook. Unroll a yard of toilet paper and pad the toilet seat with it. Still squat. While you’re waiting for the pee to come, look around and notice that the ceiling is covered with mirrors. The view is pretty weird: you’re not wearing a bra and you can see right down the V of your dress. Start to laugh. Start to feel a tad paranoid: everyone here is looking at your tits — including you.



Back at the table, try to convince Barry to slip one of the dancers a fiver.


    

“No way,” he says. “I’m too shy.”


    

Tell him he’s twenty-nine now, and he’s got to learn to live it up. Tell him time is running out. Tick-tock your tongue like a clock.


    

“Jesus,” he says, “it’s not nice to depress someone on their birthday.”


    

Say you don’t want to depress him; you want to help him.


    

“Why don’t you?” says Miranda.


    

“Why don’t I what?”


    

“Why don’t you slip one of the dancers a fiver.”


    

“Yeah,” says Barry, brightening. “That’s a fine idea.”


    

“Well,” you say, “I will. Just as soon as I see one whose moves I like.”


    

“Forget it then,” says Barry. “We’ll be here all night.”


    

“Chicken,” says Miranda, clinking her glass against yours.



After forty-five minutes, understand that Miranda is getting antsy. She has a low threshold for boredom, which can sometimes make you nervous: nothing ever seems to be enough. When Barry goes to the bathroom, she suggests that the two of you slip off and go out dancing. Feel guilty, but agree anyway. Tell Barry on his return that you’re tired. Tell him you turn into a pumpkin after midnight.


    

“That’s okay,” he says, yawning. “I’m beat, too. Plus I’ve entered my thirtieth year. I’ve got to go home and kill myself.”


    

Get him to drop you off in Allston with Miranda. Explain that you left your house keys at her apartment while you were making the cake. When he pulls over in front of Store 24, wish him a happy, happy birthday. Hug him tight. For a second, want to stay in the car. Do you really have the energy for this? Look at your watch. It’s 12:30. Do the math: it’s almost dawn in France. Imagine for a crazy second that the sheets on Caleb’s hotel bed are still taut and tucked in. Imagine that he’s sitting on a barstool, with his hand between some French girl’s legs.


    

“You’re a jolly good fellow,” Miranda says, blowing Barry a kiss from the curb. “Thanks for the ride.” She turns to you. “Coming?”




  

                    

  






©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION










Hit the Commonground on Harvard Ave. This, Miranda informs you, cutting to the front of the line and saluting the bouncer, is her home away from home. It’s also early ’80s night, so the place is packed: lots of pale Goth girls with blood-red lipstick, guys with shaggy hair

and silver studs in their chins.


    

Do shots of JD with beer chasers, then move onto the dance floor. Go wild. Shake your ass and wave your arms. Feel like you’re back in college, except this time around you’ve got your twenties as money in the bank — this time you have a clue. Sweat gathers on your brow, behind your ears, at the base of your neck. Jump up and down and notice how your organs jiggle and tickle your insides. Decide that dancing is the closest you ever get to euphoria.


    

When Miranda grabs you by the wrist, let yourself be pulled. Close your eyes and be aware only of the thumping beat and the softness of her mouth.


    

Make out like teenagers.


    

When you break apart a bunch of guys stare at you, dumbfounded. “God,” one finally says, “that was fucking beautiful.” The two of you laugh — ha! ha! — and dirty-dance to the center of the floor. Consider how that was the fourth time this summer you’ve locked lips with the girl — not that anyone’s counting; not that it’s gone any farther than that.


    

Once the kiss is out of the way, Miranda makes no bones about acting as your bodyguard. Be impressed; be flattered. Notice that your heart leaps when she scowls at a skinny guy with spiky blond hair and says, “Leave her alone! She’s mine.”


    

When the lights come on at 2 a.m., stagger into the cool night air, which feels like a silk cloth against your skin. Argue with the bouncer on the sidewalk: he’s confiscated your bottle of water. Swear it has no alcohol in it. “Come on,” you plead, “I need it! I’m soooo hot!”


    

Be shameless. Bat your eyes at him and tilt your neck so he can see the path your sweat’s taking: it’s streaking from behind your ear, over your collarbone, down the V of your dress.


    

Next thing you know, the bouncer is pouring the water over your head and you are raising your face up to the stream, like you’re in a porno Breck commercial. For a blissful instant, feel your mind turn inside out. Hear the crowd around you hoot with delight. Shimmy under the water like a pro as Miranda pulls out the camera and snaps a picture.



Stop at Store 24 for a package of Chuckles and two cans of Cokes. Walk the three blocks back to her place arguing over who gets the red one. (You do — you paid for it.) Once upstairs in her studio, towel off your damp hair. Sit on the edge of her bed and watch her roll a joint. Smoke it. Finish up the Chuckles. Collapse back on her pillows.


    

Miranda lowers the window shades and turns off the lights. She lies down next to you. Your eyes are closed but you can feel that her face is no more than three inches from yours. Don’t touch. Wonder if she’s going to try anything. You’ve slept over here once before, and she did, but that time you rolled away. Wonder if she’s falling asleep. Shift around a little. Sigh once or twice. Then say, “Hey.”


    

“Hey,” Miranda whispers back.


    

And that’s all it takes.


    

Arch your back like Nadia Comeneche; flex your toes toward the ceiling. Press your bodies tight together and feel the cold hoop of her nipple ring against your arm, against your ribs, against your nipples.


    

Stop for a moment to tell Miranda how pretty she is. When you see she doesn’t believe you, feel something sharp kick in your gut. Realize you’d do anything to make her believe you. Kiss her on the mouth again and again. Run your hand over the curve of her belly, her hips, down between her thighs. Take a mental breath and stick your finger inside her. Be so shocked by the hot gush of familiarity that you let out a gasp. Stick in a second finger. A third. Now Miranda’s all over you too, pulling at your hair, her fingers jammed in your mouth, up your cunt. Your pelvic muscles are scrabbling like mad. Someone’s saying oh baby. Someone’s saying fuck me. So you do.




  

                    

  





©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION










Later, chatter at each other like chimpanzees. Ask each other a bunch of what if questions. What if you had a million dollars? What if you had your own TV network? What if you had an audience with Jon Bon Jovi? (“I’d offer to suck his dick,” says Miranda.)


    

When you get up to pee, bang into a chair, which tips over and crashes to the floor.


    

“Jesus,” says Miranda, “you’re a klutz.”


    

Tell her to take a hike; tell her you’re still drunk.


    

This is true: when you look in the mirror see two sets of eyes staring back at you.



Once you’re back under the covers, feel fatigue come over you like a wave. Feel your bones turn to soup. Be so tired it requires tremendous effort just to swallow. The pillows are soft. The sheets smell like Bounce.


    

Miranda’s voice comes at you from miles away. “I’ve got one more,” she says, her voice low and warm. “Are you ready?”


    

“Um-hmm.”


    

“What would you say if I called you up and told you I’d bought two one-way tickets to Amsterdam?”


    

“Hmm.”


    

You are right on that delicious edge. It takes a moment for you to speak, and when you do, your words are heavy, they drop from your mouth like coins: “I’d say . . . When does the plane leave?”


    

“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s a flight to Europe. At night, I guess.”


    

“Noooooo.” Your voice is muffled by the pillow. “That’s my answer: when does the plane leave.”



Open your eyes. Shut them back down. Open them again and worry that your lids are ripping. Worry that a couple of mice may have died in your mouth. Squint at the digital clock: it reads 2:13 p.m. Groan and pull the covers over your head.


    

Miranda pats you on the head and lifts the covers back. “Grease,” she says, crouching next to the bed. See that her hair is damp and catch a whiff of almond shampoo; see that she is dressed in blue jeans and a flowered top.


    

“Huh?” you say.


    

“You need grease to soak up the hangover. What do you think about Mexican? There’s this place I love in Harvard Square.”


    

Tell her you’re not sure.


    

“Trust me,” she says, poking you in the ribs. “I know about these things. After a burrito and a margarita, you’ll be a new woman.”


    

Groan again. Blink at her fuzzy face.


    

“Jesus,” she says laughing. “You really look like shit.”



Get dressed, drink six glasses of water, swallow one of Miranda’s homeopathic liver pills. Join her in smoking some pot, which helps a little, quiets down the gong in your head. She’s antsy again, ready to get outside. “Now who’s taking a year and a day?” she says. “Let’s go.” Shuffle out the door behind her.


    

Take a bus to Harvard Square. On the bus, wonder why you’re on a bus. Wonder why you couldn’t have just gone to some place easy, some place close to her apartment. Consider asking her this, then change your mind. You know the answer: Miranda wants a day trip.


    

Find her good mood grating. When she pulls the Kodak-Instamatic out of her pocket, hold your hand up like a paparazzi-stalked movie star. Not today, you tell her coldly.


    

At The Rocking Horse Café, have a few sips of your margarita, eat half your quesadilla. Use your fork to make tracks in the guacamole. Lose the last of your stamina and start to feel like you might throw up. Miranda has wolfed down her burrito and is talking about mosh pits and body slamming. Have trouble hearing what she’s saying: the drain-sucking noise in your brain is way too loud. Realize you desperately want to go home, you want to get in your own bed, you want to curl up next to Caleb. Look at your watch. Know that at this exact moment he’s up in the clouds, munching peanuts and watching a bad movie. Know that he got a good night’s sleep, that at most he dreamed about the French girl.


    

Ask the waitress for a doggy bag. The check, too.



Leave Miranda at the Harvard T stop. When she asks you if you’re sure you don’t want to wander around a little more, look in some shops, snap that you can’t: you already told her you have to get home. Kiss her on the cheek and try not to inhale the delicate dust of her blush, the red berry of her lipstick. Tell her you’ll give her a call.


    

“Yeah?” she says.


    

Nod. Glance at your watch. Fight off the sweetness in her sea-glass green eyes.




  

                    

  





©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.

 FICTION









Get underground and hear the T coming. Start to run. Run in your clomply clogs, stuffed backpack on your back. Run faster. The T is pulling into the station and you are through the turnstile, running even faster now, running so hard that all of a sudden the velocity of your upper body is shooting ahead, and you are trying with all your might to keep your legs from spinning out. Succeed for three seconds. Then you are airborne, like Supergirl, arms and legs horizontal to the ground, flying down the ramp.


    

Hit the ground first with your palms, then with your chest. Wind knocks out of you, palms and wrists and elbows skid on concrete: you are a human sled. Finally, stop. Lie still as a stump for a second. Think you’ve shattered your ribs and punctured your heart. Think you’re dead.


    

Miraculously, you are able to stand up. Brush yourself off. A bunch of people ooh and ahh and ask if you’re okay. Two men run to gather your clogs, which have flown a good twenty feet ahead of you. The men hand back the shoes, pat you on the back, and peel off to catch the T. Stand for a moment in the middle of the crowd. Hate them; hate the way they’re watching you with those worried expressions. What the fuck are they looking at? You’re fine. Want more than anything to get away.


    

Take off after the two men — can you believe it? you’re running again — and slip into the T just as the doors are closing.


    

Hold onto a pole. Be glad you grew up in New York City — only a New Yorker could take a spill like that and still make the train. Congratulate yourself on your endurance: you can take a licking and keep on ticking. Caleb would be proud of your uppsy-daisy pluck. “That’s my girl,” he’d say.


    

Try not to shake. Try not to let anyone see that you’re panting, that you still haven’t gotten enough air back in your lungs. Breathe through your nose — in and out, in and out. That’s it, that’s better. Ease your backpack off and rest it between your feet. Yawn. Cough twice. Then stare into the middle distance and run your thumb across the spidery, burst blood vessels that have already appeared on your wrist.




  

                    






©2000 Sarah Towers and Nerve.com, Inc.