Cake: 1971

 By: Clementine Woladarsky

Marlborough School, Los Angeles, California


She brandishes the knife like a weapon. To me it is a weapon, particularly useful for stabbing people in stories, but she does no such thing. Instead she falls upon a variety of vegetables with a zealousness I never associate with cooking. She is frustrated because only last week she taught me to properly chop an onion, and I am still doing it wrong. It was hopeless, I said, to teach me how to prepare a tomato sauce.

“What man will marry a woman who can’t even cook a meal?”

She asks me this while we are waiting for her long-term boyfriend to come down for a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and freshly ground coffee. All she ever seems to be doing is waiting, especially for her boyfriend to ask her to marry him.

She repeats the question. I tell her that I’ll never have to cook as long as I have her around. She has abandoned all her feminist values for the right to make a proper dinner every night and fold the linen napkins she embroiders.

“What if you were to starve to death?” That makes me laugh, which annoys her greatly. “It could happen.”

“I’d go out to eat.”

“You’re hopeless,” she says, though not without affection.

Her boyfriend comes downstairs fifteen minutes late.

“The food’s getting cold.” She pouts attractively, causing him to kiss her head.

“I was getting ready, Lovie.” It’s a term our grandmother used, and I am repulsed. He hands her something in silvery blue paper. “Go ahead.”

The paper reveals a box, which reveals a ring, which makes her scream. “Are you asking me to marry you?”

I respond in the affirmative, and she throws me a dark look. “It was a stupid question,” I remind her.

“Well, will you?” The boyfriend is hovering over his plates of eggs and bacon.

“Of course!” She throws her arms around him, and they dance around the kitchen table. I resolve to quietly drink my coffee quietly out of a blue and white striped mug.

He pats my head and says that he is really late now and has to go. They embrace again.

When the door closes she stares pointedly at me.

“I’m engaged and you’re not.”

“I am fully aware of that.” I start on the eggs, which are quite cold but still good.

“I can cook, and you can’t. Oh please be smarter about this and let me help you. I can’t have my older sister die alone because she never learned how to cook a proper breakfast.”

I inform her that my boyfriend cooks for me. “It’s marvelously new-age,” I gush. “He brings me soup in bed.”

“A boyfriend?” She eyes me suspiciously. “How long?”

“A year on Tuesday.”

“I can’t believe I knew nothing of this.” She meditates on the news for a while. “Is he that boy Ian?” I nod. “He’s your boyfriend? I could’ve sworn he was gay!”

“He’s not gay,” I say defensively. “We’re going out.” I am more annoyed than I care to admit. She idly stirs her coffee.

“I should get new china.” She picks up a plate. “This is no kitchenware for a married woman.”

I have been using the same tin plates for years, but I don’t bother saying so.

“Honestly, when are you going to pick up a frying pan?”

“Never, if I can help it.”

“You will never be a good wife. He’ll divorce you in no time and take up with a man, most likely.” This makes her laugh until she looks at me. “Sorry, sorry. I don’t mean that. Here, we’ll have a lesson in the kitchen right now.” She busies herself pulling eggs and flour and butter out of garishly blue cupboards. She wants to teach me to bake a cake. “Like this, and like this.” She pours the stuff into a bowl and mixes. When I try the flour goes everywhere, the bulk of it on my forehead.

The cake doesn’t rise because I mixed up sugar and salt. It’s dry with a runny inside.

“It’s a terrible cake.” She sits down and begins to cry.

I trivially think her tears concern only me.

“I’ll buy you a cake.” With my money that I made not being a housewife.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says through her tears, a clear indication I should go. I take the cake and it creates a slight problem on the metro so I toss it, tin foil and all, into the nearest bin.

My sister got married several months later and asked me to “handle the cake.” In all her whirlwind planning she seemed to forget that I was still unbearably wretched at all things culinary. I ordered the cake from a bakery and asked for untidy frosting to make it seem realistic. What a joke! She married easily and prettily and became the sort of housewife she wanted to be. Coffee in the morning, dinner at seven thirty, a kiss on the cheek. She said she loved the pots and pans as I love pens and paper. My sister would throw her life into a Sunday roast.

It was around this point in time that Ian left me. For a guy, I should add. He asked me to bake him a wedding cake. I sent him a bakery cake without bothering to take it out of the box.

My sister called me in a panic after he left.

“What are you going to eat?” She screeched.

I told her about the deli across the street, then hung up.

I remained happily well-fed for many years without ever lifting a frying pan. No coffee or Sunday roasts for me. The best I ever did was buy a tablecloth, a gesture my husband pronounced “utterly charming.”