The Birthday Cake

Julia Pearl went to the baby shower because she knew it was expected. She’d received an invitation in the mail and wished she hadn’t opened it. Then again, not opening it would have made her a bad person just as much as not going to the baby shower. When it wasn’t a family gathering, her family avoided her as much as they could. She knew they looked at Caller ID when she called, and they didn’t answer because she probably needed something like changing a light bulb she couldn’t reach, even when she was standing on a kitchen chair. She knew they thought calling for anything was unreasonable. Sometimes she thought about stacking her kitchen footstool on top of the kitchen chair just so she wouldn’t bother her brothers. Her father was dead. He was probably glad he got away from her neediness. It wasn’t her fault light bulbs burned out in light fixtures so high she couldn’t reach them. She knew that was a lie. It was her fault. Everything was her fault.

She was one hour late for the baby shower. She thought about what kind of an excuse she could give if the shower was over when she got there. She thought about what kind of problem would allow her to be cavalier and announce that she’d had this, that, or the other problem but that she really wanted to come by and leave the present anyway. She thought that would look better than just showing up for a shower that had already taken place, present in hand, ready to smile and act normal—or act like the rest of her family, since they really weren’t normal. At least she didn’t think they were.

Everyone in her family smiled and had things to talk about when they gathered, sitting around on plastic folding chairs in one of their backyards, a big metal tub on the patio always full of ice with beer and soda stuck in it. Everyone set up a buffet table with plates, bowls, and platters of food, which everyone crowded around when it was time to eat. They reminded her of the cows at her great-grandmother’s ranch. When she was a child, she’d stand on the bottom rail of the corral that opened at the other side to what seemed like a mile of pasture grass and clover, her elbows resting on the top railing, watching the cows suddenly lift up their collective heads and begin herding themselves toward the milking house as if someone rang a bell or sounded an alarm. It was like that at the buffet table too. No one told anyone it was time to eat. Suddenly chairs got pushed back and paper plates picked up, her family circling the table, filling plates with potato salad or macaroni salad or both, deviled eggs, tossed green salad, and whatever else there was. Everyone was required to bring something to share—lasagna, chicken wings, Jell-O salad, whatever they thought would be good.

Julia Pearl thought it was strange that no one ever suggested the potato salad might be poisoned, since it had been on the table for three hours, cooled only by a patio umbrella, and that no one ever suggested that the person making deviled eggs should make enough so everyone could have at least one half of an egg. Instead they just stampeded straight for the deviled eggs, first come first served, and mounded their plates with everything else. She knew she wasn’t going to eat anything but dessert because cookies don’t go bad, and her family wouldn’t think she was a picky eater.

Her family thought she was weird. Sometimes she worried that her therapist had lied to her and she really was weird, as in outcast kind of weird. Other times she thought her family just wasn’t normal like the families she saw on TV. Her family wasn’t normal because a normal family wouldn’t keep getting the stomach flu in August without wondering if maybe the salads and eggs should be put on ice if they were going to sit on a hot table until it was time to eat. A normal family wouldn’t gather to talk about nothing while they ate food going bad and, when leaving, exclaim what a good time they’d had, that they’d have to do it again real soon, not to let so much time go by.

Julia Pearl thought it was normal not to touch potentially poisonous food and to never gather again for any reason unless it was their mother’s funeral, in which case a gathering would be required. She wanted to drive by the house where the baby shower was being held, roll down her window, and throw the present out the window and onto the lawn so she didn’t have to smile when she didn’t feel like smiling, and she wouldn’t have to listen to her brother explain to her, with that look on his face that said he was being kind to an idiot, that she should buy a new car, not a used car. Then he’d justify his position by telling her some mathematical formula she couldn’t follow. Or to have to smile when someone’s gigantic dog put his head in her lap, making loud, snuffling noises while its owner smiled, exclaiming that Jake, King, Bull, or another big-man name was such a friendly dog while Julia Pearl resisted the impulse to crash her Diet Coke can into the monster’s skull.

Julia Pearl didn’t understand baby showers. She knew it wasn’t normal to sit with a clothespin hooked onto your hem, trying not to cross your legs to keep someone from taking your clothespin. The last person, the one with all of the clothespins, won a prize, and it was always something that no one ever really used, like bath salts. Julia Pearl thought it would be good if she won and they gave her some note paper with a snarling dog on it. At least it would match some feeling in her she knew she kept pushing down and pushing down. She didn’t like the game where tiny diapers were handed out with different kinds of candy bars melted in them and each person had to identify the candy bars by tasting the melted mess. The one who correctly identified the most candy won a prize. There was just something about tasting anything out of a baby diaper that she couldn’t deal with. She knew it wasn’t normal to listen to everyone exclaim about the wonderful cake Mrs. X had made while Julia Pearl was trying to saw into the frosting with the side of her plastic fork, wondering if she should even be eating it. I mean if she couldn’t cut it, should she be swallowing it?

On the other hand, Julia Pearl thought, it was better to have a family than not, so she obeyed some family laws, like attending family gatherings, bringing a dish to share, figuring out something to talk about like the weather or, well, what else was there to talk about in those situations except the weather, unless she wanted to argue the merits of buying a new car or a used car with her brother, who wouldn’t be listening to her anyway because he already knew all of the answers and she didn’t. That’s what she hated about being a girl. She automatically didn’t know any right answers, and her dumb brothers always knew all of the right answers even when they were wrong. She just kept her mouth shut. It wasn’t worth it.

Julia Pearl was grateful to have a family because she didn’t have anyone else except her dog, and she worried all of the time that her dog was going to die and then she would be all alone, or she would adopt a dog that chewed everything up and peed on the floor and wouldn’t look lovingly at her like her dog. She had a formula for her dog in case her dog got cancer or hit by a car or something like that. If the vet said her dog had a fifty percent chance of survival, then she would pay to have the dog treated. If the vet said there was less than a fifty percent chance her dog would survive, she would have the dog put down immediately, before she could get all emotional and weepy and then lose her courage and wind up having a vet bill the size of a down payment on a house, which she didn’t have—a house, that is.

After the baby shower Julia Pearl took the long way home along country roads instead of through town. It was sunny and summer, her favorite season. She looked at all of the mansions on the hills and the vineyards sloping down from them all the way to the road and their individual iron gates. She thought about couples living in those mansions, sitting together on the couch, watching a big-screen TV in a room called a screening room or a movie room because that’s what rich people have that poor people don’t have. Poor people sit wherever the TV is—kitchen, living room, bedroom, wherever. She knew rich husbands bought their wives gold jewelry for no reason, and the wives grew beautiful, scented roses that the gardener took care of until it was time to cut them and arrange beautiful, fragrant bouquets in all of the main rooms and the bedrooms. She knew they slept on linen sheets with ten thousand thread count, the covers carefully folded back so they could feel the gentle night breeze coming from open windows as they held each other and slept.

Julia Pearl knew she was too old to even hope that a man with half a brain and a real job would want her. She knew that a rich man wasn’t anywhere in her future and really never had been because people stay in the social class they are born into. Julia Pearl was born into the middle class, which had been wiped out, so now she guessed she must belong to the lower class.

Then she decided to go to Costco to order her mother’s birthday cake for her mother’s birthday party at her other brother’s house the next Saturday. She cracked each window in her car just a little so her dog wouldn’t die while she was inside the huge warehouse ordering cake. It was always her job to order the cake unless someone volunteered to make a special one, which they hadn’t. She pulled out her membership card and turned it so the lady at the entrance could see that it had her picture on it because anyone could use anyone’s Costco card as long as the picture matched the face of the person carrying the card. Julia Pearl always obeyed the rules, right down to making sure she showed the lady at the door that her Costco card was actually her card. The lady at the door was uninterested and waved her in even though Julia Pearl tried to show her that she was doing the right thing and not cheating.

Julia Pearl grabbed a giant shopping cart, not because she was going to buy anything, because she wasn’t, but to hold her purse. She buckled the child’s seat belt through the straps of her purse so a purse snatcher couldn’t steal it and pushed her cart past big-screen TVs and wondered where the TVs were that went into the screening rooms of rich people and decided rich people probably didn’t shop at Costco.

The bakery was all the way at the back of the store. Julia Pearl pushed her cart past the things other people bought. There was a shiny, red, enamel blender and a hot tub that seated seven people; she’d stopped and counted. She’d rented an apartment so it didn’t much matter, but there was still a little tiny bit of her heart that hurt, knowing she would never own a red, enamel blender because everything in her kitchen would always be rental white, and she would never own a hot tub because she would never own a yard to put it in because she would never have a husband like the men who were pushing the big carts while their wives flitted through socks and DVDs and fresh salmon. Husbands took care of yards and hot tubs. Husbands had jobs that paid enough money to afford hot tubs.

Even the fat and ugly women doing their shopping had husbands who listened and talked to them and didn’t look one bit bored. Julia Pearl wondered what it would be like to have a husband. She didn’t know. She just had a dog.

At the bakery department she went right up to the cake-ordering kiosk, where she took a blank order form and then looked at the cake designs up on the wall. Each one had a little sign about it that said the cake served forty-eight people, so why did they have to have the same sign over each design? Why didn’t they just have one sign that said that the cakes serve forty-eight people? Julia Pearl suspected someone not so bright made the signs or they would have seen the obvious. She got her blue ink pen out of her purse and studied the cakes. She remembered that she’d ordered white cake the last time because she thought most people preferred white cake, and then a lot of them told her they liked chocolate cake and she realized she’d never paid attention to what they liked when it came to white cake or chocolate cake. Shouldn’t it be vanilla cake or chocolate cake or white cake and brown cake? Saying white cake and chocolate cake was mixing something up.

Julia Pearl studied the designs, trying to figure out which one her mother would like and which one would be the most clever and attractive to the other women in the family. Since she wasn’t going to make the cake from scratch or even from a box, it was important to make the cake look like it was something special and not a cake from a warehouse store. She was sure the cake with the golf clubs on it wasn’t the right one because her mother had never played a game of golf. The one with the baby carriage on it was for, well, baby showers. Out of fifteen choices, Julia Pearl decided it was between the cake with confetti and different colored balloons on it and the cake with a smiling sun and a bouquet of smiling flowers on it.

She stood there while the couples shopped around her. This was her Saturday night. She could take all the time she wanted. She looked back and forth from one cake design to the other. She imagined it sitting in the center of the buffet table and was glad that the frosting and filling were made out of lard so it wouldn’t go bad in the sun. The bakery wouldn’t dare put “lard” as the description for the frosting so they put “butter cream” instead. There wasn’t any butter or cream in the frosting. Julia Pearl knew that because she’d already read the ingredients. She finally decided that the smiling sun cake was a bit more unique than the balloon confetti cake so she filled out her form, writing down her name and phone number and what day and time she was going to pick up the cake.

Julia Pearl tried to figure out just how late she could pick up the cake and get to her mother’s birthday party without making herself look insensitive to their mother but allowing her to avoid most of the chit-chat and having to watch her family consume mounds of macaroni salad, potato salad, deviled eggs, and canned ham. Just thinking about it made her stomach ache. She decided to pick up the cake fifteen minutes before the party started, which would make her about thirty minutes late, which was nothing since there weren’t going to be any clothespin games or present opening where everyone had to watch and “oooh” and “aaaah” over each gift like at a baby shower.

When she was finished Julia Pearl dropped her order paper into the slot and began pushing her purse in the cart back up to the store entrance. She still had quite a few hours left before she could go to bed and have Saturday be over, but at least she had accomplished something; at least she had ordered her mother’s birthday cake, and that was something because she wouldn’t have to do it at the last minute, and she didn’t think her family had ever had a birthday cake with a smiling sun on it.

Her dog was a little hot but still breathing when she got back to her car. She would have told him about choosing the smiling sun birthday cake but she thought someone might see her and they would feel sorry for her, an old lady talking to her dog. She straightened her already rounding shoulders and drove.

Julia Pearl didn’t want to live like this. It was never a choice. It was like her life had unfolded in front of her and was as flat as Kansas. Here she was on Saturday evening doing what she always did. She was feeling sorry for herself and not doing anything about it.

Sure, she could run over the fat man who had just pushed his fat cart right in front of her so he could cut across to his car. It would feel good until she had to deal with blood and policemen and probably some sobbing wife who couldn’t imagine a Saturday night without the two of them sitting in their matching recliners, sharing a beer and a box of Cheez-Its while they watched an episode of True Crime together.

She could feel her breath stuck in her chest, a knot that wanted untying, something that wanted out. She didn’t know what to do. She wondered what other lonely women did.

She saw the neon cocktail glass on the top of what looked like a shack right in the middle of the industrial district. The glass had a girl sitting in it, her legs scissoring over the lip of the glass as if to suggest something fun. She realized the shack was a bar and the girl draped in and out of the cocktail glass suggested a good time waited inside, the neon winking off and on so the girl in the glass was there and not there and there again.

Julia Pearl had always played by the rules and didn’t feel at all wild like a woman who could sit in a cocktail glass and wink on and off. She pulled her car into the dirt parking lot and thought about what she was going to do. She was going to do something wild. No one would ever know and Julia Pearl felt like she had nothing to lose.

She wasn’t going to have a big screen TV or sheets with ten thousand thread count or a devoted husband who was a doctor or a lawyer.

She sat there in her car, her dog watching her as if he expected something was different or going to be different, and she knew she was going to at least try to be a little wild, maybe meet a man, maybe even a man with decent teeth who didn’t drink a six pack of beer every night.

She flipped down the visor and looked at herself in the mirror. She saw a stringy woman who didn’t have a wild bone in her body. She thought that couldn’t be true. How could she dislike so much about her supposedly normal family if she wasn’t something else, someone less normal but not exactly weird—maybe wild, maybe something. She didn’t want to let herself think about it too long.

Julia Pearl reached up and pulled the rubber band from her hair, releasing the tight bun at the back of her head. She used her fingers to fluff it around her face and took a little can of hairspray out of her purse and sprayed her hair to keep it fluffy. She had noticed that young women nowadays didn’t appear to have hairdos as much as they just had fluffed up hair that looked like it hadn’t been combed. She thought she’d read somewhere that it was called “bed head.” She dug around in her purse and found an old tube of lipstick, pulled off the cap and cleaned the hair and bits of purse stuff off of the creamy, blue-red stick, and applied it generously to her lips, even making them a bit larger than they actually were and forming a “cupid’s bow,” a little half heart, in the middle of her upper lip. Then she took the lipstick and made two round dots, one on each cheek and rubbed and rubbed until her cheeks looked like pale pink apples.

She got out of her car and reached up under her blouse and rolled the waistband of her skirt up three times until her skirt was short and, she hoped, sexy-looking. Her heart was jumping like she imagined a rabbit’s heart jumped just before someone broke its neck for food.

Julia Pearl locked her car and marched up to the bar door and pushed. It swung inward and she stepped in. The room was dark but she could see the bar and see that mostly guys were sitting there with drinks in front of them. She walked toward the bar. She was committed. She wanted to turn around and run back out to her car and just leave but then the people sitting at the bar would think she was weird. She didn’t want to be weird. She wanted to be wild.

“There she is,” said one of the guys at the bar as they all swiveled around to see who had just come in. He wasn’t bad-looking, at least in the dark, thought  Julia Pearl as she walked over and sat on the bar stool next to him. He was smiling at her. She made herself smile back like she did this every day.

“Can I buy you a drink, pretty lady?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said, thinking that her brothers would probably call a woman “pretty lady” and think it was a compliment.

“What’ll it be?”

She said she’d have a glass of white wine since she thought that sounded more ladylike than beer. She tossed her head a little to show off her fluffy hair.

He ordered her a glass of white wine and the other guys went back to staring at the bar, drinks in front of them.

He told her his name was Darryl and asked her what her name was. “Pearl,” she said. “My name is Pearl.”

She thought Pearl sounded better than Julia Pearl, which in her mind sounded very much like the life she’d been living and not the life she wanted to live. He was nice, she thought. He was smiling at her and saying something while Julia Pearl thought about her next move. Would she kiss him if he tried? He would have to walk her to her car and then she might, she thought.

She was already beginning to like it here in the dark, where you could choose a name that suited you and anything could happen, anything at all except ordering birthday cake, worrying about balloons or flowers, white cake or chocolate.

Mary Julia Klimenko c.2013                  Published in Prick of the Spindle 2014