Five years ago, Nine baked a rainbow cake to impress Ahmir, who she’d been seeing for three years by then. Three years was, by far, the longest she’d made a relationship last. There’d been 22-year-old Levi when she was eighteen; he stuck around for a year. And when she was 21, there was Damon, who she dumped after six long-distance months. Her relationship with Ahmir was uncharted territory. Was he a blessing or a barnacle? She hadn’t decided. Until she did, it made sense to continue crafting a certain self-mythology for his benefit.
She wasn’t much of a baker, though she’d been at it since toddlerdom. To keep her occupied, her mother would shake a bit of unsifted flour and tap water into a shallow bowl for Nine to mix. Mixing had been a favorite pastime of Nine’s ever since. Stirring ingredients by hand, in rhythmic, clockwise motion, was nothing short of cathartic. Over the years, she’d come up with her best lines of poetry while absently creaming butter and sugars. She’d discovered her ability to hit high notes in accurate pitch, while melting German chocolate on a stovetop.
On the Sunday of the woebegone cake five years ago, Nine had cooked an entire meal. Seafood alfredo (sauce from scratch). Steamed lemon-butter broccoli. Garlic bread, also from scratch. It was a good meal—great if you you were Ahmir and used to subsisting on value menu items at McDonald’s.
And so Nine’s mythologizing gained momentum. The dinner was more than enough to reinforce her position as a steady girlfriend. But the cake, if properly executed, might just secure a proposal.
It was a basic white cake—not from scratch. If it were about the mixing alone, she would’ve been just fine. But there were layers. Nine knew nothing of layers and how to pour the batter evenly between three round pans or how long to let each cool before attempting to wrest it from its metal casing or how to balance one atop the other, neatly, unbroken.
Still. All this might’ve been managed, were it not for the jello. Three different kinds were required. (After all, how else would the cake be a rainbow?) This meant adding careful measurements of hot water to the the powdered gelatin and a delicate hand to drizzle each color atop each layer of cake.
She tried. Oh, how the girl tried! She held her breath, watching the cherry and lemon and lime liquid-jellos soak into the white cake, staining it red and yellow and green. She placed the layers onto a cleared rack of the refrigerator and waited the necessary two hours for the liquid to gel.
Things seemed to be going well, and if she cleared this hurdle, there was only one more to jump: the even slathering of Cool Whip frosting. She pulled each layer from the fridge and smiled that her cake seemed to have reached its proper consistency. But when she tried to jimmy one tier from its pan, she realized she’d been far too liberal with the jello drizzle. It’d seeped straight through to the bottom and stuck. Each rainbow color was a fault line, her every movement, no matter how gentle, an earthquake. There was no way the remaining white sections of the cake would survive as a whole. This, she thought, must be what her middle school geography teacher was trying to tell her about tectonic shift and its potential repercussions for California.
That’s it, thought Nine. Now Ahmir will never marry me. Because what good is a wife who can’t follow through on cake from a box?
It was ruined.
Each layer had to be lifted from the pans with a spatula. None were any less than three jagged sections. Balancing upright them would’ve been impossible. They were leaning, like a heroin addict on a bus stop. An avalanche of crumbs toppled off their brown edges. Nine hated herself.
# # #
Nine and Ahmir were together for eight years. They never married. This was one of the things that was bothering her that Monday, when a gale of wind pushed and shoved her on her uphill journey toward home. The wind worked in concert with the glistening sheet of ice coating the sidewalk. The blustering snow was an abusive lover, repeatedly smacking her cheeks and leaving red marks.
She still hated herself, but Ahmir was no longer the cause. It was this sidewalk, this weather, the series of misguided decisions that were propelling her up the street of a Grand Rapidian suburb. It was her lack of foresight, the haste with which she’d leapt at an opportunity to teach college in Michigan–an opportunity she wouldn’t have received if the woman she was replacing hadn’t found a better job. Better. That should’ve tipped her off then and there.
She hated herself for not anticipating the darkness of a Great Lakes winter; for buying shoes whose soles were no match against three-inch streams of melted snow, refrozen; for never giving thought to the fact that her father, with whom she’d never shared a city, lived here or to the fact that her mother, to whom she often turned in times of angst, did not.
She was cold, damn it.
She hated herself for picking up cursing and turning the bottles of wine on weekends, just to cope with the ten-degree temperatures, just to calm her heart’s sudden flutter, a flutter she never knew she had until she started teaching, a flutter her physician blithely told her was “probably just anxiety.”
She despised her self-consciousness and the inner voice that assured her of her incompetence, every time she tried to explain citation in MLA format. She hated that she noticed the daily stares of pasty white mid-westerners and how their children gaped outright, like they’d spotted the Hottentot Venus.
Nine tugged her scarf tighter around her neck, hoping to protect her sore throat from further damage. She struggled to breathe, as she always did toward the peak of this hill. Her breathing had grown shallow here; she figured it had to do with the anxiety. The doctor had encouraged her to take several deep breaths whenever she noticed herself hyperventilating. But deep breaths proved difficult in the whirling snow. Her nose stung. Her eyes dried. She felt hopeless out of shape, her heart pounding against her chest now, as she closed in on her aunt and uncle’s house. She always smiled vaguely when it came into view. It meant she was just two blocks away, the number 11 bus stop a half-mile behind her. Just a bit longer until she could curl up on the two-cushion couch she called bed and attempt to cheer herself for surviving another January Monday.
“Stupid cake,” she muttered, before collapsing at the corner of Elmdale and Assumption.