At the edge of the counter, on a plate and wrapped in plastic, was a single wedge of cake. Not just chocolate cake, but German chocolate, layers of sodden coconut and crushed nuts bound by nectar as sweet, I imagined, as the honey drop I once sucked from a trumpet-shaped petal of a columbine.
I had to eat it.
This was back in the late 1980s when I was a young mother in a falling apart marriage and, on this night, dining with our monthly dinner group. April’s theme was “Bavarian,” though, oddly, the cake from which the single piece had sprung didn’t figure in. The hostess served Weinerschnitzel and sauerkraut from a can.
While the others laughed at a tale of someone’s lousy luck, tipping another bottle of pilsner, I wandered into the kitchen. Maybe I wanted a glass of water, maybe I needed to get away from the frivolity, the schadenfreude shaved off lives of charm and ease, reminding me I’d managed already, at age twenty-eight, to miss out on the promise of a golden future.
My then-husband, laughing with the others, wore lederhosen. My rented dirndl pinched at the waist, but the skirt, delightedly, bounced, a dandelion parachute in flight. The white blouse bubbled like beer-foam at the bosom, and I already figured I’d be fined at the costume shop for dribbling schnitzel gravy across the pillow of fabric. I considered scrubbing the brown spot at the sink, except, once I’d noticed it, I could focus only on the cake.
Anyone from the table could come around the corner and find me stuffing my mouth with confection our host was saving for herself, for her husband, for their four-year-old asleep in his room that also had a theme, planets and stars in dreamy shades of blue. There’d be a gasp of embarrassment, a whisper to our hostess: Look what she’s done. My husband would gather our coats, and we’d hurry to our car in the dark and surprise our babysitter, her boyfriend hiding behind the sofa. I didn’t care. Nor did I worry about returning to the table with strands in my teeth, walnut film on my lips, cake crumbs sprinkled against the slop of décolletage stain.
I suspected I was pregnant again, a fourth baby to add to the three at home, sore nipple twinges arriving just when I’d decided I was done, was leaving him, this boy I’d married, was out the door with daughters and boxes of ribbons and toys and dishes crammed in our car. Couldn’t we admit, he and I, that we’d never been right? Seven years earlier, walking the aisle in a lacey dress I’d convinced my mother to buy, I’d pretended this was another in the string of weddings my sister and I played out long ago, make believe. I could get through an hour of nuptial carnival; I could change into my own tired clothes and go home. Instead, I’d blinked in a corner until someone told me to leave with this man called husband.
There was a baby on the way then, as well—on that wedding day—followed by another and another, sliding out of me coated in vernix the shade of Elmer’s glue, as if charged to stick their parents together. Another angel-faced child—the fourth now inside of me—would keep me in the marriage for years.
When the noise from the dining room hit a pitch, I unwrapped the cake from its plastic, dragged a finger through the line of icing. I sucked that off, then shoved the wedge into my mouth. The whole thing. I took it in like a swimmer gasping for air. Did I chew? At least enough to dismantle components with my tongue and teeth, tender and firm, slimy and tough, watching for shadows at the doorway while pushing lumps against the borders of my cheeks. I would have eaten the plate and plastic, if I could, but I wadded up the wrap, shoving it into the froth of blouse so it wouldn’t be located in the garbage when the person counting on this last morsel searched the kitchen. Where’s the cake? Where?
I can’t say why I did it. I can’t explain or ask for forgiveness. I probably don’t even like her, that young woman, except there she is, tipping toward me, her German chocolate breath in my ear: Come on, she says, admit it. Nothing in your life has ever tasted as suitably bitter—or as sweet.
Debra Gwartney is the author of a memoir, Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she is co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, most recently Prairie Schooner and The Normal School. She teaches in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program, and lives in Western Oregon.