Birthday Cake by Chael Needle
The remains of the cake looked like a clock. Two pieces were left, where 11 and 4 might be, or 8 and 2, depending on where you placed midnight.
Even without its pedestal, it had been a tall cake, layered with lemon curd and knife-swept with pink frosting, topped with roses and birthday wishes to Will, the red-jellied cursive now reduced to the top of the ‘H’ and the double ‘l.’
The cake had seemed out of place in the 7 p.m. quietude of Hank’s kitchen, whose cold draughts had for once been dispersed by the waves of heat emanating from the oven, hardly ever used, and never for baking, a pastime which he had given up in 1984 after he had made too many loaves of peasant bread for hospital visits and too many pans of banana bread for wakes.
It had seemed out of place on the fourteen-block trek down Second Avenue into the East Village, as Hank, carrying the gift and sweating, his thumbs slipping on the opaque white plastic of its cover, dodged the New Year’s Eve revelers who lurched and laughed and nudged him.
It had seemed out of place in the elevator, where Hank had stood among men, younger and much better groomed friends of Will and Sean that he barely knew but recognized, who cradled gold and silver beribboned bottles of wine and liqueur in their arms like babies, perfect angels who never cried.
The cake had seemed out of place on the table that had been laid out for the party guests, a rich tower of sugar amid the bowls and platters of kale-topped this and star anise-infused that. The guests had complimented Hank on his baking as they ate their polite slices, thin as minutes. However did he create such deliciousness?
Hank misread the question as a true question, and he began explaining about this first try at baking after many, many years, how it all came back to him, the secret extra scoop of lemon zest in the curd, the closely monitored mixing to the right fluffiness, how his grandmother had taught him that the temperature dial rarely measured the true heat of the oven.
No one was listening, except Jeremy, there in the back, he noted, so he stopped. His baking seemed like a triumph only to Hank. It was. He was the only one who cared. He was not a child anymore. He thought of his grandmother’s kitchen and its branches of blinkless owls, always judging him—a boy in an apron—with their glossy ceramic disdain. He quietly pivoted away from his pride.
As he had with a tray of glasses and chip-and-dip carousels, Hank carried the mostly eaten cake to Will and Sean’s kitchen, rooms and rooms away from the study, where everyone (everyone who remained at 1 a.m., that is) huddled around Cards Against Humanity, their laughter a moat. At Sean’s bidding, Will bounded up, tried to stop him from cleaning up. Hank was a guest. He should relax. Hank kissed Will on the cheek and returned him to the game with a nod.
“I don’t mind.”
Hank wanted to leave, but all that awaited him was a tour of desire. As he did every night, he would scroll through the unlocked profiles of all the young men on Silver Daddies who had marked him as “Hot” and nurse his penis into plumpness. He never interacted much with them of late—some wandering chats, some messages to stay in touch. He rarely hooked up. They were very often looking for what he was looking for, someone to take them in hand. He wanted to play son, but he looked like a daddy.
He had wanted to leave since the first moment he figured out that he was the only single man at the party, except for Jeremy, there in the back. He did not mind being unmarried, not usually, but, these past ten years, he had found himself in a stretch of late middle age where seemingly all of his friends were disappearing, disembarking from all of the carousels of New York to pair up, to grab at different rings. Miriam said “I do” to Robin. Joel spoke the same to Kenji. Will to Sean. The list went on. He and they still met for readings at the Y, for coffee and crepes, for the odd rally in Union Square, but across each friendship, something had changed. It was as if their happiness had displaced all the old commiserations they had used to share. He and they had once balanced each other, complaint for complaint, struggle for struggle. Now, in the face of their new joys, Hank thought he should spare them his sadder worries.
Like when Will had cornered Hank for a brief aside that night, and asked how he was doing, Hank had assured him that everything was okay. He told him he was glad to be there to share his birthday, and he was, but he had squelched the reason that had truly motivated him—he did not want to spend New Year’s alone, thinking about all the dry, bitter champagne of the past.
In the empty kitchen, Hank set the cake down on its pedestal and paused. Instead of covering it, he brought it over to the nook with a fork he snatched from the drawer.
He began eating. The four o’clock piece. It was luscious and sweet, overly so, as he had always remembered it to be. Those blinkless owls on the branches of his grandmother’s kitchen had never understood—that with every tart, every kringla, every cake, every sweet creation, he had been able to make his own pleasure, and that had given him the power to resist the ready-made hate of the world that had named him pervert, poison, plague-bringer.
When he dug into eleven o’clock, the kitchen door swung open. Jeremy shuffled to the sink, his long arms burdened with trays stacked at angles.
“Oh! Why are you eating the cake?” he asked, alarmed, as he set down the load gently.
“I never had my slice.” He ate faster, mouthfuls fit for a giant.
“They were saving it for the kids. Remember? They came out and wanted a piece and Will promised it to them?”
“I must have been on the balcony having a smoke.” That pleasure was killing him, even as his all-natural additive-free cigarettes coaxed him to believe he was doing something good, communing with the Native American smoking a peace pipe pictured on the box. “Anyway, children should learn early that life means disappointment. You can’t always get what you want.” He set down his fork, but it was too late. The eleventh hour had been reduced to a crumble of seconds.
Jeremy stood over him, glowering. “That’s a cruel lesson. ‘Happy New Year, kids!’”
“I’m sure they’ll have forgotten by morning.”
“Do we ever forget—what we want? What did you want when you were that age?”
“To love whom I wanted.”
“And have you achieved that? Have others?”
“You’re right. We’re all still fighting.”
“So you would tell them you don’t always get what you want? Deal with it? Stop fighting for liberation?”
“You were there when the kids came out wanting cake.”
“You know that for certain?”
“Yes, I know that for certain.”
“And how is that?”
Jeremy softened, slightly, leaning against the counter. “Don’t you know that I’ve been staring at you all night?”
“I can’t imagine why.” He herded the cake crumbs with his fork if only to have something to do besides face this beautiful man.
Hank laughed. “You’ve barely spoken to me all night.”
“I was waiting to—you’ve been avoiding me as if I’ve done something wrong.” Jeremy twisted half-round, fiddling, moving an espresso cup from one stack to another. He wondered what had happened to the man he had met, the one who wore an “Ask Me” button on the lapel of his pea coat at the anti-racism rally, such mystery, such openness, all at once, like the twinkling and the sadness of his blue-gray eyes.
“You haven’t done anything wrong.” Hank stopped playing, glanced up.
“But apparently I haven’t done anything right.” He still didn’t look at Hank. The cups needed restacking. He hoped the tinkle of the cups would distract from the crackling, cracking sound of his frozen tears.
“I don’t know what you want, Jeremy.”
“Some respect, for one. Return my phone call? A text? An acknowledgement of what we shared?”
“We had a wonderful, beautiful night together. I didn’t imagine you wanted more.”
Jeremy looked to Hank, hoping he would meet his gaze. “No? You don’t want more? That’s right. You believe you don’t always get what you want.”
Hank shrugged, wishing he were drunker or drowsier so his body could shut down his mind. Until Jeremy, he hadn’t made love to another man for a year and one month (and four days).
Jeremy continued, “You’d rather sit in friends’ kitchens and steal cake out of the mouths of children? You saw their faces. How they begged.”
Hank thumbed a tear out of his eye. Sweet bile fountained up his throat and then subsided. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you? I don’t understand how you could be so cruel. Or at least, so careless. It doesn’t seem like you.”
“You barely know me.”
“True, but I’m usually a very good judge of character.”
“I’m a selfish prick.” Jeremy at first thought Hank was kidding, but when he saw that Hank had fixed his eyes at the blank wall of the nook, looking at nothing, he realized that he was serious.
He thought to leave, impatient with grand pronouncements that were meant to scare him away.
He thought to stay. He was not so easily dismissed from the connections that he sought. He remembered their night together, how Hank had suckled each one of his toes, making him twist and squirm and yelp as he reclined on his back, the sensation making his hard penis swing like an unbalanced metronome, counting some unknown zigzag beat against his tummy, sticky thunking time.
He stayed. Hank needed a friend, a shoulder, someone in the corner he had painted himself into.
“Well, let’s not be so absolute,” Jeremy offered. “You had a moment of selfish prickishness. It’s not like you’ve led Hansel and Gretel to their fiery deaths!”
Hank laughed, turning back to Jeremy, which made Jeremy glad.
“You’ve been a little down all night. Why is that?” Jeremy perched on the banquette across from Hank, like a wrestler at the ready. Hank pulled the cake plate to the far side of the table.
“Oh. I don’t know. I don’t know why Will insisted I come. We could have just had the birthday brunch I always treat him to. I fear I’ve become the odd man out everyone feels sorry for around the holidays.”
“That’s why he invited you? Because he felt sorry for you?”
“I imagine it’s something like that. All these couples and me.”
“Will hadn’t planned on inviting you, in fact. I pressed him to.”
“I don’t know what Will was thinking. No offense, Jeremy, but you’re thirty-eight years younger than I am.”
“So? I’m good enough for a fuck but not for a date?” Jeremy masked the seriousness of his import with flippancy, but not very well.
“Come on, you know it was a pity—You felt sorry for me.”
“Wow. Give me some credit.” He was tired of assuring men that they were wrong about themselves. Babies! With egos as soft as marshmallows! But sometimes he found the strength to cradle them.
“You had the chance to leave after we kissed that night, before we went upstairs. You wanted to leave. I saw it in your eyes. You hesitated. I have no delusions about my—Look at me.” He brushed crumbs off of his belly.
“Yes, look at you,” Jeremy said, his voice laced with the shiny sea-green ribbons of desire.
Hank looked up. He wanted to be the man that Jeremy saw but he knew that he wasn’t. He had long decided to retire from romance, collecting a thin pension of memories.
“I think perhaps you are selling yourself short. Look, I have a similar problem. You think men see the glorious alpha-sissy dom that I am when they look at my slight frame?” Most white men cast him as a boy or a geisha or a boy-geisha.
“But you so are a glorious alpha-sissy dom!” Hank had never heard the term before, but he never argued with someone’s self-description if it fit, and this fit perfectly.
“I know. But you wouldn’t have known that unless we had made love.”
“No, that’s not true. When Will and I ran into you at Pinkberry and introduced us, I knew straight off you were—commanding.” He let the word alight on him like the touch of a paddle before the first spank.
Hank remembered Jeremy, his dark eyes in all that gleaming white, how one long strand of his black hair had unspooled from his high-and-tighted pompadour and touched his cheek. Jeremy had given him spoonfuls of attention, prodding him until he had dislodged his voice from the rock it had been stuck under.
“It’s closed now. That Pinkberry,” Hank added.
“You went back? I thought—what did you call it? The death knell of the East Village?”
“I did not go back. Just passed by.”
“Hmm. Just passed by my neighborhood?”
“I walk. For exercise. It’s not that far out of my way.”
“Was that going to be your excuse if you had run into me?” Jeremy grinned.
Hank chuckled, owning the truth he had not admitted until then. He longed to be with Jeremy, in his strong embrace, eager to match his moves, pleasure for pleasure. “That was a good night. What did you have? Something decadent—blood orange yogurt and pineapple toppings and peanut butter cups.”
“Yes. And you had a mango smoothie. And then I walked you home.”
“Like a good boy scout.”
Jeremy stood and grasped Hank’s hand, nearer to him. “Like someone who didn’t want the night to end.” His voice grew louder, grew softer.
“Then you kissed me at my gate.” Hank felt anew Jeremy’s nimble hands on hips as he drew him close, gently rocking him into a kiss. The memory lingered close as if to whisper something like “yes” or “you’ll be okay” to him. “Then—you hesitated.”
“I hesitated because I thought I might be coming on too strong, too fast.”
“You were very strong.”
Jeremy flexed his smile. “I was, but you went the distance with me, huh? Your legs didn’t buckle did they?”
Hank coasted on Jeremy’s breezy flirtation. “No, though my back was a bit wrenched the next day.”
“You should have told me. I would have come over and massaged you. I can be tender.”
“You were tender—that night. That’s why I never called.” Hank squeezed Jeremy’s hand, as if to say goodbye—or not.
“No offense, but you still believe in all this romantic—the illusion. You still have hope that love, the house, the marriage can heal you. That the hearts and flowers and the seven-tiered cake will make everything okay.”
“When you put it that way, you make me sound like a simpleton.”
“No, I’m sorry. I know you’re not a simpleton. I know it’s just because you are twenty-five.”
“I’ve been disappointed in love. In life. My mother and father did not make my childhood one long fairy tale.”
“No. I disappointed them at every turn. So they claimed.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Jeremy. I want you to have your optimism. I don’t want to ruin that with my—bleakness. You believing, and me not believing. Why would I ever burden you with that?”
Jeremy let go of his hand, tamping down his exasperation as much as he could. “Could you please let me decide what I feel? Could you please see me as someone who knows a thing or two and not as some fragile—child?”
Hank looked to his eyes. “I see someone who is very wise and very headstrong.”
Jeremy accepted his apology. He pressed for more. “Anything else?”
“And very beautiful. You know that.”
Oh—how Hank loved that swagger. How Jeremy knew he loved it, too.
Jeremy quieted. “Life’s been that bleak?”
“Yes,” Hank said. Jeremy decided to take him at his word, for now. Hank continued: “Let me put it this way. I’ve never truly had a New Year’s kiss that brought me any peace. Every man I’ve ever loved has put me second and by that I mean put our relationship second—to careers, to social status, to sex, to porn, to drugs.”
“Sounds like they were too busy trying to survive the traumas of their youth.”
“I wanted to scream at them: ‘Why can’t it be about us? Just us?’” Hank blubbered, and then, taken aback by his own outburst, blotted his eyes.
“Maybe they were attracted to you because they saw how much you believed in the ‘us.’ Maybe they wanted that too.”
“They always ate the cake and saved you none?”
“Yes, but then—oh, why am I crying?—when does someone nurture me?”
“Maybe never. Maybe right now.’” Jeremy knelt and grasped his hands and kissed them. He had a big proposal. He had a small proposal. He had whatever Hank needed.
“Most likely never.”
“Maybe never,” Jeremy corrected. “Maybe right now.”
“Maybe right now?”
Jeremy stood and straddled him with the weight of his answer. He brushed his cheek with the back of his hand. He bent and pecked his lips. He waited, like a boy on a doorstep asking for his friend to come out to play. And when he saw a blast of glittery confetti flash across Hank’s glassy eyes, Jeremy kissed him deeply. Hank kissed him back.
Jeremy pressed his forehead to Hank’s temple, his eyes closed, his voice soft. “I can handle disappointment. What I can’t handle is missing another chance to give you pleasure. How many chances will you give me?”
Hank wanted to say a thousand. Hank wanted to say none. Hank wanted to say the truth. Hank wanted to lie. He feared everything would come out wrong. So he said what he had repeated all night long but which he hadn’t meant until now. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Hank.”
They kissed again. Nothing could break their kiss. Not even Will and the two or three other guests who had swept into the kitchen and began to tease them as they dropped off whatever clinked and clonked in their hands. “If only my vacuum had that type of suction.” “Midnight ended two hours ago, fellas.” “And everyone says we don’t care for our elderly!”
Jeremy and Hank did not notice they had left. The world had enclosed them in the deepest forest of their deepest dreams, where no blinkless owls dared to fly.
Hank was first to break the spell. He smiled as preface. “This is lovely but—lift off me. Please.”
“Why?” Jeremy dismounted him and watched Hank, his lover, rise and start opening cupboards and selecting out sundries—baking soda, flour, vanilla extract, spring-form pans. “What are you doing?”
“I need to bake a cake,” Hank said crisply, crouching and turning the temperature dial with the slowness of a safecracker. The power of this heat was unknown to him. He would have to watch it closely. Jeremy could help.
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