Cake Top Figurines

Damien stared at Jo’s picture again. It was the only sign of color in the tan-walled cubicle. His desk was brown, consumed by stacks of papers, some tape, and a stapler. Even his post-its were such a dull shade of yellow it was barely even a color. So he fixated on her picture, ran his thumb down from the cold silver frame over her brown hair, her squinted-up green eyes, her smile. His mind wandered, like it did every day after lunch, when complaining customers tended to stop calling about their computers.

The couch sat across from the TV, and the foot-high coffee table covered in manuscripts was between them. Sunday nights actually meant relaxation, for the most part. Damien never had overtime or work to bring home, and any editing work Jo brought home would be done by that afternoon. Damien was thinking of last night. It was hot, and the small table fan on the coffee table only did so much. Jo wore shorts and a baggy green t-shirt of Damien’s, her hair tied back in a ponytail. She leaned on one arm of the couch, Damien leaning on the other. Jo was watching the TV, but Damien kept glancing from the wedding planner talking about dresses to his girlfriend. She was most beautiful when she dressed as simple as this–her hair falling out in pieces, the shirt falling off her shoulder, no makeup. Damien couldn’t help but smile. He rubbed her bare calf.

“Ooh, that’s gorgeous!” Jo said, jumping a bit. Damien took his hand off of her leg and looked at the TV. There was a huge white wedding cake with purple roses and ribbons along the top of each layer. He smiled to himself, thinking about how he’d been wanting to go to the jeweler’s sometime that week after work. “That string work is crap, though. I could do much better than that.”

“Yeah?” The price tag of ten thousand dollars popped onto the screen next to the top layer of the cake. “Well, I hope you’ll be able to make your wedding cake.”

Jo turned to Damien for the first time in twenty minutes. Her eyes were wide, and her hand clutched to where it rested on her thigh, but when Whose Wedding is it Anyway? went to a Honda commercial, she relaxed. “Yeah, sure, that works.” She turned back to the TV. Damien rested his hand on her calf again.

While Damien sat in his cubicle thinking about this moment, Jo was not thinking about him at all. She sat at her desk at Woodling-Carver Literary. The office was well-lit with fluorescents. A couple of large plastic plants were artistically placed by the door. A red poster claiming “Commas Save Lives,” showed the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma,” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The air conditioner kept it at a comfortable temperature in which to function. Her hand raced across the page, adding a comma, replacing a period with a colon, changing “coach” to “couch.” The green ink started to soak in, and by the time she moved the page to the pile of papers on her left, the paper was practically dry. Jo loved working as an editor. It was easy, the pay wasn’t awful, and she had worked her ass off for four years to get the reputation she had here. Someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Jo called, not looking up from her work. The noise of computers whirring and people talking flooded the room, then the door closed.

“Hey, Jo, how’s it going?” Jo looked up at the sound of Diane’s voice. Diane was a very tall, boney woman, the kind who insisted on stumbling around on high heels. Her rust red hair was short, and the few deep wrinkles already settling by her eyes made her look older than mid- thirties.

“Not too bad, Di. How ’bout you?” Jo put the pen down on the stack of uncorrected manuscripts.

“Surviving. Look, Jo, I wanted to talk to you about something. Do you have a minute?”

“Uh-oh,” Jo replied, setting her tortoise shell reading glasses on the desk. “What did I do?”

Diane laughed, very briefly. “You didn’t do anything. You’ve been working just fine.”

“Well, damn it, Diane,” Jo continued, leaning back in her swivel chair. “Don’t scare me like that. So I take it you just missed me, then?”

“Sure.” Diane leaned against the corner of Jo’s desk.

Jo reached into the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a pack of white tic-tacs. She offered one to Diane, and when she shook her head, popped one herself.

“Jo, you’ve only taken one sick day in all the years you’ve been here.”

“I wasn’t aware that good health could get you a little sticky-note in your file,” Jo laughed, tic-tac tucked under her tongue.

“Look, Joanna, this isn’t about whether or not you’re a good employee. You basically haven’t had sick leave, you haven’t taken any kind of vacation time. I just wonder if… Maybe you need to take some time for yourself for a little while.”

Jo leaned forward, placing her elbows on the desk and folding her hands in front of her mouth. “How long is a while?”

“Take a week. See if you can find something relaxing or fun to do in your time off.” Diane raised her hand as Jo opened her mouth to argue. “I know you think editing’s great, Jo. Just… take this as a sign that you’re doing an incredible job and you deserve some time to do something that doesn’t involve crossing the Ts in manuscripts, okay? I’ve already signed off on the time, starting tomorrow, and you’ll come back next Tuesday. I don’t care if you use the time to remodel your bathroom. I just don’t want you to burn out.”

“Alright,” Jo conceded, slipping her glasses back on. “Let me just finish this story and I’ll come up and sign the papers or whatever it is that you need me to do.”

Whenever Damien walked home from work, he was reminded of everything he hated about living in Manhattan. People shoved past each other to shave ninety seconds off their travel time; the streets smelled of sewage; the heat was concentrated because so much was going on. He’d lived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania until he was twenty-two. When he and Jo graduated Penn State, she got a job editing back in New York, and so he followed her.

“This one is more modest. A round cut.” The chubby-cheeked blond woman behind the jewelry counter flashed her very white teeth and presented Damien with a small circular diamond ring. He looked it over, studying the thin silver band.

“Do you have something…” Damien hesitated, afraid of what this was going to cost him. “Is there anything nicer?”

She picked up a ring from inside the glass case. “A princess cut. Now, it’s more expensive, but this is our most popular sale.”

Damien looked it over. It was much bigger than that tiny ring she’d shown him first. He shuffled from one foot to the other, hands in the jacket of his gray blazer. It was going to cost him, but now that he’d seen it, he knew that it was exactly what he had to get for Jo. “Can I add an inscription or something?”

“I’ll see what we can do,” she replied. “Does this mean you want this particular item?” Damien nodded, his chest a little tight. He hated spending as much money as this was going to take. “Very good,” the woman beamed. Damien could tell she was very proud of herself for making a sale. “Now, what kind of inscription did you want?”

“Uh…” He took a hand from his pocket, opening his fist and releasing a crushed scrap of paper, which he shoved over toward the blond woman. It was French. Jo had always wanted to go to Paris, so she took French throughout high school, even tested out of the college level stuff. Happiness and love always, it read. Bonheur et d’amour toujours.

It was seven o’clock by the time Damien made it back to the apartment. He headed to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Keystone, then made his way to the living room. The whole place smelled of fried rice and soup. Jo was sitting on the gray plush couch, curled up with a white Chinese food container. Damien opened his bottle and sat down next to her. She turned away from the TV.

“Well, you’re home awful late,” Jo said, grinning. She dropped her fork in the container. “Not cheating on me, are ya?”

“Jo, I would never–”

Jo rubbed his shoulder and kissed him. “Babe, I was kidding.” She shoved another forkful of plain white rice into her mouth. Damien gulped down some beer. The coffee table between the couch and the TV was littered with five more, mostly full, Chinese food containers. “So, how was work?”

“Work was work. I was thinking about you a lot.”

“Yeah?” Jo replied. A knot formed in her stomach. She had specifically not put on the Style Channel, fearing that Whose Wedding is it Anyway? would come on. Instead, she was watching The Food Network. Ace of Cakes was on, and they were making a skateboard cake. Jo admired how they were able to mold the fondant. When she used to bake and decorate cakes for family birthdays and holidays, the fondant, which she always equated to semi-edible clay, was a pain to roll out; it took a lot of muscle.

“Yeah. I missed you.”

“How’s Erich?” Jo asked. She didn’t want to eat any more rice, but figured that if her hands were full, she looked busier.

“He’s fine. Made fun of me for dripping some pizza sauce on my shirt, but other than that, it was a good day. Heh.” Damien put his bottle down on the floor and moved closer to Jo, rubbing the back of her head and kissing her shoulder. “How was your day?”

“Alright. Diane came to see me.”

“Yeah? What did she have to say?” Damien was rubbing the back of her neck now, with just a little bit of pressure.

Jo took a deep breath, enjoying the neck massage. She put the container next to the lamp on the end table by the couch and turned to Damien. “I got a week off. Well, it was more like Diane told me I was taking a week off, but still.”

“Well, that’s great,” Damien said, smiling. His hand slid down to the middle of her shoulder blades and he pulled her close, kissing her on the cheek. “It’s not a bad thing to have a break for once.”

“I know. I just don’t know what I’m going to do with myself,” Jo replied.

“Apparently watch Food Network and eat Chinese food,” Damien laughed.

Jo laid her head on Damien’s shoulder. “I’m sure that won’t be all I’m doing. I can’t see myself sitting still for days on end.”

The air was unusually mild for the beginning of December. It had only snowed once, a couple of days ago, and the ground was covered in patches of ice. This was senior year of college; Jo and Damien had only been together for a year. The white plaster buildings all looked the same to Damien, who was only ever on campus enough to go to class and pick Jo up.

“Well, come on, Mr. Responsible Businessman. What’s your big plan?” Jo asked, stomping on the ice and letting it crunch under her black boots.

“I asked you first,” Damien replied, gloved hands shoved into the pockets of his pea coat. He wouldn’t be on campus right now if he weren’t taking Jo back to her dorm. Damien refused to let her walk alone after dark, even just the distance of a block or two, and it was well after midnight. “What are your plans? Moving out here?”

Jo glanced up toward the sky and placed her pointer finger at the center of her lips as if she were actually considering something. The truth of the matter was that, like everything else, she’d given much forethought to her career years ahead of time, in her freshman year of college, and all the Reader’s Digest and New York Times internships over the summer and grammar classes during the school year were specifically designed to bulk up her resume. Jo just hoped that Damien would take the news well enough. “I’m gonna move into a sweet little apartment in the city. Work at a publishing house or editing or something.”

“Huh,” Damien replied, kicking a block of ice into the side of a building and watching it smash.

“What?” Jo asked, spitting the piece of spearmint gum in her mouth into a wrapper and stuffing that into her pocket. She adjusted her black earmuffs so that they covered the tops of her ears better.

“Well, I was more talking about… us.”

“Oh.” Jo tried to think of something to say. Her dorm was only about a hundred feet away now, and she wasn’t sure what Damien wanted from her.

“I mean, I would… like to get a place together, if that would be fine by you,” Damien muttered.

Jo stopped and spun around to face Damien. They spent a lot of their time together that semester. Jo still hung out with some friends every day, but Damien came to see her every night. She’d never seriously entertained the idea of living with Damien; they might have broken up by the time they graduated, or he might have wanted to stay out in Williamsport. Jo walked over to Damien and hung her arms around his neck.

“Would you be alright living in New York, though?”

Damien nodded. “If that’s what you want to do, yeah. I’m sure I could get a job there easier than I would out here, anyway.”

“Any idea what you’d wanna do?”

Damien shrugged. There was time to think about that yet. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he did know that he wanted to be with Jo.

For the first time since Christmas, Jo took out her black plastic file box from the cabinet above the stove in the kitchen. She flipped through the pink, green, yellow, and purple recipe cards. Jo picked up a card and put it out on the counter. It was the recipe for benne wafers, and it didn’t call for much–butter, brown sugar, sugar, flour, sesame seeds. She could make it before Damien got back from work at about 5:30. The large bowl was in the cabinet by the microwave, and the wooden spoon was in the drawer next to the sink. Jo hadn’t realized how much she’d missed baking, now that she only did it for Christmas and anniversaries. She used to cook dinner for Damien once a month when they were in college, and she would bake every other week. In the years after, though, she spent the majority of her time at work. It became normal to order in or make something instant, like cereal or mac and cheese, for dinner. Weekends were spent watching TV. Damien was content with that, it seemed to Jo. She wanted to do more, but even suggesting something to Damien never really amounted to much.

“Why don’t we go out this weekend?” Jo had asked a month after they had moved in. The TV was going again. Damien had on the Penguins game. They were sitting on the couch, his arm around Jo’s shoulders, her hand rubbing his knee.

“Where to?” Damien asked. In college, Jo usually was the one who ended up deciding that they were going to the movies or a bar or wherever it was she wanted to go that night. Damien had only had one girlfriend before her, and hanging out with friends usually amounted to smoking a cigar on someone’s porch, so he ran out of date ideas quickly.

“I dunno. Is there anywhere you’d like to go?” Jo snuggled against his shoulder.

Damien shrugged in response. She pulled herself up so that she was no longer leaning against his shoulder, but back against his arm. Jo stared at him hard, willing him to turn from the TV. When Damien felt her pull away, he looked at her. Jo’s eyes were narrowed, very slightly.

“Well, there’s the MoMA. Or we could go to a Mets game. Or we could take a walk over in Central Park.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s fine.”

“That’s not an answer,” Jo said, her lips tightening.

“Come on, Jo. Whatever you wanna do is fine.”

Jo sighed. “There’s gotta be something that you want to do, Damien. It’s New York, for Christ’s sake. It ain’t exactly boring.”

Damien just shrugged again and continued watching the game.

Jo had made burgers for dinner. The dining room smelled of grease. It was a small dining room, barely enough to squeeze in the 4′ by 4′ table and still be able to pull the chairs out. Jo had taken the dishes to the sink and was now in the kitchen putting the benne wafers she’d baked on a plate. Once he was alone, all Damien could think about was how bulky the blue velvet box in his pocket was. The velvet felt smooth as he rubbed his thumb over it. Jo returned from the kitchen, plate of thin brown cookies in hand. She set it on the table in front of Damien, then sat down at the chair closest to him. He picked one up and shoved it in his mouth. The cookie was probably good, but he barely tasted it; it was crunchy and there were sesame seeds.

“They’re awesome, babe,” he managed to choke out once he was mostly finished. He popped another two in his mouth. The clash of his teeth was loud, but chewing was the only thing keeping him calm at the moment.

Jo examined her boyfriend. He looked really tired, but even so, he was still attractive– his short brown hair parted to the side and combed neatly, his face thin, a dab of ketchup on the collar of his white button-down. She smiled. Jo reached out and squeezed Damien’s hand. “Why thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Jo hadn’t looked this happy in a long time, Damien noted. Her eyes were bright, the green almost glowing, and he loved it when she smiled. She looked well-rested, too, and her hair was tied back in a French braid instead of a ponytail for once. Damien didn’t particularly care how she did her hair or makeup or any of that, but he was glad to see that she finally had time to dedicate to herself.

“You’re beautiful, you know that?”

Jo laughed, scratching the back of her neck. “They’re just cookies.”

“No, it’s not that,” Damien said. He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. Jo shook slightly. Her throat was tight as she looked up. “I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, baby. You know that,” Jo replied, patting Damien’s hand with her free one. She smiled, but it was the kind of smile she gritted her teeth with.

“I just… I want to spend…” Damien slipped the box from his pocket. He licked his dry lips.

The phone rang. They jumped. Jo’s heart was racing. Breaking her hand free from Damien’s, she ran to the kitchen and picked it up.

“Hey, Jo. How’re things going?” A woman’s voice.

“Fine. Who is this?”

“Diane,” the woman said.

“Oh, yeah,” Jo replied. She placed her hand over her face and shook her head. “Yeah, yeah, things are just fine.” Jo turned around. Damien was leaning against the doorway to the dining room. Jo pulled the phone away from her mouth and pressed it against her arm. It’s Diane. I’m going to be a little bit, she mouthed. Damien sighed and stood upright. Sorry. He left the room and headed to the bedroom, the box heavy in his pocket.

Two days later, the Thursday before Jo was going to return to work, she stopped in Pinto’s Bakery, a five minute walk from the apartment. A couple of customers browsed the store. A gray-haired woman was examining the black and white cookies under the glass, and a balding, brown-haired man was talking to the teenage girl with a blond ponytail behind the register. The bakery was small, lit by fluorescents and filled with all sorts of colorful cookies, cakes, and pastries. Jo was able to spot cannolis, rainbow cookies, huge chocolate chip and sugar cookies, Napoleons, and a couple of small three-tier wedding cakes from where she was standing. It was like something out of Willy Wonka, except that the girl behind the counter wasn’t orange- tinted or singing.

Jo approached the counter. A cake-topper sat on it. They were a regular little plastic couple–brown hair, the man slightly taller than the woman. He was in a white button-down and gray suit, and she was in an ornate white dress with a full, glittering skirt. The bride was much more detailed, like she was created to be able to stand on a cake of her own. But the sad man next to her was plain. An older guy behind the counter with silver hair and wearing a white t- shirt nodded at her.

“Can I help you with anything, miss?” he asked in a strong Italian accent.

Jo shifted on the balls of her feet. “Hi. Um… I was wondering if you’re looking for someone to employ?”

“You want a job?” he asked. Jo nodded, chewing her lip, sorry that she asked and wondering if it was too late to run out the door. “I dunno, miss. I already have Maria on the counter, and Giada when Maria isn’t around. I don’t know if I need someone…”

“I meant more as baking.” Jo wanted to stop talking, but her mouth was working too quickly for her mind to catch up properly. “I want to come on as a baker. Or a decorator.” She clutched her purse to her side with her arm, and wrapped her fingers tight around the strap.

“I don’t think I could take you on,” the silver-haired man said. “Some women, they come in here and they make a cheesecake that their sister likes, and they think they should be–”

“I’m sure they do,” Jo said. “But I just want to come on part-time. And I know what I’m doing. I know shell borders, roses, lilies, orchids, tiers, ruffles, fondant. I’m not just some housewife with slice and bake cookies.” Jo was never more grateful that her parents had let her take cake-decorating courses once a week for a few months as a teenager.

The man sighed. “Alright. You look like a nice enough girl… There’s a six-inch cake in the back that I couldn’t use because it’s too dry. You can use that to show me what you know.”

It was six o’clock by the time Jo unlocked the door to the apartment. Jo walked to the kitchen, dumping her brown leather purse and keys on the counter, and opened the door of the refrigerator. She pulled out a bottle of Keystone and headed to the dining room. Damien was sitting at his usual seat, a couple of empty Keystones in front of him. Jo heard a snapping sound, and she saw him take something under the table. She sat down next to him and held his cheek.

“Damien, I care about you so much.”

“Yeah.” Damien had been sitting at the table since four-thirty; he skipped lunch to get home early. He wanted to make sure that he could have some real time with Jo, time that he felt they hadn’t had in quite a while. But she wasn’t in the apartment. Damien couldn’t find a note and he didn’t know if she had any plans or not. By the time two hours passed, he was already starting to decide what kind of pizza he was going to order for himself. Jo continued:

“I got hired today.”

Damien looked up at her, his eyes squinted. “What?”

“I got a job part-time at a bakery. You know Pinto’s? It’s really nice in there.” Jo drank a bit of beer, then put it down and examined her nails.

“Did you quit Woodling-Carver or something?” Damien asked, leaning forward on the table.

“No. I’m just gonna work a couple of hours after editing during the week. I figured it might be nice to do something I really like for a while.” Jo stared at Damien. Her lips started to tremble into a frown, but she stopped herself. “Damien, I really do love you. This is just something I’m really passionate about.”

“You seem to be passionate about a hell of a lot,” Damien said, looking into the bottom of one of the empty bottles. “I mean, editing, baking…”

“Come on, D. I’m sure you’re passionate about stuff, too, right? Business, or… or…”

“You, Jo. I’m passionate about you.”

Jo placed her face in her hands and took a deep breath, then took her hands away. “Damien, I’m passionate about you, too. But there has to be something else, okay? I’m… I’m not ready yet.” Damien tilted his head slightly, attempting to look confused as to what she was talking about. Jo’s eyes flitted to the table. She looked back up to him. “I’m not ready yet, Damien. I want to get as high up as I can with the Woodling-Carver first, and maybe try this baking thing for a while. If we get married, have a family, I have to sacrifice some of that.” Jo rubbed his shoulder. “And I’m not saying that I never will. Just… not yet. So maybe you should find something else in the meantime.”

Damien didn’t remember exactly when Jo left the room. He just remembered her warmth leaving his shoulder first, and then the sound of her soft breathing vanishing. Damien scratched at the top of the box under the table, making lines in the smooth velvet. The truth was that he didn’t know what else he would do. Marrying Jo had been the only plan he had.