Prose: A Cake for Helena – Anna Pittenger

A Cake for Helena
Anna Pittenger

This is it, I think as I sift flour into a bowl, the other cake ingredients and measuring spoons and cups arranged on the table around me, this Valentine’s Day will be the day that Helena finally realizes how much I like her. Helena, Marcus, and his girlfriend Abby are my three best friends at school. Actually, I’m really more friends with Marcus, and then friends with Abby and Helena through him. Even though I’ve had a crush on Helena for a long time, I’ve never had the courage to tell her how I feel. Also, Helena is in love with Marcus. Even though he’s already dating Abby, she still hasn’t given up hope, although she’s settled for being friends for now. Helena is a good friend, fun to be around, and I really like her, but she only thinks of me as a friend—someone she knows because I’m friends with Marcus—and even though we have some good times together, it seems like she pays more attention to Marcus than she does to me. I really want to do something to get her to pay more attention to me, to let her know my feelings for her. I’m too shy to just come up to her outright and ask her out, but I at least want her to know that I think of her as more than a friend. I’ve always been good at baking, and Helena likes sweets, so that’s why I’ve decided to put all of my feelings for her into a cake and give it to her for Valentine’s Day. I’m feeling excited about this. I’m always excited about baking, but this time I’m more excited than ever, because it will be something for Helena. Chocolate would be more traditional for Valentine’s Day, but for Helena I think something with strawberries and a lot of cream would be best. Not shortcake, though. Besides, it’s not the season for fresh strawberries. Instead, I’m using white cake as a base, and trying to add in some fruit flavors.

Once I finish sifting the flour, I measure out the baking powder and mix it in. Then I measure out the butter and sugar and cream them together with the hand mixer, beating in the eggs one at a time, adding vanilla, and mixing in the dry ingredients. For the topping, I don’t want to make a regular frosting; that would be too heavy and strongly sweet. I want something with a lighter body and a lightly sweet flavor to match the cake. (When you’re making a cake, you can’t just put any frosting on the cake. The cake and topping have to complement each other, with the icing bringing out the best in the cake, improving on it and embellishing it without outshining or overpowering it.) We have a jar of apricot preserves in the pantry, so I decide to make the cake two layers, with apricot preserves in between the layers, and on top of the cake a layer of apricot preserves topped with a layer of whipped cream. That still seems a bit too plain, though. Helena seems like the sort of person who would really like fruit-based sweets, so if this was summer I would probably top the cake with strawberries or sliced apricots, or maybe even make a fruit tart instead of a cake. Still, it’s early February so fruit like that isn’t in season, and trying to use dried or frozen fruit just wouldn’t be the same.

That means I’ll have to be a bit more creative. We have some orange sherbet in the freezer, so I scoop out enough to substitute for the milk in the cake. That should give the cake a faint fruity flavor without sacrificing any of its airy deliciousness, and the faint orange flavor of the cake should complement the apricot preserves nicely, rather than competing with them. Ah! But if the cake is flavored and there is a different flavor between the layers, is it really all right to have just plain whipped cream on top? Even if frozen fruit by itself would look bad as a decoration, if I let it thaw and then ran it through the blender to make juice, then I could probably use that juice to flavor the whipped cream. In the freezer, we have frozen strawberries and frozen peaches. I pause, momentarily torn between the two options. Peach would probably go better with orange and apricot, but strawberry would give the whipped cream a pink color that would be good for Valentine’s Day, and after all, strawberries and cream were what I first thought of when I considered making a cake for Helena. I wonder if we have any different kinds of jam.

I finish mixing the batter for the cake itself and pour it into two round cake pans. It would be better with a heart-shaped pan, since this is supposed to be for Valentine’s Day, but I don’t have anything like that. The oven dings, letting me know it’s heated to the proper temperature, and I put in the cake pans, setting the timer for 35 minutes. Right now, I need to see if there’s a different jam I could use between the cake layers. Looking through the refrigerator and pantry, I find a jar of grape jelly and a jar of lemon curd, but both of those are worse than the options I already had. A thought hits me. Of course! Why don’t I just try out the different flavor combinations? I take a spoonful of the orange sherbet, some apricot jelly, and a frozen peach slice and taste it. Then I do the same with a frozen strawberry. The frozen fruit makes my teeth ache with cold but I try to ignore the sensation and focus on the flavor. Mmm. Strawberry is actually really good. All right, frozen strawberries it is, then.

I pull out what I think will be enough to make juice and put the rest in the freezer. Then I put away all of the other things I’m done with, piling the dirty mixing bowl and measuring cups in the sink, and washing them with soap and hot water. I finish just as the oven timer starts going off. Quickly, I dry my hands, then check on the cake. Perfect. I pull the pans out of the oven and, while I’m waiting for the cake to cool, I make the topping for it, whipping heavy cream with a whisk until it starts to stiffen, then adding a bit of sugar, some vanilla extract, and the strawberry juice, and beating it some more.

As soon as the cake has cooled down enough, I put on the apricot jam and whipped cream. I put whipped cream all over the sides of the cake, with a thicker layer on top over the jam. When I’m finished, it looks pretty good. I want to cut a slice so I can see how it tastes all together, but I don’t want to ruin how the cake looks. Giving someone a cake with a piece cut out of it would be incredibly bad-mannered.

That night, I go to bed at a good time, but I’m so nervous I can’t fall asleep. I keep thinking of everything that could go wrong. What if the cake tastes bad? What if Helena hates it? What if she hates me because I have her a horrible-tasting cake? I’m such an idiot, I think. I should have done a double-batch and made two cakes—one for us and one for Helen. Even better, I should have tasted this cake and then made an improved version for Helena. Still, I don’t really have time to get up and bake and frost another cake now, even if I could somehow do so without waking anyone else up. I really ought to be asleep already, if I want to get the proper amount of rest. It would be bad if I was completely exhausted tomorrow. Finally I manage to stop tossing and turning and fall asleep, although worries still fill my dreams.

Normally, when my alarm goes off I hit the snooze button and go back to sleep for at least five minutes, but today I shoot up immediately, trembling with nervousness and excitement. I take a shower and get dressed. I always try to look my best, but today I take special care to dress nicely. I eat breakfast, brush my teeth—twice, just to be sure—and pack my bag for school.

Then comes the problem of the cake. How am I going to transport it? I can’t just put it in my bag, even inside a cake box, because it would be ruined if it got squashed or titled, so it would be better to carry it in my hands, but I have to carry my lunchbox as well. I guess I’ll just have to put my lunchbox in my bag. My bag is kind of small, but if I take out my math and English textbooks, there should be more than enough room for my lunchbox. I sit next to Marcus in those classes, so I can always ask him to share his textbook with me if we need to use it. There, now everything is set. I check the kitchen clock and breathe a sigh of relief. Even with everything, it looks like I got around in good time this morning. I still have a few minutes left before I have to leave for school, but I decide to go ahead and set out anyway. It would be bad to be late, and I’ll have to walk slowly to make sure I don’t upset the cake. I make it out the front door just fine, carefully balancing the cake box in one hand while I open the door and then close it again behind me. I’m glad that I live close enough that I can walk to school, because I can’t imagine trying to take the cake on a school-bus. When I step out onto the sidewalk, however, I almost immediately slip on a patch of ice.

“Ah!” My body teeters back and forth as, holding the cake, I am unable to use my arms to help balance. I let out a sigh of relief as I regain my balance. It must have warmed up just enough to rain last night, before the weather turned cold again and the water froze. The streets are salted pretty regularly, so they should be fine, but the sidewalks are still slick.

I take a deep breath and try to slow my frantically beating heart. It’s all right. It’s not that bad; I should be okay as long as I look out and make sure not to step in any more spots that look like they could be slick or wet. I start walking again, picking my way gingerly around the frozen puddles. It’s a good thing I started out a bit early today, so I have time to be really careful, I think. Normally, I end up hitting the snooze button a few times and have to dash in order to get to school on time.

I manage to make it a full block without incident. At the end of the street, however, I hit an invisible slick spot in the shadow where a tree hangs over the sidewalk, and the unexpected and sudden lack of friction causes me to lose my footing. I sit down, hard, on the cold ground.

“Oof.” Still, I’m lucky that I fell backwards instead of forwards. I check the cake to be sure the sudden jolt hasn’t messed up the frosting. The cake has shifted in the box, but it seems mostly undamaged. My behind hurts, but right now that’s not my biggest concern. I gently set the cake box on the ground, climb to my feet using the tree for support to avoid falling again while I find a non-slick spot to stand on, and then bend down to pick up the cake again. After that, I don’t take any chances. I move at practically a crawl, taking baby steps and testing the ground before moving forward. In this way I creep past two more blocks. I hit a few more slick patches on the way, but I only wobble without falling down.

I’m almost at the school when disaster strikes again. There’s one house on my route to school that I always shudder when I walk past, because the people who live there have a dog chained out in their yard. I’m not exactly sure what kind of dog it is—pit bull, Rottweiler, Great Dane, or what—because I don’t know much about dog breeds, but whatever it is, it’s big and scary, with sharp teeth, and it always growls and barks really loudly whenever I walk past. I don’t like big dogs, so I generally cross over to the other side of the street when I go past that house, but today I’ve been so focused on my feet, trying not to step on a slick spot, that I don’t even realize I’m close to the house until loud barking fills my ears and I look over to see the house beside me.

My heart-rate accelerates to what might be the average heart-rate for a rabbit, and sweat breaks out on my forehead despite the cold. Calm down, I tell myself. The dog is tied up. It can’t get out of the yard. There’s no way it can hurt me. Still, I find myself walking faster, my legs quickening in spite of myself, my body manifesting its desire to get away from the danger as quickly as possible. As I go, the barking grows louder, and I can’t help risking a glance sideways at the yard. When I do, what I see makes my heart leap in my chest: the dog is running forward at me across the yard, and it isn’t restrained at all. I break into a run, spurred by wild panic, not thinking at all about the slick ground or where I’m placing my feet.

I’ve barely gone five steps when I hit another patch of ice. I’m moving too quickly to stop or even try to catch my balance. One moment I’m running along the sidewalk, and the next my feet are sliding out from under me and I’m falling. I somehow manage to keep a hold on the cake box and hold it up, so that it does not go flying as I fall, and I do not fall on top of it, but that’s the most I can do.

I fall forwards this time, and without my hands to catch myself, my face smacks the icy sidewalk. Pain shoots through me as I hit the ground, then another wave of fear flows through my body as I hear the dog coming closer.

From the direction of the house, a voice calls out, “Roscoe, come here!”

I feel a whuff of warm air on my neck and then my hands as the dog sniffs first me and then the cakebox. My whole body is trembling, my eyes squinched shut as if not being able to see what’s happening will somehow protect me. A low growl sounds above me, like the rumble of a distant thunderstorm. My stomach turns over, and I feel my breakfast rising into the back of my throat.

“Here, Roscoe!” The voice calls again. “Come on, boy!”

There’s another whuff of air near my ear, then I hear the retreating jangle of dog-tags as the dog moves away, trotting back to its house and owner. A small sob escapes me, but whether it’s from relief or pain, even I couldn’t say.

Slowly, I open my eyes, and my vision is filled with the off-white color of the concrete barely an inch away. I lift my head slightly and see my elbows resting on the sidewalk, my forearms raised, holding aloft the cake-box which I am still holding firmly in both hands. I level myself up from my elbows onto my knees, and then onto my feet, not letting go of the cakebox. My elbows hurt, even through three layers of clothing; my knees, only protected by my pants, hurt more; my face hurts, although not as much as might be expected given that I just fell on it. I can’t be sure without feeling it or looking at it, but I don’t think I’ve broken my nose, because I think that would probably hurt a lot more than this. What hurts more is my chin and mouth, and when I look down, I see droplets of blood falling from my face to the ground. Maybe I busted my lip. I check the cake-box, and my stomach sinks with a feeling like going up in an elevator. The cake is thankfully still in one piece, but the sudden change in direction has made it slide inside the box again. More of the frosting is now on the inside of the box than on the sides of the cake, and the frosting on the top of the cake has shifted over to one side. It looks horrible. Still, maybe there’s some way I can fix it before I see Helena. I can’t give up now, at any rate, not when I’m this close to the school.

My body is still shaking, making it hard to hold the cake-box level, and tears blur my vision as I move forward, blood continuing to fall from my face and spatter the ground. I hold my head to one side to try and keep any blood from getting on the cakebox of my coat. It really does seem like a lot of blood, some logical part of my brain is noting as the rest of my body shuffles toward the school like a zombie on auto-pilot. Normally, when there’s a lot of blood it hurts more than this. My tongue moves through my mouth, checking things. My tongue seems okay. I’m not missing any teeth and none of my teeth seem to be loose or chipped. That’s good. My vision, although blurry with tears, seems otherwise fine, and there’s no pain in my eyes, which rules out an eye injury. There doesn’t seem to be any blood dripping into my eyes either, which means I haven’t cut my forehead or cracked my head open. It seems like the blood is mostly falling from the lower half of my face and, since a nose injury would hurt a lot more, that means it’s probably coming from my lip. That’s alright, my brain calmly assures my body. A lip injury isn’t that bad. It just bleeds a lot because the skin is a lot thinner there. All you do is put some ice and pressure on it and, if it’s in the skin area above or below the lip itself, use a band-aid. It occurs to me that I really ought to be putting pressure on it right now, but I need both hands to hold the cake box.

Somehow, without realizing it, I’ve already arrived at the school entrance. I go through the front door and head straight for the boy’s bathroom, the small rational part of my brain noting the absence of other people inside the school or in the hallway and presenting me with the conclusion that I must be late for home-room. (Normally, I use the staff bathroom because of what happened last semester, but the boys’ bathroom is closer and if everyone is in class that means there probably won’t be anyone there.) That means I’ll have to check in at the front office to avoid being marked absent, but I have other things to take care of first.

There’s no one else in the bathroom, which is good. I don’t want anyone else to see me right now. I set the cake-box down on the counter and take a look at myself in the mirror over the sink. I was right. It goes look like I cut my lip, and my chin is skinned as well. Rolling up my pants’-legs, I see that both my knees are scraped and bleeding, although not enough to stain through the cloth. I wash my face and knees off with soap and warm water, wincing at the sting, then dampen some paper towels with cold water and hold them to my lip while I dig out some Band-Aids from my bag. I always keep a few in the front pocket, mostly in case of papercuts and things like that. I find a few larger ones, which I put over the cuts on my knees—the right knee takes two to cover it, and the left knee takes three—and some smaller ones for my face. The place on my chin is fine now that I have a Band-Aid on it, but my lip is still bleeding, although more slowly. There’s a place between my lip and my nose where I have a small cut too, so I put a Band-Aid on that as well. I’ll probably have to stop by the nurse’s office or the cafeteria and ask for some ice before I go to class. Next I scan my clothes quickly for damage. Nothing seems torn or ripped, and there aren’t any blood-stains on my coat or pants, although there are some spots of dirt. I mop at them as well as I can with soap, water, and paper towels. It’s nice that there actually is soap in the bathroom for once. Too often, soap or towel dispenser, or both, are empty.

With my injuries at least temporarily taken care of, I turn my attention to the cake. As I had noted before, the cake itself is fine, but the frosting is completely messed up, with most of it on the inside of the container rather than on the cake. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the icing, so as long as I can get the frosting back on the cake it should be okay. I move back out into the hallway, looking for a good spot to make adjustments to the cake. I end up crouching in the corner where the hallway turns, with the cakebox on my lap. I have a plastic utensil set in my lunchbox, and now I dig out the knife and start scraping the topping off the inside of the cake box and spreading it back on the top and sides of the cake. I would have preferred to have a work surface, even something like the sink counter would have been better than my lap, but even thought people in there flushing toilets, the school bathroom just seems like a gross place to work with food. The hallway should be at least slightly more sanitary.

I’m almost done with re-frosting the cake when another student walks past in the hallway, holding the bathroom pass. He slows down as he passes me, giving me a look of puzzled surprise, and I suddenly become aware of how strange I must appear: a boy with Band-Aids on his face, crouched in the corner of the hallway with a cakebox balanced on his legs, holding a wet paper towel to his bleeding lip with one hand and using a plastic knife to spread icing on a cake with his other hand. I think about saying “Good morning,” but I’m afraid that moving my lips at all could make the cut worse, so I settle for giving a half-wave with the hand holding the knife.

He looks at me for another moment, then continues walking, shaking his head. “Weirdo,” he mutters as he passes me.

After he passes, I make the finishing touches to the cake and take a moment to sit back and look at it. I breathe a small sigh of relief. It looks…

“What’s up, man? Are you alright?” Marcus asks as I slip into the classroom and sink breathless into the seat next to him, putting the cakebox on my desk.

I nod and try to smile. I had planned to give the cake to Helena before school started, but now it’s too late and I’ll have to hand onto it until lunch time. Still, I have it and it is safe, so that’s the important thing. I’m so excited I can’t focus in class. Instead of paying attention to what the teacher’s saying, I keep imagining Helena’s face when I give her the cake: how her whole face will break into a huge smile and her eyes will sparkle. Just thinking about it makes me feel warm inside.

I try to take notes, but my mind keeps drifting off and instead I just doodle pictures of cakes all over my notebook. I try to draw Helena’s face too, but I’m not as good at drawing people so after a while I give up on it and go back to cakes. At our school, we have three periods before lunch, then one period after. For me, in the morning I have English and Math (both with Marcus), then PE, and after lunch I have social studies. Right before lunch is PE, and I start getting worried. The cakebox is too big to fit properly in my locker without tilting it, so I’ve been carrying it form class to class with me, getting nervous every time someone bumps me in the hallway while we’re changing classes, and setting it on top of my desk during class where I can keep an eye on it and no one will step on it. In PE, though, there’s no place to put anything except in a locker or just leaving it out in the locker room on top of one of the benches. There’s no way I can take either of those options, but what else can I do?

Near the end of math class I raise my hand and ask the teacher if I can go to the nurse’s office because I’m not feeling that good. The teacher writes me a pass to go to the nurse’s office and I go, taking my books and my cake with me. Since it’s a Friday, the nurse is only here half the day, in the afternoon, so she isn’t there yet, but the teacher is too busy to remember that right now. When I get to the nurse’s office, I just sit there and wait for her, which is fine with me, since I really don’t want to see the nurse, I just want to be somewhere I can keep an eye on my cake, and if any teacher gets mad at me for skipping class, I want a signed pass I can show them.

I go ahead and open the cake box to check on it. The icing has shifted, but only a little bit, so I quickly fix it using the plastic knife. I wish there was a refrigerator I could put the cake in so the frosting wouldn’t run. The cake doesn’t look the way it did when I made it in the kitchen at home, but at least it still looks mostly decent. I sit in the nurse’s office, swinging my legs back and forth. The period never seems this long when I’m in class, even when the teacher is being really boring and lecturing. I’m starting to get hungry, and since there’s nothing else to do I open up my lunchbox and pull out my sandwich. I suppose I should worry about not having enough at lunch time if I’m eating food now, but I don’t really care. I think I’ve got enough things packed that I can still have something I can eat at lunch even if I eat some of my food now. Besides, if I do get hungry later I can always get something from the vending machine.

I wait in the nurse’s office until the PE period is almost over. About 5 minutes before the bell rings, I leave the nurse’s office and head over to Helena’s classroom (she has English that period). I want to get there as soon as the lunch bell rings so I can make sure to see her and talk to her before anyone else. I check my reflection in the mirror of the staff bathroom before I leave, to make sure I look all right. My lip has stopped bleeding out from under the Band-Aid, and I consider taking the Band-Aids off, but I decide not to. I don’t want to risk re-opening the cuts.

“Oh, Avery!” Helena exclaims. She’s smiling, but then her eyes fall on my Band-Aids and she frowns. “Are you all right? What happened?”

I smile back, feeling momentarily irritated that this is what she’s focused on, when what I really want to talk about is much more important—that is, the cake—but just being near her makes me feel like my stomach is full of sunlight. “It’s nothing,” I say quickly, “I just slipped on some ice on the way in.” Helena is super health-conscious, so I should have known she would focus on this, and I feel annoyed at myself for not anticipating this. “Anyway,” I say, trying to shift her focus to my original intent, “I made something for you.” I push the cakebox towards her. “Here.”

She opens it, her eyes widening. “Oh, wow, Avery! You made this? It looks

delicious.”

All of the anxiety I’ve felt about the cake—the frosting not being even, the cake not being properly chilled—vanishes in that moment with her honest expression of admiration. Helena is always so open and honest about her emotions. That’s one of the things I like about her.

I nod, feeling my smile stretch wider. “It’s strawberry, orange, and apricot-flavored,” I feel her.

“We should find the others,” she says, looking around as if expecting Marcus and Abby to appear here, rather than waiting for us at our usual lunch table, “so we can share this with them.”

My heart sinks, but I’m not ready to give up, not yet, not after trying so hard. “I really made this for you,” I say, trying to be insistent without sounding too pushy. “I’d prefer if you ate it yourself.”

She frowns, her slight frown where her forehead wrinkles a bit just between the eyes and her lower lip sticks out but not quite enough to be pouty. Everything about her is pretty, so even her frown is cute, but I’d still much rather see her smile. “There’s no way I could eat a whole cake by myself,” she says. “Besides, sweets are better when you share them with others, don’t you think?” Then her frown deepens, and I can see the worry flicker into her eyes. “Or do you think Marcus won’t like it? I know he doesn’t eat a lot of sweets, but I thought that maybe, since it’s Valentine’s Day—“

The my smile feels stiff on my face. Even when I’m standing right in front of her, Marcus is the only one she thinks about. Still, it’s not like me to be jealous, or get upset over something like that. I’m the happy-go- lucky one, the one who’s always smiling, the irrepressibly cheerful one, the one who got “best smile” in 8 th grade despite my chipped front tooth. My stomach hurts, and it’s not because I ate my lunch too quickly. I think of all the time and effort I put into this case, how excited I got thinking about and waiting for this moment, for her to finally recognize me, and I feel like crying but I know I can’t. If I’m upset, I know it will make Helena sad too, or worried about me, and that wouldn’t be fair to her. Besides, Helena thinks I’m a good friend. She smiled at me and said the cake looked delicious. So I don’t cry.

I give Helena my best reassuring smile. “I’m sure he’ll love it,” I tell her. “After all, what’s better than sharing with friends?”