Written by Allyson Baker
My mother baked a cake for my seventeenth birthday. I remember it well because it was the first time that I had eaten gold. I had asked for months to try a gold flake from her bakery, but she always refused. “Gluttonous bastards” was the phrase that she used to describe the people who requested her gold-laden cakes. On my seventeenth birthday, I suppose she’d had a change of heart.
As my friends harmonized “Happy Birthday,” my mother carefully carried out the three-tiered masterpiece, adorned with yellow buttercream sunflowers and matching golden flakes, artistically placed around the circumference of the cake. I watched the red wax of the seven-shaped candle drip down, threatening to tarnish the smooth, vanilla frosting if I didn’t make my wish fast enough. Squeezing my eyes shut, I blew the flames out, forgetting what I had wished for just as soon as the thought had appeared in my mind.
As my mother sliced the first piece of cake for me, a fresh, berry medley oozed onto the plate. Turning back to the cake to serve more slices, the maroon mixture slid from the serving spatula onto her sundress. She swiftly scooped it up with her finger and wiped the berries onto a napkin, leaving a remaining red stain, reminiscent of the wine she poured for herself every night.
“My sweet, sweet dancing queen,” she had called to me after I walked the last guest to their car that night. I snuggled into the blanket next to her on the couch, letting her stroke my hair the way that she often did when I was much younger.
“Would you like to try some?” she asked coyly, holding out her glass of wine. She had wanted to show me that she thought I was mature enough to have my first taste of alcohol now. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that my friends and I had gotten into the wine cabinet last month and finished an entire bottle. I accepted the glass that she held out to me and took a sip, letting the warmth of the moment consume me.
“I’ve been thinking about what you asked me a while back,” she started, “and I think that you’re ready to come catering with me now.” My mother’s words caught me off guard. I had pleaded persistently for months to accompany her on her bakery’s extravagant catering events, where she frequently served her cakes to the rich and famous. “They’re not as magical as you think they are,” she always responded to my pleas. This time though, unprompted, she offered me the invitation to join.
“Next Friday, I have a large gala to cater for at the Palace de la Reine, and I could definitely use two extra hands to help me out,” she said, taking both of my hands into hers. She must have already known that my answer was yes, because she handed me a golden name tag with my name engraved. Tracing over the cold, metal letters with my thumb, I turned to smile appreciatively at my mother. A tear guided itself from the corner of her eye down her cheek. She realized I was now looking at her and hurriedly brushed it off of her face, as if the visual culmination of her sadness was just an itch that she had to scratch away. I pretended like I didn’t see the worry on her face and hugged her goodnight, taking my new nametag down the hall with me, feeling too awkward to ask my crying mother what was wrong.
I counted down the days leading up to my first catering event with her. Sneaking into her office while she was at her bakery, a quick perusing of her emails had told me that a handful of my favorite celebrities would be at this gala. The host of the gala was a new kind of celebrity at the time; he was one of the world’s first trillionaires. That first group of trillionaires had a handful of villains, but he appeared to us as promising and formidable as Batman. He made headlines for donating to wildfire relief efforts, with Time magazine putting him on their cover, pictured in a charred forest, one hand on his hip, the other hand wrapped around a firefighter’s helmet. His wealth seemed to give him superhuman qualities, with the Time cover nearing the territory of iconography.
The night of the gala, I sat on a wooden stool in my mother’s bakery, rocking its uneven legs back and forth as I eagerly watched her inspect the twenty finished cakes for any impurities. She cared more about perfecting her own craft than she did about feeding socialites. I imagine that if she actually gave any thought to her clients, she wouldn’t have created the masterpieces that she did. She separated her art from its consumer, the only way that she was able to wake up and bake cakes for trillionaires everyday.
“You’re quite the helpful assistant,” my mother said to me sarcastically, not taking her eyes off of the chocolate ganache. “I mean, if you’re going to just sit and twiddle your thumbs, can you at least put on some music for us?” she said with a wink. Tinny sound filled the air as I played her favorite songs from the compacted speakers of my phone. I admired the way she moved gracefully, even in an ankle-length apron. She waltzed over to me, whisk in hand, a makeshift microphone in her kitchen. With her encouragement, I sang into the whisk until she was satisfied. Giggling at our impromptu duet, I noticed my jaw was no longer tense, and my brow had become unfurrowed. My mother had successfully attempted to ease my nerves before the gala; and so we went, loading the cakes into her van.
The twenty gold-covered cakes that we had finished assorting on the buffet tables no longer seemed as magnificent as they were an hour before when they had covered every spare inch of counter space in my mother’s kitchen. Surrounding the cakes on the buffet tables were four different types of chocolate fondue fountains, accompanied by dishes of fresh fruit, each juicy slice beckoning to be skewered and slathered in sugar. My mother noticed my salivating gaze at the dessert table and shook her head in response. “We’re not here to eat. We’re here to serve,” she told me.
The guests filed in slowly that evening, filling up the main hall of the gala with their floor-length silk dresses, which I noticed dragged across the floor in an almost liquid-state, although the wearers moved quite rigidly themselves. Most of the men wore golden pins secured to their lapels, each pin identical to another. I looked down at my own golden nametag and smiled, happy to feel like I had something in common with these guests.
These guests, with their flawlessly manicured nails and extravagant diamond rings, never reached for the delicious assortment of fruit and fondue, or even my mother’s cakes for that matter. Glued between the fingers of their left hands were champagne glasses. As soon as they finished one, another waiter was just as soon by their side with a silver platter of a dozen more. The guests were careful to keep their right hands free of anything at all, except for, of course, the hands of the other guests. Handshaking was constant. Although some ladies greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek, no one embraced for a hug. The mere thought of intimacy was taboo.
Standing behind the pastry table, I busied myself most of the night by watching wealth interact with itself. My mother stood next to me, serving decadent slices of cake to the few people that eventually asked. Once receiving their porcelain plates of cake, they took a few nibbles and abandoned the remains on a table, where a waiter, seemingly immediately, collected them and moved them out of sight.
The room performed in this reflexive, mechanical way until the host finally walked in. Conversations quieted, then, stopped entirely, and as he made his way to the platform on the opposite side of the room, a roaring applause filled the space between the four walls. I couldn’t see much of him from where I was standing at the pastry table, but the spotlights above him illuminated his statute with a golden glow. I squinted my eyes to make out his appearance, which was met with a firm tug on my wrist from my mother.
“Do not stare at them,” was all she said. I looked down from the brightly-lit figure speaking on the stage and turned my attention to the entrance of the gala hall instead. Two wait-staff stood on either side of the heavy glass doors, with a sheet of tint that made it impossible for those on the outside to see within. Those inside the room, however, could clearly see the marble steps outside that led up to the hall. Stumbling up them at that moment was someone I recognized as the host’s son, a tall, messy-haired boy only a few years older than me. He was famous in his own right, starring in films, known for always playing the compassionate, romantic lead.
As he clambered through the entrance of the hall, I had a difficult time picturing him as his stereotypical, charming character. Although guests turned to stare at him noisily stumble to the bar, his father paid no mind, and in fact, did not even stutter for a moment during his speech. The guests turned their attention back towards the stage, the host’s presence captivating and demanding our full attention once more. My mother, however, kept her focus directed at the host’s son, with an aura of uncharacteristic fear as if she was staring at Lucifer himself.
“There’s a dark shadow hanging over that poor child,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head solemnly. I glanced over at the bar, careful not to stare, to see him slouched over in a velvet chair in the corner, a glass of dark liquor in his hand, tempting the escapades of gravity.
There was a small plastic bag on the table next to him, and I turned away just as he began to drag his nose across the white, powdered surface. The orchestra, as if on cue, began to perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Summer, concluding the host’s speech and commencing the chaos of the cocaine-consuming boy in the corner. An excited, cheering, “Woooo!” came from where he sat, and in my peripheral vision, I saw the boy leap up from his velvet throne to make an attempt to mingle with the crowd, exhibiting a newfound energy. Most people cringed back into themselves as he approached them, only tolerating the boy in the hopes that it would earn them a private minute with his father to speak about business.
The boy, seeking stimulation like a stir-crazy dog, inevitably approached the pastry table. I felt my mother stiffen next to me, one of the only times I had ever noticed her stressed. He reeked of whisky from seven feet away, and I understood why the guests all inched away from him as much as possible. My best friend was going to be devastated that the heartthrob on the poster above her bed was actually a drunken slob.
“Is there any ice cream cake?” he managed to slur out at my mother.
“No, I’m sorry. The labels in front of each cake tell you which flavor they are,” she responded.
The vein in his neck constricted itself and bulged out again, like a python swallowing its meal whole. Towering over us, he was noticeably much taller in person than in any of his films, and I began to feel my palms sweat.
“What? You think I can’t read the labels or something?” he interrogated, pointing a finger at my mother’s face. He had a layer of black dirt and grime caked under his fingernails, which complemented the white dust that was powdered around his nose.
“I know you can read. That’s why I’m suggesting you take a look at the selection,” my mother said, her patience evidently wearing thin.
“My father doesn’t pay you to be a bitch. Just give me a damn piece of ice cream cake,” he bellowed down at her.
“Like I said, we don’t have any ice cream cake. If you’d like, I can slice you a piece of this truffle cheesecake, and you can let me know if you want more.”
“Don’t patronize me! You don’t think I can slice the cake myself? Give me the fucking knife!” He yanked the knife out of my mother’s hand, launching his elbow into the three-tiered cake next to me. Knocking me onto the floor and covering me in a sticky berry medley, I noticed that this was the same cake my mother had baked for my birthday the week before.
“What are you doing?” my mother yelled at him, still trying to maintain her composure.
“Cutting my own cake – I earned it! And I don’t care what any of these assholes think of me,” he announced, waving the knife around towards the other guests. “I can do it on my fucking own!”
“I know you can, but let me just do it for you,” my mother said anxiously, reaching for the knife in his hand. “Here, let me just-”
“Get off of me, bitch!” he screamed, driving the knife into my mother’s stomach. She looked down at her stomach, now oozing a deep red, and stumbled onto the floor. I crawled over to her and kneeled by her side, waiting for her to tell me what to do, to give me a plan of action, to tell me that it was going to be okay, to tell me that she was going to be okay.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” she choked out, “around these monsters. Get out before they notice you, my love.”
“Mom, I love-” I started.
“I know you do. Run out of here now. Trust that my love is with you always,” she said, caressing my cheek. “Most importantly, Amelia, you must avoid what appears to be golden.”
I kissed my mom on the forehead, my tears rolling off of my face and onto hers. She assured me with a nod, and I turned around to face the buffet tables, crawling underneath in the direction of the emergency exit. The white, satin tablecloths provided coverage for my escape underneath the table, allowing me to slip out inconspicuously.
“What the hell is this?” the host of the party asked. I stopped in my tracks under the table. His shoes were inches from my face.
“That lady didn’t want to-” his son began to explain through sniffles.
“Save it. I’m tired of you embarrassing me at my events. When are you going to grow up? You say that you want to prove to me that you deserve a stake in my company, but time and time again, I’m cleaning up your messes and covering your ass when you get involved in these kinds of scandals,” the host’s shoes now turned to face the opposite direction. “Take care of this,” he directed, and I heard several pairs of feet shuffle over to where my mother’s body was, picking her up and moving her out of sight, like a piece of unfinished cake on the table.
“Was there anyone else who saw you do this?” the host asked his son.
“Yeah, some girl. I didn’t see where she went though.”
“Go upstairs, and get security to check the footage. Figure out which door she left through, or if she left at all. She might be in the building still.”
The host’s shoes walked away from where I was hiding. Taking a breath of courage, I summoned my mother’s strength: “Three, two, one.”
I sprinted out from underneath the table and through the emergency exit a few feet away, finding myself on a crowded city street. Ripping off my golden nametag, I immersed myself into a group of pedestrians and disappeared into oblivion, unsure of what to do next.