“White cake?” Laurie asked when Steve showed her the picture of a wedge of chalky cake laid flat on a porcelain plate.
“It’s more elegant when everything is white,” Steve said.
“White is a color, not a flavor.”
“It’s vanilla,” said the order taker behind the counter, whose voice startled Laurie, as if he had spoken out of turn. The man’s smile, which was loose and generous when they walked in, had gradually hardened and flattened into a tight line.
Laurie continued, “I like chocolate, and it doesn’t matter. Icing can make anything white.”
“When you slice it open, it’s not white anymore,” Steve said, flipping through the album for the dozenth time. “Chocolate won’t photograph well; it looks dirty.”
“Right, we’d look like we’re eating dirt.”
“Is everything a joke with you?”
“You’ve taken me seriously before?” Laurie asked, more sincerely than she’d intended. “Was that before or after you canceled the things I booked without telling me first?”
“You booked a war photographer who shoots blood and gore … and death.”
“We have to close soon,” said the guy.
Laurie looked down at the dainty cupcakes and cookies behind the glass display, some with red smiley faces drawn on a bed of white frosting, a slight curl of a mouth, two dot eyes staring out, bearing witness. Steve handed back the album of beautiful cakes. Laurie imagined the bakery guy, who didn’t look older than a college kid, making a mental note. When he gets married, he wouldn’t fight with his wife over cake or colors or photographers or flowers or the guest list.
Laurie didn’t say anything as they drove home, not even when Steve bypassed the freeway and turned on to Pacific Coast Highway. When she had asked Steve earlier to take this other way to Newport Beach, it was because she had wanted to look out her window, hoping that the shimmering, flickering edge of the ocean would calm her, maybe hypnotize her, make her someone else. She didn’t want to get upset over little things anymore. And lately, it was all little things, with each thing carrying the weight of all the other things that came before. Now Steve, sitting there, driving, blocked her ocean view.
It began to rain, a little at first, and Steve immediately flicked the bar to the right of the steering wheel. The wipers streaked dust and condensation across the windshield, but the drizzle soon fattened into raindrops that beat a rapid rhythm on the thin metal roof of the car. Laurie leaned back and watched the wipers clear the view for a moment before the next sheet of rain could come down.
When Laurie was little, the wipers looked like the heads of woodpeckers, rising to greet her and peck away at an invisible piece of wood. Laurie remembered laughing each time they bounced up, as if they couldn’t wait to come back and say hello. Her father had asked what’s so funny and Laurie told him. She even hoped for lots of rain so she could see more of her friends.
Laurie smiled at the memory and Steve caught the look on her face. Laurie frowned; she didn’t want Steve to think that everything was OK. He put a hand on her knee. It was his idea of a romantic gesture – removing a hand from the steering wheel while navigating a curvy, rain-soaked road that hovered just above the water.
Laurie also knew that Steve expected her to respond so he could put two hands back on the wheel again, not compromise their safety, the rest of their lives together. She pretended she hadn’t noticed. She watched the wipers from a sideway glance. Laurie remembered telling her father that one of the woodpeckers was sick and wouldn’t move and how she sat in the passenger seat and watched him walk out into the rain, grab the plastic blade and yank it so hard that the wiper no longer rested on the windshield but dangled in the air from a hinge. Laurie cried and then screamed for him to stop breaking its neck, but even after the woodpecker returned, it wasn’t the same.
The rain was coming down harder. Steve put his hand back on the wheel and turned at the next light to get off the mountain road and find the nearest freeway to drive the rest of the way home.
Laurie stood behind Steve as he unlocked the front door and pawed in the dark for the light switch. He walked straight to the dining room table where neat piles of paper peeked out from manila folders stacked on top of one another. Laurie fell back on the overstuffed couch and dug out the remote that had slipped between the seat cushions. When she turned on the TV, loud voices blared and she started flipping channels but didn’t stop long enough to find out what program was on what channel. She turned toward Steve, who was pulling out papers from the folders, as if piecing together a puzzle.
“It’s Sunday night,” Laurie said. “There’s probably a movie on.”
“I have a lot to do for tomorrow.”
Laurie wanted to say something, but she suspected that anything she’d say at this moment would start a fight, and so she stopped pushing the buttons on the remote and decided to watch whatever show was on. It was a rerun of a law drama she’d already seen. She pressed again and it landed on a sitcom whose general plot and characters she recognized from years ago. Laurie could very well have seen all these shows before, and yet she couldn’t say what happened at the end of any episode as if they were half-forgotten dreams.
It was a fear that Laurie had not revisited since Steve asked her to marry him just three months after they met. And then all that nervous energy, that neurosis that she just didn’t get it – the story, the plot – these hang-ups seemed not hers, as if they had never belonged to her, but to someone else entirely. With her new sparkly ring, she was immediately welcomed into the warm huddle of squeals and hugs, congratulations and happy endings.
Laurie noticed the DVD case still sitting on top of the TV. It held a romantic comedy about a man pining over a woman who’s marrying someone else. It seemed like a good idea when Laurie picked this movie, not because Steve would enjoy the story, but because there was a wedding ceremony in the Hamptons, and Steve could glean some ideas from the elaborate Hollywood set pieces.
“There’s a wedding in that movie I rented,” she said. “Maybe they’ll have chocolate cake and you’ll see that it’s not so bad.”
Steve flipped some pages, as if he were trying to drown out the sound of her voice. Laurie waited a moment.
“I’m going out,” Laurie said and stood up from the couch. She realized she hadn’t even taken off her coat.
“Don’t be silly.” Steve looked up for the first time since they returned home. “What are you going to do? It’s raining.”
Laurie cringed, hating Steve’s use of that word. Silly. She opened the closet and rifled through the shoes, the empty boxes and broken appliances for an umbrella. When she didn’t find one, she closed the door.
“Is this about the cake?” he asked.
There it was again – that voice of measured indifference and annoyance.
“What are you crying about?” her father had asked those many years ago, still holding the long, limp piece of decapitated resin and rubber in his hand. “You’re not a baby anymore.”
“It’s not about the cake,” Laurie said.
“So what is it?”
“I just want to go out.”
“We’re about to get married. Don’t you think you should start telling me what’s wrong?”
Laurie considered it, but she didn’t know where to start, because how do you tell someone that because you love him, you hate him too, and the moment he makes you strong, he takes it back and makes you weak.
Just after they started dating, Laurie was horsing around with a friend near the edge of a mountain trail, and Steve grabbed her arm and reeled her into his body, holding on to her like a stuffed bear. Laurie was able to break one arm free from his grasp. She slapped at his hand playfully, but he didn’t let go.
“Did you think I was going to fall off and kill myself?” she’d asked him.
“No, I was afraid you were going to kill me,” he had said.
Steve didn’t get up from his seat when she closed the front door.
Outside the lobby window of their apartment building, the sky had grown dark, but all around the lights illuminated the raindrops so they looked like needles shooting into the street before disappearing on contact. Laurie thought about waiting it out, sitting on the red vinyl bench with torn-out stuffing next to the mailboxes, but then Steve could come down to find that she hadn’t gone anywhere after all. She pushed the door open against the wind and rain, and by the time she crossed the street to her car, she felt soaked and heavy. She sat in her wet coat, freezing, and she wished she were home with the man who was going to be her husband, watching some lame movie, going to bed, waking up next to him.
Laurie turned on the ignition, as if to see what would happen next; the wipers sprung up to greet her and backed down, stood up, backed down. She started to drive, but she didn’t know to where. It had only been raining for the last hour, but already the lit store signs and streetlights appeared fractured and dreamlike, as if glowing pieces of red, orange, green and yellow lost their way and attached themselves to puddles along the road, creating little pools of light like entryways into another dimension.
Laurie thought about the bakery they didn’t go to this afternoon. It wasn’t too far away. She should just go ahead and place the order – a big white phallic cake. Would Steve laugh or would he call off the wedding? What would the war photographer capture then?
But Laurie already knew.
The rain was sleeting down, and Laurie was losing track of the lines on the road. She was scared that one hard brake would send her skidding into the intersection.
“I wish it’d rain everyday,” Laurie had told her father when she was little, sitting in the passenger seat as her father cursed at the storm.
“You think this is fun?” her father had said as rain blasted the windshield. But the wipers attacked the gauze of water, cleared the view so he’d see what was in front of him, if only for a second. Her father held the steering wheel with both hands, so that his knuckles appeared hard and exposed.
Laurie had felt sorry for her father then because he didn’t seem to see her friends, how hard the woodpeckers worked, whipping back and forth at full speed, but still remembered to smile at Laurie, squeak a hello as they cleared a path through the rain for her.