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The Trouble with Cake This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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There was something extraordinary seated on the table. Something surreal. Narrow, rounded, and carefully assembled. Layers of cream cheese filling, each resting between freckled, toffee-colored mattresses with quartered strawberries scattered generously like galaxies. Its tantalizing, almost tangible aroma wound dreamily through the classroom, never lingering, never indulging.

Cake.

Specifically, roll cake. Was it due to my Asian upbringing that I'd never encountered one, or was it a divine gift gracing humanity only for the first time? I wasn't sure, but it was one of the two.

Its wonders found me easily, lost somewhere in the middle of the hastily formed line zigzagged around the other tables. In the eyes of my fourth-grade peers, this was no mere confection. In its immaculate construction – towel-pressing and rolling and unrolling and spreading and chilling – it was an idol to our poked and prodded minds, infected by the hundreds of vocabulary words, arithmetic functions, and the apparent importance of penguins.

After half a morning of torture, the teachers had thrown open the gates and set us free for half an hour. It was the usual routine – the war between genders with freeze tag to decide the victor (of course, it always ended in a tie, because neither side would surrender). A coin would be tossed to decide which team would get the playground and which would get the outdoor fitness station, and the battle was always a bloody affair.

At 10:30, they'd called us back, and we'd obeyed, filtering into the room as a multicolored wave of ­recess-blown hair. There, we found the cake waiting for us. I'm sure at that moment every one of us was weighing the triumph of snatching it and running off versus how much trouble we'd get in. I suppose childhood morality won out.

So instead, we sheathed our teeth, retracted our claws, and growled impatiently. Oh, they tried to restrain us in a neat line. They thought they'd succeeded too. But no, we just let them succeed in order to speed up the process. No longer were we the sweet nine-year-olds of our educators' imaginations. We were hungry. So let us feast.

We sang a quick, off-tune chorus of “Happy Birthday.” But the turning of an age, no matter whose it was, didn't mean much next to the promise of gustatory satisfaction. Each step I took brought me closer to fulfillment. If only that line would move faster. If only.

An eternity stretched out before me, but I waited. I waited because I knew reward was coming, and I was not going to risk losing it. And it worked, because soon I found myself right before it, staring into its infinite spirals.

But that was as far as I got.

“Wait,” my teacher said from above me, the plastic knife pausing over the half-devoured cake. “Let me find out if there are nuts in this.” She walked away, and the line behind me groaned.

“Why does she have to do this every time?” Behind me stood a boy named Jack, admired by the boys in my class for being some sort of flag football star and despised by all the girls for being less than charming. Naturally, I didn't feel the need to explain things to him, so I turned back around.

The teacher returned a minute later, having spoken to the mother who had brought in the cake, and shook her head in mock sympathy.

“I'm sorry, but Mrs. Adams said it was ‘manufactured on the same equipment that processes products containing peanuts and tree nuts.' Do you know what that means?”

Yes. Yes, I knew what that meant. It meant no cake for me. I nodded curtly.

“We can't take any chances,” she said, and I think her tone was supposed to be compassionate, but she sounded a lot like the villain from “The Lion King.” So I waited politely for the next part of the ritual – the consolation prize.

“I might have some Oreos stashed in the closet. Would you like that instead?” I simply shrugged, since it didn't really matter, but she looked kind of troubled. Probably couldn't understand why a fourth grader wouldn't abandon all dignity for a package of Oreos. I didn't blame her, at least, not for that. She'd never been allergic to a good third of her Halloween candy, so clearly she had nothing to be cynical about.

“Wait here.” She walked away for the second time, and Jack looked like he wanted to punch me. He probably would have too, if he'd actually had the opportunity. This was a public elementary school, and that, in front of me, was cake. So I scooted forward.

I heard the thump of the storage closet closing at the other end of the room, cutting through the bubbling chatter, and her footsteps, muffled for a few moments as they landed on the carpet, then a crisp clicking against linoleum. When she reached the table, she knelt slightly so she was face to face with me. She wore that generic “speaking to a child” expression. I would have liked to think there was something more, but there really wasn't.

I accepted the pack of mini Oreos, and as I shuffled out of the line I felt Jack's shoulder bump against mine in his enthusiasm to take my spot.

There was a yellow hexagonal table with a few empty seats, so I pulled back a chair. With all the noise, I could barely hear the squeak of the legs being dragged across the floor.

There were already three girls sitting there, and they briefly glanced up. There was a glimpse of recognition before they went back to talking. I settled into my seat and ripped open the plastic wrapper.

One of the girls looked up.

“Hey, why aren't you eating the cake?” she asked.

“I'm allergic,” I replied, fishing an Oreo from the package.

“Oh. Okay.” She forked a piece of her slice and took a bite.

“Isn't this so good?” her friend asked excitedly.

“I know, right!”

“Claire's mom brought it in – of course it's good!”

I wonder if at that point, any of the teachers were watching us. If they were, they probably would have smiled and thought, Wow, they get along so well. We're doing this right. It would have appeared that way. Four girls sitting at the same table, exchanging a few words, and at least half of us smiling. The only thing wrong with the picture was that one of them was holding an Oreo in her hand, while the others had slices of cake. But that's trivial.

Isn't it.

I never hated anyone, and I never pitied myself. It's probably stupid to think your life sucks because you're allergic to nuts and can't eat the things others can, right? But I think at one point I started believing it was “Me vs. Everyone Else” without knowing it, and no matter how many times I sat with the others, something about the scene wouldn't be quite right. I could see them, hear them, but I could never quite be them.

Time passed.

Early on, I found out it was too much of a pain to try to change things, so I settled on this: I will isolate myself willingly so the other kids won't have to do it themselves and possibly get in trouble for it. My motives are far too complex for them to comprehend, and perhaps they will never know what sacrifices I make for them, but that's okay, because everyone will be happy.

Pretty good, right?

I grew to like Oreos.

Even on the days when no one brought in cake, I took a pack of Oreos to lunch. I would sit on my own, separate one of the black shells from the white filling, and examine the intricate design on the surface. Sometimes I'd wonder, If the tiny patterns around the logo ever changed, would anyone notice but me?

Then I'd let the coarse prints roll on my tongue before biting down, and each time I'd feel the certain … finality, I guess, about it. Then wait, and close my eyes, and feel it disintegrate in my cheek like sweetened black ash.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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jollygreengiant47 said...
today at 12:30 am:
This is amazing! I love how you compare the then with the now, using a mere pack of Oreos. I could fell the excitement waiting in line for the cake, followed by pity when she was allegic. Keep writing stuff like this because you rock! :)
 
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