“The sweetest of words have the bitterest taste”
-“The Hardest of Hearts” by Florence + the Machine
He had made a cake. Eli stood proudly in front of her, flour spotted adorably across his face. Gemma could smell it in the air, the decadence of the batter and icing swirled to kiss her cheeks. The spoon in his hand was still smeared with cream cheese icing, and when he absent-mindedly rubbed his hand through his hair, gobs of icing remained in his golden curls.
“Well?” he asked, gesturing to his masterpiece. “What do you think?”
The cake was hideous. There was no other way to describe it. The layers were uneven; the back sagged while the middle bulged, and icing ran like tears onto the countertop. Red icing letters spelled “Hepy Bdey” on top of the monstrosity, which, all in all, looked like it had been squashed by a Mack truck.
“I think-” Gemma started.
“Oh, I know it’s not perfect, by any stretch,” Eli rushed in, suddenly anxious. His hand was back in his hair. “But Emily will like it, won’t she? I want to show that I did something.” He sounded desperate.
Gemma felt her heart crack. Of course he wanted to make Emily happy. Her eyes landed over Eli’s shoulder to a picture of Eli and Emily he had pinned on the refrigerator. She was waving at the camera, but Eli was looking at her like she was his own personal miracle, something that might disappear if he blinked, or looked away for a second. He loved her. She sighed, pushing aside the pain of this moment for a more appropriate, private time. A time when it was okay to be upset your two best friends had fallen in love.
“I think Emily will love it regardless, because you made it,” Gemma told him, knowing it was true. “But I could maybe improve it just a little…”
“Oh Gemma, you’re wonderful! Thank you!” Eli hugged her; Gemma pretended that little action didn’t make her entire world a little brighter. “Tell me how I can help.”
Gemma laughed a little, but it did nothing to ease the ache in her chest. “Wash your face, then clean up this mess! Leave the cake to me.”
Eli gazed around, just seeming to notice his kitchen’s resemblance to a Jackson Pollock of icing, batter, and flour. Even the photos on the fridge had not escaped decoration with globs of baked devotion. He seemed sheepish. “Right…” he muttered, searching for a dish towel.
“Wash your hair too!”Gemma shouted after him as she grabbed an apron and a spatula. Her first task would be to fix these layers. Lifting one up with the spatula, she stuffed extra icing in between until the cake was mostly level. There was still a slight bulge in the middle, but when Gemma poked and prodded she found the top layer was slightly thicker in the middle than the others. She chuckled a little, imagining Eli checking Twitter as he poured the batter only to find that he had poured too much in. Next she fixed the letters iced on top. They themselves weren’t salvageable, so she spread a layer of red icing all over the cake (conveniently disguising all the rips in the sides from repeating poking), then re-wrote “Happy Birthday Emily” in immaculate white icing. Gemma could almost feel her mother’s hands around her ten-year-old ones, teaching her how to keep her hands steady as she iced desserts for her family’s bakery. Such a simple memory seemed a distant dream now when contrasted with the complicated, chest-tightening feelings that haunted Gemma like the family ghost. Behind her, Gemma sensed Eli moving around like her own personal ghost, wiping down surfaces and doing dishes as he hummed a ditty.
“Here you go,” she said, turning to him to reveal the now perfect cake.
“You are a miracle worker!” Eli exclaimed, untying his apron to reveal an immaculate dark suit. His hair was wet, and his green eyes were bright with excitement. “Thanks a million, Gemma.”
The next morning, when Emily called, squealing about how Eli had proposed by baking a ring into her birthday cake, Gemma felt her world collapse into red and white icing stains, like blood spatter from the spatula she had pointed at her own chest. She distantly heard Emily’s voice falter, distantly wondered at her own surprise, as she curled up into herself and hoped to never come out.
Red icing made Gemma violently ill for the rest of her life.