When a Cake Is More Than a Cake

This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “Blogapalooza” hour wherein bloggers are given a prompt at 9:00 pm and required to post their words by 10:00 pm.  Here is this month’s prompt:

“Write about a time you lost your temper or somebody lost their temper at you.”

I have been feeling bereft lately.  For days, really.  It is a whole lot of not fun.  I am so tired of being sad.  Or mad.  It feels like I sort of ping pong between those two emotions as of late.  My poor husband is left as a witness to the worst tennis match ever:  Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, Sad, Mad, and Sad wins by a hair.

Last Monday, Mad won out and it is still sticking with me.  That day happened to be the should be/would be birthday for our daughter, Donna.  Donna’s 10th, to be exact.  I will be the first to admit that even six years in to this whole grief thing, I don’t have a clue about how to celebrate the birthday of our dead child.  Not.  A.  Clue.

In the end, I let our older son stay home from camp.  We made a day of it and went to the zoo together.  We came home and napped together.  My husband got home from work and we decided to eat out.  Noodles & Co., because it was Donna’s favorite. Cheesy noodles make everything better, right?

Not exactly.  The restaurant, despite being almost empty, was a dirty pit.  Food and paper all over the floor.  Tables needing to be bused.  The drink station was filthy.  The food came out lukewarm, meaning the cheese never even melted.  It was depressing as hell on an already depressing day.

A young man passed our table.  I took a stab at it and guessed correctly that he was the manager.  He was, indeed, the manager.  I politely registered my complaints, pointing out the dirty tables and floors adjacent to our table.  I told him about the drink station needing attention.  I showed him how the cheese on our son’s macaroni-and-cheese orders was just clumping, as the noodles were not hot enough to melt it.

The manager looked at me and replied, with a tight smile, that corporate was responsible for the cheese sauce.  Um.  What?  I smiled back and told him that the noodles, including my own, were not warm enough to melt the cheese.  He finally got it.  “Oh,” he said, “We check our temperatures regularly in the kitchen.”

Okey dokey, manager not doing your job.

I smiled at the young man.  I was weary and sad and tired.  “Thank you for listening,” I said, and left it at that.  Yuck.  Was he dense or defensive or obtuse or simply 24?  I didn’t know and I didn’t care.  The meal was less than ideal, as was our day.  It wasn’t his fault my daughter had died of cancer.  It was his fault his restaurant sucked, but he didn’t seem to care and I didn’t want to argue.

After we left there we stopped by the grocery store to pick up a small cake.  I’ve gotten cakes at the same store for years because they sell nicely decorated 5″ cakes that won’t sit around my counter for a week reminding me of how awful it is to celebrate the birthday of a child who is no longer with you.

Donna's cake was just like the pink and green one in the middle row, except teal and yellow.  A cheerful cake for a girl no longer here.
Donna’s cake was just like the pink and green one in the middle row, except teal and yellow. A cheerful cake for a girl no longer here.

I hate to name names, but the grocery story chain rhymes with Schmariano’s.  This is a small chain who stakes their reputation on customer service.  They are different from the rest, they say, and, for the most part, they are.  It’s a pleasant shopping experience there.

I left the family waiting in the car and ran in just to get the cake.  There were three left to choose from.  I chose the teal cake with the large yellow bloom on top.  It was pretty, and happy, and didn’t look like frosted depression.

A young woman assisted me.  It was easy to see her trying out a couple of different boxes.  She settled on a square one when I noticed her manager whisper in her ear.  It was easy to tell the manager was directing her to a different box.

The young gal (whose name rhymes with Machel) didn’t heed her manager’s advice and brought the box to me at the counter.  She greeted me with a disclaimer, “This box is too small, but you can see that I taped it so that the top will not touch the frosting.”

Well, before I had even touched the box, it was clear that the frosting had already been smushed, as could be seen through the cellophane window.  I asked for a different box, please, as clearly, the cake was damaged before I had even left the counter.  “There must be a properly sized box back there to accommodate this sized cake.  Please, I want it to look nice,” I gently pushed, confirming I was no pushover.

Machel turned away from me in a huff with the cake, walked to the back counter where she clearly said something nasty about me to two of her bakery coworkers, who promptly looked up from their work and simultaneously snickered in my direction.

What in the fuck just happened?  Did she just do that?  In front of me?  Oh, no, no, no.

She had.  My sad and my mad collided and exploded in that moment.  I had had enough.  “What did you just say about me?” I called out to her.  Machel looked the other way.  Then she walked away.  Then she started taking care of another customer.

There, at the bakery counter of Schmariano’s, I wanted to scream.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to wail and wail and wail and wail at all of it.  I wanted to slap Machel six ways to Sunday.  I wanted everyone within a 20 foot vicinity to know what had just happened and that it was not okay.  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  I wanted to cry.

I did none of that.

Instead, I asked someone else for help.  A young man took over and within about two minutes he had packaged up the cake properly.  I asked for the young woman’s name. I asked why she was no longer helping me.  “Machel,” he said.  “She’s rude to everyone,” he whispered to me, then apologized.

Machel did not know why I was buying a cake.  She had no idea what was happening in my own little slice of the universe.  She was just a mean and nasty person in that moment.  She chose to be.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe she too was grieving.  Maybe she just got dumped.  Maybe she was feeling sick to her stomach.  Maybe she has a strong aversion to middle aged ladies with curly hair and glasses.

I don’t know what Machel’s problem was and I don’t care.

With my cake in hand, I went to go pay for it, making a beeline for the customer service desk on the way.  I calmly explained the situation to the two store managers there. Both apologized profusely.  One left immediately to talk with Machel.  The other comped me the cake, hoping the experience would not keep me from shopping with them in the future.

And then, I cried.  I didn’t mean to.  The tears came, just a few, but they were unmistakable.  I told him why I was there to buy a cake and how the mere act of walking up to that bakery counter took every ounce of strength I had.  I hoped Machel would do better and learn not to be so nasty.  I had just freaking played the grieving mother card.

Sigh.  Oh, yes I did.

Today, for the first time in nine days, I went back to Schmariano’s.  I didn’t see Machel, but that brief bakery exchange did come flooding back while I was there.  I felt icky. Unkind.  Sad.  Who wants to feel all of that while standing in line to pay for cheese and cilantro and limes?

I had just about convinced myself I would never return to that store again, when, as I was leaving, I ran into the manager I had confided in last week.  He recognized me, it seemed, because when he said, “How are you?” he cocked his head and seemed to actually care.

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