Mr. Drake sat on a lone bench facing the east river—the same bench on which he always read his books, smoked his cigarettes, and watched the boats pass. Mr. Drake spent the first half of his lunch hour at a café, where he would order a sandwich and a small coffee with half and half. He would enjoy it alone, allowing himself frequently to pick his head up from his food and watch the goings on of the plaza just outside. The public seating space in the center was surrounded by local businesses (like the café), an elementary school, a dog park, an array of apartment buildings, and finally a collection of wooden benches.
Those benches and that plaza, however, is not where Mr. Drake spent the second half of his lunch hour. Instead, he walked from the café, crossed the plaza, and descended the stairs to the remote bench below. He enjoyed the calmness of the position; the quietude that came from the soft lapping of the wake against the levy. To him, the predictable nature of his half-hour was exactly what he needed to relieve some stress and put some dependable routine into his days. The routines that filled the other hours of the day—those spent at work and home—didn’t quite do the trick.
And so Mr. Drake sat in the middle of this bench, legs spread wide, an elbow on each kneecap. He propped a book open and read about twenty pages (actually, he read exactly twenty) before dog-earing a page, placing it next to him, and lighting a cigarette. He would watch the tugboats and schooners glide as the embers consumed the tobacco, pausing to expedite the process and exhale slowly.
Cigarette extinguished, he would return to his book and read twenty pages more, so that the cycle could continue. With dark brown hair and a somewhat full beard, Mr. Drake looked exactly his age to the joggers and other pedestrians that passed by. He was 26, unmarried, had no girlfriend, and exercised regularly. His strict adherence to regular physical activity was a cure-all in his mind. Mr. Drake believed that running a mile everyday would eventually help him find the right girl, as well as combat the negative effects of three cigarettes a day. Though he knew there was (in actuality) probably no link between running and preventing smoke damage to the lungs, the illusion was enough to satisfy him. Plus, he knew for certain that being physically fit would help him in the looks department.
But Mr. Drake did not think of such things during his lunch hour. He did not worry about work back at the office, he did not worry about getting married, and he did not worry about the health risks of smoking. In fact, he enjoyed every minute of his break. He worried instead about whatever conflicts arose in the novel in front of him. Some might say he worried a little too much. Indeed, Mr. Drake became so invested in the twenty page intervals of his books that the cigarette breaks in between were remedies to his pent-up anxiety about character and plot.
Mr. Drake was not a complicated man. In fact, he was rather normal—less than normal, even. Perhaps the simplicity of his humdrum life was what inspired his investment into these “sacred” texts like they were his religion. The books weren’t specific; he didn’t have a favorite author, or regard any book higher than another. Sure, he had favorite stories and found some to be a little underwhelming compared to others, but any book that he liked well enough to get through he had a serious connection with.
And so, as Mr. Drake was enjoying a book on this particular day, he could not help but be sucked into its pages.
In today’s book—an anthology of short stories focusing on the city of Berlin—Mr. Drake felt a strong bond with the protagonist. The story, about sixty-five pages in length, followed a man much like Mr. Drake on his pursuit to find the right cake for him and his wife’s second anniversary. Seethaler was similar to Mr. Drake only in stature and, interestingly, voice. Of course, Mr. Drake didn’t have a wife—much less a significant other for more than two whole years—but he did have a similar way of thinking and acting; he was shy and articulate. Moreover, Seethaler was about six feet tall. Mr. Drake, too, was around that height, and it helped to forge a connection between the two men; even if that connection traveled only one way—from outside the page, inwards.
Nevertheless, after only a few pages Mr. Drake had become glued to Seethaler’s story. He had slipped into the book’s pages just as naturally as drifting into sleep after a tiring day. What had arrested Mr. Drake’s attention so completely was the feverishness in which Seethaler searched all over for the perfect anniversary cake. Not necessarily a comedy, the married man of two years spent his entire day traveling from bakery to bakery to find the right one: a super dark chocolate base with a raspberry buttercream, and finally a mint chocolate icing. A bit out of the ordinary as far as cakes go, but not an impossible request. It was her (his wife’s) favorite after all, and this was a big city home to many skilled bakers.
But some politely refused due to short notice, while others didn’t have raspberry buttercream or any type of mint flavorings. Sure, they all had chocolate cake, but that didn’t do Seethaler much good.
He and his wife were scheduled to have dinner that evening, and he wanted to surprise her with her favorite dessert, something she had tried once with her grandmother. Her grandmother had not created the cake herself, but the nostalgia of sharing a slice was a sweet memory all the same.
But, at around fifteen pages in, Mr. Drake became a tad worried. After recounting how he had met his wife, and how her love for the thematic confection had developed, Seethaler was beginning to lose hope. Four bakeries could not help him, and it was already the middle of the day—he only had a few hours left.
Seethaler decided on a popular bakery in Mitte, a neighborhood a little ways away. They were famous for their cakes which had a glossy frosting. A person could see their reflection in them, it was so smooth. Seethaler had remembered reading about the bakery in a magazine, the name of which he could not recall. But he remembered that at the peak of the summer—when the sun was its brightest and the giddy locals and tourists alike wished to test the cakes reflective powers themselves—the bakery had lines out of the door, stretching around the block.
Seethaler ducked into the U-Bahn and anxiously checked his watch. He wasn’t exactly sure when this bakery was to close, but he consistently look to his wrist as the train bounced around.
Mr. Drake noted the page number, which was twenty, and found a place to stop. He marked his page and lit a cigarette; he needed a break to slow his heart rate and wipe the clamminess from his palms.
Of course, Mr. Drake worried about what would come of Seethaler and the perfect cake, but he needed time to relax and digest the previous twenty pages. He gazed at a passing tug-boat that guided a trash barge down east river. The boat paled in comparison to the size of the barge, which stood at a height three times that of the little ship (thanks in part to the mountains of garbage), and its length was scores of yards greater.
Mr. Drake wondered: if Seethaler had gotten to the end of his tether and had still not acquired the perfect cake, would he resort to searching for one in the trash? The first twenty pages were certainly comical in their own way—a man going crazy searching for a dessert that would soon be devoured and digested is a funny concept—but the tone of the narrative did not suggest that something as outlandish as Seethaler excavating through trash was a possibility. Still, Mr. Drake thought, Seethaler loved his wife enough to do just about anything.
The barge and boat were soon out of view and Mr. Drake’s cigarette was almost completely smoked. He took a final puff and got ready to return to his story. Mr. Drake made a final scan of his reading spot. He observed a few trees, the entire east river, and a pedestrian walkway before mentally preparing himself. He reopened the book and began where he left off.
Just then, a young man in running gear jogged by, his two small dogs were trying to keep up. The cuter of the two sneezed loudly, to which its owner offered a serious “Bless you.” For one reason or another, Mr. Drake felt a connection with the runner, like he had seen him pass by once or twice before. He decided that he would use this man as the “actor” playing Seethaler in Mr. Drake’s imagination. He did look a tad German, anyway. For the first twenty pages, Mr. Drake imagined Seethaler as a vague, virtually nondescript figure, but now he had a specific, more personable look. “Seethaler” had a thick 5 o’ clock shadow, short dark brown hair, a small yet noticeable scar on his left check, and a long neck with a sharp Adam’s apple. Yes, Mr. Drake said to himself, this is what Seethaler looks like—minus the dogs.
And so Mr. Drake returned to page twenty-one, now knowing Seethaler better than he had before his cigarette break.
Seethaler ascended the U-Bahn steps to the sidewalk and was grateful to learn the bakery was right across the street. He was also happy to see that the line stretched only a little bit out the door. It was a small shop—indeed; all good bakeries do not extend beyond 100 square feet, so he knew the line would move quickly enough. He checked his watch (16:15) and crossed the road. He shimmied to the back of the line and let himself relax for the first time that day. He could do little else but wait for it to be his turn, so he decided to check his phone for emails and the like.
He noticed a text message from his wife, reminding him of their dinner reservations and wishing him a happy anniversary, sealed with a heart emoji. Seethaler responded in kind and smiled to himself, returning his phone to his pocket. Getting closer to the bakery entrance, he began to pick up the scent of warm baked goods: leavened bread, cooked sugar, browned butter. He could smell them all wafting at him like a cacophony of perfect odors. He inhaled deep, almost detective-like, as if sifting through the flavors for his cake.
Seethaler smiled once more, imagining the look of sheer joy on his wife’s face once presented with her favorite dessert. She would blush and smile like the corners of her mouth were being pulled by dental instruments; all at once, stretching as far as her jaw would allow. Perhaps she would shed a tear, but that really wouldn’t be necessary. As she bit into each layer—the chocolate loaf, the raspberry center, the shinny frosted covering (a nice touch, thought Seethaler)—she would be tasting the levels of work her husband put into it. He took off work, traveled around the city, and went from place to place to get every detail right. No, he thought, a wide smile would be enough.
“I’m sorry,” the woman taking orders said, “we need at least six hours prior notice for custom cakes. We can do cupcakes with only three hours notice, however.”
“Cupcakes?” Seethaler said, “No, that won’t do.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” The woman looked genuinely apologetic.
“Do you have raspberry buttercream filling?” he asked, devising a plan.
“We sure do!” she beamed, happy that could deliver some good news.
“Do you sell frosting and base cakes on their own?”
“Well, we don’t typically sell parts of cakes. We only take custom orders—”
“Please,” Seethaler pleaded, “I just need two dark chocolate bases, some raspberry buttercream, and a plain old chocolate frosting—so long as it’s chocolate…and the shinny kind—mixed with some mint extract.
“I don’t think we can—”
“This is for my anniversary; it’s extremely important that I get everything right.”
The woman looked at Seethaler and then the rows of cooling pastries behind her. “Okay,” she said softly. “Lemme figure all this out.”
Seethaler threw he hands on the counter and thanked the woman up and down. [Mr. Drake caught his breath and cheered quietly to himself.] The woman delicately wrapped the bare rounds of cake bases and placed them as neatly as she could in pink boxes. She filled two plastic containers: one with raspberry buttercream, the other with the bakery’s famous shinny chocolate frosting. As it poured, it reflected the sterile bright lights on the store onto a nearby wall. Seethaler looked on in awe as she let the creamy mixture cascade, before mixing in a teaspoon of mint.
She placed the tubs of frosting and filling on top of the pink boxes and then put everything into a plastic carrying bag. Seethaler asked if he could pay her the price of what the completed cake would cost but she just smiled and shook her head. “That’s not necessary.” He thanked her and decided to leave the difference as a tip, even though the store didn’t accept tips.
He left the shop in a cold sweat—the air conditioning had been set to at least 15 degrees Celsius. He checked his phone with his right hand, being careful not to disrupt the contents of the bag in his left. He looked like a scale of justice, balancing the activity of one hand so as not to over-excite the other. In this way, he was the shining example of Lady Justice—he was completely fair and balanced, and his cake was safe. He reviewed his wife’s text, which reminded him that dinner was at 18:00—a little on the early side—at their favorite restaurant. It was now 17:00. How was Seethaler going to assemble the cake in time?
Just finishing up page forty, it was time for Mr. Drake to take a break—one he certainly needed. Some of the pages had soaked up the sweat from his nervous hands. Mr. Drake lit another cigarette and leaned back on the bench. A skinny woman with long red hair approached Mr. Drake and asked if he had a lighter for her cigarette. Of course, he said, and she smiled. Before long, she was on her way, out of sight. But her image still lingered in Mr. Drake’s mind. She was beautiful, and awfully polite. Mr. Drake thought he would like to sleep with her, but she was too far gone to save that possibility. Instead, he concluded, she would be Mr. Drake’s envisioning of what Seethaler’s wife might look like. The author of the story didn’t do much in the way of figurative character description so Mr. Drake had to fill in the blanks. Whenever Seethaler referred to his wife from here on out, Mr. Drake would have a more complete way to imagine her. A police boat coasted by, but was closer to the Queens side of the river. The wind blew a warm zephyr over the walkway and extinguished Mr. Drake’s nearly-finished cigarette for him.
Seethaler had decided to jump onto the U-Bahn and head straight to the restaurant, of course taking the cake materials with him. With thirty minutes to spare, he entered the restaurant to be greeted by a host, with whom Seether and his wife had built somewhat of a rapport with. (They had been frequenting the restaurant for some time, ever since the two started dating years ago). Seethaler frantically laid out his conundrum to the host, noting he needed the cake assembled before their dinner was over. He nearly begged his friend to pull some strings and see if a chef could help him out. He patted Seethaler on the back and rushed to check with the head chef.
In the host’s absence, Seethaler checked his watch, scanned the door for his wife, and little else. The host returned and told him that the chefs were busy preparing for the dinner rush but had agreed to let him use a small section of the kitchen to do it himself. Seethaler mulled it over for half a second, and of course agreed. He thanked the host, who lead him to the kitchen.
Seethaler set his bag down gently on a small prep table and borrowed a plate from the dish rack nearby. He had never before put a cake together, but had watched plenty of baking shows with his wife. All he needed to do was place one cake down, top it with filling, lay on the second, and cover it all with the frosting. It was simple enough, but still he worried about getting it just right. Compared to the baking shows, Seethaler had seen far fewer action movies, but figured placing the cakes just right was not unlike an action hero deftly snipping the right wire and defusing a bomb.
He cut the tape to the first pink box and lifted the first half of cake by the wax paper folded up around it. He unwrapped the paper and flipped the cake over, landing it perfectly center on the plate. He took the first plastic tub which was labeled “Fill.” for “filling” and cracked it open. He grabbed a knife from the dish rack and swirled it around in the fluffy mixture. Seethaler took a deep breath, blocked out the frenetic sounds of clanging dishware from the sous chefs, and applied the first dollop to the cake. This step went off without a hitch; Seethaler had always been praised by his teachers for perfectly coloring within the lines, and this seemed to require the same amount of skill.
The perfect layer of raspberry buttercream sat atop the first cake half. Now Seethaler had to place the second half on top of the first, to sandwich the filling between them. He’d only get one shot at this, since once the cake made contact with the buttercream, it would stick like glue. He opened the second pink box and maneuvered the wax paper-covered cake like he had the first. But as meticulous and calculated as he tried to be, he could not stop a large fissure down the middle of the surface from forming.
Seethaler [and Mr. Drake] quietly cursed to himself and had no idea what to do. Luckily, the two cake layers were perfectly centered and were ready to be frosted. Seethaler cracked open the tub labeled “Frost.” and wiped the knife with a towel. He first attacked the large split with some of the mint chocolate, which he used as coverup. Then he spooned on a large heap and spread it to the edges and around the sides. The knife was not a standard issue baking spatula, so each swipe of the knife nicked the flesh of the cake like a rushed and carless shave. Soon enough, the cake looked like it had been dusted with toasted coconut; scrapes and bruises covered the entire cake, which now looked like it had three layers: two made of regular base cake, one of disheveled crumbs.
Seethaler backed away from his project, covered with sweat and frosting. He inspected every angle and did what he could do to tamp down bulging spots and icing-less gaps. He remembered something his wife had once told him about painting (she was an illustrator): “As an artist, you can add details here and there, and tweak until you drive yourself mad. But at a certain point, you just have to know when to put the brush down and be finished.” Seethaler stepped back and threw his hands up, much like competitors on the baking shows, finishing just as the timer runs out. He threw the knife in the sink, his waste in the trash, and washed the frosting from his hands and arms. He checked his watch (17:58) and quickly talked to one of the chefs about bringing out the cake. He met up with the host, who brushed some loose crumbs off of Seethaler’s shirt and patted him on the back.
Seethaler met his wife in front of the restaurant a few minutes after 18 and hugged her tight. They sat in a small booth at the end of the dining room—their favorite spot. Seethaler’s wife liked it because she could see into the kitchen through the serving window and sometime catch a glimpse of a large plume of fire that flared up when the chefs would flambé.
The two shared a bottle of red wine and talked about their days. She had no idea that Seethaler had skipped work and had been running around town for the cake that was to come. She herself had a stressful, albeit typical, day at the office. As she recounted gossip and the project she’d been working on, Seethaler looked deeply into her eyes and listened with the attention of one thousand soldiers with their eyes front. He smiled coyly and nodded at exactly the right moments. He idolized her, plain and simple.
Soon enough the host brought out the cake, pre-sliced by the chefs in the kitchen. He quickly jumped into explanation, feverishly apologizing for the mess, but told her about the trouble he went to for getting it just right. She smiled as he explained, and when he finished she said “you’re cute,” before biting into her slice. She smiled once more and made a light “Mmmm” sound, but nothing more. She didn’t blush, she didn’t tear up. She just smiled the same timid smile she’d been wearing all dinner, and Seethaler was crushed. The voices of the people at nearby tables suddenly felt very loud, as did the clattering of hardware from the kitchen. Seethaler looked at his own slice and took a modest taste. The bright pink stripe between the black halves oozed onto the plate and the shinny mint chocolate frosting bounced the light from the candle onto the rest of the table. But this effect went unnoticed.
“You’re welcome,” Seethaler mumbled, defeated and empty.
Mr. Drake slammed the book closed and stared off into the river, taking a moment to realize that his jaw was seriously agape, halfway fallen to the ground. He sunk back into the bench and angrily fumbled to light a cigarette. He took a deep pull. If that were my wife, he thought, I’d kill her.
Mr. Drake smoked the rest of his cigarette and collected his things to return to work; his lunch hour was over.