Carrot cake with rose cream - a short story
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Twenty years had passed since they had last seen each other, Julia thought as she brought the fork to her mouth. The carrot cake was reddish orange like the color of autumn leaves, and in some places where it had been generously sprinkled with confectioner´s sugar, it faded until it turned white. Next to it there was a dollop of fluffy cream that smelled like rose water, and was decorated with bits of green pistachio and dried rose petals that had an intense fuchsia color- also known as Persian pink. It used to be Soraya's favorite. How did she end up here? she wondered. She started to recall the story she had recalled so many times in the past, although at that moment it seemed to had happened in another life and which, according to the memory scraps she possessed, unfolded as follows:
It was not a sudden break-up; but rather a progressive estrangement. At first, Julia interpreted her text messages full of excuses for lack of time and various discomforts - typical of Soraya's chronic hypochondria - as one of the periods of isolation and withdrawal she sometimes immersed herself into. But as the days went by without seeing her and Soraya's texts became sharper and cooler, Julia began to wonder: Had she done something to hurt her friend? Had she said something wrong? Had she forgotten about an important date?
In conversations with friends in common, she tried to find out what was going on making allusions such as: "she has been strange lately, don´t you think?", "she has been in a pensive mood, did something happen?", or "I have been so busy, have you heard anything from her? and then even with more direct questions. All in vain. She felt insecure, ridiculous, vulnerable, thrown out from an exclusive group in which everyone seemed to know what was going on, except her.
Julia tried, again and again, to relive every moment, to study the circumstances of the two weeks prior to the turning point. Thursday night they had gone to Soraya's house to study for the final history exam; they hadn´t slept; they had drunk five cups of Persian coffee and smoked two packages of menthol Malboro that made them tremble and nauseous; they had gone to the cafeteria after the exam to have another coffee, this time Nescafé 3in1; they had reviewed the validity of their answers; they had confirmed that they were going to pass the test; they had taken a nap in the afternoon at Soraya's place; they had gone to a bar in the evening; they had met Damian and his friend; they had danced until the lights came on, the music went out and the guards invited them out; they had say their goodbyes to the guys; they had taken the tram to Soraya's house; they had talked about Damian and his friend; they had slept embraced, happy and exhausted; they had spent Saturday afternoon in bed watching romantic comedies and stuffing themselves with junk food; they had talked on the phone every day after that.
The aroma of cinnamon interrupted Julia´s mental process and brought her back to the present. It was here, there and everywhere; it had leaked into the rice, stew, yogurt, the halva and each one of the other dishes on the table – both, savory and sweet. The air smelled like cinnamon, the wine tasted like cinnamon. She felt her clothes had been impregnated with that essence. It was not what one would have associated with wakes and funerals, which in Julia's mind smelled of formalin, whiskey, candles, lilies and kleenex tissues. The dough was compact, very different from the other carrot cakes - spongy and soft. As she bit a piece she noticed the crunchy texture of coconut and nuts and the slightly acidic elasticity of the raisins. On her tongue she felt the subtle bubbles of air in the whipped cream - nothing like the dense tangy cream cheese topping with which the other carrot cakes were usually coated.
The Thursday after that, Julia had arrived weeping at Soraya's house. They had eaten carrot cake with rose whipped cream, no petals and no pistachios; they had drunk three bottles of Liebfrafraumilch; they had smoked two packets of menthol Malboro; they had drunk two cups of Nescafe 3in1; they had talked about Damian and their three dates; they had talked about all the plans he had suggested him and Julia do together; they had read and reread his last message in which, in short, he informed her that he regretted not being able to see her anymore; they had sent Damian straight to hell; they had talked on the phone every day of the following week.
Next Thursday after that Thursday, Julia and Soraya had gone out to dinner; they had gone for drinks; they had gone to dance; they had breakfast at the corner bar; they had slept embraced, happy and exhausted; they had walked together to the tram stop; they had planned to see each other over the weekend. And then, a white smear. The slides of the film that Julia had played over and over in her mind, in slow and fast motion, had come abruptly to an end at the same point in time, always that same point.
A few weeks later, Julia entered the University cafeteria and saw Soraya sitting together with Alex, who for some time then had tried to turn the duo into a trio. She was wearing a new lipstick shade –color Persian pink, which made her magnificent lips look even more seductive and contrasted with her perfectly trimmed eyebrows that were as black as coal. “I don´t care”, Julia tried to convince herself, but they were laughing with complicity, smoking menthol Malboros, drinking Nescafé 3in1; and Julia felt a hot current moving from her feet up to her head that had made her eyes redden and her cheeks blush. They noticed she was observing them, it was too late to turn around and run away. Julia tried to swallow the lump that continued to swell in her throat and prevented her voice from sounding casual and carefree. “Hello”, she muttered. “Hey”, replied Soraya showing no emotion whatsoever while running her fingers through a lock of her abundant and stormy hair - a tic that used to appear whenever she was uncomfortable. Alex smiled triumphantly and blew a puff of menthol smoke in her direction. Julia realized something had changed irreversibly.
Over the months Julia came to accept the whole thing. She no longer tried to approach Soraya or make sense of it all. She became estranged from her former group of friends, who in the end turned out to be more Soraya´s friends than hers, and after graduation she returned to her home country. These were times when nobody knew what Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, or Instagram was and the “e-mail” was still a novelty for many. With her leaving, Julia put an ocean in between them and their two worlds.
Over the years, she sporadically thought about what happened, although the details of the whole thing started to become blurry. It would normally occur when she ate a carrot cake, smell rose water, see somebody drinking Liebfrafraumilch or somebody wearing a Persian pink shade of lipstick. Julia had made a new life for herself; she had made new friends; she had quit smoking; she had started practicing yoga; she had paid a fortune for two plastic surgeries; she had bought her own house -probably too big for one person - that went on to fill with works of art and collectible furniture.
The day before yesterday while having a glass of Chablis, she glanced at her “friends” photos online. She responded to some of the messages, but only the most recent ones, apologizing as usual for the delay. She discarded others whose content, having been written so many months ago, had ceased to be current making it no longer necessary to give any answer. She clicked on the name “Maria” -a former acquaintance from University- who had recently sent her an invitation to become “friends”, and then pressed the button “Master's group chat”, to which she had also been added. She moved her index finger constantly so the texts could scroll up with velocity. There were messages about conferences, symposia, politics, "funny" videos, proverbs, cheesy phrases, bible verses and then, one that read: “Dear friends, it is with much sadness that I am letting you know about the recent passing away of our friend Soraya's father. The wake and funeral will be celebrated next Friday”.
She was nervous, trying to find courage. Twenty years had passed since they had last seen each other. She had acted spontaneously; she had bought a plane ticket for the next day; she had called the office to say she would take a few personal days; she had flown across the ocean; she had rested for a couple of hours at the hotel; she had taken a taxi to her former friend's house. She had entered the house unnoticed carried by a flow of people who, like a river that follows its channel, had deposited her in the dining room. There she was, standing behind a column that separated that space from the living room, at a safe distance from Soraya, who was sitting on the sofa accepting condolences, kisses, hugs and pats on her back all the while running locks of her hair between her fingers. Her hair was no longer abundant or stormy, and its color, although still black, had started to fade into white in certain places. The accumulated years had entered her body and pushed each one of its parts down and towards the sides. Next to her, on an octagonal wooden table with a mother of pearl and bone inlay was a vase with a white bouquet of roses, lilies and gerbera daisies and an ashtray with a lit white cigarette.
Julia took a few hesitant steps in her direction. She whispered “excuse me” a few times trying to make her way through the crowd, only to find it was impossible. She turned around and took the path behind the dining room that passed by the kitchen and through a corridor whose floor was covered with exceptional multicolor 50 raj Tabriz carpets. As she walked along, she had the weird sensation that from the white walls and the dark wooden tables hundreds of eyes were staring at her. She stopped and turned her head to the right and then she saw her: Soraya; Soraya with her son; Soraya with her father; Soraya with her mother; Soraya's dog; Soraya with her daughter and then, suddenly, she felt a hot current running up her body, tears were beginning to well up in her eyes and she felt her cheeks were on fire. She saw Soraya with her daughter, with her son and with the father of her kids -Damian. She was wearing a Persian pink shade of lipstick in that picture.