Otto and I don’t get out enough as a couple. This is a subjective assessment, of course; what is “enough,” really? Whatever it is, we aren’t there. This is because we have jobs and other commitments and needy teenagers and a fairly comfortable couch and also because my natural inclination is to be a hermit. Otto, however, as both the extrovert and better wife in this relationship, periodically insists that we leave the house together, just the two of us. (And apparently when we go grocery shopping together, that doesn’t count. Sheesh.)
Last night we went to the sort of artsy-fartsy thing college towns are known for; there was black-and-white photography! There was poetry! There were figs stuffed with fancy cheese! I very nearly felt like a grown-up, right up until people started packing into the tiny seating area and a woman planted herself next to me and set her wine glass on the floor. “I’m going to try really hard not to kick that over,” I told her. “I’m sort of clumsy.” I thought I was just making conversation, but she looked at me like I’d just confided that I both had Ebola AND sometimes I tongue-kiss the nearest stranger. So that was nice.
But I should back up, a minute, to earlier in the day.
First, you have to understand that Monkey starting over at the high school has rendered me completely useless this week. (I’m not blaming him; it’s nothing he’s done. This is 100% me being my usual, neurotic self.) We are not yet into our new rhythm with this schedule of getting both kids to school, but picking one up early, but some days one stays late, and OOPS maybe some days the other one needs to go BACK and stay late, and that’s not even mentioning all of the bracing for A Bad News Phone Call during schooling hours (which, it should be noted, hasn’t come). To be crystal clear: Monkey is having the time of his life, and his teachers report that they are enjoying him. Everything has gone better than I’d dared to hope it might. I am just trying to find my footing here in this new and somewhat alternate reality.
Second, you need to know that yesterday was fuller than usual even before considering our planned date, because I had an out-of-the-house meeting, and that morning, Chickadee had announced that she needed to make a cake that afternoon and wanted my help.
[Digression: Is there an age at which children finally realize that 6-12ish hours of lead time on special creations/requests is really just not enough to keep their parents sane? Because here we are, firmly entrenched in the teen years, and still the phrase, "Oh by the way, Mom, I need..." strikes a special kind of cold fear into my heart. Maybe someday I'll tell you the story of how three months of haranguing in the form of "GET YOUR CONCERT DRESS, MAKE SURE WE HAVE TIME TO ALTER IT" led to a one-hour-before-the-concert frantic fabric-taping of the hem while we argued over whether wearing heels would make the hem more likely to last the evening (less shortening needed) or more likely to destroy the tape-MacGuyvering (via a heel hooked on it). Wait. Never mind! I just told you. Spoiler: Everyone lived. No one even tripped. I am, however, out of fabric tape.]
Anyway, the POINT here (I had one, I swear) is that yesterday Chickadee wanted to make a cake. When she brought this up at breakfast I said that was no problem, I could help her that evening, and moments later, Otto was sniping at me like a jilted lover because I had managed to forget that we were supposed to go out that night. Apologies were given. Jokes about early Alzheimer’s were made. And I did that thing I do, that NO WORRIES, I CAN TOTALLY FIX THIS AND MEET EVERYONE’S NEEDS sweeping of my arm to accommodate everyone I love because 1) I care and 2) I hate being wrong.
The kids went to school, Otto went to work, and my day unfolded in a flurry of work/phone calls/email/driving everyone everywhere/getting to my meeting/etc. It was clear around about lunchtime that the only way I was going to get to go on a date with my husband AND help my daughter would be to bake a cake before leaving for my meeting, and then letting Chickie know that she could go ahead and do the frosting/decorating that evening while we were out.
Feeling like a loving mother, I texted my daughter to explain that I would need to bake off the cake before she got home, but that I would leave the rest to her. In a startling turn of events, my daughter was actually paying attention in class when I sent this message (and not glued to her phone), so the cake I made was actually cooling on the counter by the time she saw the message and began frantically texting me that NO NO NO she wanted to make it herself.
This is where the old me and the old her would’ve produced nuclear fission. A few years ago—heck, even just a year ago—the downward spiral here would’ve been ugly. She would protest, I would get bent out of joint that I’d taken time out of my busy day to do something for her and she was ungrateful, she would be frustrated that I didn’t understand, I would say something uber-helpful and mature like FINE I JUST WON’T EVER TRY BEING NICE, and down we would’ve gone. Splat!
Time and hard work and a lot of therapy has been good for us both. As soon as she started protesting, I texted back to say that was fine, she was welcome to make her own cake and I would just freeze the layers I’d made for another time. At this point her argument changed to BUT I JUST— WAIT WHAT? REALLY? and that was that. Crisis averted.
“I won’t be here to help,” I reminded her, “But I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Off I went to the rest of my day and off she went to the rest of hers. (Life is a lot nicer than it used to be, yes.)
As Otto and I gathered up our things yesterday evening, I reminded my darling daughter that as long as she cleaned up after herself, she was free to create whatever she liked. And then we left for our adults-only evening.
The event we went to was great fun, and it ended earlier than we’d anticipated, so we did that giddy thing that parents of somewhat self-sufficient teenagers can do and we looked at our watches and said, “Hey! Let’s go out to dinner!” We were heady with the freedom of it all.
Up to this point, I’d gotten just a couple of texts from Chickadee. “IF I WAS SUGAR WHERE WOULD I LIVE?” at first, and shortly thereafter: “Where are the beaters?” A bit later: “Are these round pans nonstick?” Nothing unexpected.
We were about halfway through dinner when my phone began to buzz repeatedly.
My fronting is terrible.
And my cake broke
And everything is terrible
It’s all ruined.
Old Me—the same one who probably would’ve made my daughter so angry earlier that at this point she wouldn’t have even been speaking to me—would’ve rushed home to take over and fix everything. New Me texted some reassurances and reminders to breathe and promises that we would be home within an hour and I was sure it wasn’t as bad as she thought. We took our time finishing our meal. “I like hanging out with you,” I told my husband, as we walked back to the car.
Later, when we walked in the door at home, it turned out that I’d told the truth: It wasn’t as bad as Chickadee thought in terms of still producing an edible cake, so that was great news. The bad news is that the kitchen was SO MUCH WORSE than I’d imagined, that the dogs were still jumping all over my kneecaps (OH BOY OH BOY YOU ARE HOME IT’S TIME TO KNOCK YOU DOWN) while I burst into hysterical laughter at the scene of carnage in front of me.
Chickie was on the verge of tears, and trying to explain. “I just figured that maybe if I whipped it more… or added a few things….” She was trying to justify the trail of green-slime-covered bowls housing what I assume was meant to be a cheerful green frosting, but in reality looked like someone had stuffed Kermit the Frog into our blender and pureed him only partway. Frosting should not be chunky. I stuck my finger into a nearby bowl and tasted it.
“Don’t eat that!” she said, alarmed. “It has flour in it!”
I dropped my hand and began laughing anew. “There’s FLOUR in the FROSTING?? What recipe did you use?” She showed me a printout of a recipe she’d found online. “‘The Best Frosting In The World,’” I read off. “This uses granulated instead of powdered sugar, plus it has flour in it. Honey, this woman is a lying liar who sits upon a throne of lies. Please throw away this recipe and whatever green gloop is still sitting out.” While she scraped it into the trash, I made a comment about how she’d tried to Swedish Chef her way through fixing it, clearly—I gestured to all of the dirty dishes and evidence of various additives—and before I knew it, I was doing a full-on impression (“Erdy deedy beeskey boody, makey da FROOSTING! Beepdey boody ADDA SOME FLOURY FLOURY!”) and we were both howling with laughter.
Eventually we composed ourselves and I had a look at her cake. Somehow she’d ended up with just one layer, and it had broken when she’d turned it out of the pan. “It’s really yummy, though,” she said in a small, mournful voice. “It’s just broken.”
“I’m thinking three-layer cake,” I said. “We’ll use the two layers I made earlier, put yours in-between, whip up some new frosting, patch it all together. Sound good?” She nodded, relieved. “Great!” I said. “Uhhh… how about you start on the dishes while I make the frosting?”
I discovered that we no longer had enough butter on hand for a proper buttercream, so we consulted La Google and settled on a cream cheese frosting that would stretch that last stick of butter, plus some mini chocolate chips because: chocolate chips. The recipe we’d settled on called for a brick and a half of cream cheese. I stood next to the sink, dividing a brick in half with a butter knife while holding the package in my opposite hand, and Chickie turned towards me long enough to say, “DON’T DROP THAT IN THE SINK, WE CAN’T RUN OUT OF ANYTHING ELSE.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m not going to drop it, plus we have plenty of cream cheese. It’s butter we’re nearly out of.” She nodded, and turned back to the dishwasher at precisely the moment when I tried to loosen the knife and, yes, flipped one half of the block of cream cheese directly into the sink, where it PLOPped right into a pool of frosting chunk-tinged water. I stood blinking at it, for a few moments. Chickadee turned back and looked at the sink, looked at me, and threw her hands into the air.
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT!” Cue the five-minute break for us to manage to stop laughing and resume breathing and our respective chores at hand.
We worked in companionable silence for a bit, interrupting for the occasional Swedish Chef proclamation and resultant giggling. Once the frosting was ready, I peered into the bowl, nervous. “I’m not sure this is enough for all three layers,” I admitted. Chickie’s face fell. “It’ll be fine,” I added. “We’ll make it work. It’s just going to be close.”
Together we readied the base, situated the first layer, set to work. When it came time to add the second, broken layer, Chickadee’s brows knitted together. “It’s fine!” I assured her. “I’m an expert!” (I am not an expert, but I do watch a lot of Cake Boss.) I grabbed a smaller spatula and eased frosting into the cracks, effectively gluing everything together. “Perfect!” I declared, as we covered that layer with chocolate chips. Once the third layer went down, well, who would know about the patch job? Only the lucky person who ended up with the bonus frosting piece, that’s who, and who was going to complain about extra frosting? Exactly.
In the end, we scraped every last molecule of frosting out of the bowl, but we made it work. I applied a few final swirls and then Chickie set to work with the rainbow glitter.
We finished around 11:00. I think the designated recipient is going to be pretty pleased with it. There may have been some high-fiving before we headed to bed.
“Hey,” I said to my daughter this morning, as she stuffed papers into her backpack. “Is it okay with you if I write about the cake?”
She looked up in surprise. “Of course!” she said. A devilish grin grabbed the corners of her mouth. “One condition, though,” she added. I raised my eyebrows. “You have to include a picture of the original frosting.”
A deal’s a deal!