When I was twenty-two years old and getting my Master's degree, I got a part-time job at Borders. What could be better, I thought, than working in a place that had heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, where I would be surrounded by two of my very favorite things: books and coffee – to say nothing of the glorious Rice Krispie Treats from the cafe that were the size of my head?
Turns out a visit to the gynecologist would be better than some of those Borders days, but those days were rare and usually only on rainy Sundays when every person on Long Island decided to wait out the storm in a bookstore.
When I first got hired, the manager asked me which section I would like to work in.
"I'd love to work in the Film and Media section," I told this bearded guy with a smile. "Either there or in Fiction."
He nodded and then led me by the elbow over to Cooking and Crafts.
"This is where you'll be working," he said.
When he walked away, I stood puzzled for a moment, trying to figure out why he had asked me my preference in the first place. Had he been taking a poll?
I allowed my eyes to pan across the titles in Cooking. Asian cuisine. Italian brunches. Grilling. Cooking with beer. Sautéing with Emeril. Blanching with Batali. Juice fasts. Lemon cleanses. Recipes to make Twinkies that would take longer than if you just drove to the Hostess factory and bought already-made Twinkies. Vegan cookbooks. Instructions for preparing bison. The definitive guide to wine and cuisine in Tuscany.
At that point in my life, I had no interest in cooking. I could make grilled cheese, add hot water to ramen noodles, throw together a great salad, and bake up a storm but that was it. And all of a sudden I was supposed to be the new Cooking Queen at Borders, where I quickly learned customers had very little patience and minimal social skills.
On my second day, a woman in a track suit that should have been burned when it had just been a terrible idea in a designer's mind, walked up to me as I was crouched stacking books in the Mixology section. It had already been a long shift – just glancing at all the pictures on the books' covers of Jim Beam and brown scotch and liquor I'd probably thrown up into beds of daffodils when I was in high school was starting to make me feel ill.
Track Suit Lady held up two books. Both had titles that told me they were Mexican cookbooks. I had never seen either before – I hadn't gotten to that section yet.
"What's the difference between these books?" the woman asked me.
"Um, one of them has a blue cover?" I answered.
The woman glared at me, going from inquisitive to annoyed in half a second flat.
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I'm new to this section. But you can feel free to look at both of them for as long as you'd like and pick the one that works better for you."
Without a word, she walked away from me.
That kind of pattern would continue for the entire time I worked at that store. Customers either thought I was an idiot because I worked at a bookstore, or they thought I had read every book in the place and should therefore be able to offer insightful comments on anything they waved before my face. Had I not made friends with the guys in the cafe who started giving me free cookies and coffee before the first day was out, I'm not sure I could have handled it.
Once while I was working the Information desk, a guy a little older than me came up and asked me to help him find something. The store didn't carry what he wanted, so I told him we could order it. I took his name and phone number and told him someone would call him when it came into the store.
About a week later, I was up at the front of the store, ringing people up. I liked that part of the job: the scanner, the pop of the register drawer, that I learned how to use the machine. It felt like a game. And I was quick at working that register – I had me some skills.
Sometimes there were a few of us checking people out, and that night there were two of us. A line had formed, but the two of us were ringing people up pretty fast. The line was moving nicely. I saw a guy kind of shifting on his feet in the line. He got more nervous when he became next in line and he looked relieved when I finished with my customer first and called "Next!"
He wasn't holding anything in his hands.
"How can I help you?" I asked with a smile.
"That book I ordered is in," he responded.
"Okay," I said. "What's the title of the book?"
We kept the books that were special orders behind the registers, lined up alphabetically by title.
There was a beat of silence and I realized the guy was shocked I didn't remember him and that's the moment that I did, but our interaction had been brisk, unmemorable – at least to me.
He gave me the title and I rang him up. A large line had started to form behind him. Another cashier was called up.
I took his credit card, swiped it, had him sign his name, put his book in a bag, and handed it to him.
"Have a great day," I said, same as I said to everyone else.
"Here," he said, and thrust a folded up piece of paper at me.
"Thanks," I said, and I put it in my pocket as he walked away. Then I rang up the next person on line.
"What the fuck is on this paper?" I wondered as every other person on the line bought the book Oprah had just declared the best book that had ever been written by anyone on any planet. I figured maybe it was his phone number.
When the line finally whittled to nothing, the other two cashiers left to go back to their sections and I took the paper out of my pocket and unfolded it. It was not a phone number. It was a note, like the kind I passed in middle school.
"I saw her in the bookstore," it began, and then it went on to describe my hair and my smile and to wonder if I liked walks on the beach. (Quick question: does anyone not enjoy walks on the beach? It's not like choosing not to like zucchini.) The note was signed with his name and his phone number.
Now look, a part of me was flattered. It's not like I got myself dolled up for my daily shifts at Borders, so it was nice to know I could still snag men while wearing jeans and a hoodie. But I had a serious boyfriend. And more, I hadn't given that guy or our first interaction a second thought. Nothing about our meeting had stood out to me. I couldn't even, at that moment after reading his letter, remember with full clarity what he even looked like.
The whole thing just felt weird.
I contemplated calling that guy to tell him his note was very sweet but that I was in a relationship, but I decided not to do it. It all made me feel weirdly exposed and I didn't like that. And I don't think I ever saw him again, but then again I could have seen him every single day and not realized it because I still couldn't remember what he even looked like.
The whole thing might have been too much if not for the Cake section over in Cooking. Sure, I had started to school myself in all areas of my section. I still wasn't all that interested in cooking, but I figured that if I was going to do a job – whatever it was I was being paid for it – I would do that job right. I had started to open those cookbooks. I learned how to properly grill vegetables. I fantasized about making my boyfriend a big pot of homemade soup. I paged dreamily through a huge book the size of an encyclopedia that was all about crafting the perfect cookie.
And then I saw the cake section.
There are people who see beauty in artwork, and I get that because I see it too. But I was beginning to see the artistry in cake. Names like Sylvia Weinstock and Colette Peters began to mingle with Brad Pitt in my head as People Who Mattered. The sheer amount of stunning detail these women put into a cake was staggering. I became happily obsessed, paging through the pictures of gorgeously designed cakes whenever there was a lull in business but hiding that I was doing so with the kind of secrecy that what I was really doing was paging through an issue of Penthouse where naked women cavorted with cattle.
I learned that wedding cakes didn't have to look traditional and that each layer could be a different flavor and have a different filling. I learned what fondant was. I learned how to make big, bold roses out of icing.
When my boyfriend came to visit me one night at work, he seemed more alarmed by my interest in the books about wedding cakes than he was that the guys in the cafe called me "Babe" and clearly checked out my ass every single time I turned around. My theory was that as long as I was honest with them about being taken and that they still continued to give me chocolate chip cookies they'd heat up for me, they could look all they wanted, but you'd think my boyfriend would have been bothered by it.
Then again, I've always dated guys who have had crazy amounts of confidence, so the reaction – or lack of one – made sense.
And as for his confusion about my fixation on wedding cakes, my boyfriend soon realized it had nothing to do with wanting marriage; I just wanted cake.
At home, my new interest began to manifest during holidays. It would all go a little something like this:
Occasion: Rosh Hashanah
Location: My Mother's House
Number of Guests: Always More Than I Wanted To Have To Talk To
My Job: Bring A Dessert
"I'll bring a cake," I'd tell my frazzled mother, who had been making perfect matzo balls for weeks in preparation for the holiday. "Talk to me about the theme of the holiday."
There would be a moment of silence where my mother would probably chant calming words to herself to keep from screaming at her youngest daughter to stop making a directive to bring a dessert into a thing.
"Jewish New Year," she would say with a practiced semblance of calm.
"Hmm," I'd murmur. "New Year... I'm thinking about a clock, a cake shaped like a clock to show the passage of time. Or maybe a garden to symbolize rebirth and growth. Get it? A new start! Like a new year!"
I was very excited by my idea.
"Just buy a fucking cake at the bakery!" my mother would finally shout, but my mind had already wandered away from what she wanted and towards possibilities of how I could sculpt vegetables out of marzipan to decorate my garden cake.
And where one could buy marzipan in the first place.
For the next few days, I spent my evenings molding globs of marzipan into shapes that resembled bright red tomatoes and yellow ears of corn. I used food coloring that I mixed like Walter White mixed meth to create the perfect shades of colors for my candy vegetables. It took fucking forever, easily ten times longer than I thought that it would, but I had a vision in my head of the perfect garden cake and I was unstoppable.
My fingers turned bright yellow from the food coloring. I looked like an infant with jaundice. But on I went, molding, coloring, figuring out if I should dye shredded coconut green to make grass or crumble cookies to make dirt for my veggies to rest upon.
I have this problem though. I always seem to put just one more thing on the cake that takes it from almost perfect to almost overdone. In this case, I made a fence out of lollipop sticks. It wasn't needed, but I couldn't stop myself.
"Look at my cake!" I shouted to every person who entered my mother's house the night of the holiday, including the people she had hired to serve dinner. And then I'd tell them in detail about working with marzipan.
Everyone was a rather good sport about the whole thing.
When my best friend got engaged, I emailed her twelve pictures in one day of wedding cakes I thought she could use as inspiration for her own cake. I highly pushed the one with the draped fondant ribbon cascading down the side.
"It's called a swag," I said.
"The entire wedding has to be Kosher," she told me. "And that includes the cake."
"I cannot work under these conditions," I replied.
When my sister got married, she almost lost her mind. She was by no means a difficult bride, but she was caught between our mother and her about-to-be-mother-in-law as the two women planned the wedding of their dreams. The wedding was to be held at Oheka Castle. It would be black tie, which Leigh didn't want. And, of course, there would be a harpist playing as guests ascended the grand staircase.
"A harp?" my sister asked, incredulous.
"How can there not be a harp?" responded my mother who had clearly begun to lose her mind.
"Open your mouth and tell them what you want," I told my sister.
I was never someone to keep my own opinions to myself, and I didn't think that she should either.
Leigh broke the day we gathered at the castle to choose her menu. My mother pushed for the Chilean sea bass. Rich's mother pushed for some other kind of fish. And the two of them nodded their heads like crazy people, agreeing that filet mignon was so over for weddings and not at all chic.
Rich wanted steak at his wedding, but nobody was listening. Finally, my sister, who has not eaten red meat since she was three years old, let go of all composure and screamed, "It's my wedding and I want steak!" Her voice reverberated through the hollow halls of the castle and everything stopped for a moment.
She got her steak.
I had gone along for the menu choosing so that I could watch the certain family carnage, but more so I could choose the cake. Leigh had allowed me that. And when it was time to talk cake, I pulled myself closer to the table and told the coordinator that I saw textured gift boxes in squares, not circles, stacked atop one another and showed him ideas about colors. The cake came out perfectly, and in the pictures from the wedding, when Leigh and Rich cut their cake, in the background of every single shot is me, grinning like a maniac.
In the years since, I've created cakes in the shape of a bunny for Easter at my boyfriend's house, learned how to make flour-less tortes, and most importantly, learned to wait until the fucking cake cools before sliding it out of the pan. I'm known amongst my friends for my pink frosted cupcakes and for my brownie pie, which my niece also likes because she says I never cook it all the way through so it's extra chocolatey. I pretend that I intended for it to be somewhat raw and hope that I haven't given my niece food poisoning.
My grandpa was a baker. He died before I was born, but I heard he was a wonderful man and so good at what he did for a living. My uncle took over the bakery and during his tenure, he created the most perfect cookies that have ever graced this flawed world.
I guess that baking is part of me, but I don't think I ever would have embraced it if not for that silly job I took at Borders. I actually learned a lot there. I found out which demographics buy certain genres of books. I saw that a lot of what was published was not written with as much style as I sometimes write. I learned how to use a cash register. I learned how many cups of coffee make me start shivering. (Five.) And I learned that cake can be art and that art can be consumed – and that wearing gloves while working with food coloring is probably a very good idea.