Cherry on Top
He was expecting cupcakes. The nice ones, none of that artificial fondant shit, but something with real buttercream so you could taste the milk and the eggs and none of the food coloring. Larry couldn’t stand it when food coloring left his tongue a rude, loud pink—the last time that’d happened, Susie laughed at him. He couldn’t have that happening again, so when he went into work that morning, he promised himself that he wouldn’t eat the cupcakes unless they were frosted with buttercream that didn’t resemble a color that could be found on a rainbow. In all honesty, he was mostly hoping that Susie would bake him cupcakes from scratch, with her homemade icing. On Danielle’s last birthday, Susie had baked her cupcakes, but they were gone before he had the chance to try them.
His office was housed inside a building that had been torn down and rebuilt all within a few years. In the interim they had worked in the city, but Danielle had always preferred this location: slightly suburban, much closer to their house. The building loomed overhead and blocked out the sun. Danielle had reserved a shaded parking spot three down from the handicapped section, just far enough to be polite but still close enough to match her job title. He could see his car from the elevator as it sped upwards, a sleek, red BMW. Larry didn’t want it to be so ostentatious, but Danielle had insisted on red. She took great pride in maintaining its sheen. A soft ding alerted him that the elevator had reached their floor.
Danielle left immediately, skirt swinging around her thighs, heels clacking, without waiting to see if Larry was coming too. She always walked like that, unfaltering, single-minded in her approach.
“Good morning, Mrs. Bender!” he heard Susie chirp. Larry knew that Danielle had asked Susie multiple times to start using her first name, but Susie had always insisted on the full title. Larry suspected that Danielle secretly liked it.
Before leaving the elevator, Larry paused for a moment. He straightened his back and wiped his sticky hands on his pants, which were slightly damp and ill-fitting, just a little too tight. He pictured Susie resting her head on her hands, seated behind her desk. She would look at him and smile, red lips curving slightly upwards to reveal the tips of bright white teeth, all soft blonde hair and clean, sharp eyeliner. Her nails would be painted a new color—maybe a pale pink, for the start of spring. Larry glanced at the door on the elevator, narrowing his eyes critically at the hairline in his blurry reflection, dandelion in both texture and rate at which it left his head. He’d need to ask Danielle if she would make an appointment at the salon for him.
When he finally looked in the direction of the women, all he could see was Danielle’s back as she droned on about her weekend, which she’d spent on a silent retreat. After she returned, Danielle put her bags down, took a deep breath, and let out a gleeful scream. Now she wouldn’t stop talking about it.
As he started towards Susie’s desk, his movements felt almost robotic, his mind connected to his body by nothing but a thin, brittle strand. He imagined himself in Danielle’s place, looking down at Susie’s doe-eyed expression, the beginnings of a smile starting to show through. Larry had always liked how she filtered the strength of her smile based on who she directed it towards. He only wished she’d direct it towards him sometimes.
Susie waved at Larry as he passed. He kept his head down, but he snuck a look at her fingertips, just to check. His heart fluttered. He was right.
Larry had always found his cubicle rather benign. Nearly thirty feet from Danielle’s office, it provided a welcome physical separation. Aggressively monochrome and intensely impersonal, he considered it rather depressing. But he knew every inch of it, from the angles that would cause his swivel chair to squeak to the types of flowers that peppered the bottom of his desktop background. He remembered when his male coworker had noticed his floral background and his coworkers had lost their shit. He could still hear their squealing and feel the heat of the bodies gathering around his cubicle, laughing. He hadn’t said anything in defense, but he had looked back at Susie, seen the soft pink of her cheeks that spread and spread and colored the memory with warmth.
Today, he had expected something outrageous for his fiftieth. For Danielle’s, Susie had come in early to decorate her office, and he could imagine his cubicle revamped in the same way: neon balloons tied to his monitor, a sparkly card that sang when you opened it, and a few pieces of confetti thrown around for good measure. The centerpiece: a box of homemade chocolate cupcakes lined up in an orderly formation.
But one cursory glance told him that his desk looked the same as it always had, barren and grey. Larry blanched. Where were the balloons, and the card, and the cupcakes? He could still hear her and Danielle, their voices trickling in through the one-way glass door that separated the cubicles from her desk. The sounds were easy to separate, Susie’s clear tinkle held up against Danielle’s deep, brash grumble.
He could still remember a time when he thought Danielle was beautiful, before he’d seen her burp and fart and shit. He thought about the first time they met each other, when Larry had immediately noticed her because of her low-cut top. Their marriage had happened just after graduation when Larry was still the promising young man destined to make it big and Danielle was hopelessly in love with that fact. Somehow, they had been hired for the same position, and promotion after promotion went to Danielle, not Larry. They had grown older and wider and this new development seemed only to help Danielle and hurt him. He stared at the two women, thinking about vanilla buttercream frosting.
Promptly, just a moment after five, Danielle left her office and stopped at Larry’s cubicle. He knew she was there before she cleared her throat, expectant, and Larry rose in response. His gaze locked on meaty ankles bulging over the polished strap of her high heels. She extended her arm out and he took it, obediently.
On the way home, Danielle stopped by a grocery store and bought a pack of twelve vanilla cupcakes, each coated in swirly pink icing. They were right near the entrance, she’d said, labelled with a 20% off sign, and she hadn’t needed to look too hard while Larry waited in the car, doors locked. Before she handed it to him, she asked for the magic word. “Please,” he said. He should’ve been miffed but he just felt numb.
“Just please?” she mocked, tilting her head to the side and pouting. “No pretty please, with a cherry on top?”
He obliged, and Danielle handed him the plastic box. It was heavier than he’d expected, and its weight pressed down on his hand, pulling it towards the ground, anchoring him to his lap, the floor of the car, and even lower, until he could imagine his hand underground, the icing of the cupcakes leaking and sticking to his hands and keeping him trapped.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart.” Danielle’s cold hand patted him on the cheek, her plain nails and ripped cuticles much too close. Larry winced. He pictured Susie’s hands, soft and supple with shiny pink polish. “Sorry we didn’t throw you a party—we’ve had a pretty tight few months. And you know how much Susie hates planning them. We’ll celebrate when I get back.”
Danielle dropped him off back at home. She had a big client meeting that night and much more work to do, so Larry knew she wouldn’t be back for another few hours. He unlocked the front door, slid off his dress shoes, and plopped the cupcakes down near the door of Danielle’s study, immediately to his left.
Larry had been looking forward to this moment all day, ever since he’d seen his undecorated cubicle. He bounced up the spiral staircase that led right to his and Danielle’s bedroom. Inside, Larry slid inside a walk-in closet. He knew exactly where to look, reaching for it with ritualized ease. It was Danielle’s least favorite dress—a red, shimmery number, one that Danielle had bought and sworn she’d fit into one day. She didn’t, so she blamed it for making her feel insecure, hiding it in the very back of her closet. He spread the soft fabric out in his hands, smoothed out the wrinkles. Quickly, he undressed, hanging his slacks and dress shirt up, taking off his socks and undershirt to reveal a hairless chest and French-tipped toenails.
Larry could still zip it up. The dress squeezed his waist and flared at the hips, ending halfway down his thigh. He had to suck in his stomach to fit in the dress, but it was worth it to stare at himself in the full-length mirror, to see himself in red after a colorless day. The dress had a sweetheart neckline and thin spaghetti straps, but his favorite thing about the dress was how it swirled around Larry like a cloud when he twirled. He thought about Susie, and he imagined how she’d react if she saw him in the dress. Maybe she’d finally call him “Mr. Bender” and throw him the birthday party he’d so desperately wanted.
Methodically, he stepped into their bathroom, a marbled chamber adorned with his-and-hers sinks. Danielle had joked that she’d have preferred hers-and-hers sinks, but it felt like that anyways, when all of her creams and lotions began spilling over on Larry’s side. He didn’t mind. Rifling through her drawers, he found a polished red lipstick that he smeared across his pucker. He smiled at his reflection in the mirror. Much better, he thought to himself.
Exiting the bathroom, Larry stood at the top of the spiral staircase. So many times, he had been the one at the bottom of the staircase, waiting for Danielle to float down the stairs. That wasn’t the case today. He had squeezed his much-larger feet into a pair of Danielle’s high heels and stepped down the stairs. He felt dainty.
Larry brought the cupcakes to Danielle’s study and sat at the desk chair, facing the glass door. He sat, envisioning what he must look like, how Danielle would see him when she finally came home. He’d be a vision in red, from the dress to his mouth, heels rudely plopped on her desk. Larry waited.
A few hours later, he heard Danielle enter in through the front door. He heard her groan, heard her bend over to take off her shoes. She then looked up, saw the open study room door. Her gaze landed on Larry. She blinked. Then she shook her head.
“What kind of man did I marry?” Danielle muttered to herself. She began walking up the stairs, and then turned back. The look on her face was the one Larry had once seen her give a rabid dog that had found its way into their garage—angry, disgusted, afraid of being dirtied. Larry had looked at that dog and seen its desperation, its loneliness, its need for love. “I’m tired of seeing you like this. If you’re going to engage in these behaviors”—she waved around her arms wildly—"at least do it in private.”
Larry watched her figure slowly disappear from his line of sight, becoming smaller and smaller. He wanted to shrink into his chair, to hide among the furniture, to become unseen and invisible. He stood up, walked to the box of cupcakes, and held them in his hands. Slowly, carefully, he took out each cupcake and licked the fondant icing off one by one. The taste was repulsive, sugary and grainy and artificial. The pink icing stained his teeth, but that was okay. It was always okay.
Miranda Liu is in the process of unpacking many things, including but not limited to: her suitcase, the delivery boxes, and her relationship to her culture and identity. She is a college student who has many questions and very few answers, except that she loves to read and write more than anything else.