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Cake

August 6, 2007

The sound of the plate being pushed down into the garbage, the image of his fist around the plate, sticks with me. I want the plate out of there.

A birthday party for one of the supervisors is going on. Yellow cake with chocolate icing, paper plates, plastic forks, party napkins. A guy in a suit, I don’t know him, walks by my cubicle holding one of the paper plates, his mouth full, chewing his last bite, folds the plate around his napkin and fork and cake crumbs, leans into my cubicle, reaches around a corner and stuffs the plate in my garbage can. No look, no excuse me, no nothing.

The sound of the plate being pushed down into the garbage, the image of his fist around the plate, sticks with me. I want the plate out of there. I at least want him to look at me when he puts something in my garbage can. Does he think I’m not here? Doesn’t he see me? I’ve been with the company three days and haven’t met him, but maybe I should meet him right now. Tell him to remove the plate and whatever’s squashed in the middle of it.

Would he have stuffed it in a man’s garbage and not even looked at him? What if he says he won’t remove it? What if he looks at me without a word and turns and walks away? What would I do? Would I take it? I could take the plate out of the garbage and go after him and tell him how he made me feel. How would I feel after I spoke to him? Would I feel glad that I’d stood up for myself or humiliated that I’d made an issue out of something that some people might think was insignificant? They might see it as insignificant but they don’t have somebody else’s cake plate stuffed in their garbage.

I grab the plate out of the trash and start after him. I don’t know where he’s gone and I don’t know where his desk is, but I see him down a hallway, coming out of the restroom, shaking his hands dry. Just before I get there he looks up and sees me coming with the folded plate. His mouth comes open a little bit. I hand it to him, right in the stomach. You treated me like I wasn’t there, I say to him. You disrespected me. My eyes are all over his. He’s all amazement. He says nothing. Is he thinking I’m overboard? I turn and walk back to my cubicle and sit.

I keep looking to see if he’s coming back to tell me I was out of line. Or someone else could come and ask me to follow him. My phone could ring, summoning me to a meeting. He could be standing in a room waiting for me with another guy wearing a suit. Or he could bring the plate back and stuff it in my garbage again. Open hostility. Unlikely. He may see himself on the high ground and stuffing the plate back in my trash would mean giving that up. But if he does show up with the folded plate I’ll pull the garbage away from him. Stop thinking about it, back to work. Still, I wait for something connected with the plate to happen.

Nothing does. Nothing that I can see. As I leave work, I wonder about tomorrow.

I stay up most of the night worrying about the job and how the guy could hurt me. I need to find out who he is, what his position is, what type of person he is. When I get up I look like hell. I want to sleep the rest of the morning but I tell myself to keep moving. I clean myself up and get to work on time.

I ask a couple of people about the guy. One of them knows who I’m talking about but doesn’t know much about him. She tells me his title. I can’t remember it for a second after she says it, but compared to me, he’s a big shot. I sit in my cubicle and try to stop thinking about the cake plate. My face starts to feel hot.

During my lunch break I go out and buy a big piece of chocolate cake. I’m thinking I’ll take it into his office, hand it to him, and apologize. I get in my car with the piece of cake, and as I put it on the passenger seat I feel stupid about buying it. I eat the cake and wipe my mouth off with the napkin they gave me. I can still smell the cake, and I get out of my car with the container and stick it in a garbage can.

Back at work, I try to decide what to do. I don’t know if I have the nerve to go to his office. What will I say? Am I apologizing? If I think he should apologize, why would I apologize to him? For the sake of my job? Is that enough for me to go to him and grovel? It might be. If I wait, it could be too late. The wheels could be turning. He could be having a conference with my boss right now about the new lunatic in the building. Will I regret it if I say that I shouldn’t have given the plate back to him? Should I have sat with it in my garbage can all afternoon or taken it to the garbage can in the staff room myself? If I had, would I be telling myself that I should have said something to him? But what purpose did it serve to go after him with the plate?

I decide to go to his office. I don’t have the words I’ll say planned. Something in me resists thinking up the exact words. I stop at his assistant’s desk and the assistant rings him up and tells him my name. He says to send me in, not asking for any explanation of who I am. He looks surprised as I walk in. He stands up, maybe in case he needs to get away from me quickly. He gestures at a chair in front of his desk. I take the seat and he hesitates before sitting back down in his chair. He waits for me to speak, but I have a hard time getting started. I swallow. I’m sorry I came after you with the plate, I say. He nods and his mouth hangs slightly open again. He tells me not to worry about it. I wonder if he’ll say that he shouldn’t have stuffed his plate in my garbage can, but I sense he’s not going to make this statement. I don’t get up. I want him to know I’m waiting for him to say something. Should I try to drag it out of him. I could say, And you? But I just leave the question on my face. He knows I’m waiting and he must see the question. I don’t think he understands why I’m bothered by what he did, and I can’t tell that he cares that much that it does bother me. He finds the matter unworthy of a comment. He stares at me as if he doesn’t know why I should expect him to say more. I get up and walk out.

I’m not satisfied with the meeting. I said my part, but he didn’t say his. He barely spoke to me. He thinks I’m nothing and he thought I was nothing when he threw his cake plate in my garbage. Should I go back and tell him I’m not beneath his consideration? Would he know what I’m talking about?

I keep looking up as I sit at my chair. My mind grinds on about my visit to him. He didn’t ask one question about me. Is he completely unconscious of his effect on people? Who is this guy? What does he do besides eat cake? If he walks by again, should I offer my garbage can to him? Should I offer him a tissue? A mint? A hand wipe? Has he wondered what he could do to make the situation better?

I see him on my way out as I’m leaving for the day, and we happen to be walking the same direction in the parking lot and at almost the same speed. He glances at me several times, maybe afraid I’ll come toward him and say something he doesn’t want to hear. Our cars are parked side by side. When we reach them, I take out my key. Look, he says. I want to tell him to look, that I’ve been looking and he hasn’t. Look, he says again, the cake plate. He’s not looking at me and his hands are wandering in the air in front of him. It won’t happen again, he says. He gives me just a trace of a crooked smile and then goes to his car. Thank you, I say and go to mine.

I back my car out first. I don’t want him to see me. I don’t want him to know how much I wanted him to say what he said. I won’t give him the power.

Glen Pourciau has stories in recent or forthcoming issues of Cimarron Review, Confrontation, Harpur Palate, Mississippi Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Wheelhouse. One of his stories won Ontario Review‘s Cooper Fiction Prize and received special mention in the 2007 Pushcart Prize annual.

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One comment for Cake

  1. Comment by Sarahliz on April 17, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Not just men in suits but absolutely everybody in the whole world is capable of acts of extraordinary thoughtlessness on any given day. Amongst your social milieu you have the rules down- Chris is totally unreliable, Ruby is a terrible drunk, Megan a vicious gossip when riled, and you accommodate and move on and work around each other- or turn into the Real Housewives of Orange County or whatever. At work things are murkier, especially in a new job where you don’t necessarily have a grasp on the pecking order and the social rules at play. My rule at work has always been DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY. Save yourself some grief. Deep breath it, start turning it into an amusing anecdote to be told over a much needed beer, and carry on being the professional you are, with a small smile on your face reflecting the satisfaction you feel at having a far better grasp of etiquette.

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