I don’t know why I allowed myself to endure what I had just gone through. I like shopping, yes, but shopping when everyone else in the world also has the same idea and this late in the season? Let’s just say it wasn’t my best idea. This is one of the times online shopping should have saved me, but contrary to popular belief, you can’t always find what you need on the Internet.
“I swear, I am never doing that again!”
Seven pairs of eyes turned to look at me as I entered my Pia’s Kitchen. Jostling with the crowd and lining up in all the stores cost me so much time that I had to resort to buying the nicest paper bags I can find to put everything I bought in and going straight to my best friend’s restaurant where my friends were waiting for me for dinner.
“What happened to you, Ruth?” Naomi asked. She and Ian stood up to help me carry all the packages I carried in my arms. My sister took the paper bags that hung from my fingers and put it on the table where all other brightly wrapped packages lay, while Ian took the tray of lasagna I was carrying and brought it to the table where all our other friends sat.
“Shopping. Crowds. That’s what happened,” I said, dropping onto the free seat. I sighed with relief as my aching feet finally got to rest. “I will never, ever do that again.”
“You always say that,” my best friend and the owner of the restaurant, Pia, teased.
“I am serious this time,” I declared. Naomi returned to the table with a glass of water which I gratefully received.
“Bad crowds huh?” Carol said with a grin.
“The worst,” I said, putting the glass down on the table after finishing off its contents. I reached behind my head to re-do my disheveled ponytail. “Good thing the traffic wasn’t as bad as it was yesterday. Did you guys have trouble going here?” I turned to Mon, Carol’s husband.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Mon said. “Then again, I didn’t really notice, since I was in very good company.” He gave his wife a tender smile and leaned in for a kiss while everyone groaned.
“What did I say?”
“No sweet married stuff when everyone else is around,” Mitchie said, crossing her arms and shaking her head. “You know the rules!”
“Yeah, don’t give this other couples any other ideas,” I said, shooting a look at Pia and her boyfriend Angelo, who were obviously holding hands under the table and were starting to give each other gooey looks.
“You guys act like you’re kids and we’re your parents,” Mon grumbled. We laughed.
“You should have told me where you were,” Ian told me. “At least you would have had some help.”
“And miss surprising you?” I scoffed, slapping him playfully on his arm. “No way.”
Pia snorted. “Look who’s talking about couple stuff,” she said, giving me and Ian a knowing look. Ian saw her look, put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me back on my chair so I was leaning on his arms. That got my friends hooting with laughter while I awarded Ian with another slap on the arm while my face burned.
“Aww, how sweet,” Mitchie said, rolling her eyes in mock sarcasm. “But guys, it’s not Valentine’s day, so let’s not do this now okay?”
“Oh, look who’s bitter,” Naomi giggled. “Don’t worry, Mitchie, you’re not the only one who doesn’t have a partner tonight.”
Mitchie pouted. “It’s not that. We’ve been in front of this food for almost half an hour and we’re not yet eating! Come on guys, let’s start, or else we’ll be late for mass!” She waved her arms around the table in her exaggerated fashion and we laughed. Pia and Angelo stood up to fetch something from the kitchen while the rest of us started fixing the food on the table.
“Wow, this smells good, Carol,” Naomi said as she removed the foil from one of the serving plates on the table. Inside were little rolls of golden brown meat that looked like chicken cordon bleu but instead of breading, it was wrapped in crispy bacon and had raisins in the middle instead of ham and cheese. On another plate was Mitchie’s contribution, which looked like little baked potato boats, its hollowed middle filled with meat and covered with cheese sauce. In the middle was the tuna lasagna I brought all the way from our Dad’s place. There was a bowl of greens on the other side and a small bottle of vinaigrette and beside it, Angelo put down a bowl of soup which was warming up in the kitchen. A bottle of champagne was kept chilled on a bucket of ice beside Pia’s seat, beside eight fluted glasses.
Mon looked at the entire spread in front of us and rubbed his hands hungrily. “Why did you never invite me to your dinners like these, hun?” he asked Carol.
“Because we weren’t married yet,” Carol said, standing up to help Pia in pouring the drinks. After she was done, the two of them finally settled down. Mon took on a serious look and was about to start the prayer when I realized there was something missing on the table. I raised my hand to stop.
“Guys, something’s missing,” I said slowly, looking at each of the item on the table.
“What?” Mitchie asked, exasperated. “Everything’s here. Can we please eat now?”
“No, something is not here,” I said. “This spread’s incomplete.”
Everyone looked at the table to see what I was trying to point out. After a few moments of silence, Naomi finally spoke up, “The cake.”
“Yes, that’s it. Where’s the cake? Who’s supposed to bring it?” I looked around the table and was met with blank stares. “No one brought the cake?” I asked faintly.
Pia, Mitchie, Carol and Naomi shook their heads. The guys exchanged looks, as if trying to see what the big deal was.
“Did we forget about the cake?” Carol asked, eyes wide.
There was a sinking feeling in my stomach. “It looks like we did…”
“Well, that’s not a problem, right? I mean, there should be some extra cakes in the fridge?” Angelo turned to his girlfriend hopefully, but Pia shook her head.
“The last cake in the freezer was picked up this morning,” she said glumly. “I thought we didn’t need it anymore since I thought we’d have a non-Pia’s Kitchen cake. All I have left there are candles.”
“We can’t…it’s not complete without the cake,” Mitchie said sadly. “And where else can we get one at this time? All other bake shops are probably out of stock already.”
Ian took that moment to excuse himself and slip out of his seat. The two guys looked helplessly at each other as the five of us sulked. The perfectly planned dinner was now ruined. It just wouldn’t be complete without the cake. Every year, we’ve always remembered to have a cake, no matter how common the flavor was, or no matter how small it is. We could forget all the other food, but not the cake. Especially not today, of all days. It’s like showing up at a dear friend’s birthday party and not bringing any present. Or showing up at a wedding without the rings.
“It doesn’t feel right without it,” Naomi said softly. “I feel like we’re letting down a friend.”
“Can’t we have the cake tomorrow or something?” Mon asked Carol, who just shook her head in reply.
“I’m sorry, but it’s really a big deal for us,” I said, tracing the pattern on the table spread with my finger. “No birthday is complete without a cake.” There was a dawn of understanding on Mon and Angelo’s face when I mentioned birthday.
“I have my birthdays without one,” Angelo said. “It’s got to be okay.”
Pia shook her head. “It’s not. Well, yeah, I can have my birthdays without a cake and yes, it may be okay today too, but for us it’s not. Everyone else is celebrating with so much food and presents tonight that they all forget him.”
“Yeah, and to think without him, this day would not even be possible,” Mitchie added.
“Don’t we have any cupcakes here or something? Even that would help,” Carol suggested, but Pia replied negative.
Ian returned to the table, carrying a small red box. We all looked at him and then at the box, which looked suspiciously like a cake box. “Is that…?” I asked.
He smiled and nodded. “Well, it’s not the same as what you guys would have brought and the icing’s a bit squished to the sides, but I think it’s still good. I got it earlier today before I headed here,” Ian paused and looked at me before continuing. “I was supposed to give it to you, but it got kind of bumpy in the car earlier so I decided to just buy you another one…but then you needed the cake today so…here.”
A warm feeling rose from my stomach up to my face as Ian finished explaining. He smiled at me like a little boy, and extended his hands to me to give me the box. “It’s perfect.” I said, taking it from him, our hands slightly brushing with each other.
I handed the box to my sister as Pia stood up, walked to the counter and returned with a matchbox and a birthday candle. Naomi opened the box, and the small chocolate cake indeed looked a bit lopsided already, but it still looked okay. They removed the cake from the box, moved the lasagna tray and put it in the middle of the table.
But there was something else I wanted to ask before we could continue. I turned to Ian. “Why did you buy a cake for me? You already gave me your gift.”
Ian shrugged, but I noticed his cheeks were red. “You were talking about it at work yesterday, how you always celebrated Christmas with a cake because everyone deserves a cake for their birthday. I kind of had a feeling you wouldn’t be able to buy a cake after you enumerated everything you needed to do yesterday.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Ian. I knew inviting you here would be a great idea.” I poked his arm and laughed. He reached for that hand and held it under the table, away from everyone’s eyes. I usually pull my hand away whenever he does this, but this time I let him hold it. The warm feeling was back.
Before I could say anything else, Pia returned from the kitchen carrying a small blue birthday candle and a matchbox. She stuck the candle in the middle of the cake and then turned to Ian.
“I think you should do the honors,” she said, handing him the matchbox. He squeezed my hand gently before letting go and then stood up to light the candle. It was just a small flame, but I felt like it lit up the entire room. We settled back on our seats, smiles on our faces as the table finally looked complete.
“Perfect,” Carol said softly. Pia reached for the champagne and started pouring it out for everyone.
“Can we get started now?” Mitchie asked impatiently, reaching for her champagne glass from Pia’s outstretched hand. She looked around the table and her impatient expression faded. “Let’s not keep the birthday boy waiting.”
We nodded and turned to Mon, expecting him to lead the ceremony, but he shook his head and motioned to me with his champagne glass. “I think Ruth should do it.”
Everyone looked at me expectantly. “Okay then,” I said. I looked at the lit cake, smiled and raised my champagne glass.
“Happy birthday Jesus,” I said softly. Everyone echoed my greeting and we clinked glasses. We watched the flame flicker for a while and then Naomi, Pia, Carol, Mitchie and I leaned over to blow the candle off.
“Merry Christmas everyone!”
Author’s note: I realize I never posted this Christmas story here, and some of my friends found this in my Goodreads account, so I thought I’d post it here, too. Especially since it’s Christmas Eve. Have a holly, jolly, merry Christmas! And don’t forget the cake. 🙂