As a kid, I always thought carrot cake defied the very notion of cakedom. First, it was made with carrots, definitely not nestled near the top of the food pyramid with chocolate and brown sugar and frosting and everything else that gets filed under Sweet and Delicious and Use Sparingly. Second, it tasted like something in the loaf family, but not endowed with nearly the confidence of a banana chocolate chip bread. Third, it was something adults ordered. They liked nuts and raisins in their cakes and I wasn’t having any part of that. Give me the cream cheese frosting and go annoy some other kingdom, carrot cake.
So it would be a shock for my younger self —that kid who thought 3rd grade was the ultimate educational accomplishment and prayed in the temple of Star Wars— to see today’s self indulging in a moist and sweet slab of the stuff. But there I was, in a strictly vegetarian restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, sticking my fork into a tender clay of vegetables and berries and fruits and whatever else constitutes a carrot cake. There were definitely pineapples, too, always a plus in my culinary book. The frosting was neither cream nor cheese and was concocted with some non-dairy delight that surely fooled me. Most carrot cakes are forgettable, often spinning perpetually in neon-lit refrigerators in diners across the globe, bedazzled with Bugs Bunnyisms and hardened icing. This was not that kind of dessert.
Sitting there, in a restaurant that featured neither hide nor hair, I continued my meatless streak. It had been over a week, which was surprising coming from someone with a soft spot for fried chicken and Boar’s Head roast beef. To say I was an experimenting vegetarian would be a lie, for pescetarian is closer to the truth. Cutting out lox, blanketed in perfect form over a Montreal bagel, would be a sin. In any event, the cake’s precedent had been a deliciously thick sandwich of craggy vegetables, a no-bullshit offering from a menu that was concise and unpretentious itself.
What struck me most, however, was not the cake or the sandwich or the conversation with my girlfriend about adopting a dog; it was the couple seated close by, our back neighbors in a dining room district of assumedly decent people peppered with a few snide cosmopolitans. I couldn’t help but stare. There was a woman, with an elderly face concealed by a black baseball cap and even older hands that quaked as she grappled with her meal. Seated across from her, but also next to her, was a man less than half her age, bearded and dressed in sharp hipster style, who aided the woman when the food became too cumbersome. I focused and refocused my gaze maybe two dozen times, used every chink in our adoption conversation to glance and glance again.
I was magnetized by dedication. It showed in his smile, showed in her gratitude. It was in the way he concentrated on her comestibles, then hurriedly shoveled bites of his own salad. It was in her muffled chuckles, the way they touched each other’s hands. It was loving.
At first I was confused and thought that this might be some kind of benefactor’s romance, a dinner on the credit card and whatever else the night held. I quickly dismissed that notion and shoved it back into the mental filing cabinet for soap opera scripts, choosing instead to observe and sketch a portrait minus the daytime TV slant.
The picture I imagined, though, was not of this couple. It was of a boy and his grandmother who always carried Wint-o-Green Lifesavers in her purse; pontificated on the thrill of waiting on line in Times Square for rush tickets to “The Theeyatah”; drove a 1984 rearviewless Camry the color of cartoon flesh until it about ground to a halt. Driving that car amongst the birdsong of her cheery Midland Park, NJ neighborhood, she was once tailgated by an impatient aggressor. Instead of pulling over to let the roadrager pass, she snailed along at 25 mph, pointing her finger out the window at every speed limit sign she passed. Her little fuck you to all those who ever said she’d get old. She, of course, would never bring herself to verbalize a curse word, not in the presence of the boy, at least.
The grandson grew up and the grandmother grew old. She was blown over by the wind and coerced into ill health by the thugs of time. She needed help, and it didn’t come from either of her two sons. It came instead from her only daughter - the boy’s mother. The grandmother was moved from New Jersey to Connecticut, and under the watchful eye of a diligent and stressed-out Hungarian caregiver, she slowly trod into the quicksand of dementia. The grandson visited her, but every time she was more hollowed out than before, more the frail shell of her former clever self. She would mumble a word stew but retained her sweet tooth, so the mother brought chocolate frosted donuts to the nursing home when it became that serious. The withering continued. Soon there was nothing left to wither away, and there was a funeral under a cold January drizzle.
In the restaurant, the couple finished their dinner. I couldn’t hear a word of their conversation, but it was there and she was lucid. In a prosperous corner of the city my grandmother loved more than any other, I envied that man and his ability to speak to the woman. I was unsure of whether he was her relative or simply her aid, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was vitality and the sheer act of existing. I wanted to tell my grandmother that her city was now my city, that I should have appreciated her wisdom more, and that we should’ve reveled in our cravings for sweets more when she was around.
The carrot cake arrived in a ceramic dish, clinking against the table. “All your dreams come true,” the waiter’s voice echoed like a resident of Narnia as he flitted back towards the kitchen. Forks in hand, we excavated the massive slice, each savoring like vegetarian vampires the perfection of the first bite. A passerby might mistake our lack of conversation for a distanced relationship, but it was just one of those don’t-talk-just-eat triumphs of the bakery. It was devoured in a matter of minutes.
Feet beyond us, the couple rose and headed for the door. The man helped the woman with her coat to brave a sheet of light rain on an unseasonably warm night. Their smiles, which had adorned them from the outset, continued, and the corners of my mouth, filled with the aftertaste of clove and cardamom, turned up as well.