Matrimonial Cake

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the tumultuous first weeks of his freshmen year, Harry invites his new girlfriend to travel home with him to meet his family.

Harry stood alone on the platform in the Kitchener train station and unwrapped a new CD.  The breeze snatched the cellophane packaging from his fingers and blew it out of the tunnel and onto the branches of the Saskatoon berry tree that grew beside the tracks.  He didn’t know what a Saskatoon berry tree was until he met Catherine later that month at the campus pub.  She was from North Battleford and was eighteen about to turn nineteen.  At her insistence, he tasted the berries from a tree they discovered off campus and found them quite delicious and couldn’t believe that so much good fruit was accessible for free.  When he returned to the train station a few weekends later, the cellophane wrapper was still hooked in the Saskatoon.  The leaves had begun to dry up and fall away.  The shiny wrapper was like a blob of ice forming around the exposed branches.  It was early In September of that year.

 

On a Saturday morning in October, Harry and Catherine bumped their overnight suitcases down the wide cement staircase to the station platform.  She caused hers to bump down each step in rhythm with his and thought it was funny.  It was the start of the Thanksgiving long weekend.  Harry snuck a quick glance to the east and confirmed to himself that the wrapper was still there.  Once they had set their suitcases down, Harry pointed towards the tree.

 

“Hey, Katz.  Isn’t that a Saskatoon?”

 

Catherine’s head whipped around.  “Where?”

Harry stepped aside and indicated for Catherine to go closer.  “Down there.  Just outside the tunnel.”

 

Catherine stepped forward and squinted.  “Oh yeah.  That’s another one.  This town is full of them and nobody knows about it.”

 

Harry put a finger across his lips.  “Let’s keep it that way.”

 

Catherine hadn’t noticed Harry’s cellophane or, if she did, she didn’t think it worth commenting on.  Harry wondered how he could ever put into words the delight he felt each time he noted that the cellophane was still there.  Even though it was technically a piece of litter, it wasn’t hurting anything and was, in its own small way, serving an artistic purpose.  So, not pollution.  He prayed that it would stay there forever.

 

Catherine returned to the luggage. “If I had a kitchen, I’d make your family a tray of tarts.”

 

Harry came up behind her.  “We can always buy some.”

 

Catherine leaned over and tucked her sunglasses into a side pouch. “Not Saskatoon though.” 

 

Harry admired how she could bend at the waist and not bend her knees.  “Why not?”

 

Catherine unfolded quickly, too quickly for most people, and stood up straight.  “Well I doubt anybody makes them here.”

 

Harry did really know much about the matter.  “Oh.”

 

The train station platform was quiet and nearly empty of travellers.  Most of the students in residense had departed the night before.  There was unswept debris blowing across the polished cement floor, moving east to west and then west to east, following the direction of the tracks.  Soon, it would fill up with people again.  Harry insisted on an early departure.  Catherine was both nervous and excited.

 

Catherine turned to face Harry.  “I should have gotten something for your parents.”

 

Harry wasn’t yet at ease with Catherine’s steady, confident gaze.  “It, it’s fine.  They’re okay.  They’ve got everything.”

 

Catherine offered Harry a stick of gum from the pack she was now holding.  “What about flowers?”

 

Harry declined the gum.  “My mom likes flowers.  It can be the centerpiece.  No one ever thinks of that.”

 

Catherine unwrapped a stick of gum for herself and folded it into her mouth.  “Perfect.  We’ll need to go out once we get there.”

 

Harry was intrigued by the opportunity to escape his nosey family.  “I’ll borrow my mom’s car.”

 

Catherine was reminded yet again that she still needed to be driven. “I haven’t got my licence yet.”

 

Harry failed to notice her embarrassment.  “I can teach you some driving.  Maybe we can even go parking!”

 

Catherine stopped chewing her gum for a moment.  “I think “Not” to both.”

 

Harry was quick to backtrack.  “Right!”

 

Catherine was quick to soften her response.  “Sorry.”

 

Harry had his doubts about this weekend.  Part of him wanted to go alone into his new room and close the door and live in silence for however long it took him to settle his nerves.  He needed his old room in their old house but that was gone now.  It made living away from home for the first time a little easier but he was still young and not ready in his head to think of himself as anything other than a son.  Catherine’s company was good for him and she really was a lot of fun to be around and she was very pretty.  That didn’t mean as much when he recalled the impression of his two sisters and mother and father waving back at him from the family car as he walked toward the front door of his new residence and it dawning on him that he wasn’t among them anymore.

 

Catherine popped her gum.  “I’ve never been on a sleepover with a boy.”

 

Harry’s heart fluttered momentarily.  “Me neither.  I mean with a..a girl.”

 

Catherine wasn’t looking at him anymore.  “This would never happen at my house.”

 

Harry loved the profile of her nose and mouth even as they pumped like a heart each time she chewed.  “Did you tell your mom where you were going?”

 

Catherine pushed a rope of gum outwards with her tongue then sucked it back into her mouth with a sharp inhale.  “She thinks I’m going to a girlfriend’s house.  But she knows about you and I think she really, really likes you.  So behave yourself.”

 

Harry badly wanted to kiss her mouth the moment she tossed her gum away.  “Oh, I will.  And we don’t have to stay the entire weekend.”

 

Catherine dabbed at the corners of her mouth with the sleeves on the back of her wrists  “We’ll see how it goes.  I can’t wait to meet your sisters.”

 

Harry was amazed at Catherine’s calm and cool air when faced with the prospect of spending two nights and three days with the family of a boy she barely knew when she herself was a thousand kilometers away from her own family who were probably missing her terribly and she them.  He thought he had all he could handle as it was and doubted he could withstand the awful heartache of being torn away from his kin.

 

Harry noticed Catherine's quiet which was unusual for her.  “Are you nervous at all?”

 

Catherine crossed her arms, crossed one boot over the other and drooped her weight over to one hip.  “No, not nervous but where am I supposed to sleep?  Are we, like, going to sleep in the same room?”

 

Harry crossed his arms as well but kept two feet planted firmly in place.  “Probably not but I don’t know.  We never talked about it.  This is a first for my family.  Any time I’ve had a sleepover it’s been with guys when I was a kid.”

 

Catherine released her arms and cracked her knuckles.  “I used to have birthday sleepovers and we’d sleep in the tent if the weather was nice.”

 

Harry saw a mouse running along the train tracks. “There’s the twin beds.  My sisters sleep in them but maybe they can move.”

 

Catherine was too lost in thought to see the mouse.  “Oh, I don’t want to move them.  They should sleep in their own beds.”

 

Harry lost track of the mouse but kept an eye open for it.  “There’s a guest room.”

 

Catherine didn’t notice the mouse reappear and run in the opposite direction.  “But there’s only one bed I bet.”

 

Harry watched the mouse exit the tunnel and run past the Saskatoon tree  “You can sleep in my bed.  I”ll sleep on the couch.  It’s a pull-out.”

 

Catherine crossed her arms again and leaned forward to look down the tracks.  In the distance they could both hear the sound of light traffic ‘vrump-vrumping” over the tracks but there was nothing to see.  Catherine looked back and straightened up.  Harry sensed her withdrawing from the conversation.  He felt the weight of his responsibility for her.  She was alone in this part of the world which was, by comparison, more his than hers.  She had her loved ones just as he had his and they couldn’t be here to help her get along.  Harry wasn’t so sure that he was one of her loved ones yet even though they had strong feelings for each other.  He would watch out for her even though she seemed well enough adjusted.  At least she had her childhood home waiting for her.


 

Harry cleared his throat.  “I don’t know our new house very well.  We only moved there a few weeks before I went off to university.  I should actually be going that way to London but now I’m going this way.”

 

Catherine chewed with her mouth open.  She was nearly done with her gum already.  “Do you miss your old town?”

 

Harry weighed the question in his mind.  He hadn’t had time to ponder his feelings on the subject yet. “Yeah.  In some ways.  No, in others.  I think my dreams were too big for it but I’ll always remember the growing up part.” 

 

Catherine was starting to sound like a guidance counsellor.  “What were the people like?”

 

Harry was surprised that of all the people he knew in London, which were most of the people he knew in his lifetime up that point, not one single face came to mind.  “The people were mostly good.  Things changed but the people stayed the same.  They were good.  I was the one changing and I didn’t even realize it.”

 

Catherine had to swallow and suddenly found it difficult.  A tiny sound that could have been a burp escaped her throat before she recovered.  “My town hasn’t changed.  I was happy to get out of it but I’m sad that I can’t just hop on a train and be there in an hour.  I won’t see my folks until Christmas.  I suppose we’ll be apart for a while then.”

 

Harry heard birds chipping somewhere around the platform.  He only just became aware of them but he supposed that they had been there all along.  “That’s okay, isn’t it?  We can still talk on the phone.  We’ll have all kinds of stories.”

 

Catherine must have become aware of the birds at the same time.  Her chin lifted and her eyes searched the ceiling.  With more birds than people, the train station sounded like a bird sanctuary.  “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

 

With nothing new to look at, Harry gave a half-hearted search for the birds as well.  “Let’s hope so.”

 

Harry caught sight of a solitary traveller standing at the far end of the westbound line.  He wore a football jacket from the same high school that Harry went to.  His chin was down at his chest and his head shook in short bursts as if he had just been bilked out of a thousand dollars and couldn’t figure out how he had fallen for it.  He carried no luggage.  Catherine noticed Harry looking over her shoulder and turned to see what he was seeing.

 

Cathering spit her gum into her palm.  “What’s the matter with that poor guy?”

 

Harry stiffened up.  There were warning lights flashing in his head.  “I think I know him.”

 

Catherine squinted and lowered her voice.  “Who is he?  What’s his story?”

 

Harry lowered his voice and slowed his speech “That’s Marco.  He was the captain of our football team.  And our soccer team.  He was the captain of everything.  He’s the popular kid.”

 

Catherine fished inside her pants pockets for the gum wrapper.  “‘Was’ by the looks of it.”

 

Harry had seen enough and didn’t want to look anymore.  “Yeah, he doesn't look too good right now.”

 

Catherine tucked the wad of gum into the wrapper and squeezed it shut.  “Want to go say ‘Hi’ and cheer him up?”

 

Harry stood his ground.  “Not really.  I don't know him all that well.” 

 

Catherine wrapped a hand around his arm.  Harry knew her enough to know that she liked to get her way always.  “Let’s just go say Hi anyway.   You can blame it on your kooky old girlfriend.”

 

Harry pulled his arm back.  “No, Catzy.”

 

Catherine's fingers tightened and would not let go.  “Come on.  I’ll do the talking. I’m in a good mood.”

 

Catherine began to move in Marco’s direction.  Harry had no choice but to follow lest he flailed against her and caused a scene.  Even with his compliance, she was hurting his arm.

 

“Catherine!  Catharine!”

 

Catharine let go of his arm and reached down for his hand.  She let him wrap it around hers as he saw fit.  Harry dreaded what they were about to do.  Approaching Marco like this, in an unguarded moment, was just not done by the likes of boys like Harry.   It wasn’t that Marco was a violent and uncontrollable lad; he was very much the opposite.  He excelled at sports which was obvious and he also excelled at academics which was not.  It was the hooligans in Marco’s social circle that frightened Harry the most.  He and his fellow scrubs referred to them as his Guardsmen.  Marco was handsome and fit and tan-skinned and even though he had a long-time girlfriend, he was constantly in the company of smiling, laughing young ladies.  The Guardsmen kept the undesirables away with the hopes of gaining the favours of one or two of the girls.  Harry once saw a terrified boy backed against the wall while one of the Guardsmen leaned over him, the front of the poor kid’s t-shirt bunched up his giant fist, slapping his face and laying down the rules like a true gangster.  What the kid did to earn this display of thuggery went unknown.  He didn’t look like much at the best of times.  He must have presumed it was fair game to ask a Guardsmen to move so he could get a drink from the water fountain.

 

Marco saw them approach and lifted his head.  Harry tried to make eye contact with him to alert him somehow that this was not his idea but Marco’s eyes shifted back and forth between him and Catherine.  Harry never knew that Marco had made it into university.  He assumed that Marco was here for university.  What would he be doing in Kitchener in the train station on a Saturday morning when his home was in London?  It dawned on him that if Marco was here for university then the Guardsmen were probably let go by now.  None of them were bound for post secondary education.  That was for certain.

 

Catherine pulled Harry in close to her so they were so close to one another that their touching arms looked like one arm.  “Hello.  We’re just coming over to say Happy Thanksgiving.  Harry says you guys went to high school together.”

 

Harry flushed with embarrassment at Catharine’s paraphrasing.  “I, I was pretty sure but…”

 

Marco seemed relieved.  “Your mom goes to my dad’s salon.”

 

Harry felt encouraged to elaborate but decided to maintain the illusion that everything Marco believed in was fact.  “Actually she...yes, Marco.  She does.  She does.”

 

In Catherine’s mind, this was playing out very sweetly.  “Going home to see your folks for the long weekend?”

 

Harry thought he noticed a teary shine in Marco’s eyes.  “Something like that.”

 

Catherine played with the lumpy gum wrapper in her free hand.  “We’re going to Harry’s new house in Brampton.  His parents just moved there.  I’m from Saskatchewan.”

 

Marco’s eyes were still darting about.  Harry could sense him thinking ‘what’s this about?’.

 

Catherine had paused to give Marco a chance to say something.  When he passed on it, she was happy to pick up where she left off.  “What’re you majoring in?”

 

Marco answered like it was a job application.  “Kinesiology.”

 

Catherine spun her head to look quickly at Harry then back to Marco.  Her wavy hair bounced off her cheeks.  “Harry and I are both in Engineering.”

 

Harry was still suspicious that knowledge of this brief intercourse would make its way back to the Guardsmen.  He pinned his chance of escaping an ass-kicking on his change of address which might buy him clemency on account of being too hard to locate.

 

Marco figited.  He was either bored with the conversation already or very distracted.  “I hear that’s tough.”

 

Harry suddenly felt very confident that he would live a natural lifetime.  He wished he had better words to express himself.  “Yeah, it’s tough alright.  Wow!  Yeah.  Tough.”

 

Even in a diminished state, Marco still had a way with last words.  “Looks like you have to go.”

 

Harry was just getting to like being on Marco’s level if not a little above.  “No, we’re just talking here.  We’re just saying Hi and stuff.”

 

Marco looked over Harry’s shoulder.  “That’s your train right?”

 

As if on cue, there was a blast of a train horn.  The engine roared as it came around the bend.

 

Harry gestured with zealous enthusiasm towards the east.  “Oh, right.  I guess it is.  I’m not used to going away from London.”

 

Marco replied as if he didn’t get the job.  “Lucky you.”

 

Catherine failed to realize that as far as Marco was concerned, the conversation was over.  “Well, it was super nice meeting you!” 

 

Marco gave a nod but turned away.

 

Harry shouted over the train engine but knew it was probably for naught.  “We’ll see you around campus.”

 

Catherine pulled Harry away.  She detoured them towards a trash can where she threw out her gum wrapper.  They gathered their luggage and moved to the edge of the platform.  The train came to a stop and they waited to be invited into the nearest passenger car.

 

Catherine looked up and spoke as if to the train.  “Poor guy.  He sounded like something went wrong.”

 

The more Harry replayed their chance meeting, the more disquieting the memory became.  “Yeah, he’s got a nice girlfriend.  Maybe they broke up.”

 

To Catherine, that revelation settled the matter.  “No wonder he sounded sad.”

 

A porter stepped down out of the passenger car and placed a step stool at the foot of the entrance.  Harry retracted his suitcase handle and hauled the pack up in front of him like a dumbbell.  “Well, I don’t know for sure but...maybe we shouldn't have gone over there.”

 

Catherine did the same with her luggage.  “Oh nonsense.  It’s good for people to talk to other people.”

 

Harry glanced over one last time.  Marco looked like he needed to take his own train home and not return.

 

Harry and Catherine rolled their luggage down the aisle.  He let Catherine pick a foursome of seats and enter first.

 

“If it were this time last year and I tried that, I would have gotten my ass kicked proper like.”

 

Catherine settled into the window seat.  “Funny what a year can do.”

 

Catherine looked out the window.  They were facing the platform.  From where they were sitting, they couldn’t see Marco.  “Maybe I can introduce him to some of my new friends.”

 

Harry leaned across Catherine to look out the window.  “I don’t think he’s the type you can just introduce to your friends.”

 

Catherine gently pushed Harry back into his own space.  “That guy?  What’s so different about him?  I mean, really..”

 

Harry leaned forward and removed his jacket.  “I’m still kind of terrified of him.”

 

Catherine helped him with his jacket sleeves.  “What’s he going to do?  You were just trying to make peace.  You weren’t stepping on his toes.”

 

Harry bunched up his jacket and tucked it into his lap.  “What if he thinks I was trying to make him look bad?  Me, having a girlfriend and him not.”

 

Catherine turned to look at Harry and reached out for his hand.  By coincidence, his hand was subconsciously fishing in the empty air and latched on to hers.  She smiled.  Harry turned to look at her.  This was the very first time that they had been alone together outside of the context of university life.  This was real life now.  In all it’s light and glory.  In all its potential for risk and failure.  Somewhere down the road were splintered paths that required difficult decisions to be made and uncomfortable answers to be accepted.  For now, Harry was content with the knowledge that an hour from now they would step down from the train and his mom would be there to drive them to the new house.

 

Catherine said “I hope they have snacks like they do on airplanes. I’m starving.  I didn’t eat breakfast.”

 

Harry asked “Why not?”

 

“I never eat before I travel.  It just rots my guts.”

 

“This isn’t really travelling.  It’s just a train.  It’s like being in a car on a nonstop highway.”

 

“I’ve actually never gone anywhere on a train before.”

 

“Really?  You’ll like it.  And yes, they’ve got snacks like in planes.”

 

“Oh, goodie!”

 

“But you gotta pay for them.”

 

“That’s okay.  I’ve got money.”

 

“It’s only an hour trip so they won’t have much.”

 

“I hope they have matrimonial cake.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“It’s date square.  Or date cake.  You call it that.  We call it matrimonial.”

 

“Why don’t you just call it date square then?”

 

“Cos we’re weird.  And we can’t help it.”

 

“My mom makes a really good date square.  She might even have some for us when we get home.”

 

“I hope so.  I’m really in the mood for some all of a sudden.”

 

“She makes hers about two inches thick.  One piece is like your entire lunch.   Me and my dad keep sneaking little bites of it.”

 

“My mouth is actually watering right now.”

 

“Why do you call it matrimonial cake?”

 

“Most people say it used to be the wedding cake at weddings.  Some people think it’s because to get to the good part in the middle you have to go through the rough layers first.  Like a marriage.”

 

There was a blast from the horn and the train started to move.

 

Catherine wiggled in her seat.  “You mind if I put my head on your shoulder.?”

 

Harry shifted closer to her.  “Sure.  Why not?”

 

Catherine leaned her weight against him.  Something cut into his shoulder but he let it go.  It was nice to feel her pressed against him.

 

A scratchy old song started up on the sound system.  Harry thought of a rainy street in Montreal.

 

Catherine spoke into the crook of his neck.  “I like the second explanation better.”

 

Harry realized that he forgot to glance at the cellophane wrapper as they passed by.  He hoped it wasn’t bad luck.  He promised himself that he would sit so that he could look out and see it on the return trip.  If it was even still there.  The CD itself had turned out to be a complete bore except for the one song that they played over and over again at Crawlers.  He had bought it because that one song had become a major part of the soundtrack to his first year of university.   It was a song that he never would have been exposed to in high school in London.  The songs that played back then seemed out of date and unfashionable now and he vowed not to enjoy them anymore.   He couldn’t remember what he did with the CD.

 


Submitted: May 01, 2021

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