The Chocolate Cake

A Culinary Catastrophe #1

Beate Boeker

“This is what you need.” Jenny waved a piece of paper as if it was the entry ticket to paradise.

I lifted my head from my hands and eyed the document with mistrust. “What is it?” It was only about two inches by two inches large and looked as if someone had first submerged it in a soapy bath and then used it to clean the butter dish.

“It’s a perfect recipe for the yummiest chocolate cake ever made.” Jenny held the instructions beneath my nose. “It’s easy to make, super-quick, and utterly delectable. It’s perfect to seduce . . . what’s his name, by the way? You never told me.”

I steeled myself for her reaction. “His name is Zen, and I’m not trying to seduce him.”

She ignored the second part of my sentence and opened her green eyes wide. “Zen? That’s not a name. It’s a religion.”

I shrugged. “You can’t control your parents before you’re born. If ever.”

Jenny giggled. “I already see the sign on the street that points the guests to your wedding. Zen and Tak. How cool is that? No, Tak and Zen. That’s even better, besides, the name of the bride is mentioned first, isn’t it? Not that anybody could tell we’re talking a wedding here. They’ll think it’s a signpost to the nearest monastery.” She held a hand in front of her mouth and doubled over in mirth.

“Jenny.” I gave her an exasperated look. “Stop that.”

“I love it.” She lifted the disreputable recipe above her head and danced around her kitchen. “Tak and Zen, Zen and Tak, Tak and Zen, Zen and . . .“

“Jenny!”

She dropped back onto the wooden chair at the kitchen table. “What did he say when he learned your name?”

I drew a little loop on the kitchen table with my index finger. “He . . . well, he doesn’t know it.”

“He doesn’t know it?” Jenny bent forward with such a sharp movement that all her red curls bounced. “Just what are you trying to tell me? You’ve invited a guy to have dinner at your home before he even knows your name?”

“It’s not like that.” I avoided her gaze. “You see, when I met him, well, sort of dropped onto him, to be honest, I . . . “

“You dropped onto him? You said you met him at the Landungsbruecken.”

“That’s what I did.” I replied with all the dignity I could muster. I could recall every second of that evening. After a stuffy day at the office, I had spontaneously decided to get off the subway at the Landungsbruecken on my way home. The wind had lured me outside. I felt the need to have it tear at my hair to feel alive again. I wanted to enjoy a whiff of the marine life at Hamburg harbor; I wanted to feel like a tourist on the pier of the river Elbe, if just for half an hour, to forget the stress of my workday. “You know the long staircase that leads from the subway station down to the pier?”

“Sure.”

“Well, I was looking at the container boats and everything happening on the Elbe, so I lost my footing and tumbled down the stairs. I landed on top of Zen.”

“Gosh.” Jenny’s eyes grew round. “I seem to have missed quite a lot during my one week of vacation.”

“You did.” I grinned. “I wasn’t hurt, but he . . . well, he sprained his wrist when he cushioned my fall.”

“I don’t believe this.”

I nodded. “His wrist ballooned within minutes. So I accompanied him to St. Pauli hospital. It’s just around the corner, you know. I felt I had to do it.”

Jenny’s gaze never wavered from my face. “And then?”

“On the way to the hospital, he asked my name. I could see his wrist really hurt him – he held his arm with the other hand – and I didn’t want to go into all the details, how my mother had given birth to me at JFK, right after landing, and how this Danish doctor had helped her, and how she spontaneously decided to call me Tak, because it means Thank You in Danish.”

Jenny lifted her eyebrows. “So what did you say?”

“I . . . “ I circled my index finger around a mark on her kitchen table, so it would not show that I didn’t dare to meet her eyes. “I told him my name is Maria.”

“Maria.” Jenny sounded stunned.

“Yes.” I lifted my head. “It was such a relief, to simply say your name, and to have no story to add.”

“And then?”

“Then he told me his name is Zen. I almost had a heart-attack.”

“Did he explain how he got it?”

I nodded. “Another mother gone crazy. It seems that during her pregnancy, his mother had very nervous bouts which she overcame only by delving deep into the Zen philosophy.”

“But you can’t give your child any name you want if it’s not an officially listed name. At least not in Germany.”

“He’s American, but he grew up in Germany. Just like me.”

Jenny laughed. “It sounds as if you’re perfect for each other. At least your mothers should get along really well.” She put both elbows on the table and dropped her chin into her hands. “Tell me more. What happened then?”

“Then we had to wait for two hours. You know what it’s like if you don’t arrive
with an ambulance and squealing tires in front of the emergency ward, your head underneath your arm.” I smiled as I recalled the time spent in the waiting room. “We talked.” I had liked his quiet way, his easy manners, and how kindly he accepted that I had wrecked his wrist.

“And?” Jenny prompted.

“What?” I blinked. “Oh, at one point we started to talk about the things we like. And of course, I . . . “

“ . . . you started to talk about cooking.” Jenny rolled her eyes.

I shrugged. “Yeah, well, I can’t help it.”

“And then?”

“And then one thing led to another, and before I could stop myself, I had invited him to dinner for the next weekend.”

“I don’t believe this.” Jenny shook her head. “You hardly know the guy and you invite him for dinner? That’s against all the rules! Don’t you know that a first date is always supposed to be on neutral ground? It’s a wonder he didn’t run squealing.”

I squared my shoulders. “He didn’t run, on the contrary. He looked delighted.”

“Maybe he’s an actor by profession.”

“He’s not. He’s a zoo-keeper.”

Jenny’s hands dropped with a bang onto the wooden tabletop. “What?”

I grinned. “He works at the Hagenbeck zoo and told me all about it. His work sounds like great fun, much better than my job, booking container loads all day long.”

“I bet.” Jenny said with a sepulchral voice. ”And all this in the romantic atmosphere of the greenish waiting room at St. Pauli Hospital.”

“Oh, by then, we were at the Hotel Hafen Hamburg, in the tower, and had cocktails.”

“That sounds better.” Jenny nodded her approval. “Now I finally begin to understand why you invited a virtually unknown guy for dinner: You were drunk.”

“Not at all.” I tried to make my voice firm, though to the honest, the evening had felt unreal, sort of floaty. The sunset had tinted a few fluffy clouds and the old stone buildings below us an improbable rose; the Elbe had shimmered like a thousand muted diamonds, and even the cranes in the container harbor had looked like some sort of modern art, made solely to please the eye. My summer cocktail had tasted of sweet coconut with a lemony tang, and Zen . . . He had a slim face, a bit too pale, maybe, and he wore black glasses that made him stand out from any crowd. They fascinated me, those glasses, because they spoke of a certain daring dash for style that I found quite irresistible. I wondered if the monkeys in the zoo felt the same attraction to them, but I didn’t dare to ask.

“Earth to Tak.” Jenny was waving the old recipe in front of my face. “I want to know more. What happened next?”

“Next,” I landed with a thud back in reality, “we went to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant just off the Reeperbahn because Zen knows how to eat with chopsticks, and that’s really useful if you can only use one hand.”

Jenny grinned. “Clever.”

I bent forward. “We had some really delicious . . . “

My best friend held up her hand. “Oh, no. No food descriptions, they take too long if you do them. Tell me what happened after you had eaten.”

“After we had eaten . . . ” I placed my elbows on the table and dropped my head onto my folded hands, “the evening stopped being nice.”

“Did you get food poisoning?”

“Worse.” I lifted my head. “Zen . . . asked . . . for . . . “

Jenny slid forward until she almost fell off her chair. “He asked for what?”

“For . . . dessert.”