I met Jake two years ago, at the eighteenth birthday party of a mutual friend. Kaitlin, the birthday girl, had rented out the rooftop of a restaurant downtown, and I had shown up early to help her decorate with string lights and streamers. When I arrived, I went to the back door, the one that led straight into the kitchen where delivery trucks would go. I was just starting out as a pastry chef, baking cakes out of the kitchen in my tiny studio apartment that I shared with my younger sister, and Kaitlin had requested an elaborate four-tier birthday cake as a way of “doing me a favor.” I’d known Kaitlin my whole life, though she was in my younger sister’s grade. We grew up together in the suburbs of Chicago, her in the affluent part of the Lakeside community, and me just on the other side of the railroad tracks where the community became decidedly less affluent. Most people would describe her as “a bit much,” but I liked that about her. She may have been inconsiderate, but I knew deep down she had a good heart. Plus, I could sit for hours listening to her blather on about hair or make-up or boys and never have to say more than the occasional “mmm-hmm” in return. It was like having a friendship without having to do any of the work, and that suited me just fine. I was never much of a talker anyway. An over-thinker, sure, but a talker? What’s the point in talking when no one listens to what you have to say?
The cake had taken me days to make—the better part of a week, actually. It was the most anyone had ever paid me for my services, albeit on the low end, but Kaitlin was a friend after all. I wanted it to be perfect, impressive. I wanted people to talk about it long after the party was over. After helping the restaurant staff hoist it up onto a shiny silver cake stand, carefully, so as not to damage the delicate lace piping and tiny, glistening sugar pearls I had spent hours intricately placing, I thanked them for their assistance and headed up the backstairs and out onto the roof.
“Hey betch!” Kaitlin called from across the roof where she was standing with her boyfriend, Dash. “You’re heeeeeere!”
She was dressed in a fluffy pink number, almost like a tutu, with dainty little silver shoes and a sparkling silver crown. A huge diamond necklace shone around her neck—her mother’s, I supposed. “Hey,” I said, beaming as I walked up to them, still excited about how the cake had turned out. “I just left your ca-”
“Oh my god,” she said, cutting me off. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Oh, um, yeah,” I mumbled, pulling on the hem of my skirt to try to make it a little longer. “I borrowed it from Ellie.”
“Well, it’s a bit trashy, but you look HOT,” she continued, nodding her head a little too enthusiastically. “Dash, doesn’t she look hot?” she said, jabbing him in the side with her elbow.
Dash glanced up briefly from his phone. “Smokin,” he said as he went back to scrolling.
Ellie is my charming, hilarious, better looking little sister. She’s two years younger than me, much cooler than I will ever be, and unlike me, she knows a thing or two about style. When she saw me getting ready to head to the party earlier that night she took one look at my jeans and black t-shirt and shook her head saying “No, that won’t do,” before going into our shared closet and emerging with the floral mini-skirt in her hands.
“This is a downtown party on a rooftop, Mara,” Ellie had said. “You need to look the part.”
Her black leather biker jacket completed my look. She had tried hard to get me into a pair of her knee-high boots, but I stood my ground and insisted on wearing my dirty old Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, the only shoes I’d worn since I was fifteen. I wasn’t about to risk delivering a four-tier buttercream cake in heels, after all.
I scanned the rooftop to see what decorating still needed to be done. Kaitlin’s parties were always a little over the top, but she had really gone all out on this one. Long tables piled high with fancy looking hors d'oeuvres lined the back wall, giant silver balloons in the shape of a one and an eight providing their backdrop. A photo-worthy flower wall made up of hundreds of pink, white, and red roses sat near the entrance, and a red carpet was being rolled out so guests could have their picture taken upon arrival, like you would at a movie premier. Though most of the guests were too young to drink, there was an open bar where several waiters stood filling up their trays with Kaitlin’s signature drink, the Kaitail, a bright pink concoction with a foamed rim and wisps of vapor floating out of the glass like it was made with dry ice. Seemed like a bit of a waste to me, but Kaitlin wanted it to feel grown-up.
I spotted a dance floor, and a live band was setting up in the corner. Not much of a dancer myself, I didn’t care for the dance floor, but I thought the band was a nice touch. I looked over at the three guys who were standing near the setup, and I thought I recognized the drummer who was standing and running a hand through his mop of dark hair while talking to Dash. I stopped to watch him, trying to place where I’d seen him before, when suddenly he looked up and we caught eyes, his hand still resting on top of his head. He smiled at me, a shy yet intriguing smile, and I blushed at the realization I had been staring. Shit, I thought as I quickly looked down and pretended to be engrossed in my fingernail polish.
“What are you doing?” Kaitlin asked as she came striding up to me. “I thought you were going to help set up, but now you’re just standing around.”
“Oh, I was just...looking for...the string lights,” I covered, hoping my cheeks weren’t still red. “You wanted to hang some, right?”
“O-M-G, YES!” she squealed. “I want to put them near the band. Like, all over their instruments and stuff so when it gets dark you can still see them playing.”
The logistics of wrapping the band’s instruments in string lights that had to be plugged in to a wall socket didn’t quite make sense to me, but Kaitlin seemed set on this “look” and I didn’t want to disappoint her on her birthday. Plus, it would give me a legitimate excuse to talk to the drummer, whose smile was still on my mind.
“Where’d you find this band?” I asked Kaitlin, fishing for clues as to how I might know him. “Are they part of the restaurant?”
“Oh, no, they’re Dash’s weird friends,” she responded, condescendingly. “I don’t even like their music, but he insisted I let them play, you know, as a favor to give them exposure or whatever.”
“I think I recognize the drummer,” I said, attempting indifference.
“Who, Jake?” she said. “He’s been at my parties before, though I doubt you would have talked to him. He’s Dash’s age—a year older than you—and he didn’t go to our school. He’s strange. He doesn’t ‘like parties,’ whatever that means. And he hardly talks to anyone. Come to think of it, you two would probably be perfect for each other.”
“Ha-ha,” I said, trying not to blush again. “I’ll get on these lights.”
String lights in hand, I strode over to the stage where the band was still setting up, trying to look cool and tugging on the hem of my skirt one more time for good measure. Dash and Jake were talking, and I approached and stood awkwardly next to them, waiting for my turn to speak for what felt like forever before Jake saved me from my own discomfort.
“What are you doing with those lights there?” he asked, looking from the lights to my face and back again.
“I... uh...need to put them on your instruments,” I responded, trying to sound casual.
“You what?” Jake asked, glancing at Dash, clearly confused.
“I mean, Kaitlin wants to wrap them around your instruments,” I clarified, feeling more and more idiotic as the words came out of my mouth. “She wants the band to look ‘lit up’ when it gets dark.”
“What the princess wants, the princess gets,” Dash chimed in as Jake rolled his eyes at me.
“That’s not going to work,” Jake said, speaking to Dash at this point. “Max and Eddie play guitar. They need to move around on stage, and they can’t be tripping over lights. There’s only one available outlet over here, anyway.” He motioned behind him at the power strip that was already near-full from the band equipment. “She can light up my drums if she must, but that’s it.”
“Alright, take it easy, buddy,” Dash said while clapping Jake on the back. “I’ll go talk to her.” He walked off to let Kaitlin down easy, leaving Jake and me alone, the string lights still dangling from my hand.
“Thanks for offering up your drums to the lighting gods,” I said. “I know it sounds stupid, but it means a lot to Kaitlin to have everything looking exactly how she imagined it.”
“She could stand a little disappointment for once in her life,” he responded bitterly. Then he seemed to catch himself, and followed up with, “But it is her birthday, so I’ll give her a pass.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure the cake I made her will be disappointing enough.”
“You’re a baker?” he replied, raising his eyebrows, impressed. “That’s cool.”
“Yeah, well, I’m just starting really,” I covered, suddenly embarrassed. What if my cake was terrible? “Kaitlin’s really helping me out by letting me make something for her party.”
“From the looks of it, you don’t need any help,” said Jake, nodding in the direction of the dessert table where the restaurant staff were busy lifting my cake into its place as the centerpiece.
It looked even better than it had before, here with the balloons and the lights. My eyes lit up when I saw it, and my heart swelled with a sense of pride and accomplishment, like this is what I was made to do. When I turned back around, Jake was looking at me with that shy smile again and I immediately blushed.
“Thanks,” I said, looking down at my shoes. “I should probably go help them get the dessert plates ready.” I started to leave, but then I remembered I was still holding the lights. “Would you mind putting these lights on your drums?” I asked.
I held the string of lights out for him to take, and his hand lingered on mine for a second longer than necessary.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
I smiled and turned to step off of the stage and head over to help with the cake, but then I stopped and looked back at Jake.
“I’m Mara, by the way,” I told him. “Mara Martin.”
“I know,” he said, smiling, as he turned to his drum kit and began stringing the lights.