You can learn a lot from observing a group of kids singing around a birthday cake.
Most are licking their chops, thinking about nothing more than shoving cake in their mouths. There’s also the antsy, thrill-seeking kid who nearly pushes the guest of honor off her chair just to help blow out some candles. You can usually find one kid staring squarely at the birthday girl, overcome with jealousy because his special day is still many months away. Sometimes there’s even a child who’s so clearly mesmerized by the dancing flames one can only hope she uses her curiosity about fire for the study of chemical sciences — and not simply to start fires.
Then there’s the kid with a look of deep anxiety on his face, the one you might worry about.
I was that kid.
I wasn’t a troubled or neurotic little boy; I would get anxious during the birthday song for a specific reason. I had a secret that everyone was about to find out about in a matter of minutes. When they did find out, the mother would poke, prod and question, then eventually laugh about it with her friends. If there was a dad around, maybe he’d wave me off or shrug his shoulders — either way I knew that he thought there was something wrong with me.
So, ready for it? Here was my big issue. I’ll just come out with it: I didn’t like birthday cake.
Still don’t, actually. This has plagued me most of my life and I can’t help it. There’s always been something about birthday cake that never appealed to me. I would so much rather have another burger or slice of pizza than fill my belly with sweet, grainy, burn-your-throat — bleh! — cake.
Society frowns upon this. Don’t think this could be that big a deal in someone’s life? Here are just three stories, in reverse chronological order:
1. I was working in the parts department at Audivox in Hauppauge in my late teens when it was time to put down our tape guns to sing “Happy Birthday” to Maria, an older Greek woman from Brentwood. I sang, passed on the cake and went back to work after the festivities. Soon, my supervisor told me she needed to talk to me “later,” leaving me worried for a while over what I had done wrong.
Then she brought me in the back, behind some boxes, and asked me why I didn’t like Maria.
“Who wouldn’t like Maria?” I responded. Well, I didn’t eat her cake, I was informed. After years of pent-up frustration, I lost it. Nothing violent. I just vented to my boss. Was I not allowed to dislike cake in the workplace? Come on! Will this go on forever? I told her my history and she seemed empathic. She probably made fun of me to her boyfriend that night.
2. A high school friend and I went to his aunt’s birthday party one day when we were sophomores. I barely knew anyone at this event, so there was nothing to distract me from my anxieties leading up to the singing. So I overthought it and started planning well ahead of time for the cake-offering moment.
Now I’ve tried to outsmart the system before, with utter failure. (See below.) So at this event I wasn’t going to make anything up; I was just going to come clean in advance and defuse the entire situation. I decided to let my friend in on my problem. Next thing I knew, his mom and other aunts were chasing me around with all kinds of cake. They thought it was hilarious but I wasn’t laughing, at least not on the inside. And here I thought my friend really understood me.
3. I was naive. This was early in life, maybe I was 8 years old. I sang happy birthday at a party in my old Queens neighborhood and went back to playing without a care. Then I ran into a mom, holding a plate.
“Here’s your cake, Michael.”
Suddenly, bad memories of past cake-pushers came rushing back. I panicked and, shamefully, lied. I told the woman I was allergic to chocolate.
I was home free! So much potential stress and the woman was leaving me alone.
“But you’re eating M&M’s!” she observed.
“There’s chocolate in here?” I asked, between delicious chomps.
Yes, there was, I was told. My candy was taken away from me. The adults watched me like a hawk after that. But the worst was yet to come.
Later, the goodie bags were handed out. All around me they dropped like rain. Snickers, Kit Kats, Milky Way bars and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups! These were the best goodie bags I had ever seen. But there was none for me. Instead, I was handed a bag of jelly beans.
So I dragged my feet down the stoop and burst into tears when I got into my father’s car. I told him what had happened, even though I risked getting into trouble for lying. Then he started laughing, and I started laughing. We laughed the whole way home.
Today I don’t care who knows about my cake aversion. If feelings are at risk, I’ll just politely take a plate of cake and toss it in the garbage. But I want to make this suggestion: Next time you come across some kid who declines a piece of birthday cake at a party, just leave him alone, huh?
Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.