I was a somewhat nihilistic child. I felt that everything was somehow going to fall to pieces around me, and that most people I knew were all part of a plot to eventually reveal that they had been part of an elaborate prank designed to shatter everything I ever knew and loved into dust, which they would then cram down my throat to asphyxiate me, at which time they would drag my barely conscious body into the fast lane of the freeway and unfold lawn chairs and then open up the big ol’ bag of Cracker Jacks and Red Vines they brought with them to watch the cars run me over.
Dark? Maybe, but if something’s worth doin’…
In any case, this attitude was very useful for memorizing Monty Python lines, or enjoying being alone, or massively overthinking every move made by anyone you know for the purpose of second guessing and twisting said move into a massively self-centered version of events that fits in to the general weltanschauung (it also gave me a lot of time to read) of the world being stacked against me.
Not that there were no antagonists in my life, but in retrospect, decades later I have since met so many people who have told me that they always wished that we could have hung out more, or dated, or worked together, or just been friends. But at the time, I would never have believed it. I was so far into my own head that I would have done almost anything to avoid it or sabotage any attempt. I had friends, as I said, but I was always wary of why they would want to participate. Especially girls.
I think, at this point, I should pause to assure you that this story does not actually continue to read like a prelude to some sort of crazy true crime docudrama. And it does include chocolate cake (seriously.)
So anyhow, my senior year rolls around, and at the end of the year, I got a yearbook in which to collect signatures. I always liked that part of the year, because it was fun to read what people wrote to me. Like what usually happens, they all wrote nice things, girls writing that I was sweet, or vaguely suggestive things, and both guys and girls writing that we should hang out during the summer. But this particular year, there were girls who wrote their phone numbers at the end of their signatures. Some of them even wrote somewhat unambiguous things about what we should do after I called them. Of course, I thought that they were kidding, and that they probably regretted doing it as soon as they handed the yearbook back to me.
One of the phone numbers was from a girl with whom I had been friends for a long time. We ate lunch together with friends every day, and she lived about four blocks away from my house. We had gone to the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. Because I had weird eating habits, and frequently had no money with me, she would often give me money to buy a piece of chocolate cake (see?) from the trolley that they wheeled out for snacks and pre-wrapped tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I assumed that she was probably not going to be mean if I called her, because she was the nicest person I knew.
Still, it took me weeks to work up the courage to call.
But I did.
And we talked. And we kept talking all summer. I looked forward to calling her in the evenings, and sometimes we talked all night. Mostly we talked about silly nothings, and sometimes I would guess what she was wearing because I had told her that I could see through her window from the deck on the top of my garage roof. Sometimes we would talk about music, and concerts we would like to go to. It was amazing, because I was beginning to believe that there was someone who really liked me as a person, and I didn’t feel like I was going to immediately screw that up. I awoke to the possibility that there weren’t only sad grey and angry red things in the world, if I just allowed myself to believe that. It was a new feeling for me, and it had a glow about it that I was not immediately sure how to deal with, but that I knew I wanted to try and figure out.
Living in San Diego, the bigger bands and concerts usually came no closer than Los Angeles, so sometimes a number of us would pile into the car and drive three hours to the venue to see them. Among the musicians we had talked about and who we both liked was Eric Clapton, and it turned out that he was coming to LA for a show in a couple of weeks. Because my brain processes ideas like letting a burlap sack full of starving hamsters loose in a Froot Loop storage vat, I figured that I could ask her if she wanted to go to the concert, and that a mutual friend could come with us, (so in an unspoken way it could be both a date and possibly not a date if she was repulsed by the idea of going out with me). I got the tickets, and then (after practicing it, and imagining every possible response from enthusiastic assent to her tearing the phone out of the wall and throwing it out of the window) casually asked her if she would like to go.
When I was younger, and had been visiting my aunt and uncle in LA, we had gone to a restaurant in Beverly Hills whose owner my uncle knew. It was a successful place then, and one of the reasons why was the owner’s six layer chocolate fudge blackout cake. (See, we are coming around to cake again…) It was so good the first time we went there that we went back again the next day to get another huge slice. It was fudgy, moist, and sweet, with a tiny hint of bitter dark chocolate flavor to counterpoint the rest of the dessert craziness that it represented. I would remember that cake forever. My uncle said that the owner was thinking of opening another restaurant location, because this one was so successful.
So it was that when we were driving to the concert a few hours before it was to begin, I proposed a short detour to get some of this cake. She said that it sounded like a great idea. With the type of certainty that only teenagers can summon, I drove past the concert site with complete faith that I would be able to find the restaurant with only visual clues and a vague memory of the area to guide me.
Miraculously, due to the power of love and chocolate cake, I found it without driving around aimlessly. I am still not really sure how, but I was also so wrapped up in the fact that in my mind I was out on a date and the girl I was with was actually in favor of the idea (even though there was another friend of ours with us on the trip) that I took this in stride. We went into the restaurant and each had a slice of the cake, with a giant mug of milk that balanced out the sweetness. It was great. We loved the concert, although we talked through a great deal of it, the guys sitting behind us were drunk and obnoxious and eventually threw up all over themselves, and our friend got so wasted that we had to carry him to the car while he apologized for his behavior and then passed out.
It was also the first time that I referred to her as my girlfriend. Not to her face, but to an usher that I needed to get past (to sneak back down to the better seats we had originally snuck to when he wasn’t looking) after I went to the bathroom. I said, “That’s my girlfriend down there; she has my ticket.”
Thirty-four years later, some things have changed, some things are the same. She is still my girlfriend, and also my wife of twenty-nine years. She still makes me feel like the world is not out to get me, and that I am worthy and capable of having good things in my life. The chocolate cake is still good, but the restaurant has changed. They did open another location, and then another and another, and so on and so on. The restaurant, by the way, is still called The Cheesecake Factory. It is a little different than it was back then, but they still sell that cake there. Or if you want to make it yourself, here is the recipe.
Linda’s Six-Layer Chocolate Fudge Blackout Cake
1 3/4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup boiling water
Chocolate Ganache (recipe follows)
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, mix together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat in eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat 2 minutes on medium speed. On lowest speed (to avoid spattering), beat in boiling water (batter will be thin) until well blended.
Pour into 2 greased 9-inch round layer cake pans, dividing evenly. (You can use 3 pans if you want to cut three in half instead of two in thirds to get the six layer, it is up to you.)
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven about 30 to 33 minutes or until toothpick in center comes out just dry. Cool in pans 15 to 20 minutes, then remove to racks to cool completely.
When cool, with a long serrated knife, cut each layer in thirds horizontally. Spread a layer of ganache over the bottom layer and over the tops of 4 more cake layers and stack together on a large serving plate. Place remaining cake layer on top of cake stack. Frost top and sides of cake with Chocolate Ganache. Press chocolate sprinkles into ganache around sides of cake, if desired. Refrigerate cake until serving time. Makes 1 (9-inch) cake.
6 cups semisweet chocolate chips (3 (12-ounce) packages)
3 cups whipping cream
4 1/2 tablespoons butter, cut up
3 teaspoons vanilla
In a large microwave safe bowl or measure, combine chocolate chips and whipping cream.
Heat on high (100 percent) power in microwave oven 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Remove from microwave, stirring until chocolate is melted and mixture is well blended. Add butter and vanilla stirring until butter is melted and mixture is well blended.
Cool in refrigerator, stirring occasionally, until of good spreading consistency to spread over cake layers. Use to fill and frost top and sides of a 6-layer 9-inch cake.