Credit: Lydia Fu

I wonder if lemon layer cake is the appropriate flavor for a dead man’s birthday, but who’s really going to tell me otherwise?

Damon and I didn’t know each other long enough to celebrate a birthday together, but I’ve still baked him a triple-layer lemon cake on the last day of September for the past half decade. You’d think that after this long, the measurements would be scrawled across my eyelids or etched somewhere between heart and my hands, but at my age memory is a matter of give-and-take. There’s no telling what part of Damon I’d lose in order to vacate a recipe’s worth of mental real estate.

I squeeze the lemons with a tenderness that I rarely show myself—let alone anyone else—these days, stir the bone-white batter to the rhythm of my final words to Damon: “Cheat, but no mistress.” I recite the words till they ring like a prayer, then till they knock hollow, and then a few more times for good measure.

The wedge of cake I deem presentable sweats beneath a tent of plastic wrap as the 77 bus rips eastward through the guts of our old—still my—neighborhood. Past the bar where we traded clammy handshakes, tall tales, and half-truths, then a couple key bumps. A rolling stop within eyeshot of the record store where we hawked half our combined collection to pay the Peoples bill during the Polar Vortex or Snowpocalypse or whatever the world decided to name that year of three-dog nights. Toward the taqueria where we inhaled tortas ahogadas so fast that the ruddy red sauce ricocheted onto my $14 Village Discount wedding dress, but it barely mattered because we were legally obligated to clean up each other’s messes.

When I amble up to the last square foot of the world worthy of Damon’s memory, I’m not alone. A woman swaddled in a camel trench coat stands just beyond my stake of the shoreline and meets meets my gaze. The guilt that cloaks her face is as plain as the contours of her wind-bitten cheeks, the teary glint in her eyes. I need not ask her name; her face answers every question I was about to ask the waves beneath me.

I peel the wrapping off the cake and present it to the horizon like a child begging for Communion. I toss the slice, porcelain plate and all, into the swell. The waves swallow it whole, barely leaving a wrinkle across the bruise-­colored waters.

I wait to hear the name that colored Damon’s final breath. I wait for the sea to bring me something, anything in return.   v