Matt blushed a pretty pink colour when Karen set a yellow-frosted cupcake on the desk in front of him and said 'Happy Birthday, boss.' He'd thanked her, taken a polite bite, then moaned at the taste and tore into it with his teeth.
Foggy, leaning against the doorframe, inhaled sharply.
'What's in that?' he asked, his voice high.
'Lemon, basil, chocolate, sugar, butter, flour, salt, baking soda, and eggs,' Matt sighed, as he sucked frosting off his finger.
'Buddy, I've seen you eat cake. I've even seen you eat really good cake. I've,' he cleared his throat, 'never seen you do that.' Matt was leaned forward in his chair, feeding himself small bites with a rapturous expression.
Karen crossed her legs. 'Lemons from a rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn. Basil from my window-box. Swiss chocolate, small-batch flour, and butter that I churned in a jar from New Jersey cream,' she ticked off on her fingers and pointed at the crumbs on the napkin. 'That cupcake has never even been looked at by a preservative.'
'It's amazing'. If Matt had whiskers, he'd be cleaning them and purring. 'Thank you, Karen. But you really shouldn't have gone to all that trouble.'
'I wanted to,' she said simply. 'I like baking more than making other things.'
'Like virtue casserole?' Foggy said innocently, and Karen covered her face with her hand.
'Keep mentioning that, Foggy, and you'll never find out if I can do any better.'
Matt kept licking his lips like he had frosting on them.
'It's not even my birthday, and I feel like I've been given a gift.' Foggy said, slightly dazed. Karen cut him a look, and he gestured at Matt like Your eyes work, you're seeing what I'm seeing. 'Can I have one?' he asked.
'Are you so sensitive that you can taste the music I was playing? No? There's a cupcake place down the street.' Karen teased, and Foggy pouted. Karen reached out and jiggled his elbow. 'Go look on your desk.'
Foggy darted out of Matt's office. A second later he hollered, 'Thank you, Miss Page.' Karen went back to her desk and smiled when Matt laid a hand on her shoulder, thanked her again, and slinked into Foggy's office.
'Hey, get off me. Matt, that's mine!'
'Come on, Foggy. It's my birthday.'
'No, you've already had one.'
'But you won't be able to appreciate it like me. I'll buy you a normal cupcake.'
Karen unwrapped the third of three cupcakes she'd eked out of her exclusive, expensive ingredients and cut it into neat quarters with a fork. Two weeks sourcing lemons and chocolate and flour from all over the city, three evenings fine-tuning the recipe with help from her neighbour, and one Sunday scrubbing the oven with baking soda and vinegar so Matt wouldn't taste burnt food or chemical cleansers.
The boys' bickering wafted over her as she lifted the fork to her lips. Foggy said 'I'm gonna stab you with a fork, birthday boy' and there was a brief scuffle. A second later Matt emerged, gamely pretending he wasn't nibbling yellow frosting off the tip of his tie. Smiling, Karen took a bite and imagined what it would be like to be able to taste like Matt—if alongside the juiciest lemons and the richest chocolate, the most delicious taste to him was what wasn't there. She wondered if time and effort and the lengths you went to for someone else's smile was also something a human being could taste. If someone's care and affection had a flavour.
It had sound, she thought, as Foggy made theatrical dying-of-cake noises in one office and Matt huffed imprecations in another. And it had smell (weak coffee, pen ink, Josie's rotgut whiskey clinging to the lining of Foggy's suit jacket), and it was there in the way the sunlight slanted through their dirty office windows. Maybe tasting it was just a matter of practice, and Karen's grandmother left her a whole cookbook. The boys would pick up on it eventually. She took another bite. Probably.