All The Birthday Wishes – By Eve Dineva

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Pic by Steve Johnson

 

 

 

“I can’t. “ 

“Why not?”

“I just can’t.“

“You don’t have an excuse this time.” 

“I do.”

“And what kind of made-up story might that be today?” 

“I …”

“No, no, “ her voice is raised and that signals she’s done with my bullshit. We’ve been on the phone for a while. We spoke the other day too.  “Let me guess, ” she says, “You have to go to the doctor again.“

There’s a sharp, sudden and cutting silence that lands between us. Elaine says I should be patient. She also says that this isn’t easy for them either. That it’s a two-sided thing – a process or whatever.  

“I’m sorry, “ my sister whispers as I rub my forehead, “I didn’t mean to…” 

“It’s okay.”

“It isn’t, I am just really…”

“I don’t want to go, that’s all.” 

My admission is followed by a quiet snort from the other side of the line. Also – relief. My sister expected me to get upset with the remark. 

“But you can’t say no, not this time, “ she goes on, “Besides, it’s going to be…”

“If you use the word fun, I’m hanging up.”

“Mooom! “

My niece is shouting from god knows where, because the world is ending and their mother is the only one who can save everyone from the apocalypse happening by bringing justice. 

“Jesse keeps pulling Pinky by the nose!”

“I do not!” 

“Liar!”

“I didn’t do anything, I…” my niece keeps yelling “It’s her fault!” 

“Shhh, both of you. I’m talking to aunt Nessa.”

There’s another instant silence that follows at the mention of my name. Two hushed voices, a few “okay, sorry, mom“ from the girls and my sister is back on the line. 

“Sorry, what was I saying?” 

“We were just hanging up. “

“Stop it. “

She sounds exhausted. I mutter something that’s supposed to be witty, but it isn’t when there’s a crash, a broken glass hitting the tile floor and my sister decides. 

“I’m going to kill them both.”

“What the hell is going on there?” 

I glance around the room, searching for my cigarettes. Being an onlooker of the mess two five-year-olds, two dogs and a cat make has always been more amusing when you are exactly just that- a passive onlooker. 

“Don’t try and distract me, the entire kindergarten army wouldn’t be enough to make me forget why I called.”

“I wasn’t trying to.”

I light my cigarette and walk over to the table, where my glass should be.  

After a long sip, followed by drag I can’t miss the change, the transition that’s happened in the span of a few seconds. My sister’s tone has progressed to serious, likely formal. She’s no longer asking if I’m going, the plan’s already been made and she is laying it out. 

“Frank is coming to pick you up on Friday. Eight-thirty. I’ve already got the present, I only need you to write something on the card. Something nice, please. Yes, it’s going to be fun. And you need to meet other people besides the shop assistants at 7/11. Oh, by the way- did you fix the water tap?” 

“The what?”

“The tap? In the kitchen?” 

“The… ohhh, yeah. Right.”  I take another drag from my cigarette, stealing some time so I can think of a plausible excuse.  “Right.”

What I have to do is sound like I’ve already done it- everything’s fixed, this is just one of the million things I’ve finished doing in the past few weeks, and it kind of slipped my mind when exactly that was.

“Ness, don’t tell me you haven’t called the plumber yet.”

“I forgot.”

“You forgot? It’s been over…”

“Okay, okay! Jesus, I’ll do it. Tomorrow, yeah?”

“Do you want me to ask Frank to…”

“No, I got this, thanks. I’ll do it, I swear.”

 She is quiet, the kids on the other side, the cats, the dogs, and the entire house has fallen silent, as if they all gave up on arguing with me. 

“Fine. “ she says eventually, “But tomorrow, for sure?”

“Yes. And I’m not going to the gathering.”

“Vanessa!”

“Besides, I have nothing to wear.” 

Using clothes as an excuse is the last resort I have left. 

“I’ll lend you a… Claire, take that out of your mouth immediately!”

More crashes, the sound of a rubber puppy being stepped on, and my sister says she needs to go, issuing the verdict :

“I’ll see you on Friday,”

“Of course. Say hi to Frank”. She’s already hung up on me. I lean against the wall behind me and finish what’s left in the glass. 

“I’m not coming. And I’m especially not going on that day. I have more important things to do. Besides, your stupid dress won’t fit me anymore.”

The dead line and the space around don’t argue and I lower the phone. A few more cigarettes and a couple of drinks later it’s time to call the cable guys and tell them about the WiFi signal, or rather –  the lack of it. 

***

I’m waiting for Frank to come to pick me up. I’m stuck in a glittering dress that I was convinced was my size, but it turned out the waist was a bit more narrow than I thought. 

“It’s the model, dear.  Yes, if you want another one, it’ll arrive in a couple of days. No, I’m not sure if those are two days indeed, but that’s how it normally takes, give or take. No, you should have ordered a custom one beforehand.” a dramatic pause. Silence.  “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” 

I love the compassionate tone once they hear what kind of adjustments the tailors need to make, so I decide to be a big girl and wear whatever I have. Either way, except for the salami dress, and the tights sliding down my legs as I walk, everything else is fine. It’s borderline pleasant. 

Frank’s the kind of man who decided they wanted a family when they were 19. I wasn’t aware those existed before my sister introduced him to us and everyone loved him. During the ride, he talks about his job, the Sunday fishing trips with his best friend, and the bigger house they’re moving to because of the baby. 

“My sister is pregnant!?”

I jump out of my seat. Frank glances briefly at me before he glues his eyes back to the road ahead. 

“Uh..” he shifts uncomfortably on his seat. 

“I thought she’d already told you.” His hands close around the steering wheel until his knuckles turn white. 

“Or she might have wanted to tell you tonight in person. I’m sorry, I spoiled it.”

I lean back in my seat and look through the window. 

“No worries.”

The rest of the ride is spent in awkward talks about the news and the weather. After my sister apologizes an excruciating number of times over the phone for not being able to come to pick me up, it’s the morning sickness, and ‘I swear I was going to tell you”, we get to their place. 

 

My sister is dazzling. She smiles at everyone, accepting greetings and compliments on how great the lasagna is, on how beautiful she looks, beaming at questions such as: “do you know if it’s a boy or girl already?”, “Have you thought of names,” etc.  

As I stand there and listen to all of them, the creeping thought that everyone except me knew about the baby transforms from suspicion into a confirmed fact. The talks move from pregnancy inquiries and advice to how well Frank is doing at work. I guess the last part is something the wife should get complimented on as well. I smile, nodding my head in agreement to whatever praise they give the young family for their success. I greet everyone, and I even play with the kids – some of them, because the others annoy the hell out of me. After a while, and a few glasses of wine, snuck out of the kitchen away from the watchful eyes of my relatives, I’m starting to think my younger sister might have been right and this isn’t so bad. I honestly laugh at some of the jokes the birthday man shares. Uncle Ben’s your typical old guy who acts like he’s still thirty when he’s way past retirement age. 

Some of my sister’s friends ask where I got the dress from, and I lie it’s a brand one. What’s new is not that I lie, but that the compliment doesn’t make me feel bad, or as if they are making fun of me. Elaine says acceptance takes a while and I shouldn’t force myself into thinking about “before” and things like “feeling normal” and “being back to myself.”  

Finishing the wine I decide the no-smoking rule has expired. I head out to the balcony hoping I wouldn’t stumble upon someone from the family, or someone who knows me too well and that would mean I’ll need to listen to everything they have to say to me. And they have a lot to say, I’m pretty sure, especially after last time.

It’s my lucky night, and I take advantage of the privacy. After another shot from the small bottle I have in my bag and I light a cigarette. 

My blissful solitude is short-lived as footsteps approach, and before I manage to put out the cigarette and hide it in my pocket while thinking of excuses for my sister, a man comes to stand by me and offers another cigarette. 

The man’s name is Timothee, and he happens to like Beckett as much as I do. He stays here until we finish the bottle I’ve snuck out and until we begin discussing stealing another one from the kitchen. He suggests we go somewhere else. I consider saying no, the way I would normally, but the whisky, and the prospect of staying here longer to listen to more of uncle Ben’s jokes, plant the words 

“Let’s go,” in my mouth before I thought better. Timothee says the expected goodbyes to the hosts and promises to meet me outside as I head towards the front door. 

And everything would have been great I swear to god- if right before I left and headed towards the cab, aunt Marie hadn’t caught up with me. I wouldn’t have regretted this whole thing if she hadn’t run her palm over my shoulder apologetically, and what was worse – if all the pity in the world hadn’t been woven in her grandmotherly voice when she asked : 

“Hey, Nessy. Are you holding on, honey?” 

 

***

 

“Do you have any pets?”

Timothee closes the door behind himself and makes a confused face in the dimly lit hallway. 

“No, why?”

“Nothing, just…”

“Oh… it’s …I was making a lasagna earlier and I burned it, that must be where the smell is coming from, sorry.” 

He rubs his nose and I rush towards the kitchen. 

“Let me open the window, it should go away quickly.” 

“So how do you know Frank?”

I ask after we’ve settled comfortably on the couch in my living room and the hands of the clock suggest more time than I realized has passed. 

“We’re colleagues, we occasionally go fishing together. “ Timothee says simply.

“No way!”

I snort above the rim of my glass and our eyes meet. 

“What’s so funny?“

“He told me about you on our way to the gathering.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, and I imagined you’d be some stuck-up engineer like the rest of his teammates. “

“What makes you think I’m not?”

 He is flirting and I look away. Timothee leans slightly in. 

“And how do you know Frank?” 

“He’s married to my sister.”

Silence. I’ve learnt it signals something’s wrong. Always. I’ve also learnt there are different kinds of quiet. There’s the quiet when you’re alone in your home, hiding. This quiet tends to get uncontrollably loud at some point, but it’s just you against your mind. Elaine says it’s the scariest at first but that I’ll also learn to deal with it. 

There’s the silence on an autumn Tuesday afternoon, right before the sky turns grey with the approaching rain. It’s when everyone starts planning the fastest way to get home from work avoiding the storm and you haven’t been out of bed in days.

And then there’s this silence- it’s the one where you’re making the others feel uncomfortable because of something you are, something you did and they don’t know what to say. It’s the silence of people tip-toeing around you, not telling you things because they might upset you doing so, or it’s their fear they already said something that will make you unstable again. It is the silence of my colleagues when I told them I was taking a leave. This was my quiet when the whole family gathered and said they suspected I was abusing my prescription medicine.  It’s my sister’s and Frank’s silence. Now that’s Timothee’s silence too. 

I hate silence. I clench my fist around the glass harder, because I see it- it’s dawning on him. 

“Oh, you are …”

“Yes. I’m Vanessa.” 

Timothee sits straight up. The glass makes a wet flop as he plants it on the table and then he shifts to rest his elbows on his knees. 

“I’m… I don’t know what people are supposed to say in those situations. “

I don’t know how much he knows, but assuming Frank and him share a day of the weekend often, I’m assuming he knows at least the basics, and that alone has most people walking away. 

“Most people say they say they’re sorry, “ I shrug, “As if it’s their fault.”

“And what do you tell them?”

“That I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Because?”

I know the answer, I always find ways and excuses not to answer, to say something positive, because that’s what we’re all expected to say, right? We’re supposed to be positive and grateful. We have to celebrate life and stick with all that nonsense we trick ourselves into believing during the group sessions. 

“It makes people feel uncomfortable.”

His face is an unreadable mask at my words, or it might be one of indifference – nevertheless, it’s surprising. It’s new, and he is still here. 

“I’m sorry,” I mutter as I fumble with my glass. 

His bright green eyes are everything that fills my vision and I pause, startled. 

“I’m not uncomfortable. Are you?”

He shifts a seat closer and put his palm on my knee very carefully. 

“No.”

Timothee’s hand begins moving up until it reaches my waistline, then it goes further up to where he reaches the top button of my dress front. I’m sure he can feel something’s not like it should be, something’s different from other women’s breasts he’s touched. I only hope he doesn’t sense that the more his palm travels up, the more I am fighting the unbearable need to crawl out of my skin. His fingers open the top of the dress and he looks down at my chest front. Timothee freezes. I guess knowing about something is one thing, seeing it right before you is different. 

“I need to go to the restroom.”

I blurt and he nods.  

“I’ll be right back,”

I wobble and stumble towards the door, muttering something between excuses and curses until I finally get there. The bottom of my tights has reached somewhere a little above my knees, and I peel them off.  After I take my first actual breath, the one that fills my lungs and stomach and doesn’t make me feel like I’m stretching the fabric like a helium balloon, I wonder if it would be too weird if I tell him about my friend who works at the theatre, that she could find some better seats, and perhaps we could go watch something there. I flush and proceed to wash my hands. The water’s so hot, it burns my skin, but I don’t have the unbearable need to keep my hands under the stream longer, to make myself endure it, because I’m trying to put my mind elsewhere. A glance in the mirror in front of me is enough to give me the confidence I don’t look that bad. It’s one of the good days, maybe that’s why I decide perhaps he understands, perhaps he’d like to stay and see that stupid play with me. My hand moves on its own, and I run it over my heart. It is beating directly underneath my palm, it’s because of all the flesh that’s missing from where it once was. 

I push the tap and pause right before opening the door. 

“Okay, it’s not like you’ve never done this before.”

I press the handle and take a step- it’s like I’m walking directly into the open fire, even though I’ve spent the last five minutes in there telling myself how awesome I am.

“I was wondering if…”

There’s no need to finish the sentence because there’s no one to hear it. 

My eyes land on the half-empty whisky glass on the table and the wrinkled mattress where he was sitting only a minute ago. 

***

“I already tried restarting it, and just like the other seventeen times I did it, nothing happened. Why don’t…”

“Miss, I’ll ask you to switch off the….”

“I already did that. How many times do I need to say it? I. Did. Everything I could, and it’s still not working. It’s why I’m calling. You need to send someone to fix it, or I don’t know. It will save us all those horrible talks I’m having with you every day. “

The outburst is met by a short pause, and I am halfway there to raise my voice again when there’s some clicking and noise on the other side of the line and the tech support guy I am talking to says yes, they’ll send someone. 

After a dozen calls, numerous emails and messages, and minutes I’ve been put on hold while listening to the numbing music they play while reciting the menu, I get through and arrange a visit by a technician. The bigger accomplishment- he does come. The tech guy makes a face he doesn’t try to conceal when he comes in.  He is one of those middle-aged guys who has a judging face for everything. 

“I was travelling,”

I don’t attempt to do something about the terrible mess and take him to the living room where he groans at the bigger mess of old cables, tied in an impossible knot. 

His look says, “I’m always given the worst jobs,” and he points at the table behind me. 

“I’ll need some space, can you move that a bit?”

“The table?”

“The whisky glass.” 

No emotion in his voice, not even judgment. 

“Uhh, yeah. Yeah, of course.” 

I lift the glass and smile. 

“It’s not like he’ll come back to finish it, right?”

The joke doesn’t land. On the contrary, the exchange rapidly turns into something else. It turns into silence. I no longer try to laugh and the quiet starts growing bigger, threatening to devour me.  

The tech guy puts a bag with instruments on the table and turns his back on me, completely ignoring me.


 

About the Author

Eve Dineva, from Bulgaria,  is a a bi-lingual author of short stories and novels. She has won a number of contemporary fiction contests held in her country and is currently working on a new anthology of short stories. Her poems have appeared in Asian Cha : Literary Journal, Ethel, Gulmohur and others.