FIVE THINGS SHE DID ON HER BIRTHDAY
On the evening of her twenty-first birthday she attends English conversation class. A small group. Two guys in their thirties, non-descript. A middle aged Chinese couple. The teacher, for whom she has fallen head over heels. Another girl, a bit older, the teacher clearly plans to get intimate with. Tonight.
She has known the very minute she’s passed the front door. You catch these things by radar, at twenty-one, especially when directly involved.
There’s a bottle of lemon vodka on the coffee table. She has her eyes on it, but she refrains momentarily.
The class starts. None of the students, her included, is in very good shape. They are slow, they stutter, they blank. The teacher—a bright guy, on the brisk side—has to feed them each and every word. They are reviewing body parts. “How do you call this?” he asks, brushing her forearm with an awkward, quick caress. She knows what he means—la piel, la pelle, la peau. It is on the tip of her tongue. She so wants to please him. She tries. “Sky,” she whispers. Almost… Irritated, frustrated, he turns the other way.
This is when she grabs the bottle, unscrews the tin cap, and down goes the whole damn thing.
She awakes kind of late the day after, wrapped in a thick bathrobe. He has brought her a cup of coffee. She needs it. He is relaxed and smiling. No kidding: the other girl is still lingering in the kitchen. They are still pecking and flirting. Love birds.
Her dress is almost dry, hanging on the balcony in the morning sun. A long tunic, with a small embroidery, white. They have thoroughly washed it yesterday night. They have washed her too, sticking her stark naked in the bathtub, since she has vomited all over herself. She remembers nothing. Her dress slightly damp on her sky—her skin—is refreshing.
Thank you. I mean I am sorry. Goodbye.
Since, she can’t stand the smell of lemon vodka. Alcohol should be drunk unflavored. Pure.
She is still trying to learn English. Another small group in another area of town. She has fallen head over heels for a fellow student. A bit older, bit weird, plenty mysterious.
Things were kind of evolving between them. Meaning they had exchanged phone numbers and such. Things were getting promising for the last few months—until he briskly vanished. Once a week she has sat at her desk and spied for the sound of his car, persuaded she could recognize it. She’d know when it would turn the corner, park at the curb. Then she only should wait for the door to be pushed open, and his lanky frame to appear. Every passing car made her ears bleed. Every passing car scorched her nerves, ripping her apart.
On the night of her twenty-second birthday he comes back. He sits by her and sighs, “I’ll bring you out to dinner”. She holds her breath momentarily.
He has picked a downtown joint, small and trendy. In a daze, she has no idea of what they are eating or drinking. A North African transsexual singer, just a couple of feet from their table, grabs all of her attention. Short and bold, not-too-thin, but gorgeous. And the way he sings in French, “Plaisir d’amour, ne dure qu’un instant”—whatever it means—is just mesmerizing.
He was sent on a job, he says, that’s why he has missed class. Very well paid for once. Should he buy something special before squandering the unexpected sum? He’ll do whatever she says. Seriously? She tries focusing, but the singer makes her mind wander. She tries harder. “A motorcycle,” she spits, suddenly inspired. She details brand and model, she can almost see him ride. What about her? Not sure. “Chagrin d’amour,” goes the song.
He was sent to India, in fact. He has brought back a stone for her birthday. Here it is, surrounded with soft cotton, in a real jewel box—a pink amethyst.
Early the morning after she goes belly button piercing. She’s bringing along her gold chain—the one from her First Communion—to be melted in order to mount the stone. Can’t afford it otherwise, but the chain will do. She will wear the pink thing from now to eternity, or close. “Dure toute la vie,” wailed the singer. Is it how the song ends?
Then he never returns to class. She keeps her ears tuned, in vain.
Once, while waiting in front of a theater with friends, she sees him arrive with fracas on a sparkling bike—the correct one. A girl is behind him. They don’t look much in love. They look totally, boringly for-ever-matched. They look married.
She has moved abroad. After a short breather, she has fallen head over heels for a guy she’s met on a typing job. Right. She is typing a super-boring book a writer needs on the spot. Please, please, please, can’t wait. Hunched over the keyboard, she sweats, when a guest comes in and starts fooling with her. Around her. Behind her. Making funny faces—awkward way to break the ice. It breaks anyway. He insists for the writer to keep the typist for dinner. They exchange information. She can think of nothing else since.
She invites him at her birthday party. A small gathering—besides him and herself a selected girlfriend, just in case. The two of them are a bit older than she his. And way smarter, and perfectly tuned. Thus the conversation shine, which is good, because he is having fun.
Too much fun? They slouch on her bed—a large mattress on the floor. They are talking psychoanalysis, dreams, and so on. “Have you fantasized to have sex with two guys at once? How often?” he asks. “With two girls?” her friend promptly replies. “Have you ever dreamed,” her girlfriend insists, “you had two penises instead than one?” He laughs, splitting index and middle finger like a viper tongue—his hands casually reaching behind this and that waist, to the right, to the left.
She wonders if she should call it a night.
She has moved abroad again and again. In her country of last destination, she has serendipitously met her first English teacher. They have made a beautiful child, then they have separated.
On the night of her fiftieth birthday she has got a good gig. She will sing French love songs at someone’s birthday party. This is what she does best. She has left her son and her umpteenth boyfriend at home. They will have fun together. More than they would with her.
Outside it rains cats and dogs. The address points to a residential area of town, up the hills. Tortuous little routes deepen out of sight, concealed, remote. In the fog she only can see a couple of feet ahead. Everything feels unreal, but instead of being scared she’s exhilarated.
The gig goes impeccably. No one bothers her while she does her thing in a corner, niched between an aquarium and a flower display. Smoothed in, part of the furniture, enclosed in her bubble.
Later, someone comes to pay a compliment. Her performance was perfect. Discrete, neutral, unobtrusive, tinged with just that drop of nostalgia. The organizer is pleased. He smiles while he puts the check in her hand. “It’s my birthday,” she cannot help whispering, but he’s gone already. She cries suddenly, without a reason, her face buried in the scores she’s packing away.
When she gets home, they are sleeping.
They have chosen today for her first communion. Are they trying to spare themselves a celebration? Save on dessert?
She has been waiting. A bit scared, bit perplexed. She has never worn a long, white, embroidered dress before—not even for Carnival. It’s a strange, eerie feeling. Not so sure about the bonnet, hemmed with curly ribbons, tightly framing her face. Whatever Mom wants.
It’s a cold gloomy day. They have driven uphill to a small chapel. Proto-Christian, Dad says. Spare, severe. Naked. She kneels in the first pew. Family is bunched behind her. No one else.
The priest talks in Latin. She knows what about, but she doesn’t quite understand. She feels dizzy—something is squeezing her throat, oppressing her chest—the smell of incense perhaps. Or the scent of the narcissi she’s holding. So pungent. So pure, porcelain white, almost fake. Sculpted. Petrified. Dead, almost.
When they step out, downtown looks alive, brimming with entertainment. Vendor booths crowd the plazas and the riverbanks, stores are open and lit, tourists everywhere.
“And your favorite flowers?” he asks. She’s unsure. Until she remembers: “Narcissi. Isn’t that smell incredible?”
He laughs. “They will be hard to find, girl. We’ll try.”
“They are in season.”
“That’s true. With a little luck.”
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Peacock Journal, Sein und Werden, Avis, and Ink on Thirds, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html