Birthday

Creative Nonfiction
Angela Marie Graziano


It was her eighteenth birthday, and earlier in the night friends had given her a small party of cheap beer and cupcakes. She liked the cupcakes, liked to dip her finger into the frosting and lick it off. They were strawberry with small, colored confections mixed into the batter. But she was sad, although she tried not to show it. She knew the passing of another year did not promise the change she hoped for.

Jim had given her a gold ankle bracelet earlier in the evening. He had pulled her aside, away from the cupcakes, into a dark bedroom of the apartment. He handed her the small box and she unwrapped it carefully. She tried to appear excited when she glimpsed the gift, but she was not. A few days earlier, one of his friends told her that Jim did not pick it out, that it was secondhand, something Jim’s mother had once worn and was planning on throwing away. But she allowed him to hook it around her ankle and admire for a moment how it looked against her skin.

She did not like gold. She had made a point to tell this to Jim. She told him that it reminded her of cheap women, of whores. But Jim had not been listening and so he presented the gift to her with pride.

When Jim had asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday, she said that she thought it might be romantic to drive to the beach. She had always loved to sit on the sand in the evenings and listen to the tide. She had told him that an artist she admired was speaking at a gallery and that maybe the two of them could dress nicely and go listen. She said that she would be satisfied if they stayed in and ordered take-out, that they could eat it right from the box. But none of those things happened. Instead, Jim took her into the city, to one of his friend’s apartments, where everyone was high on drugs, a few already passed out when they arrived.

Once Jim clasped the bracelet on her, she stepped into the living room, dipped her cigarette into one of the many tiny glass jars, and sucked the formaldehyde mixture into her lungs. After a few drags, she passed out on a sofa, a loud buzz resonating in both ears.

When she woke, she noticed that someone had stolen the bracelet from her ankle. She didn’t like the thing to begin with, but felt violated that someone had slipped it off while her eyes had been closed.

She stood and began to flip the worn couch cushions over, hoping to find the gift, but it was not there. “Did somebody take my bracelet?” she asked, turning to face the few bodies that were in the room. Nobody answered. Two men walked into the kitchen. A young girl, about her age, continued to inhale drugs. Jim laughed out loud.

In the kitchen, she took another cupcake from the counter, peeled the paper cup from its sides. She looked down and noticed how much weight she’d lost, her pants hanging low, hipbones protruding. Her body was not healthy and she felt bad about it. Mostly, she was happy her parents could not see her. Even in the wake of their family falling apart, they would have been disappointed that she hadn’t been able to hold it together.

Jim walked into the kitchen, still laughing, while his eyes shifted this way and that. He wrapped his lanky arms around her, and rested his hands on top of her behind. Weight had also been melting off him and she could feel their hip bones touch as he pulled himself closer to her.

“Did you like my cupcakes?” Jim asked. She knew that he had not baked them nor had he picked out the mix and she wondered why he referred to them as his own.

“Yes,” she said shortly. “Doesn’t it bother you that my bracelet is gone?” she said, half hoping Jim would admit he didn’t even pay for the thing.

“You’re just freaking out,” he said. “It’ll show up, baby.”

She hated when he called her baby. Even though they were roughly the same age, it made her feel as though he were a pedophile using that word. It would echo in her ears long after he said it. Baby. Baby. She wanted to tell him. Wanted to scream that she could not stand the sound of the word, but never did. She thought she should be satisfied that someone wanted to call her baby at all.

In the other room, her phone rang. She pulled away from Jim’s grip, fumbled through candy wrappers and tampons inside her purse, and flipped the phone open against her ear.

“Are you enjoying your night?” her mother asked, before even saying hello.

“Hi Mommy. Yes, yes, I’m enjoying my night.”

“Did Jimmy do anything special for your big day?”

She knew she could not admit the truth. It killed her, lying to her mother, though she knew it would hurt far less than the knowledge of what had really been going on.

“Yeah. Jimmy took me to a great Asian restaurant downtown.”

“Oh, you love Asian,” her mother said, pleased someone was making her daughter happy.

“And then we walked for a while and got ice cream. Chocolate-dipped cones. I think tomorrow we’ll try to make it to the beach for a swim.”

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying your day. I miss you, sweetie. And so does Dad. You know that all of this is going to blow over real soon, don’t you?”

“Yes Mommy, don’t worry about it. I’m fine, really I am, okay?” she tried to reassure her. “Listen, I’ve got to run. I think Jimmy has another surprise up his sleeve. I promise to call you in the morning though. Goodnight. I love you both,” she said and quickly shut her phone.

Neither of her parents had ever met Jim and she had no real intention of ever letting them. She knew they would be disappointed when they saw him. Jim was the sort of boy who just looked like he had a whole lot of issues, even before he opened his mouth. Instead, it seemed best to create an image of him. The sort of image that would make her parents smile, allow them both to rest easy at night. The sort of image that she, herself, had hoped for.

Outside the window sirens flashed blue and red, their sound slicing through the night air. She thought of her parents, about how she missed them, how she missed home. There was a time when things seemed easier. A time when her parents loved one another. But that seemed like only a memory, more like somebody else’s memory, from a time she hardly recalled.

“Does anyone have a smoke?” she asked, crumpling her empty pack. An unfamiliar girl handed one to her without saying a word. “Thanks, I’ll be back,” she said, and headed for the door, but no one responded. They wouldn’t notice if I left and never returned, she thought.

The air was still warm, laced with sulfur as it rose from the subway grates. Her home was in the suburbs and she was still not accustomed to the scent so common in the city. Across the street, a group of men stood on a corner. Their voices carried, and she could hear them shouting obscenities at each other. One of them, who had a hood draped over his head, looked up and noticed her staring.

“What the fuck you looking at girl?” he shouted.

Her shoulders clenched. She hadn’t meant to stare. She lit her cigarette, positioned her back against a railing so it was facing them, and imagined home. The quiet, tree-lined street. The porch, with its lemonade memories. The collages of framed photographs. The familiar voices echoing throughout its nooks. She ground her cigarette out on the concrete. Just a year ago, she and her family sat in their dining room, everyone singing as she blew out the candles on her cake.

Footsteps sounded, a young man walking towards her. His face was skeletal, his clothes too big for his body. He stopped and asked if she had an extra cigarette.

“No, sorry man,” she said and turned for the door. The stranger moved closer, his body heat warm on her back.

“You ain’t from round here, are you?” he asked.

She turned, her face so close to his now that she could smell his breath. “Why?”

The man grabbed the inside of her thigh. “Cause if you were, you’d know it ain’t safe for pretty girls to hang out here alone.” His hand began to creep further up her leg.

She stepped back quickly and pushed him; his fragile body smacked the pavement at the bottom of the steps.

“You better watch yourself girl,” he shouted, trying to pull himself from the ground. “I got my eye on you.”

Her heart pounded as she raced back into to the apartment. The scene inside was the same as when she left. The air was stale with the scent of drugs. Bodies drifted aimlessly from room to room. Jim still sat on the couch, laughing out loud. She thought of telling him what happened outside and sat beside him. Jim turned, kissed her cheek, caressed her leg.

“Happy Birthday,” he whispered, soft and seductive.

For a moment, she thought he sounded sincere. She was touched, and began to stroke her hand across his back. Before she had the chance to say, “Thank you,” Jim stood and left the room.

Happy Birthday, she thought, making her way into the kitchen. The tray of cupcakes still rest on the countertop. She took one and sat at a small breakfast table. Outside, sirens sounded again. She stuck her finger into the frosting and licked it off, slowly, enjoying the taste.

When finished, she moved back into the living room, leaving the paper cup and sprinkled crumbs on the table. For a moment, she paused, leaned back against a wall and watched everyone. They all looked so sickly to her. It made her sad to think that she had become one of them. She wished she were home again, safe inside the walls of that house, inside all those memories.

Jim stood beside her, touched her head and fingered her hair. She knew she did not love him, but found comfort in his touch. She knew no one in that room cared for her in the way she longed to be.

But she stayed anyway and was grateful not to be celebrating alone.

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“I am currently pursuing my MFA through Fairleigh Dickinson University. This will be my first published work.” E-mail: agraziano2777[at]yahoo.com.