Birthday Cake

When she had his company, Jo never wanted it, though he was a perfectly wonderful man.  He caught her not listening all the time and the look in his eyes made her feel like the worst kind of ass.  She’d double down, shutting away that inner landscape into which she so easily drifted, and pinch off an awkward apology.

She never wanted to be entirely alone, night on night; nor could she have imagined before the divorce the ice age of dawns, one on another, that came to gray her empty mornings.  In wanting solitude, she had simply imagined car rides with no date to keep; an afternoon of nosing through junk shops before sliding onto a diner stool at twilight for supper.  There would be no bolting her food to keep up, no conversation to keep or jokes to find the humor in.

He called her a year ago from a payphone in Washington.  It was muggy out at their place, but in the city it was cold and rainy.  His car had broken down again.  In the way that small calamities speak for big, terrible problems that go unheard, the busted car was the beginning of their end.  As she sat on the sofa, the phone to her ear, a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray on her lap, he unleashed a newlywed’s year of unhappiness. The commute was too much for him.  His work buddies were still sipping dripping wet cocktails while he was inching through traffic toward the dull outpost of their country life.  And he hated that the house needed more work than they had the time to tend.  At last he choked out the dreadful, truest thing: he hated that she didn’t really seem to want him there.  Jo remembered she’d been drifting away again; that brought her back around like a slap on the face.

“What was that?”

Over the extension she heard the rain on the concrete.  He said, “Seems like that to me.”

“I know,” she said.

There was a brief silence. “I’ll be honest, Jo. I’m scared.”

For a moment she wished they had a second car so she could go to him, but another part of her imagined the chilly ride back, the two of them huddled in the interior, trying to knit what they’d unraveled.  A chill tracked her spine as she pounded out her cigarette.  She felt a dreadful remorse, a pity for the two of them as heavy as the dead.  Staring into the shadows of the hall, she said, “Maybe I can borrow Becky’s car.  I could get there in an hour or so.”

“No,” he said.  “Don’t do that. I’ll stay with Mike.  He said I could use the sofa.”

Jo nodded.

“Maybe I’m just tired.  Look, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

They decided with little drama to drop the whole thing about two weeks later.  With no bickering to gum up the works, the paperwork resolved itself quickly.  He moved in with an old college buddy and she took back her maiden name.  The curious thing about their one year marriage was that it had carved contours in her life that seemed shallow but were hard to fill. The house was small, but its loneliness was as vast as caverns. When Christmas time came, she put up a tree so her sister would bring over the kids.  In taking out the decorations, she was struck with fresh, unexpected waves of despair.

It shook her enough to call her friend Becky.  They split a bottle of bourbon on her porch, a not so cold December Friday night, and Becky was good company.  “Well, you said you didn’t love him, but I bet you did just a little bit.  Maybe like a pet.”

That made Jo cry fresh tears even as she laughed.  Becky watched her for a moment with what counted as a shrug in her eyes.  “Look, I guess I just don’t think it’s that surprising you miss him at Christmas.  I miss my dad at Christmas and that was the meanest son of a bitch I ever knew.  Any other time of year, I could spit on his grave.  That’s why it’s such a shit holiday.”

“So what do I do?”

“You go in there and finish decorating that tree – I’ll help – and you get your family over and you just do Christmas.  What do you want, a blueprint? You never had to fake your way through a party before?”

In her own callow way, Becky got Jo through the holidays.  And once the tree came down, things seemed a little better again.  In January she watched Reagan’s inauguration on the television, while a girlfriend from the office worked blond dye into her hair. Seeing the color in the mirror, she lit a cigarette and said, “No. Let’s take it back.”

Her girlfriend talked her into letting it alone for a while.  That week a guy in the front office asked her out.  On Friday he took her to dinner and then over the state line for drinks and dancing.  It was a honky-tonk place and she hated the music, but the beers kept coming and he was a funny kind of guy, so she decided she was going to let the night cheer her up.  Somehow they got back to her place without wrecking the car.  He was so drunk he passed out on her couch.  She made him breakfast the next morning, but by then she didn’t find him that funny anymore.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?” he asked.

She looked up and saw a bit of egg stuck to the corner of his mouth.  For a moment, she poised to make an excuse, to spare his feelings.  Instead she shrugged. “No, I wasn’t.”

Her girlfriend at work told her on Monday that her date was going around saying she gave him a blow job on the way home from the roadhouse. She laughed until her stomach hurt.  The other woman looked at her like she was mad.  On the ride home she cried about it a little because it pissed her off: the lie he told, how quickly it got back to her.  That night, she bought a box of Clairol and took her hair back to brown.

At the end of March they were filling out quarterly reports when someone called and said they should turn on the radio. The president had been shot.  The whole staff gathered around the unit in the lobby and listened to the updates coming in.  When she got home, she sat in the kitchen and smoked while the oven heated up a frozen dinner.  As the house filled with the smell of salisbury steak, she wondered what the first lady might be doing.  It was hard to imagine her in a hospital room, all that coiffed perfection amid bedpans and bloody bandages.  It was easier to imagine her on a platform somewhere, a hair lollipop in a bright red wrapper.

Maybe old Nancy hadn’t gone to the hospital.  Maybe she was sitting in her room at the White House with a fox pelt around her shoulders, listening to reports come in from a little army of efficient secretaries.  Jo wondered if the president’s wife ever found herself drifting away during dinnertime chatter.  Ronny might reproach her in his ash and brown sugar voice.  She’d crank that shiny little smile, murmuring, “So then what did Khomeini say?”

He would look hurt.  “I wasn’t talking about that, Mommy.”

In April her birthday came and she said good-bye to her twenties over a coconut cake her sister made.  It was a little dry, but they washed it down with a sweet white wine from Kroger.  She woke up the next morning with a dry headache and remembered too late it was a work day.  Making the necessary apologies on the phone, she hopped in the shower and was heading across town ten minutes later.  Her hair wasn’t yet dry in back.  She pulled into the parking lot outside the office and then she sat in the car, staring at the light bouncing off all the windshields.  It was a bright, brisk, blinding morning.  A rain that came in the night had washed the new leaves clean.  It was a day that wanted nothing to do with nylons and bra straps.

She thought of the pink and white streamers her sister had taped up all over the little back porch last night, still twirling in the breeze today.  There was a big wedge of cake in the refrigerator.  She tried to remember if Alan had ever come to get his wind chimes out of the trees in the yard.  Thinking about their silver music made a sad lump press her throat.  Still, she wanted to know if they were hanging there, jangling, and she wanted more cake and to loll under the streamers, blissfully alone. Something was returning to her and she didn’t plan to miss its arrival.  She laughed like a fool all the way home and she never looked back.

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