Birthday Girl

by Robert Aquino Dollesin

He cannot focus on the television. Bursts of images and flashes of color only serve to illuminate the plate on the coffee table in front of him. There sits her wedge of uneaten cake, a slice of chocolate, one letter of her name ribboned in red glaze. Her fork sprouts up from a scarred yellow flower like a lilting weed. On the plate beside the cake is a shallow puddle of what earlier in the day had been a firm scoop of vanilla ice cream, her favorite. Now, crumbs of chocolate float on puddle's creamy surface.

He shuts his eyes. In the colors that dance against his eyelids, he pictures her coming out of the hotel room.

How often during these last hours had he cursed himself for not having had more restraint? Too often; and now he curses himself again.

Her birthday only comes along once a year. They did not share this special day the previous year. In fact, during eleven years of marriage he can clearly recall two heartbreaking occasions in which she celebrated her birthday with another man.

She should have hurled the plate of cake and ice cream. It would have jerked him into the reality of where these arguments always lead, into the reality he finds himself in now, into a reality he still doesn't know if he should accept. The only thing he is certain of is that if it were him, he would have flung the plate.

Pushing himself up from the sofa, he clicks the remote, shutting off the television. The gray of dusk seeps into the living room through the thin yellow curtains. In this dim quiet he stares at the curved legs of the coffee table, listening. The rain has stopped, but the wind continues its violent whip. Gust after lashing gust thrashes the broad-leafed banana trees planted near the windows, throwing their soft flesh and torn leaves against the glass.

He starts for the door, feeling the cold floor shudder beneath his feet with each labored step.

Having been conditioned to hide his feelings and hold back his words, he wishes now he hadn't reacted so impulsively. But he was hurt. And this afternoon, her insensitive actions had been too much.

The phone had rung, and when she picked it up she began a conversation with one of her ex-lovers. He sat slowly chewing his cake while his ears burned. He could not believe she couldn't just slam the receiver down into its cradle. All her promises and tears and begging. For what?

Having been there the moment they emerged from the hotel room together, having watched her fish for explanations, and then, after she'd been unable to find a convincing one, having watched her climb into her ex-lover's car so that he could drive her home—well, until this afternoon none of that mattered anymore. The latest of her affairs was months behind them, old news, forgotten like all her other lovers.

The new life they'd promised to share, their fresh and faithful and forgiving life, was progressing fruitfully. That's what he'd convinced himself every time the image of her and her lovers would materialize inside his head. Through tears, she'd explained to him that after having been swept away this last time for nearly a year, she'd come to realize, as the biblical saw states, after losing herself, she had found herself.

But he always wondered if she'd found herself with him—or had she found herself with the memories of her ex-lovers?

Still, she begged his forgiveness, and as he always had in the past, he gave it. Considering it simply another painful episode which would forever be seared into the walls of his mind. Like every episode before, it would only be a matter of time before one of them would bring the incident back up to the surface.

"Why?" he asks, weeks after her last affair.

"It just happened."

"Sure," he replies. "It always just happens."

"Why won't you let it go?"

"So you can do it again?"

"I only continue to do it because you refuse to let it go. You refuse to give us a chance."

"I need to know. Is it me? Is it you?"

From where he sits across from her, he watches her flip through her magazine, avoiding his gaze and shaking her head.

"Why?" he persists.

Finally, she snaps. "You really need to know, do you?"

Now he is the one who sits silent, waiting.

"Here—" she begins to say, their eyes locked as he leans forward on the edge of the sofa. After taking a deep breath and wringing her hands, she continues, "Here was a man who willing to listen. How simple and special a thing it is to be listened to. How whole someone feels when another person actually hears you, when another person is actually interested in something you have to say. Can't you understand?" She pauses, long, and when she resumes speaking her voice is hushed, breaking, "Can't you somehow be that someone for me?"

And he thought he had become that someone for her. They began as young lovers did. Everything fresh, everything new, everything wonderful. Months of bliss. Two people in love.

Who could have possibly imagined how quickly, on a birthday, something so beautiful can grow into something so ugly?

Speaking to her ex-lover this afternoon on the telephone, she made no attempt to keep her voice hushed. It may have been emotionless and flat of tone, but it certainly wasn't rude or arrogant like he would have liked it to be. She didn't laugh, didn't sound as if she longed or missed, didn't say she loved her ex-lover. But she didn't hang up on him either. After she gently replaced the receiver, she came to the sofa and snuggled beside him, her husband, and rested her head on his chest. When he asked, she insisted the call was nothing.

But she realized how bothered he was by the call, and she went on to defend herself by arguing that she had no control over her ex-lovers calling. How many times had she begged him to change the phone number? Hadn't she even agreed to move away, somewhere far, anywhere in the world where she would never by choice or chance have the opportunity to cross paths with her ex-lovers again?

She ran her fingertips up his arm, whispered her apologies, and only when he didn't respond to her affections did she finally sigh, straighten up and shake her head before leaning forward to pick up her wedge of birthday cake.

With her fingers inches from the plate, he spurted, "What the fuck did he want?"

She gazed at him, saying nothing.

He speared his slice of cake with his fork. "Did he remind you how the two of you spent your last birthday?"

Then, after a prolonged silence, he added, "Did he want some cake, too?"

She twisted to respond, flicks of anger distorting her face. "What is it I have to do to make things right?"

This is the point, he thinks now, when he would have hurled the cake.

It takes great effort to pull the front door shut behind him, with the wind blowing as hard as it is. He would have raised that plate and slammed it against the wall or the television or the person responsible for his pain. That's what he would have done.

But she didn't do that. Instead, she fell forward unto his lap, quivering and afraid, almost crying. She squeezed his thigh and when he continued to eat his cake she began to pound a fist against his thigh, again and again and again. All the while repeating the words, "I hate you . . . I hate you . . . I hate you."

Now, while he stands on the porch staring up and down the dark street, the wind bites at his exposed face and ankles. It whips his bathrobe against his skin. He knots the belt, tugs the collar up and lets himself dip down onto the cold concrete steps. Across the pavement the streetlamp casts a halo of faint yellow light. Raindrops falling from the eaves, tap, tap, tap onto the banana leaves that bend in front of the windows. The grassy odors of nearby meadows blow in and curl around him as he tries to will his wife home.

Almost always after the arguments, this is the moment she comes out onto the porch and sits—as he sits now—on the top step.

Usually, he lets her stew, but never leaves her alone too long before he steps out the door to sit beside her. She never turns to look at him during that moment. She instead drops her forehead, presses it against her bouncing knees.

He apologizes then, and pulls her into him, promising he will let go of the past, promising to move forward. But today, her birthday, she is not here on the porch to receive his apologies.

He pats his bathrobe pockets, his hands starting at the right breast, then dropping to the sides, not even knowing what he's looking for. He lets the wind ravage him while he waits on the porch listening to the banana leaves hiss as they try to resist the wind.

For a long time he gazes at the empty curb in front of the driveway where her car usually sits. He thinks perhaps it's all for the better if she doesn't come home.

But the truth is, sadly, she always comes home. And they always find a way to move past these episodes, step beyond these troubles. Always.

Once again he visualizes the wedge of cake. He would have hurled it.

BIO: Robert Aquino Dollesin was still a kid when he left the Philippines. He now resides in Sacramento, where he delves into his writing. Among other venues, his work has appeared at Storyglossia, Pequin, Nossa Morte, and Big Stupid Review. Much of his online time is spent at http://www.crittersbar.com/, where they tolerate him.