Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

2011 Fiction Contest-Young Adult Honorable Mention

| Published:

A screeching alarm clock woke Carolyn Anderson at eight a.m. on the day of her birthday. She sat up in bed and had a sudden inexplicable urge to reach over to her side table, pick up the phone, and call someone to share the news that she had turned 65.

She wanted to talk about her life, the precious moments that slipped through her fingers like sand. How Lydia and Eric had moved out to start their own families, she needed to use glasses to read and sometimes she couldn’t even remember where she left the car keys. Life was cruel, she wanted to say. It was like one of those clowns who get hit in the face with a cake and everyone laughs, but he’s still standing there with a stupid grin on his face and for the first time she wanted a witness for this phenomena.

But Carolyn had never been the type of person to confide in others, and who wanted an annoying call this early in the morning, anyway? She slipped out of bed, pulling back the simple navy blue covers. The walls of her room were washed white, the rug frayed and the lamp shades neutral tones. There were no paintings hung up or novels piled on the table and everything smelled of disinfectant and of Clorox.

She had moved into this small house shortly after the divorce with Brian. When the kids had grown the marriage had worn down like a piece of rope that turned a tire into a makeshift swing on a hot summer’s day, slowly thinning until it snapped. There weren’t any heated debates between them, hair dryers or vases thrown in a precarious battle; it was more of a lowering of flags and parting of ways.

The bathroom tiles were slick and cold under her slippers while she washed her face in the sink and dried it with a soft towel. She brushed her teeth, rinsed her mouth, and walked down the stairs to the kitchen. Carolyn turned on the radio to the monotone buzzes of the news in places too far away to care about, chopping a banana and heating some coffee in the machine. She poured a bit of nonfat milk into the thin and murky drink, which hadn’t seen a spoon of sugar in years. Even though it was her birthday, she made no exceptions.

Carolyn walked outside to the backyard. The sun was shining gold and bright on the grass, illuminating the treasures that stretched beneath its maternal light. There were flowers all over the backyard; primroses and petunias, violets and magnolias. But the rare orchids, her most prized possessions, were kept in the small greenhouse Brian had built.

In the glasshouse the humidity smacked you in the face like a washcloth. Common moth-orchids bloomed in lavender and slipper orchids in maroon and red, holding out their cupped pouches like musicians asking for spare change. White orchids were clustered in a corner of the garden, and huge pink ones, sticking their spotted tongues out to catch sunlight like little children catching snowflakes, in another. Instead of music the greenhouse was filled with a heavenly smell that spiraled like notes through the dripping air and sealed the lungs with sweet perfume. Carolyn always came in here before work to water the flowers and clean up the dead leaves.

Carolyn’s daughter, Lydia hated the greenhouse. She always said the damp air clogged her lungs and the bright lights hurt her eyes. Here Carolyn was away from the screams and naggings of her children. But when she came back to the house, Lydia was at every corner, begging for attention with her large blue eyes boring into everything like superman with his special laser eyesight. Sometimes Carolyn was afraid Lydia could see right through her too, see all the thoughts that crawled in her head.

Lydia used to come around all the time asking questions. Why is the sky blue? Who decided that kids need to go to school? Do blind people cry? She was curious about everything. And her mother could handle these questions, though she preferred to talk for hours during dinner on the monocots category of plants and the order of Asparagales and describe the different species of orchids that grew in the rainforests.

But when Lydia wanted to know what to do when all of her friends were invited to the dance by boys, and why no one wanted to go with her, Carolyn had no answers.

The glasshouse was her real safe haven. Here she could escape the world. She sat in a small plastic chair and gazed at her beloved flowers, perfectly content and at ease. The flowers never needed you to answer them back.

When Carolyn entered her medical office there was a big, plastic, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! sign taped above her door. It was cheap and shiny, the kind you buy at party stores, and somehow she couldn’t stop looking at it.

Her first patient was diabetic, a sweet old lady with curly white hair who was 25 pounds overweight and smelled like cookies, which Carolyn doubted were sugarless.

“You’re going to need to cut down on anything with sugar,” Carolyn announced curtly.

“Oh, dear,” the old woman looked clumsily at her hands. “I have such a sweet tooth.”

Carolyn stared in amazement at the lack of self-restraint. It was pitiful how the habits the woman couldn’t contain drove her to a medical condition. Carolyn herself hadn’t touched even a piece of cake for years for fear of gaining weight.

After the old woman left she saw some other patients and by noon it was Carolyn’s lunch break. She took a small plastic container of tomato soup she bought at a little deli on the way to work, a spoon, and some saltine crackers. The secret to keeping off weight was to never have the temptations around. The cabinets in her kitchen at home were filled with Weight-Watchers muffins, bottles of sauces and shriveled oranges, raisins and cranberries, little baggies of almonds and sugarless sucking candies.

Even when her children were young Carolyn had kept the house on a strict diet. She limited the candy on Halloween, and didn’t allow any sugared soft drinks. One of the babysitters quit after getting into a fight with Carolyn when she brought a bag of potato chips into the house and shared it with the children.

Carolyn sat in her office and ate her soup alone, even though the rest of the nurses were having lunch together in the kitchen. After that she saw a few more patients, regulars who always seemed to need their pills refilled and their throats checked, one with an odd stomachache, and one who needed an especially long checkup to fill out a form for a sports team. The hours passed by and she found herself finishing notes on a patient with heartburn; packing up for the day to go home, when there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” she said without looking up, her voice flat.

The door opened slowly and in the doorway stood a cluster of five nurses, their faces illuminated by the candlelight of a birthday cake. Immediately the lights were flipped off and the voices began to sing in harmony, almost on the queue of a choir—

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”

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