Birthday Americana

One. I’m in a yellow highchair, the same color as the sculpted carpet. In front of me is a cake, frosted to look like flower petals. I don’t yet understand flowers or cakes. I work a blob of frosting into my mouth. Pictures of me show the kind of passion reserved for adults. Ovidian, Keatsian love.

Six. I’m at Jessica Weinbrad’s house. There is an old brown and white pony circling the patio by the pool. I don’t like Jessica. She tells everyone her name is Annabelle, not Jessica, and she pulls her pants down before opening the bathroom door. The cake comes out; it’s huge, pink, shaped like a castle, and topped with purple sugar flags. Everyone is still. Then Horace, the Weinbrad’s mastiff, breaks loose from the sunroom, making a mad dash for the castle. The best things are touching a pony’s nose and wet dogs with icing on their mouths.

On my sixteenth birthday I climb through my bedroom window, yellow panties balled up in my hand. When I can’t sleep, I stare at the ceiling, at the faintly glowing sticker stars. Will Mom find my panties if I hide them in the back of my drawer? The night flashes by. The shiver I felt when he rubbed my knee. Bob Marley. Bob Marley is the best music to lose your virginity to. Especially on the beach. My father is up, pacing around. Maybe Bob Marley is good funeral music too. It’s fine if I die now because I’ve lived.

Twenty-One. The boyfriend decided it’s diner drink night. We order everything listed on the placemats in the Greek diners that line the main drag back home. Now I’m homesick with the spins. The bartender pours Sidecars, Singapore Slings, Old Fashioneds. He’s in a good mood, so everything is a double. The Sidecar makes me want to be a lounge singer, stroking a microphone like it’s my lover. The boyfriend says something funny and we’re all laughing, laughing so hard it cramps. I lean on the wall, my face against the dark wood. An arm winds around my waist. It’s warm, heavy. I could curl up into it, wrap around it the way tree roots grow around rocks. I spend the ride home pinching the top of my nose, eyes clamped shut, breathing carefully. The boyfriend pours me into bed and says to hang a leg out over the side. It’s a waterbed. The room rolls and the bed is rocking, washing under me. I’m on the floor, the carpet, the tile, crawling. I press my cheek to cold porcelain and slur my way through the Rosary. I hug the toilet, clutching at it like a tree in a rising flood.

Thirty. “Are my tits sagging?” “Of course not. What the hell are you talking about?” “Thanks.” Thirty-three. I have no birthday. I’ll never have a birthday again. The baby has a birthday instead. The baby, who managed to get poop in her socks. In her socks. I swore I wouldn’t be one of those mothers who stops talking about things that matter. I swore I’d get a sitter and be back at work in six weeks, that I’d toss the baby in the Bjorn and take her with me. I’m supposed to be in control. That was before soap commercials made my nipples leak. The baby picks up a Cheerio between a pink-tipped thumb and forefinger. This is why you don’t murder them, maybe the only reason. It’s the baby’s birthday. I’m laughing and cleaning shit from a sock.

Forty-two. I planned on champagne. The bottle my client gave me, because his case was long and messy, and two green cards and four years later he’s family; though drinking will be like saying goodbye. The kid is doing the slumber party thing. The husband has taken the night off, even shaved, so that he can ravish me. He says ravish since finding my stash of bodice rippers. I’ve threatened him. One Screw Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Oliver Tits can find their way out of his sock drawer and into the trash. Who keeps hard copy porn anymore? He says they’re not just porn, they’re satires, and as art need to be preserved in their original format. Nothing, he says, decays like digital. I’ve been saving the champagne for when I’m ready to be ravished. After this long with a husband marital aids are required; somewhere around my daughter’s second birthday alcohol began to qualify. I need the booze because the kid is out, the husband is shaved, and despite forty-two being the new seventeen-and-a half, I think there’s a limited amount of time left before it’s not safe to fuck like you want to. And here he is, Mr. Oliver Tits, stroking his hand up the inside of my arm. His stomach presses into my back. Suddenly we’re in the years when the gut touches before the erection does. Not that my breasts aren’t three inches lower. Not that the champagne isn’t just as much for him as it is for me. Lips against my ear. A hand at my hip. “Come. Let me ravish you.”

On my daughter’s sixteenth birthday I attempt cake. I spend fifteen minutes picking eggshells from chiffon batter. Then she goes out with people she doesn’t find embarrassing. “Should I wait up with a shotgun?” the husband asks. “The boy’s named Cheever,” I say. “How bad can it be?” “People who name their kids Cheever are libertines,” he says. “Which means they breed uptight kids with purity rings,” I say. We lie in bed with the lights off, counting seconds until the house key turns in the lock. I remember where I hid my crumpled panties. Tomorrow, while the kid is at drama practice, I’ll search her room and look at the teddy bears.

Fifty-Eight. “Remember when I asked if my tits sagged?” “Which time? All the times?” “No, when I was–God, I must have been thirty.” “I remember.” “I didn’t know from sagging.” “You look good.” “I look like my mother.” “Your mother was a looker.”

Sixty-Nine. I write my name. The letters look right, but it’s wrong, the same as when I speak. I write, “I love you” to my daughter. She reads it back. “Banana. Mom? Want me to get the nurse to bring you some bananas?” The husband comes by, but I don’t want him to see my hair. It’s shaved on one side and there’s baby duck fuzz growing in over what feels like a row of giant staples. When I touch it, my daughter frowns. “They have no sense of aesthetics, Ma. None at all.” The need to ask what happened is overwhelming. I was alone, apparently, so no one can tell me. It’s a miracle that I’m alive, they say. Of course I’m alive–what else would I be? At night the machines beep, blending with the moans from the man in the next bed. He smells terrible. I don’t ask why; that would result in a late night appearance of bananas. It’s like someone dumped out my word rolodex and the only card that’s face up is banana. During the day I practice walking, swallowing, and toileting. A new word turns up. It is Yes. I say yes to everything because it’s not banana. “What’s your name?” “Yes.” The therapist tells my daughter he suspects my responses may not be meaningful. She says, “Well, Mom’s always been very agreeable.” At dinner the family of the man in the next bed visits. They have a baby, about seven months. Nurses flock to the baby, moths hovering around the only source of–well, anything. The baby looks at me. I smile. I say banana and the kid takes off laughing, the way people laughed at Carson. I’ve always had a way with the boys. You and me, kid. Team pants-shitters.

Seventy. The celebration is because I’m walking and talking and everyone remembers how grateful they are to have me. I could dance the hula naked and they’d applaud me. The husband makes a toast, but he’s cut off when the baby starts howling. Upstaged by a baby. It doesn’t matter when it’s your grandchild. You love your kids enough to kill for them, commit an ax murder, but you hate them a little too, for the things you used to be–selfish, firm, energetic. Your grandchildren get none of that. You love, not quite as fiercely, but you hate them not at all.

Seventy-Seven. It’s undignified to still have these things, isn’t it? Ah well, you don’t do it for you.

Eighty-Four. It’s a pain so sharp it passes beyond pain, twisting into startling cold. I’m crumpled on the bathroom floor. Is this how he’ll find me? Support stockings around my knees? First my toes and fingers, then other parts of me doze and drift. Once the husband stops crying–because he’s a helpless lout without me–he will blame it on the chocolate and coffee I had yesterday. I can say now, because I’m at the end of it, I should have eaten more. Made him eat more too, because it was his birthday, because cake is the last true sensual pleasure, because as terribly long as it’s been for us, it’s gone by too quickly at the good parts. The cold becomes color, yellow. Synesthesia. Good to remember the word. The brain is misfiring as it toddles off; everything sounds like the ocean. It smells like pine trees and winter. My first boyfriend’s cologne. I haven’t thought of that in years. Dying, it seems, smells like Ralph Lauren Polo. It’s silly to think of him, but it makes sense, because lust was a kind of dying too. And then I am laughing.

Erika Swyler

About Erika Swyler

Erika Swyler is a writer, baker, and legal transcriptionist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her short fiction can be found on Anderbo, Storychord and elsewhere. She also writes and photographs the baking humor blog ieatbutter.tumblr.com, and is currently at work on a novel.

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