On my birthday he brings me flowers.
A thin bouquet of sweet apricot-colored carnations. A million little delicate petals that smell of small-town grocery stores. The white papery tag is still hooked to the plastic but I don’t dare look at it. The flowers are real, dripping water into my palms, but the gesture is fake.
He holds my hand in the doorway and kisses my ring. A fake ruby the size of a thumbnail that he gave me for my last birthday. I hate the way it reflects in his eyes but I have to wear it when he visits. He never misses a birthday and this time is no exception.
I invite him inside. It’s the polite thing to do and we both know it. When his skin gathers on his forehead I know it makes him too happy. Seeing me stripped bare of makeup and limping around my home in shapeless nightgowns.
He sits on the couch. Stains and feathers puff up around him and I laugh. It lasts a second but he smiles back. I hide my face in the flowers.
The carnations fall into a cheap, cracked vase. One of my dance teachers gave it to me for my bleeding feet and streetlight eyes. I pretend to forget him in the living room and the fact that flowers need to be watered. Gray blisters blossom on their pretty faces and somehow I am satisfied. If I am to be ugly, they should be too.
I place a kettle on the stove. There’s a bag of dried leaves with daisies on the front. I remember when they fell from the sky. No need to ask if he wants chamomile because there are some things I know for sure. One of them is his general dislike of tea. The other is that he is here for a reason.
“Happy birthday,” he says, looking not at me but at the photographs on the windowsill. They are black and white, portraying a woman and a girl, years ago. They are timeworn and the sun has whitewashed them, but you can still make out their little hands and open eyes.
I rest opposite of him. We stare into their unsmiling faces. “I used to have a daughter. Now she lives in Switzerland with a nice husband and three children.” I tell him my story in a sentence but he already knows.
“I did not ask,” he replies.
The kettle screams from inside the kitchen. He glances in its direction and knits his fingers together. Him being nervous and wordless is something that comforts me.
I smile at him, rising slowly from the seat, and hobble into the kitchen. I see my reflection in the silver pot and frown. There are dark bags under my eyes and I rub them, hoping they’ll disappear. The kettle is twitching and so I twist the heat away.
The water needs to cool down, but I don’t want to return to him immediately. So I close the door. I look at the yellowing kitchen in the hazy afternoon light and sigh. The carnations are the only lively thing in here, despite the fact that they are choking out their last breaths.
From inside the living room, I hear him hum. It’s an abrupt sort of noise, and almost like I can see his lips part. Those soft, heart-shaped lips that used to be pressed against mine.
When I join him again, I see that he is flipping through my mail. It has been laying on the coffee table, a jumble of bright-colored stamps and various words and letters that fit into addresses. Some of it is from a month ago and I didn’t care.
His hands freeze when he sees a certain postcard. It’s a picture of a beautiful brown mountain dappled with snow, the background a fading orange. The sunset and peaks are dizzily reflected into the lake below. In the lower left-hand corner it reads ‘Switzerland’ in red marker.
He shows it to me and I avoid his gaze. “She sends you mail?”
I clean my dried lips with my tongue. “Not anymore.” I think of the tea and the way his cheeks will wrinkle when he turns sixty. His cheeks are red and he touches the thick paper like he knows who’s touched it before. “Don’t look like that. I know she sends you mail all the time.”
“Of course she does,” he says, setting the card down and crossing a leg over the other, “all the time.”
He crosses his legs when he lies. I know this because that’s exactly what he did when I asked him if he loved me, back on Broadway, thirty years ago. He held my calloused hands and denied it. I tied my ballet shoes and danced off into the curtains. I had a secret. He didn’t follow.
I stand suddenly, patting my pockets like there is something important I need to remember. He stands too. “I have tea,” I tell him, folding my arms into each other. The walls are drowned in sunlight and it reminds me of the time I took my daughter to the ocean.
“I do not favor tea.” His words are final. He peers at me like I’m not the woman he made love to, back in New York, thirty years ago. “I’m sorry, Stela,” he mutters. It’s the three words he repeats every birthday of mine.
I step away from him and life. “You should leave.”
He doesn’t protest. The flowers are listening from the next room and I can hear their whines. He stops by the door, clutching the frame with his fingers. His fingers are white like marble when he opens his mouth. “Goodbye.”
I roll my lips together and watch the door shut with a creak. The house’s bones rattle and I know it feels as old as me. I’m alone and it feels cold on my shoulders. I don’t want to miss him like the other girls did, back on Broadway.
My phone is in the kitchen and I wrap my hand around it. The metal is cool and slides against my cheek. I type the digits from an unknown postcard and hit call. The phone fits into place beside my ear.
Wisps of dust float around me when lost rings vibrate the device. Suddenly they stop and I hold my breath.
“Hello! This is Beth Withers. Please leave a message at the beep.”
My breath trickles through my teeth. Beep.
I step into the living room before talking. The photographs and their many eyes tug at my hair. It’s streaked silver and they laugh at it.
“Hello Beth. It’s . . . your mother. I received your postcard. What time is it for you? Anyways, I just called to tell you that it’s my birthday. You might’ve forgotten and that’s okay. It’s probably not even today anymore where you are. I don’t expect you to remember your life here. Anyways, I turned fifty.” I find myself collapsing into the couch. “Your father visited today. He said you write him letters and I know he’s lying. I’m not angry, I . . .” I played with the fraying threads. Standing up again, I walk back into the kitchen. “I love you always.” I remove the cabinet door and find myself a tea cup. The tea splashes a little when I pour it. “I’m sorry.”
Then the world goes silent. I keep telling strangers my life in a sentence and they don’t care. The people in the photographs are blurred and old. I need to move on with my eyes that have seen the world and so I put the phone down.
The carnations and their bruised faces tickle my palms. I sip tea, watching the steam billow off the surface in waves, thinking about postcards and gray light that filters through windows.