Happy Birthday. When you see everyone standing in your kitchen, holding your wine glasses, and already slightly drunk, you do your best to moderate your response, temper the initial shock and annoyance in your face with a tight smile and a staggering step back. You clutch your heart and play into the moment. Worse still, the lights dim and you hear the song start up. Like a rickety train pulling out of the station, they drag the tempo so everybody can jump on. You strap in for the second verse. She emerges from the hallway, holding a gaudy cake littered with candles. “HAPPY 50th,” it reads in loopy red cursive. She’s wearing that dress, the floral sundress with the pleated skirt and crème backing, the one you gave her last year for her birthday. You assumed that she didn’t like it since she’s yet to wear it. Then again, there hasn’t been much of an occasion to merit wearing it either. They implore you to make a wish. You do but insist that you don’t. It takes you two blows to extinguish all those tiny flames. The crowd razzes you after the first and then supplies what, to you, is an excessive amount of applause after the second. You keep the cringing to a minimum.
Three days ago, you watched as the extruder vacillated back and forth under a pale, white light. The 3D printer whirred for a moment and dispensed a pebble. You’ve always loved souvenirs, so why not? You assumed it would be hot, but instead it was quite cold. Each day since, you’ve carried it, examined it, tossed it into the air and caught it. Once, you nearly dropped it into a toilet this way. You enjoy this thing, although it has caused you much pain over the past year. Two days ago, you held it up to the sun until it made a small eclipse. As you stared at the small flares of light forming a cloud around it, you realized that you needed to show her. Yesterday, you decided then that tonight would be the night.
You pocket your small talisman, which is growing warm in your clenched hand. It’s a firm lump of gray plastic, about three centimeters wide. It has grooves, like a windblown stone, that your thumb and finger keep futzing with. You kiss your wife for the crowd. In their applause, she holds your face and whispers into your ear, “Just couldn’t resist, lovey.” You can tell she’s smiling because her teeth scrape against your ear. She loves to watch you squirm. Her direct disobedience is, given your plan, infuriating and embarrassing, but it’s also refreshing. When you have cancer, nobody dares to challenge you anymore, which takes a lot of the fun out of everything.
She’s been the stalwart partner you knew she’d be. She makes the jokes nobody else dares to. She talks about holding your hair right until it falls out; “then you’re on your own,” she says. She hides sticky notes by your pills, insinuating that she added a Viagra or some hair growth hormone, “just to shake things up.” She cleans up after you, creates an online calendar for your appointments, shows up when you request her, but also lets you handle yourself on good days. She knows how you like to feel independent. Some nights when you get scared and tell her that you love her or try to thank her for all she’s done, all the sacrifices, the hand-holding, the fits of anger and frustration, she just cocks her head and asks, “I take it that’s chemo talking?” She’ll have you laughing so hard you’re afraid you’ll cough up blood.
But it hasn’t been easy either. Sometimes you wake up and she’s on all fours and three inches from your face, sucking in your breath like a predatory cat. She’s screamed at you to try harder when you can’t eat or try to get out of a doctor-mandated walk. She starts crying and punches the table when you talk about last will and testaments or contingency plans. She writes in her diary that she both fears and looks forward to the funeral. You don’t confront her about this, but she knows you know it too. You want to tell her that you don’t blame her.
When you speak, everybody listens too hard, leaning their heads in and maintaining aggressive eye-contact. They are really taking down what you have to say, trying to preserve this memory as it may be the last one they get. If it didn’t depress you so much, you’d feel flattered. Friends from college, colleagues from work, a cousin and his wife — everybody sticks to their comfortable factions. You pass through each one, a tall and sobering specter. Once you finally get them talking they don’t stop. You’re thankful for them to get on about something that doesn’t concern you. Photographs of toddlers with sticky gloss around their lips, sordid sex scandals in the political sphere, trite arguments between parties in total agreement, talks of trips to warmer places, and the latest grievances surrounding absent acquaintances. It all feels so comfortably abstract to you because it predicates a tomorrow, a concept you’ve had less and less grasp of. Aside from moments of fear and regret, it’s been freeing not to care about this stuff. Every now and then you feel a tightening in your chest and stuff your left hand into your pocket to see that your plastic friend is still there.
Nobody acknowledges the tumor between your left lung and your fourth rib, but you can tell there have been discussions while you’ve been away. As you make your rounds, nearly all of them mention how good you look, the cumulative effect of which is not reassuring. You spot her in the living room and direct your college friends to join you over there. You clear your throat and tap a spoon on your glass three times. “Everyone, everyone, please, may I have your attention, I’ll only be just a moment,” you begin, “I must admit, alongside old friends such as yourselves, I am thoroughly bored.” You pause and enjoy the nervous silence and a few obligatory chuckles. “Fear not,” you continue, “because we have concert pianist in our midst and she works free of charge.” She raises her eyebrow at you, her slack, bemused face says it all. You get a chant going, growing louder and faster until she waives her arms above her head and yells, “oh, alright!” followed by much applause. “Birthday Boy,” she purrs, “this one’s for you.” She cracks her knuckles in one motion and begins to play. It’s Clair de Lune, but with a few jazzy flourishes. It seems that somebody has turned the lights down low, but it might just be your imagination. She truly loves to play and it shows. As the song builds towards the bridge somebody clinks their glass against yours. You lean back against the wall and feel pride resting on your shoulders. You notice that you’re smiling.
After one guest announces their departure, another group does so, then yet another. Everybody leaves in, more or less, a single procession. You hear your wife say, “thank you for coming,” to each person. You realize you don’t want to say goodbye. You muster a nod and feel slightly out of place.
You exhale as the door creeks to a close. The house is empty now, but the air still holds a memory of the past few hours. Their body warmth has left behind a residue you can lie in. You hate socializing, especially these past four months. But still, this warm feeling is something you had almost forgotten about. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe she was right to surprise you like this, not just to create the illusion of normalcy, but because it actually did you good. Glasses with red stains litter the table. Every light in the house is on. The upstairs bathroom smells like pot. You sit at the table with a second piece of cake. She sits beside you.
“So, do you believe it yet?”
“Let’s cut the crap and call it Half a Century. What do you think about that?”
“I’ve felt fifty for the past ten years.”
“But now it’s official.”
You raise a glass of milk above your head. “To you.”
A silence rests in the air — the kind of silence you can really live in, shared between two people, fluent in a language without words, a silence for people who have so much to say and need not say it. You take the model of the tumor out from your pocket and put it on the table. You tell her what you’ve heard. The word “remission” hangs on your lips and falls straight down to your feet. You aren’t crying but you are putting the effort in not to. She looks at you hard, her mouth quivers on her first syllable.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asks.
“I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t.”
She is avoiding eye contact, but she places her hands on the table. You pick them up and raise them towards your face to kiss. “I’m sorry,” you want to say, but before you can she rests her head on your shoulder. You can feel the tears through your shirt. She keeps herself quiet, but one strained sob escapes.
“What are you going to do with that thing,” she asks as she wipes the tears from her cheeks.
“It’s kinda cool lookin’, don’t you think?”
“Damn you,” she laughs through a sigh, “do you trust it?”
“Trust it or not, I think I’m going to hold onto it. If I can trust it, it means this’ll be gone one day and if it’s ever totally gone, I might miss having it around.”
“Maybe it’ll be your good luck charm.”
“Maybe everything’s going to be OK.” You’ve never been so scared because you’ve never had so much to lose.
Much of the party you’ve forgotten. You’ve forgotten who clinked your glass, what kind of wine you had, who was there and who was absent. You’ve forgotten those silly arguments, the hot takes, the witty retorts. You still remember the dress, of course. You remember the way her eyes fixed on some invisible point ahead of her when she played—when she played for you. You remember the weight of her head resting on your shoulder. You remember the cake was Angel’s Food with that sour, pink icing, the hard kind that makes your tongue vibrate, your favorite.