You are always alone, which had taken some getting used to. You had spent the previous nine months pouring cheap vodka down your throat, elbow to elbow with two or three other confused, over-stimulated women your age, wearing lipstick that didn’t match your skin tone.
As if you had done something great, you’re home now, like Ulysses. It is 2007 and you were the least interesting person at your college. Your first-year roommate is living out these three months in her mother’s yurt, in Hawaii. Your other good friend is in Central America, seeking out a Zapatista convention. You work at Applebee’s.
No one can give you a ride this morning, so you’re biking with your uniform in your backpack down the sidewalk that runs along 17th Street. It’s not safe to bike on the roads, your mother tells you, and you have to pause and re-route several times for elderly residents that walk back and forth in front of the retirement complex that stretches down the block.
At work, they say you look nice. You must have gotten some sun.
Everyone at Applebee’s has to wear black and carry around steaks. The place smells like hot meat and cleaner and pungent milky dressings. Your job is to toss blue cheese or ranch or Caesar with lettuce in a plastic bag and shake it out on salad plates. The dressing sprays out of the bag and sprinkles white flecks all over your black shirt.
“Look,” you say to another server, Katie, around three pm, “it’s like a cotton galaxy.”
Katie does not respond.
You arrive home and take off your work clothes and wait for Dan to call.
After he admitted he had been in love with you since you were fourteen, Dan dumped you for the second time. That was a couple weeks ago. The second breakup letter was attached to a mixed CD. The title, written on the shiny disc in permanent marker, was “Glad and Sorry.” It included songs such as, “Glad and Sorry” by The Faces, Rod Stewart’s original band, as well as The Clientele’s “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine”, and Graham Nash’s “I Used to Be A King.”
You had listened to the mix as you walked to Problems of Philosophy every morning, thinking about him, and then perception as the source of your reality, different from everyone else’s. All things becoming true because you told yourself they were true. You were eighteen, you were listening to Rod Stewart, and you accepted it wholeheartedly.
The next time you had seen Dan was in your hometown, under a tree after your shift at Applebee’s, not really inhaling the smoke from a Swisher Sweet.
He told you he was going away to Italy, that he was having friends over, that he would call you, that you should come.
The next week, as you are clearing the dishes of two young professionals, a spoon that slips from the dessert plate shoots across the air, far from their table.
“Oops,” you say. “Flying spoon!”
They laugh. You get the spoon from the floor and bus the rest. When you come back, there is a small tip.
The week after, work doesn’t start for twenty minutes so you go into the card shop in the strip mall a couple stores down from the restaurant.
“Hello,” you say to the old man at the counter.
You read every card under Birthday–Humorous. You move on to Birthday–For Her. The top left is a normal photograph of a yellow shoe. Inside it has a flap in which to put money. It says, New shoes kill the birthday blues!
“Who are you getting the card for?” asks the old man.
“What?” you say.
“Whose birthday is it?” he calls again.
You say, “Oh, you know, myself. It’s my birthday.”
You keep reading through. Your favorite is a card that features a muscle man carrying a chocolate cake. It says, If you’re looking at what he’s got in his hands, you know you’re getting old.
Before you can leave your shift, you have to scrape away at a year’s worth of grime that has built up in cracks between wooden panels that make up the bar. The grime is deeply encrusted in the wood and booger-like.
You become heated as you clean, wishing you hadn’t gotten so used to typing ill-formed arguments in Word documents for a living, and raising your hand in class—but not as high as high school. There’s slack at the elbow, just so, as if you had deserved the rest.
Your manager kneels next to you to look at the job, smelling like the fragrance section of JC Penney.
He says, “How’s it going?”
You wait to answer because you are scraping grime. New shoes kill the birthday blues. “It’s my birthday today,” you tell him.
He turns his head, still squatted. “No shit?”
“No shit,” you say.
“Psh…. ‘ey! You guys.” Two or three of your coworkers look over. “Is it really her birthday?”
No one knows. He turns back to you. You shrug.
“Can I leave early?” you ask.
“Is it really your birthday?”
“Yeah, it is,” you say, with a bigger smile this time.
He sits on the ground. “Aight. Get out of here.” But you stay on the ground with him to finish up.
“Go on, git!”
You walk your bike home.
Katie from work calls you as you’re walking. “Happy Birthday,” she says. “Is it today or are you just celebrating on the weekend?”
You wipe wet hair out of your face. “Um,” you tell her. “It’s today.”
“Do you want to go out?”
“Yeah,” you say. “I mean, I don’t know. I have this other party to go to.”
Today is Dan’s going-away. Perhaps that you said it was your birthday is a coincidence. The Problems of Philosophy: either nothing is coincidence, or everything is coincidence.
You eat a fourth of a jar of peanut butter. You eat it with a fork and it makes patterned rows after every bite. You try to keep the crop rows in circles around the jar, that way it looks nice, and you have to eat another bite to round off the ends.
I still look good in a bathing suit, though, you think.
You put on your bathing suit and go outside. You call Dan. He doesn’t answer. Maybe he’s eating dinner. You call again.
“Dan. Guess what I’m smoking?”
“Come on,” you say.
“What, Swisher Sweets?”
“Yeah! Of course.” He must be doing something else. He sounds distracted.
“And it’s my birthday,” you add.
“No fucking way. No it isn’t. Really?”
“Yeah.” He is quiet. “Haha, you fucking bastard,” you say. “I can’t believe you forgot.”
“Well, shit. Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks.” You are pacing in your backyard. “Yep, so, I was smoking these, and I thought of you. Are you still having people over?”
“Yeah, come on by. Come on by, definitely.”
“Okay…” Silence. “I’ll see you soon?”
“Yeah. We’ll celebrate together.”
You enter Dan’s house wearing a white dress, the one you wore for your high school graduation. You see Dan from across the room holding a wine glass, talking to a girl with short hair. You don’t know anyone else at the party. You stand by the bathroom. Dan is wearing a disco ball helmet.
Front page image by Steve Winton.