Birthday Wish

She stood at the counter, a cigarette smoldering between her garish red lips. In her hand she wielded a plastic spatula, sweeping it across the chocolate cake’s crumbly exterior. She paced herself, pausing only to lick bits of vanilla frosting from her fingers. The cigarette never left her mouth.

He was going to come today, she was sure of it. She’d baked this lovely cake for the occasion, though she couldn’t remember how old he was turning. But it was the thought that counted, right?

Reaching for the paper bag, she pulled out a container of sprinkles. The spatula fell to the floor, leaving a smear of white on the yellowing linoleum tile. She stepped cleanly onto it, her threadbare slippers stamping the floor with sticky circles.

As she wrestled with the lid to the sprinkles, her leopard-print acrylic nails scraping the plastic, her kitchen phone began trilling. Cursing, she slammed the unopened sprinkles on the counter.

“What?”

“Mom? Is that you?”

“ ‘Course it’s me, who did you think you were calling?”

Her son paused.

“Listen, Mom, I can’t make it today.”

“What do you mean you can’t make it?”

“I’m telling you, I can’t make it. Thanks for the invite, but Sharon invited me to dinner out at the club.”

“Well, shit. Aren’t you special.”

“Sorry, Mom. Maybe next time.”

“You bet your ass next time! After all I’ve done for you: giving birth, providing you with love and care and special treatment.”

“Love and care? Please, Mom, let’s not get into this.”

“Into what? Your ungratefulness?”

“Ok, Mom, fine. Here’s a question: how old am I today?”

She paused, unsure of her footing. Guilt had always been her weapon of choice, at least against others. Against herself, she had an arsenal: opiates, pills, a nice box of wine.

“That’s what I thought. Bye, Mom.”

The phone clicked in her ear. She cradled it in her hand, waiting until the silence gave way to a jarring beep.

With what might have been a sigh of regret, she turned back to the counter, took a deep drag on the cigarette. She blew out the smoke and tapped out the ash onto the cake.

“Happy fucking birthday, Mark.”

She walked through the dingy apartment, past the faded birthday decorations, the wilting balloons, the newspaper-wrapped presents tied with limp ribbons, and into her bedroom. She curled up on the bed, grabbed Mark’s baby blanket, the one she had never thrown away, and rubbed it against her cheek. And she rocked herself to sleep.

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