The Birthday Party
It was Bethany’s 29th birthday. Well, at least she said that it was her 29th birthday; it was really her 34th. Everyone knew her real age but they humored her. Unfortunately, she didn’t look 34 let alone 29. She looked closer to 44. Her hair was expertly blow-dried and her make-up was too heavy. Crossing her arms, she slumped back into her chair. Her two younger sisters sat across from her and her husband was at her side. They were all sipping drinks wearily and waiting for their mother. She was late, again.
Ten, mostly silent, minutes passed before Bethany saw her mom weaving through the tables towards them. She was a haggard looking woman clutching her purse.
“Happy birthday, Beth,” she said. She sat at the head of the table.
“Thank you, Mama, but please don’t call me Beth. I’ve asked you enough times that you should be able to remember.”
“Of course, I’m sorry… Bethany.” Her mother’s eyes slid away into the crowd. “Hello Paul, Cassie, Lo. How is everyone doing?”
“We’re fine, Mama, just hungry,” Bethany cut her off. “We were waiting for you to order.”
“I had a lot of trouble finding a parking place, this place must be really popular. How long has it been here? I don’t think that I’ve ever seen it.”
Paul smiled weakly and gestured around the open dinning room. It was lit by a multiple of hanging lamps, no two the same. The bar ran along one wall and was flanked by pipes that spurted small gaslights, like the kind that you would find on a Bunsen burner. It had originally been the cafeteria of an elementary school but the whole campus had been converted into a hotel and restaurant.
“It’s been this way for a while. We come here a lot. The food is good and the drinks are strong.”
“Can we order now please? I don’t want to be up too late.”
“Anything you want, Sis, it’s your birthday.” Cassie smiled placidly. Their waitress appeared almost immediately and took their orders.
Bethany surveyed her family. Both Cassie and Lo were taller and thinner than her. She had always hated them a little bit for it. She smiled blandly at Lo and said, “Pregnancy really makes you puffy doesn’t it? I’m so glad that I decided not to let that happen to me.”
Lo put a hand on her bulging belly and looked hurt. “It’s not just ‘something that happened’ to me. You know that Chris and I had to try for a long time before we got pregnant.”
“Oh, of course. I wasn’t trying to imply anything; I was merely concerned that you might not be getting enough sleep.”
Lo didn’t look convinced and Bethany’s lukewarm smile didn’t do anything to help. “That’s nice of you but I feel fine. The doctor said that I’m doing really good.”
Paul cleared his throat. “How about you, Cassie? How’s your new job going?”
Cassie smiled warmly at him. “It’s awesome, Paul. Thanks for helping me get it. They’re using some of my designs in production now. They should be in stores by next fall.”
“Doesn’t anyone want to know how my work is going?” Bethany interrupted.
“Sure,” Cassie said, “What’s going on with you?”
“Works horrible. Thanks for asking.”
“Really?” her mother asked. “But didn’t you just get a promotion? I thought that things were going really good.”
“That’s because you never listen to a word I say, Mama. I told you that it wasn’t really a promotion. But you had to go telling everyone that it was. They just gave me more responsibility without giving me more pay. If Paul had managed to find a new job—“
“Come on, Bethany, don’t get started on that. I have a good job; you can quit yours if you want.”
“I bet you’d love that. Having the little wife at home to cook and clean. Next you’ll be pestering me for kids.”
“I didn’t say that you had to stay home, you could find something else to do. You could take up painting again, you were really good at that.”
“I’m not going to rely on you to take care of me, Paul. You have proven that it wouldn’t be prudent.”
“Okay!” Lo said with false cheerfulness. “What did you do today, Bethy?”
“Yes, Bethany. Did you take the day off of work? Do anything fun?”
“Why would I take the day off? I am much too busy at work to take time off for something as frivolous as my birthday.”
“And yet here we all are,” muttered Cassie.
Bethany shot her a dirty look but didn’t respond. The waitress dropped off their food, fresh glasses of wine, and a ginger ale for Lo. They ate in muted silence. At the end of their meal the waitress came to clear their plates and Paul stood.
“I’ll be right back, sweetheart. I just want to go get your present.”
After he had left Cassie leaned toward her sister. “How are things going? Stuff better between you and Paul?”
“Things are fine. Everything’s sort of plateaued to status quo. You know how it goes with men. They’re fine as long as they’re getting sex.”
Paul made his way back to the table followed by at least six staff members, one of which was holding a cake with one large candle on it. Bethany sank back into her chair when she saw them approaching. She had told Paul that there was to be absolutely no singing. The cake was sat in front of Bethany and the wait staff and her family sang “Happy Birthday.” She tried to remain gracious but failed and some of the waiters returned her sour look. Her mother was eyeing her.
“Wasn’t that nice? What kind of cake is it?”
“No, it wasn’t nice. I can’t stand having attention drawn to myself, you know that, Mama. It would have been nicer if we could have all ordered our own desserts.”
“It’s fine, Bethany,” her mother said, pursing her lips. “It looks good and I, for one, would like a piece of it.”
Bethany’s sisters nodded their agreement. “I’m so glad that it’s acceptable for you. Really, that is what’s important to me on my birthday.”
“Just cut the damn cake, Beth,” Cassie cut in. “You can give me the waxy piece.”
“Only a little one for me,” Lo said. “I think I ate too much dinner.” She rubbed her stomach.
Knowing when to back down was not one of Bethany’s strong suits. She was opening her mouth to retort to Cassie when Paul said, “Cut the cake, honey. We can do presents after.”
Somewhat mollified, Bethany cut her cake and passed pieces out to everyone, being sure to give Lo a generous slice. The cake was, in fact, very good. Pushing her plate back, Bethany smiled. “Presents?”
Her husband laughed at that, “I think that it is time for presents. Should I go first?” He pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to her. She opened it carefully to find a pair of large diamond studs.
“Paul, thank you. They are exactly what I wanted!”
“I know,” he winked at her, “The pictures taped to the bathroom mirror helped a lot.”
Everyone laughed at that, some of the tension from earlier diffusing. Cassie handed over a box before Lo could and smiled smugly at her. There was a rich, cream-colored sweater inside. “I hope it fits, there’s a gift receipt in there somewhere if it doesn’t.”
“It’s very nice, Cassie. Thank you,” Bethany said, holding the sweater to the front of her and looking down at it.
Lo handed Bethany an envelope. “I couldn’t think of what to get you, I hope you don’t mind a gift certificate.”
Bethany opened the envelope, which contained a gift card to a spa. “Hm, thanks Lo. You know that I don’t really like other people touching me though. Oh, there’s a hair salon attached, that’s nice.”
Lo looked crestfallen but didn’t say anything. Bethany turned her attention to her mother. “Well, Mama?”
Her mother shifted in her seat. “I’ve had a really busy week—“
“Meaning that you didn’t get me a present… yet again. God, Mother! You always managed to get presents for Cassie’s or Lo’s birthdays. Why am I always the neglected one? Is it because I’m the oldest?”
“No honey, that’s not it at all. You’re just really hard to shop for. I never know what to get you.”
Bethany laughed derisively. “That’s rich. I have very clear tastes, not to mention that you can always ask Paul what to get me.”
“Your tastes run outside of my budget.” Her mother’s voice was rising.
“You always hear about people being disappointed with their children but what about when it’s the parent that is disappointing?”
“Knock it off, Beth!” Cassie snapped.
“What? You know what I’m talking about.” People at the tables around them were starting to watch.
“Mom does the best she can,” Lo jumped in.
“I can’t believe that you, of all people, are defending her. She’s let you down more than me and Cassie combined. And you can just sit there and tell me that’s she’s doing the best she can?”
“You know she’s a good mom. She loves all of us more than anything,” Cassie said, reaching out a hand to hold her mother’s.
“No, Beth’s right. There are a lot of things that I regret not being able to do for you girls.”
“Great, here comes the guilt trip.”
“God Bethany!” Cassie nearly shouted. “Can’t we even have one nice time together? It’s your freakin’ birthday. Why can’t you just relax?”
“Yeah, Bethy,” Lo said, her voice small and injured. “We came here to have a nice time and celebrate your birthday because we love you. Can’t you just let it go?”
Bethany straightened her back so that she was sitting up rigidly. “No, I can’t let it go. Neither of you should let it go either. She doesn’t deserve it.”
“Come on, sweetheart,” Paul injected. “Stop talking about your mom like she isn’t here— sorry Mary Jane, I didn’t mean to do it, too. Let’s all have a cup of coffee and calm down.”
“I don’t want to calm down, Paul, I just want to go home.”
He sighed and eyed the women around the table apologetically. “It is getting kind of late. Bethany has trouble sleeping if she gets herself too worked up before bedtime. Can you at least give everyone a nice goodbye? We probably won’t be seeing Cassie for a couple of months. You’re going to Hamburg, aren’t you Cassie?”
Bethany was glaring at her husband. “Sure, that would be great. Why don’t you come, too Lo?” Standing, she dropped a hundred dollar bill on the table. “That should cover most of the tab. Can you get the rest, Cassie?” Her sister nodded.
“Let me get it, Bethany. It can be my birthday present to you,” her mother said.
She put her arm over her mother’s shoulders and kissed her cheek, “That’s okay, Mama. Don’t worry about it. You’re not required to get me a birthday present.”
Taking Paul’s hand she walked out of the restaurant, leaving the rest of the women to watch her back.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED