Happy Birthday, Somewhere

In the morning, I wash the inside of the french press with a sponge, and grab the brown bag of coffee grounds behind the sink.

I shake to loosen what’s left before turning the bag over the press, watching the grounds spill to the bottom.

As I fill the kettle with water and flip the switch, I pause over the sink and look out the kitchen window to snow packing the driveway.

A neighbor is standing in the field across the street, throwing a ball to his golden dog, who zips back and forth. I wonder briefly if the man is as cold as the rainy snow looks. He wears a coat and it looks like yours.

You are not actively on my mind, but I know that you are on my mind, if that makes sense.

But it feels familiar, thoughts of you, so when the water steams I pour a good cup of coffee anyway and I don’t try too hard to forget you.

Today is your birthday, April 17, and you turn 31 this morning. Though I suppose it’s near night in Germany. It’s strange to think how April 17, for nearly half of my life, has been earmarked as the day you were born. I don’t dread it like I once did, but it doesn’t pass either.

Why is it that birthday memories seem to be some of the most cemented? I think of you, on the first year we met, that silly surprise party we threw for your 17th. Come to think of it, that was the only birthday we spent together in person, wasn’t it?

Your host parents were so tickled by it all. You know, the party was really all their idea. I always felt a little guilty about that. But I was 16, and didn’t know how to throw a party.

Anyway, I still have the invite somewhere in the desk of my childhood room. I drafted it for them knowing, of course, that when they mailed them out I’d deal with the onslaught of confusion from our digital-fiend friends.

“What is this – some birthday tea party?” Bradley called.

You remember how Bradley used to call and he’d forget to say hello? That boy. He’d just start prattling. It was one of those times.

“Nip it,” I rolled my eyes. “It’s Manny’s host parents. They’re old. It’s sweet. And we’re going,” I paused. “And we’ll be on time so we don’t ruin the surprise.”

“How does that lil Nazi get a surprise birthday – he’s lived here, what, half a moon cycle?”

I snorted. “You love him.”

Bradley really did love to give you hell.

“He’s a pain in my ass,” Bradley mused. “But yes, of course I’ll be there. Do I really have to RSVP by mail?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus. How much do stamps go for these days?”

Smile now, when I think about Bradley. He’s been gone over a decade. Do you think about him still, too?

Anyway, didn’t we have some fun, before we knew the ways of the world.

You were so surprised, that afternoon. I crouched behind a couch in the living room, near the front door. I knew you’d search for me.

I was right, of course. You stood shellshocked in that door frame. “Surprise,” we yelled. And when you started to look around the room, I moved from behind the couch. Your big, brown eyes locked with mine – and I knew I wouldn’t forget the way they fell, tenderly over my face.

“Thank you,” you mouthed, your smile widening, as our friends rushed to hug you.

I promised to remember that look, the dimples in your cheeks deepening – I just didn’t know what a burden it’d be, to remember.

——

Coffee in hand, I turn from the sink and walk up the stairs to my living room, where a cracked cream leather couch sits looking out the window. It’s an ugly thing – this couch – but can’t be any uglier than that one you had in Uni.

Oh Manny, what are you doing today for your birthday? Are you healthy? I hope you quit smoking before all this. I read the news, much like everyone these days. Munich on lockdown. Quarantine indefinitely. It’s not much better here; the snow an added prison. And no, I know what you’d say, we can’t ski or snowboard. That’s all closed, too. Don’t you think of anything other than snowboarding anyway?

There was that one year you celebrated your birthday in Spain. Long after I lived there myself. Philip called on Skype. You two were a sight for sore eyes, drunk like that. How is Philip?

What were you – 24 then, maybe 25. Anyway, some age where being drunk like that was acceptable.

“American lady,” Philip yelled, loudly, into the Skype screen when I answered. I turned down the volume, fumbling for headphones.

“What are you doing still up, birthday boy?” I smiled, when you stumbled over to the camera.

You tried to answer over Philip, and he cut you off in that way drunk people do. “He’s celebrate,” he said, in broken English.

“Celebrat-ing,” you corrected, dropping down abruptly into the chair next to him.

“Piss off.”

“You two,” I said. “A couple of terrors.”

You grinned up, a sweatshirt hood pulled over your head. “Hey there, Brooklyn girl.”

I’d been living in New York a few months then, after Spain.

“Hi,” I said. “Happy birthday, you. Did you get my message earlier? Take off that hood, let me see you.”

“Philip,” you said, ignoring my question. “Did you know she’s a real hipster now?” Your head tilted drunkenly to the right. It only ever does that when you are really drunk, you know.

“Oh stop,” I said.

“It’s true,” you said. “Look at those black skinny jeans. The other day – a denim jacket. She’s a real Brooklyn hipster.”

I rolled my eyes. And Philip laughed, probably too loud given the time. “The American Princess grows up,” he said. “Isn’t that right, sorority girl?”

You took a swig of a beer that had been out of screenshot.

“You think you need that?” I mused.

“It’s my birthday, Ms. Hall,” you winked.

Philip patted you on the back. “He still loves you, you know. That’s why I call. He’s an idiot. Thinks too much up here,” he pointed to your head.

“Is that so?” And when I looked to you, for your response, you leaned back further in the chair, beer in hand, and shrugged. Your glazed eyes left the screen. “Why are we doing this? I’ve got to pass out.”

I hesitated. I’d loved you for 8 years.

“Go, sleepy boy. Sleep it off.”

Why didn’t I tell you that I wanted it to be true? What if I had? “Come here, just come. Come to New York. We’ll figure it all out, the money will come.”

How many times were we just around the corner from a whole different life?

——————

I hear my roommate stir in her room. We’re planting a garden this summer. Can you garden where you are? Do you have a home with a backyard?

Boy, didn’t we live in heinous apartments during those early 20 years. Broke as hell, I don’t know who’s was worse – yours or mine. I had rats but you had no space. And you always griped that the heating was out. Do you still eat peanut butter sandwiches? I imagine you have some money now. I hope you upgraded to almond butter.

Come to think of it, it’s been half a decade since those years we lived on separate continents, smoking Skype cigarettes together on cracked, stained apartment stoops.

I haven’t said ‘Happy Birthday’ to you in three.

One year, didn’t you have to get that mole removed on your right shoulder?

How surreal: that a human can know the moles of another, and yet we are to continue wandering the earth with the useless knowledge of people we leave.

I guess we don’t start relationships, believing they’ll end.

And you never love someone half as much as you miss them; that’s the real tragedy, it seems.

“But, I’ve given you so much to write about,” you said once. “Marriage would be so boring. You’re a writer and writers should never marry.”

It was late, and the light from our computer screens hurt our eyes. It would be one of the last calls we had, nearing my 27th.

“I like to think the world will thank me for not marrying you, Lindsey Hall.”

“Is that so?” I smiled, sadly. “But think of all the life we won’t share. All the birthdays we’ll miss. Won’t that be a terrible burden?”

I felt like crying, but nothing came out. It was just a sort of sad sickness, when you can’t feel anything worse. It was only then I knew you’d never leave. And I’d never go.

I still think about that sadness, you know. I never even got a chance to tire of you.

Perhaps they were right, putting love into books. Perhaps it really cannot live anywhere else.

You were right that night, of course. The one thing we can never get enough of is love. So I write you out in love, because I really never know what else to do. And maybe that writing will find someone, somewhere.

The coffee is cold now, and my legs restless. Manny, it’s time to get on with my day.

Happy birthday, wherever you are.

I like to think maybe one day, in a different universe, we’ll meet again as children – we’ll grow up together –

And I’ll throw you a surprise party, in a house where we both will live.

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