21 March 2018

Happy Birthday to Me

Prompt:  A Celebration  |  Word count:  2501 words  |  Genre:  Fiction

Julie dropped the invitations in the blue postal box.  It was gratifying to hear the low groan of metal as she released the handle of the little door.  Twenty invitations would find their way to the homes of people she used to work with, used to live with, or once knew.  Briefly, she wondered if they’d remember her, and then she felt a moment of panic:  what if no one showed up at the requested time and date?  But she shoved those doubts aside.  This was the time for action, not mulling.

In exactly twenty-eight days her party would take place.  Now, today, she had an appointment with the caterer, she needed to return the DJ’s call, and she needed to decide on decorations.  Did people still use twisted crepe paper ribbons?  She’d bought a few strands of battery-powered lights and some vases to make centerpieces like she’d seen on Pinterest.  This would definitely be her greatest triumph, if she could pull it off.

A couple of days later, Rob unlocked and opened his door, picking up the small pile of mail that had been dropped through the slot.  A couple fliers, a water bill, and a small handwritten envelope.  Tossing the others aside on the kitchen counter, he loosened his collar and tore open the invitation.  Julie’s fortieth?  Julie?  He scanned the envelope for a return address and last name.  Nothing.  Julie… Wait.  Julie?  The intern?  The one he’d dated briefly?  Two or three months, tops, it had lasted. But jeez, that had to have been twenty years ago.  Twenty at least.  Why was she resurfacing in his life?  Why now? 

Rob let a pleasant memory surface.  It must have been their second or third date, before he’d realized how bat shit crazy she was.  They’d cooked dinner together, a complicated Italian dish that another, previous intern had taught him.  For a moment, he let himself be distracted by that other intern, Maria-Theresa, who had the slightest accent from growing up in a Rome suburb, luscious, wavy hair, and the repressed fury of a devout Catholic.  Oh, how fun it had been to seduce her!  It had taken months and months, but the challenge had made him feel like a man, a real, virile man.

But Julie, not Maria-Theresa, had sent this invitation, requesting his presence at her birthday party.  It had been more than a decade and a half since he’d last had contact with her, a job recommendation of some sort.  Strange to receive this invitation now.  He surmised that she’d Googled his current address.


Julie continued making plans.  The caterer was a dream to work with, ready to listen to every idea and then somehow upgrade it so that it was a notch above Julie’s expectations.  Sure, it was going to be expensive, but she was worth it.  It had taken her decades to realize that:  her worth.  That she had inherent value, even.

The meal, though, would be exquisite.  Three courses.  The first, figs stuffed with brie and wrapped in prosciutto, then the purest, lightest consommé with a dollop of crème fraîche and butternut squash tortellini.  And then dessert:  a lemon bar drizzled with lavender-infused honey.  All accompanied by some special wines from Paso Robles.  And everything tiny and nearly bite-sized, but so lovely on the plates.  It made her mouth water just thinking of it.

Still, though, a sense of unease lingered.  What was the point?  How was she going to pull this off?


Elisa, even though she was running a bit late, re-opened the envelope, her curiosity again unable to stop positing theories. 

Her husband, Jack, hearing the paper slide out of the envelope, folded the newspaper down and looked at her over his new reading glasses.  “Really, Elisa?”  He looked so annoyed.

“I just don’t get it,”  her brow wrinkling.  “She was my roommate seventeen years ago.  We got along great at first, but then when I got promoted and then got the corner office, well… She gave me the cold shoulder.  We were barely speaking when I moved out.  And I even let her keep the couch.  The couch that I bought!”  She shook her head.

“So don’t go,” Jack said, disappearing again behind the newspaper.

“But it’s all so curious.”  Elisa slid the invitation back inside the envelope.  “I can hardly stand the mystery of it all.”

Jack rustled the newspaper as if in response.

“I’m going,” Elisa said.  “You don’t have to.  I mean, I guess, technically, you aren’t even invited.”


Julie’s last task before the party was to figure out what she was going to wear.  She didn’t really like to shop; she never had.  It was always a challenge and nothing ever fit right.  But she armed herself with confidence and drove to the department store.

A dress, she thought.  Perhaps even a little black dress.  She’d never bought one before but it seemed the perfect attire for a fortieth birthday.  At the store there were more options than she’d thought would be available.  Oh, how she hated shopping.  How much easier this might be if she had a friend to offer advice.  Maybe one of the shop clerks could fill that role today.

Yet, as she scanned the racks, it seemed they were all busy behind the cash register.  No one seemed to care if she took even a dozen dresses to try on to the fitting room. 

Under the hum of the fluorescent lights, Julie undressed and began trying on the dresses.  As she expected, some issue claimed each one and the pile of discards grew.  One was too tight in the hips, another gaped at the bust.  A third had confusing cut-outs near the armholes.  Just where did her appendages go?  The strapless one was just too strange and slinky, more like lingerie than a dress.

And then, with only two to go, one fit.  It flattered.  It emphasized all her assets without drawing attention to her deficits.  She looked pretty, or perhaps even classy.  It was perfect.

Shoes, evening bag, a bracelet that was probably too expensive, given the total of everything else she was spending on the party.  But it was all going according to plan.  Everything was falling into place.


The invitation perplexed Celia.  Tenderly, she rubbed the barely visible scar on her cheek.  She hadn’t spoken with Julie since the dog bite incident, and shortly after that her family had moved back to New Jersey.  She couldn’t recall all the details because it had all happened so long ago.  How old had they been, eleven?  They supposed themselves friends, but as Celia looked back at that time, she recognized that they’d had little in common but their age, gender, and the street they’d lived on.

On the afternoon in question, Celia had been at Julie’s house.  They’d been teasing the dog all afternoon, holding their snacks up high and encouraging Bruce to jump for it.  How he’d jump and land so awkwardly!  They’d laugh and Celia remembered how her cat Annabelle seemed the exact opposite of Bruce.  Julie and Celia didn’t tire of this activity.  It was one they did regularly because Bruce was just an old, dumb dog, and never seemed to learn.  It was always hilarious.

This part, though, Celia recalled with a clarity that eluded most other childhood memories.  Julie tossed Celia a cube of cheese.  Celia caught it and held it up, not as high as usual, just near her face.  She was certain that Bruce wouldn’t get it.  He was too old and growing tired of this game.  And then suddenly, Bruce’s hot, smelly breath was in her face, his jaws clamping not only her hand with the cheese, but also her cheek.  Impaled by a jagged canine, probably one that had chipped last week when they’d thrown rocks for dumb Bruce to catch and fetch.  When Celia pushed Bruce away, the tooth pulled, ripping a ragged gap just below her cheekbone that would later require plastic surgery to hide.  Celia and Julie had both been so shocked by the amount of blood that neither could explain to the adults what had happened.
Later, in the emergency room, Celia’s parents forbid her from ever associating with Julie again.  On the phone in the hospital, Celia overheard her father calling Animal Control and insisting that Bruce be put down.  He had a contact at the mayor’s office, damn it.  After her face had been stitched, her cheeks and mouth numb, the nurse insisted on cleaning the superficial wounds on her hand.  Celia opened her palm, and there was the cheese, soft and grimy.

But now, she looked at the invitation and knew she would attend Julie’s party.  Everything had ended so abruptly.  Celia owed it to her old friend to help celebrate this milestone.


The day of the event arrived.  Julie made phone calls, finalizing the details and confirming the particulars.  When she arrived at the venue a few hours early, the caterer’s team was finishing the table decorations.  It was all so beautiful that she gasped.  She went from table to table, noting the layout, the flowers, the lights.  It all seemed such a waste.

In a small alcove off the main room, a table was ready to be wheeled into the party on Julie’s command.  Atop it, in matching gift-wrapped boxes, were identical party favors, each addressed to a guest and meant to be opened upon their return home.  Julie touched each box, her fingers tracing the names that had brought her such grief.  Soon, she told herself.  Soon.  She had anticipated for so long the release that would come with each of her guests learning the many ways in which they’d each disappointed her.  It wasn’t so much that she wanted revenge; it was more like justice.

She left to have her hair and nails done, confident that it would all be ready for her entrance after the guests arrived.


After the spa treatments, Julie considered stopping by once more, just to check that all was in place.  But that was silly.  There was no need; everything had been going so well and she would just appear neurotic if she stopped by again.  And this new decade, this new leaf she was turning – she was saying goodbye to that neurotic Julie and hello to the self-confidence she’d always sought.

Although she’d planned for it, she was still surprised that she had so much time to kill before her grand entrance at the party.  She needed to get dressed, but everything else was ready.  And yet, here she had more than an hour to kill.  And so she did drive back to the venue, popping in to double, triple check.  No one suspected anything; no one noticed. 

Finally, back at home, it was time to get dressed.  She did so slowly, with intention, reveling in the look she’d managed to capture on this important day.  Sliding her feet into the beautiful shoes she’d found, she was ready. 

Driving to the party, she had to pull over twice to let fire engines to fly past her.  It was happening.  Her heart leapt to see those same fire trucks blocking the entrance and smoke billowing from the roof.  There wasn’t even anyone directing traffic yet.  The events were still unfolding.  Carefully, slowly, she drove around the block, searching for a parking space while keeping her eyes on the black smoke.  Ash began raining down as she slid into a space and parked the car.

She exited the vehicle, unaware that flakes of ash were settling on her hair and shoulders, disarming the sense of put-together style she’d worked so hard to achieve.  In her teetering manner, she wandered to the front of the building where she cut between the manicured and pruned elements of the landscaping.  A police officer was now directing traffic, his car blocking two lanes of traffic to keep the onlookers further away from the scene.

Julie walked near the entrance, where at least a half-dozen firefighters stood, some having recently emerged from the building.  They all gazed at the flaming roof, some leaning toward one another to communicate. 

Extracting a handkerchief from her matching clutch, Julie unfurled it, holding it over her mouth to help filter the smoke from her lungs.  The firefighters hadn’t noticed her.  No one had.  Her ability to fade into the background, she finally realized, was an asset.  An ambulance whizzed behind her, leaving the premises, its lights flashing silently.  She watched it reach the road and the police officer held the traffic with his arms outstretched in both directions.  Only when the ambulance had zipped by him did the siren begin to wail. 

Aside from the crackle of the firefighter radios and the fire, there was no other sound.  Julie held her breath as a firefighter emerged from the building, leading the caterer who had been so kind and creative.  Another firefighter appeared, helping the woman to the ground and administering oxygen.  Another uniformed person appeared.  He spoke words that Julie could not hear.  The caterer shook her head several times, then the man led the caterer away.

The firefighters began to move closer to the building, spreading out along the perimeter, and now Julie noticed that another group of firefighters was pulling a large hose from behind a fire truck.  The man at the front adjusted something and a powerful spray of water shot out while those behind him struggled to maintain control of the hose.  Later, the roof collapsed, the firefighters pulled back, and still Julie watched, unable to turn away.  The smoke was thick, now mixed with dust.  A layer of ash coated everything, then the brusk wind would shift, lifting it and laying it down elsewhere.  Gradually, imperceptibly, the urgency of the situation, too, lifted.  Those working the fire did so with less speed.  The sirens moaned into the distance and quieted.

By now she’d forgotten her party, forgotten the cost of it all.  Her make up was melting and the ash in her hair gave her the air of a woman twice her age.  Her fancy shoes were drenched with the grey water sheeting across the cement. 

A firefighter appeared, holding a two-way radio up to his overly large helmet.  Lowering it, he approached where Julie stood. 

“Excuse me,” she asked, her voice higher than she intended.  “Was anyone hurt?” 

He shook his head, leaning in and removing the helmet.  “What’s that?”

“Was anyone hurt?  In the fire?”

“No, not badly.  A few were taken to the hospital as precaution.  Everyone was evacuated – some kind of party,” he sized her up a moment.  “You a reporter?”

“No, no.  It’s just,” she stuttered.  “It’s my birthday.”

“Well, then.  Happy birthday!”  He strode off and Julie was left alone. 

She surveyed the ruined building before her.  She’d done it.  And the next one would be even better.  Yes, she thought, smiling broadly.  Happy birthday.  Happy birthday to me.

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