Happy Birthday, Ann

by Kate McSHANE
 

I didn’t always live alone. I used to have roommates. I also used to have all of my wisdom teeth but last December they were all removed in one magical week. Both my mouth and apartment are no longer overcrowded with assholes who thought they belonged there. I bid them a fond farewell with an overdue phone bill and a couple of percocets as parting gifts. Thanks for playing “Try to live with Ann!” now get the hell out. Now I can eat all the marshmallows out of the cereal box without consequences. I can chew bubblegum with reckless abandon. My boyfriend can walk around naked and only one person has to be offended. But I have to admit, it’s on a morning such as this when I wish anyone was around to say, Good morning, Ann. Don’t walk in front of a bus, Ann. Happy Birthday, Ann.

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I have to leave for work in ten minutes and so far only my best friend, Rags, has called. Rags got her nickname when we were seven and both Raggedy Ann for Halloween. I picked the costume because of my name, she because her sister was Pippi Longstocking the year before and her Mom wanted to recycle the red yarn wig. We barely knew each other then but we were placed together in the school parade. The name just stuck and so did we.

“Listen,” she said, “you are not sixteen so quit acting like Molly Shitwald and get a grip.” Rags is the only person who has the guts to tell me how it is and sometimes tear my heart out in the process. This has resulted in months of not talking. Secret vaults filled with resentment. We used to just beat the shit out of each other but I bruise easily and people started to look at my boyfriend funny.

“He forgot, huh?” she asked.

“He can’t technically forget if he is asleep,” I shot back, knowing how pathetic it sounded the second the words left my mouth.

So my boyfriend is kind of famous. He was on a semi-popular television show in the early nineties but after it got canceled he moved back east. I met him at my friend Audrey’s party three years ago. When my friends said there was a celebrity coming, I sped all the way there. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the equivalent of Pauly Shore waiting in line to use the bathroom. He eventually won me over with his utter contempt for his former co-stars, who he called a bunch of clowns. “And not the kind that went to college for it either,” he said.

I didn’t know if he was being serious but I didn’t care, I hadn’t heard anything so silly in weeks. It’s hard to find a silly man so I kept him around for the giggles. He used to fly out for pilot season but he stopped that around the time we met. Now he teaches drama classes at the local college, slowly replacing all the money he snorted up his nose. He’s not my soul mate but you know what Crosby, Stills, and Nash say about loving the one you’re with. Something about it being morally acceptable, I think. Anyway, he doesn’t really love me either or else he would’ve called by now. Sometimes I can’t even get angry at him because it would involve bad acting on both of our parts and I like him to keep some things just for himself.

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Upon arriving to work, I see a bouquet waiting at my desk. This has to be a mistake. The same mistake that befell me one fateful Valentine’s day when my colleague’s roses were delivered to me instead. I excitedly ripped open the card, not checking to see if it was even made out to me. I don’t know what was sadder, that the flowers were from her parents or that my boyfriend didn’t even bother to wake up that day.

It has happened again but this time it’s okay because I am prepared. Maybe the new girl’s boyfriend cheated on her or it’s the anniversary of the first time the temp loaded the printer cartridge properly. Maybe my boss has finally gotten her braces off and her husband has sent her lilacs because he can now look at her and not wince. I approach the flowers nervously and see that the card is made out to me. I half expect water to squirt out when I bend over to smell them but am greeted with a sweet aroma instead.

“What’s the occasion?” asks Jean, who’s been milling around since I came in.

“Oh, it’s my birthday,” I say with a shrug of the shoulders.

“Well, Happy birthday to you,” she says with a robotic tilt of the head.

I hate everyone I work with except Elroy. Elroy and I sit two desks away from each other and we pass notes on our way to anywhere. Mostly about what a shit Jean is.

“Well, enjoy your flowers,” she says as if I sent them to myself.

Jean walks away and starts to discreetly whisper to people she passes, as if informing them I had just killed the office goldfish. I nearly forgot to open the card when Elroy sidled up to me.

“Those can’t possibly be from Lester,” he says incredulously. Elroy mockingly calls my boyfriend by his sitcom name but all this does is remind me that he was once on television and Elroy staples things for a living.

“Don’t know yet,” I say as I grab the tiny card from its plastic holder. I didn’t want to read it, as if it was a college rejection letter. Something I already had a handle on, unfortunately.

“Elroy,” I sigh. He hangs his head for a second and then looks up at me.

“I didn’t want your desk to get a complex or anything,” Elroy says as he crumples the paper cup he was holding. “You know, about Valentine’s day,” he whispers as if to shield my desk from further embarrassment.

“You’re very sweet,” I say as I kiss him on the cheek.

He walks to his desk with a goofy grin on his face. I didn’t want to lead him on, but a kiss on the cheek is appropriate for the situation, I tell myself. The phone rings and Rags immediately wants to know why I sound so happy.

“Senile already?” she asks. I tell her about the flowers.

“Aw, atta boy,” she coos.

“Come on now.”

She’s always liked Elroy but she knows better. Besides, my boyfriend may be a burnout but he has always been nice to my friends. He even flew her out to Los Angeles once so I would have someone to hang out with while he went on some auditions. He didn’t get any parts but I think the California air serves as a decongestant for him: his snoring reduced to a mere honking while there.

“So I guess that makes it Ann, one, Birthday, zero,” she says.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“So what he hasn’t called,” she says and maybe she’s onto something there.

“Fuck, here comes Brian from packaging. I gotta go,” I say and Rags wishes me luck.

“Let me guess,” Brian is pointing his trigger finger at me. If only it were loaded with bullets instead of awkward pauses. “Lucky twenty one!” he shouts.

“Close, twenty four,” I say.

“Ohh, you’re catching up to me!” he shouts, his laugh echoing throughout the office.

“I don’t think I could run that fast,” I say. I can tell Brian doesn’t really know what that means and quite honestly neither do I.

“Well, have a good one,” he says, a puzzled look still on his freckled and wrinkled face.

This is why I never announce my birthday to people at work. Especially to the hated. I hate Brian. I hate that he knows my sign. I hate that I can say something flaky and he can go, “You crazy Capricorns!” I wouldn’t mind all this hullabaloo if there was going to be cake later but there isn’t. My birthday isn’t marked on the giant calendar in the kitchen. All hail the giant calendar in the kitchen. Their perpetual gift to me is resentment for not allowing them to buy me an ice cream cake in the shape of a whale. The absence of chocolate crunchies in their stomachs, a sweet gift after all.

The one good thing about no cake is there will be no singing. I hate birthday singing. It’s my parents’ fault really: my name is just not conducive to the tradition. I mean the jerk who penned the Birthday song had to have had more than one syllable in his or her name. It just sounds best when you get to the end and everyone sings “Happy Birthday, Dear An-drew” or whatever. Us schmos with monosyllabic names are basically screwed. Awkwardness ensues every year when my name is drawn out to be longer than ever intended, “Happy birthday, dear A-aaaan!” It’s embarrassing, really, everyone adding that extra beat. Don’t do me any favors, birthday song singers, okay?

I used to really love today. Just hearing the words “May tenth” spoken used to make my eyes twinkle. It seemed there was always something to look forward to there for a while. After the promise of toys came the promise of driving, cigarettes, then finally alcohol. These could be considered my three favorite things. After you get your favorite things, what’s left?

I also always think I’m going to get the best present in the world. A puppy, a diamond, a car with an oversized bow. What about my boyfriend, you say? He must give you some sweet gifts with all that royalty money, right? I’d say that the money that was once spent on the white stuff is now being spent on the green stuff and as awesome as that Bilbo Baggins pipe he gave me last year was, I have since refused to accept gifts that are whittled.

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Pulling into my driveway I see his car and am instantly relieved. I worry he won’t say it though. The immediate “happy birthday” is necessary. Happy birthdays are the reverse of I-love-yous when it comes to etiquette. If you don’t say “Happy Birthday” within the first few sentences you speak to the person, you may as well shoot them in the face. With “I love you,” if someone says it to you, you have a few sentences you can stall with but if you don’t say it back, you may as well shoot the other person in the face. He said I love you first which surprised me and I said it right back with this stupid smile on my face. I can’t help it, I was twenty-one and Lester loved me! Little old me!

I open the door and slam it in an attempt to wake him if he is sleeping. I don’t hear any noise coming from the back of the apartment and I know right away he’s not there. I search the countertop for a note but honestly, I know better. I do things like this for my Nonnie. I often think she is watching me from heaven, and gestures such as looking for a note might give her hope that my life hasn’t completely gone to shit. See, my boyfriend has just stepped out for a minute, Nonnie, he’ll be right back with a bundle of peonies and one of those obnoxiously large cards with Ziggy on it.

I call Rags and she spares me the “told you so” attitude. “I’ll be there in five minutes,” she says.

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As soon as she comes in, she says, “let’s go for a drink.” It’s more of a statement than a suggestion.

“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t know what I don’t know but I feel pretty confident saying it. I do know I want tomorrow to come. For it not to be my birthday. The absurd expectations of birthday perfection to be as dead as my youth.

“C’mon,” she says, “I’ll buy you a shot.”

“I’ll take two in the skull, please.”

“Shut up, alright. No one is shooting anyone in the skull. You really say that a lot, you know?”

“Yeah, but today I really mean it.”

“Oh, well if you really mean it I’ll stop at Walmart and in five days you got it fuckin’ comin’, girl.”

Rags is a pistol. She’s a real card, my Dad would say. A piece of work, my Mom would shout from the next room because she always thought she said it better.

“I know what would make the night better,” Rags says.

“What’s that?”

“I think we should give a not so secret admirer a ring a ding ding and have him join us,” she says as she picks up my phone and fondles its numbers.

“Are you mental?”

“What?” Rags says, like asking Elroy to get drunk with us was this fantastic idea.

“You know what,” I say but Rags is already running for the bathroom, phone in hand. “Okay, okay, I’ll call him,” I say, chasing her, but it’s too late.

“It’s ringing,” she says from inside the bathroom, and suddenly I am in seventh grade and having my best friend call boys for me.

“I got his answering machine.” She can tell by my silence that I am disappointed.

“Maybe he’s out, don’t worry baby girl,” she says. I smiled then, remembering that Elroy doesn’t have Caller ID at home. If he didn’t pick up his cell phone I would know for sure that men were put here on earth solely to ruin my birthday.

“Hello?” I can hear his muffled voice through the door. He sounds so far away and all I can think about is kissing him. I hear Rags laughing and I have to walk away. I imagine Elroy at home in his pajamas, nodding so hard his head helicopters off, saying yes, yes, yes. I suppose I’m being narcissistic, maybe he’s saying no, no, no, he has a girl over and they’re playing strip Boggle. Tell her it’s too late, he might say and he would sigh and Rags would say “El-roy” but he will’ve already hung up.

I start walking back towards the bathroom door only to find it opening. Rags comes out with a short, stiff smile on her face.

“So?” I ask with my eyes bugged out, my eyebrows raised like some kind of cartoon idiot.

“So Elroy shall meet us at the bar in twenty minutes, my elderly friend.”

Our town is so small that I know immediately which bar she means, everyone knows our name, blah, blah, blah.

I undress and I pull my hair out of its tight ponytail, find a tee shirt on the washing machine and pull it over my head.

“Just some quick makeup,” Rags says as she attacks my face with mascara and lip gloss. “I think you’re ready, birthday girl.”

I smile when I see Rags looking back at me. She looks so pretty standing there, wanting me to be happy.

“Let’s go,” I say, and grab my bag from the back of the kitchen chair. I ignore the familiar sounds of boots on the driveway gravel, of keys jangling, and we walk out the back door.

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