The Birthday Girl 

Page 8 of 10

"I never thought it was," she says. "It's not going to be Bob, either. Sitting on a beach in Mexico."

"He changed his mind."

"Nope," Gwen says. "He just stopped answering his cell phone."

"Maybe his battery went dead."

"Maybe."

"Maybe Bob is dead."

"I hope so," she says — then shudders, like she has said something unlucky. "I don't want him dead," she says. "I just want him to suffer a little."

"You should introduce him to my ex-wife," I tell her.

"Ha, ha," she says. "Just like Jay Leno."

I sit across from her at the table and I take her hand in mine and look at it, touch it: a girl's hand, soft and long-fingered, with pointed, painted nails. She is, to this extent, taking care of herself. I don't look at her face. I don't really want to know what's in it, what expectation or what fear. I just focus on her small, soft, attractive hand between my own.

I tell her, "When it's gone, it's gone. You'll know. You should go to him when the weather breaks."

"What if he's not there? What if he doesn't want to see me?"

"You'll be alone," I say. "Same as now but with palm trees and sunshine."

"I mean to do well," she says — and when I look up, she's staring into my face, like she means to be understood, like this is somehow suddenly important. She says, "I try to do the right thing but I feel like I'm always, I don't know, things are running away from me. Like I got off the SSRIs so I could, you know, be with Bob. Be enthusiastic, because, you know, people like that in a person. Enthusiasm. But then, I don't know, it's like everything speeded up and got all edgy, like when I quit smoking the first time, that little voice that wouldn't shut up saying time for a cigarette, time for a cigarette... You know? Like nothing would stay where it was supposed to be, nothing was at rest. So I take these other things just to slow things down and meanwhile Bob won't have anything to do with me. He says my personality is suddenly a problem and it's just because I'm trying to make him happy. Nothing ever works out the way I planned it. Do you think I'm pretty?"

"I do," I tell her, and rub the warm skin of the back of her hand.

She stands, and in one gesture, it feels like, steps free of her plain skirt and blouse, discards her bra and then stands naked before me in only her knee socks, never taking her eyes off my face. Her body is perfect. There's something blinding about it, too bright to be stared at directly, there in the pale candlelight — and the searchlights of her eyes, playing over my face, looking for something, looking for what?

Whatever is wrong with her, it is nothing I can fix, or even help. I know this all at once. It's a mistake for me to be here.

"Do you think I'm beautiful?" she asks.

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