The Birthday Girl

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

The college boy, out to get ice and fifty feet ahead of us, is
surprised to hear it. He turns and stares.

“I didn’t think you were,” I tell her. The hallway stretches far in
front of us, ending at a blind corner; the parking lot, through the
glass doors, is filling up with snow like milk in a glass. The cars are
unrecognizable mounds, animal-like shapes, like white cats curled up to
sleep. The college boy waits by the ice machine, waits till we pass and
eyes us eagerly. He’s curious. I fight the urge to flip him off. Piano
Pat’s music — drum machine, piano, synthesizer, organ —
echoes and pursues us down the long hallway, like a poisonous fog.

We get to Room 212 in what feels like half an hour. I hand her the
key, which I have been holding for her, and say something mild and
polite by way of goodbye, feeling faintly relieved.

“Wait,” says Gwen.

“Wait for what?”

“I don’t want to be alone,” she says. “Just for a minute. Come

She turns the key and slowly opens the door and holds it open for me
to walk through. And look, I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t
that. I don’t expect to do anything with her. I don’t even want to go
in. But her face just looks so lost and lonely, so momentarily naked,
it would be a betrayal to turn away. I’ve looked like that before, I
think. When Elaine first left, I did. I couldn’t just turn my back.

Inside her room is not what I was expecting.

The flowers, for one thing, a round array of pink and purple and
green poking out of the ice bucket, a single red carnation in a water
glass by the bed, a couple of snapdragon or orchid-looking things on
the other bedside table. The air of the room is still and full with the
smell of flowers, and of her products and perfumes, a little stale.
Also, there are candles, which she had apparently left burning on the
desk by the TV while she went to the bar. On the table sits a still
life of wine and bread and cheese, a lonely dinner. In the corner, by
the closet, sits a set of black professional luggage, the frequent
flyer’s TravelPro rollaboard and the big black sample case.

She lies down upon the bed and starts to weep. I stand in the
doorway, uncertain. Where should I put myself? I never know what to do
with a crying woman. I never seem to meet any other kind. Gwen has
curled herself into the shape of an S, her face turned away from me. I
don’t know what to do with my body. Once more, it seems to me that I
should just go, back to my son, back to my life. I remember, just at
that moment, nursing baby Justin through a bout of croup on a cold
winter night, a night he couldn’t catch his breath and the three of us
alone in a place so far from anywhere that we couldn’t see a ranch
light from our porch, nothing but stars. And here he was, he couldn’t
breathe, two years old or even less. And I remember taking him into the
shower, and holding him in the steam, trying not to drop him, the
slippery-smooth little body. And after a while he started to sound OK.
We stayed an hour longer in the steam, just to make sure, and all that
time Elaine was on the porch, smoking cigarettes and praying —
though she wasn’t religious at all except in medical emergencies and
ice storms on the highway. I don’t know why this comes to me but it
does: the soft wet skin, the panic.

“You shouldn’t leave candles burning when you’re not here,” I tell
her, when the tears stop. “You could burn the place down.”

“It’s fireproof,” she says.

“You’re not.”

“No,” says Gwen. “But I don’t care.”

She smiles at me after she says this, a bright artificial grin that
shuts off quickly as a light bulb. Like an old woman, she gets out of
bed slowly, stiffly, and sits at the table and pours a glass of wine
for herself out of an open bottle, then one for me. She’s thinking. She
still looks wholesome, whole wheat, like the kind of girl who might
have made her outfit herself, all long brown straight glossy hair, neat
as a pin. I lie down on a bed for five minutes these days and I get up
looking like I’ve been dead for a week. She, on the other hand, looks
fresh and clean.

“You need somebody to take care of you,” I tell her.

“I know.”

“It’s not going to be me.”