A Birthday to remember
My world is a happier place at lunch as I peer at it through the golden luminescence of my wine. A swirl, a sniff and a gulp. I absent-mindedly tune in and out of the snippets of conversation buzzing around me, as if changing frequencies on a radio. Golden glimpses into the lives of strangers. Wine loosens any forebodings. I attack another broccoli on my plate; dip it in dressing before emptying the fork in my mouth.
Gossip and conversation scattered around me like dried leaves on a winter morning. I don’t pry, but I can’t discount odds and ends of stories whispered into my ears. Imagination fills the dashes, connects the dots, and colors the black and white picture of life around me. Lunch time is great for filling appetite; both stomach and soul. I gulp the last sip of my iridescent wine, and my world gleams back at me; complete and fully crafted. I leave behind a handsome tip and walk out of the restaurant triumphantly.
I mentally wave at the people en-route to my apartment; faces of my stories. I see a florist looking gloomily outside at the passer’s by. Is he an owner or an apprentice, I wonder? What secrets does he hide behind the colorful cheeriness of his flowers?
A well-dressed young man stops by to pick up some flowers. He examines the flowers; touching, feeling, inhaling the colorful bouquets. Who is he buying them for? A sweetheart or the wife he has grown to take for granted?
I see a beautiful lady dressed in a business suit hailing a cab from across the street. Her long blonde hair neatly tied in a pony. Her red lipstick stands out on her pale face. The cab stops and she looks past her shoulder nervously, and then at her watch. She is waiting for someone to join her on her ride, I am sure. Hurrying to get back to work, or a personal meeting, I wonder?
I pass a Mexican restaurant with a patio and a garden. There is a fountain brimming in the center. I see couples sitting, basking in the sun, listening to the Mariachi band.
Half a block away is my multi-storied apartment complex; grey and characterless. A man in his late seventies sits outside on a concrete chair. I should be getting back, but something about his disposition attracts me. I stop.
“Ah yes lovely indeed. But then every day is lovely for a retired man.” He chuckles. His face wrinkles into a smile.
“Are you new here, Sir?” I ask curiously.
“I have lived here for more than 50 years, young lady. I moved here when I was a young lad and had a full set of hair. Got married and had children. They are all grown up now. Time does fly”. He trails off, doodling circles in the sand with the sharp edge of his walking stick.
“I moved here not too long ago but I pass by here every day and don’t remember seeing you before. Do you live close by?” I ask.
“I own the red house up the hill, with the ugly jallopy” he laughs pointing in the general direction of the house.
“Do you mean the large red house with the beautiful Garden” I ask excitedly? “I have seen it before. It’s beautiful. The house I mean…”
“Yes” he nods. “I and Sandy built it together. It was our baby” he ruminates.
“Sandy…my wife. She was barely 20 and I was 25 when we met.” His face lights up. “When I saw her face for the first time, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So beautiful was my Sandy. Ah those were the days”.
I did not ask where she was now, but he must have read my mind. “She was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. It was terminal.” he says wistfully. “She passed away soon after in a hospital.” He looks down. “It’s good she did. I would not have wanted her to linger in pain”.
“She died on my birthday. The dumb broad left me a birthday present I could never forget” he laughed disdainfully.
“I..I am so sorry for your loss” I stutter uncomfortably.
“Thank you my dear. You know how they say, ‘until death do us part’? Truth is when you live together with someone for 50 years; even death can’t do you apart. You just become a part of each other. Sandy lives on with me. I can feel her” he says touching his heart.
We sit quietly for a minute. The birds chirping in the sky. “So when is your birthday, Sir?” I ask, regretting the question the moment it is out.
“Tomorrow”, he replies.
Back at home I cook myself a gourmet meal of Mac n’ Cheese (out of the box)! My heart feels heavy. I cannot imagine losing someone who I have shared most of my life with only to find them gone so suddenly and with such little time to prepare.
Every night after dinner, I maintain a daily journal making notes of all the people and places I meet. The pen meets paper and bleeds a carnival of phantasmic characters that I can later borrow and craft into my stories.
The gloomy florist I saw on my way back home, for instance is owner –manager of the flower shop by day and a serial killer by night. And oh…maybe he lives with his mother, like Norman Bates in Psycho?
And the young man who stopped by to buy the bouquet of peonies, buys the same flowers everyday for his secret crush; the girl next door. He will leave them outside her door, like he does every morning. He is too scared to share his feelings and she is too self engrossed to care.
The beautiful lady hailing the cab was in a hurry to meet her lover. She waits for him by the taxi. They are supposed to meet and run away, but he never shows up. That day they end their 6 year love affair.
And the old man…I stop. What about the old man? His story is incredible as is. What is it like to live and grow old with someone only to wake up one morning and find they are gone forever? Sigh. The old man must feel so lonely. It’s his birthday tomorrow and also his wife’s death anniversary. I wonder where his children are? I think I will bake him a cake tonight. And tomorrow I will bring it over to his house for a surprise visit. That should cheer him up I say to myself gleefully. I know we have just met, but something tells me, we will be great friends. I pull out my apron and “Baking for Dummies” and set out into the kitchen.
The next morning I walk up to his beautiful red house and ring the doorbell. I wait. Nobody answers. Outside are two bottles of milk that haven’t been picked up. I turn the doorknob but it is locked. I walk back disappointed. I stop by the same bench that I met him at. He is not there.
“Ah there you are” calls out a voice from behind. I turn back and find the old man pointing at me. “Something told me I will find you here. Aah is that cake for me?” He asks excitedly.
“Yes” I respond excited to see his friendly face.
“Well then let’s cut it. I love a chocolate cake.”
We go up to upstairs to my tiny apartment and he makes himself comfortable. We cut the cake and pour us a drink and clink our glasses.
“Happy Birthday” I say.
“Norman” he adds spontaneously. My name is Norman.
“Hi Norman” I giggle. “I am Becky. “Happy Birthday Norman”.
You know he says forking downing his second slice, “this is the best cake I have had in a long time”.
We sit there for hours, he tells me about his life. From JFK and Vietnam War to the story of his life. We discuss some of the literary works of his time such as, “To kill a Mocking Bird”, “Catch 22”, and “One flew over a cuckoo’s nest”. I tell him about my life; as a recent graduate, unemployed but a budding although unpublished writer. Norman has a thousand other stories to fill me in on, and time just flies.
He looks outside the window it’s already dark.
“What says young lady, we go to my house, and I will pick up my coat and wallet and take you out to nice restaurant?” he asks.
“Are you sure?” I respond doubtfully.
I set off once more towards the red house with Norman. The house is dark inside and eerily quiet. Norman keys the door open. And a long dark passage opens up.
A sudden noise breaks the eerie silence, and I practically jump.
“Surprise” comes a volley of 50 odd voices. Suddenly there is light everywhere and large room full of young and old people with birthday hats and confetti. Endless showers of ‘Happy Birthday” and “We love you” resound. An elegant lady in her early 70’s runs out and embraces Norman and showers him with kisses, “Happy Birthday my darling. Hope you don’t mind this surprise party, the kids absolutely insisted” she says. He kisses her back sincerely “I love you Sandy”.
Sandy is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She is very elegantly dressed. Her skin is flawless and her features are chiseled. A beautiful young woman emerges from behind, and hugs Norman with open arms, “Happy Birthday daddy” she gushes. She is followed by her husband and children and then the family and all his friends. Norman is smiling and thanking them all, hugs, handshakes and high five’s.
He looks at me, puts his hand behind my shoulder and ushers me in. “Sandy, Lilly” he calls out to the two beautiful ladies. “I want you to meet a very special young friend of mine”. Sandy stretches out a much bejeweled hand towards me, “come in my lovely” she says warmly.
Norman’s house is exquisite; the walls are studded with pictures of Norman with wife and family, Norman receiving awards, Norman cutting ribbons at inauguration ceremonies. Oscars and Emmys fill the library. Norman is none other than the legendary script writer, director and Producer Norman Sandler who produced some of the biggest American classics.
I am spellbound and frankly cheated. Why did he lie about Sandy? Nothing about this vivacious, timeless beauty sounds dead to me? Sandy is looking at me, reading me. She laughs. “I am sorry my darling. You see my husband is a man of many talents. But he also has many faults. He is a bit eccentric. You see he used to write for his profession. He loves writing and telling stories so much, that he never says the truth anymore. Everything is a story. I don’t know what he told you my dear, but I assure you, he means no harm.”
Two hours later, I am too damn drunk and having too much fun to care. The man I met and spent the whole day chatting with in my studio apartment was none other than Norman Sandler. The most celebrated iconic personalities of his time. And he spent most of his birthday enjoying a cake made out of a box with an absolute stranger. I know now, he spent his whole day with me not because he was lonely, but because he knew; I was.
A note: This is a short story I have drafted in response to the Weekly Challenge posted on 20th January called “Lunch Posts”. Per Erica’s suggestion I wrote it in pieces (during my free time) over the last 5 days. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.