Two years ago on your birthday I had it all planned out. An envelope full of flawed photographs printed from the disposable we took on vacation, a cake with your name on it and blue frosted edges. I rallied your friends and my friends and when the clock struck midnight we burst in the room singing happy birthday, the candles ablaze. You shrunk back into the sofa as if we were characters in a horror film and covered your face with your hands. I guess I didn’t realize you didn’t like surprises.
Afterwards we laughed about it and taped the pictures on your wall together. When your roommates left we blasted Empire of the Sun on your speakers and danced around the dark apartment in our underwear, the glowing green lights from the kitchen appliances making patterns of our moving bodies on the wall. You held me and I whispered happy birthday and you whispered I love you.
Last year on your birthday I had nothing planned out. I sat rocking back and forth on the bed, broken, numb, staring at a blank computer screen wondering what I was going to write for my paper due at midnight. The screen lights hurt my eyes. I just wanted to sleep. I considered writing about you.
That single thought somehow cracked the precariously placed wall in my mind and memories of us began to spill through, my lungs constricted and waves of hurt crashed over my bent head again and again. For this one night, I decided I wouldn’t try and block it out. I wallowed. I let it throb. I typed furiously through blurred vision, determined to use the pain for something good. Something beautiful.
My friends stood around uneasily, taking big sips of wine, wearing small frowns and Halloween makeup. I told them to leave without me. I had to write this paper. I waited till they left and smoked a bowl until sleep dragged me under.
Later they’d come home drunk and stumble into the apartment, their voices upset. In the morning they’d tell me. That Samantha was drunk and when she saw you she snapped. That you yelled, “Go ahead, hit me, hit me I deserve it!” That you were surprised when she grabbed your throat and dug her nails into your face instead. She missed you as much as I did.
This year on your birthday I spent the day driving away in the car, the sun warming me through the windshield while the cold, crisp air flew through the open window, picking up strands of hair and causing them to dance around my face. Fall foliage whooshes by and I wonder if she tried to surprise you. My heart doesn’t squeeze and I take a deep breath and blow it out, a small smile on my face. I’m happy to be moving. Going somewhere, even if it’s nowhere. There’s dirt under my fingernails and I’m tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the song. The boy next to me unbuckles his seat belt and leans over the center console to kiss me. I let him and force a smile while reaching to turn up the music. The Empire of the Sun lyrics float up through the car speakers and I sing along quietly, “We are always searching for the thrill of it, the thrill of it…”
Next year on your birthday I’ll be gone.