Posted: March 10, 2013 in Stories

It was such a strange birthday that year.

I remember putting on the dress clothes my parents had bought me and which I had laid out the night before: khakis, white loafers, pink-striped button-down with a baby blue necktie and the blazer I had worn for graduation the year before. I stayed up late talking to some girl whose name I’ve chosen to forget, so I hadn’t gotten much sleep. Just an hour or two.

There was a line at the wake, all the way out the auditorium doors into the parking lot where Hell’s Angels were waving American flags and revving their engines. The old vets wearing the hats with insignias and pushing walkers probably couldn’t hear them. I remember the woman behind me sobbing. The man in front of me was talking loudly about thisandthat to the voice in his earpiece and a baby’s scream bounced off the concrete façade. It was hot; almost ninety-two, and I could feel the sun slowly burning away the skin on my nose and my closed eyelids. I could almost hear my mother telling me how I should have put on sunblock like she always told me to do.

I knelt down before the coffin and just kind of stared at the flag draped over it. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t even know why I showed up. But I just knelt there for a while, staring at the flag, then through the flag to the varnished wood, then through the wood to the ravaged body. Maybe my eyes were still closed. I can’t remember.

I felt like I was there for a while, because the woman behind me who had mostly collected herself by the time we made it inside the auditorium broke down again and just about threw me down. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I got up and shook the hands of the man’s mother, father, grandmother, sister, uncle, other uncle, other grandmother, and the almost-widow; the fiancé, holding the hand of the three-year-old son. It was his birthday, too. I guess it was strange for both of us.

I grabbed an empty seat in the back and listened to the politicians talk over the flag over the wood over the body. The man sitting to my right said something to the man sitting on his right and they both laughed. The sobbing woman sat to my left. A marine gave the almost-widow some medals. The uncle gave a funny eulogy. The other uncle gave a sad one. The father refused to go up at all and the almost-widow left at one point. I texted my parents saying don’t worry, I’m okay, I’ll be home soon. They said my best friend had showed up early and they were all wondering where I had gone. I said don’t worry, I’m okay, I’ll be home soon.

Some hours later, after I blew out twenty-three candles and opened up gift cards and packages with ugly, ill-fitting clothes, I watched my mother cut up the cake and put the thin slices on plastic plates with big scoops of French vanilla ice cream. I remember watching it melt. They watched me watch it melt.

And when my friends left dejected after I said no, I don’t feel like killing some brain cells tonight, I watched them walk to their cars from my bedroom window. I was lying down on the bed when my parents knocked on the door saying that I knew I could talk to them about anything. They love me. Happy birthday. My thigh buzzed and the girl said she doesn’t usually make offers like this, but since it’s my birthday…

I walked out to the woods that night wearing mostly nothing – exposed. Overcome by jealously, I leaned my head against a tree and stared past the bark and waited for a bullet to come and drill my brains into the spot where I was staring. When I knew it wasn’t coming, I waited for the world around me to explode; just swallow me up like an angry beast. But then the nothing. And then the nothing.

I knew there must be more to it, but there just wasn’t. I was like a father without a child, a husband without a wife, a soldier without a war.

It was such a strange birthday that year.

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