You hit 40. You quite literally hit it, when your knee gives out and you lunge across the kitchen—flinging a handful of Ikea cutlery and then placing your hand squarely into the green frosting numbers on your birthday cake.
Marilyn, your best friend, appears in the doorway. “What was that?” She’s the one who bought the cake, one of those perfectly rectangular jobbies from the supermarket—Marilyn never bakes, or cooks at all, actually, as it would ruin her nails. This particular cake had had an image of a semi-nude man on a bear skin rug.
The lettering had said: “Have a Mantastic Birthday, Lisa!” You are like a female version of a confirmed bachelor, the neighborhood’s Hugh Hefner-ette, and everyone views you this way. Even your dad, who placed a novelty inflatable boyfriend outside the front door of your garage apartment this morning. When you walked out, you hit it with the storm door and sent it flying across the yard, toward the big house out front, where you could see your dad in his bedroom window waving and smiling. A novelty boyfriend from your dad is exactly the kind of karmic price you pay sometimes for living rent-free. The hot June wind pinned the thing to a tree trunk, where he developed a slow leak—the six-pack abs and Hawaiian shorts atrophying before your eyes. It was then that you noticed the handwritten sign taped to his chest: Lisa, You might be 40, but you’re always #1!!
Now, Marilyn looks at you there on your knees, your hand wrist-deep in cake and she says, in a lilting voice better suited for talking to a four year old, “Lisa, you’re going to ruin that fabulous dress. What are you doing?” She’s the inquisitive type, that Marilyn, ever the psychologist.
“Oh, not much,” you reply. “Just wanted to make sure it was all right.”
Marilyn usually folds her arms across her chest and frowns when you are sarcastic; she says you use sarcasm the way skunks use their stench, as a defense mechanism, as a way to stay alone. “You’re spraying,” she likes to say. But this time, she actually laughs.
“And is it?” she says. “Cooked?”
“Hmmm,” you say, massaging the cake with your hand, trying to conceal any sign of the throbbing pain in your knee. “Yeah, feels good. Just about right.”
“Listen, don’t worry,” she says, bending down to pick tufts of your cat’s hair off her cuffs. “I’ll just run down and get another one.”
Before you can protest, or even get up, she’s grabbed her keys and run out the door in one smooth, lithe motion, everything silvery and sparkling—watch, rings, eye shadow, body glitter. You wonder why you can’t accessorize like that or solve problems like that and if it is some kind of genetic defect. Maybe this is why Marilyn has a new boyfriend now while you’re still hanging out with your ex, as if the two of you are in a rock band together and have no choice or something.
Are you still in love with each other like Marilyn always says? Well, that would be ridiculous. Thirty-one year-old Jake is your friend, sure, but he is too young to get your jokes about Tony Orlando & Dawn or tube socks. And besides, he already has a new girlfriend named Keira, who’s twenty-two and works as a mascot for the local single-A baseball team. Keira is a nice girl. She often brings you banana bread when she comes looking for Jake. Truthfully, the bread is a little dry and eating it makes you think about poor Keira’s situation, how sad it is that a young girl like that has to go through life being so plain, with small black eyes and a long face like a donkey or like whatever that animal is that she impersonates at work—a dog or whatever. You don’t want to be uncharitable, but you aren’t sure what Jake has gotten so excited about. But he says he’s happy, and that’s all that matters. Right?
You’ve washed and dried your hands and now you are standing by the sink, looking out the kitchen window at the beautiful birdbath your mother bought years ago, which does not have any whimsical characters decorating its base, and does not have a stone cardinal or cherub protruding from its center—it’s just plain granite with sharp, sensuous lines,
unapologetic for its functional strength, its elegant simplicity, so like her that you always struggle to take your eyes off it. You close them for a moment and count to three. Then, you turn back to the deflated, concave cake on the counter, picking at the remains, which look like some ruined city. The dark sinkhole in the white sugary surface looks angry and deep and is a little like the feeling you have in your chest—you are 40. In 40 years you have never been in a relationship for a whole year, nor have you ever felt anything like tenderness when you have been confronted by blond-haired babies on TV rolling around in reams of toilet paper. You have never had a calling to something greater than yourself—never had a deep urge to provide sanitized water to barefoot people over in West Virginia or to entertain folks with thought-provoking illusions involving playing cards and walnut shells or, like your dad, to divine people’s futures from their sweaty, cheese-smelling hands. And this is how you have ended up staying in Catonsville, just outside Baltimore, and managing your father’s statuary business, Big Pat’s Granite Ranch, and living in the garage apartment behind your father’s house, which in turn, sits behind the half-acre gravel display yard, that legion of white stone creatures—gnomes, deer, squirrels, fairies, dolphins, Jesuses, hedgehogs, gladiators, Alice in Wonderlands, lambs, camels, urinating cherubs, Elvises, frogs, Indian chiefs, gods on the half shell, and a little replica of Jimmy Carter.
Both working and living at the Big Pat’s compound, combination house/statuary/palmistry center—tallying the best-sellers (always gnomes), selling leprechauns to undiscerning customers when you’ve sold out of gnomes, flirting with kind, paunchy married men because they always have single brother-in-laws that sleep on their sofas a little too often—it is all just stuff to do until the real you arrives, the real you that lives deep inside and will emerge one day when a hurricane visits or when your cat gets run over or (and the college-educated part of you hates to admit it) when the right man comes along. You wish you felt called to someplace very far away, like Tibet, where you would experience the bliss of absorption, too busy pursuing enlightenment or panting behinda Sherpa to concern yourself with recording American Idol when it conflicts with your dad’s other favorite, It’s Me or the Dog. Oh, the throbbing in your knee is nothing; your chest feels like that sinkhole in the cake.
By the time Jake arrives letting himself in without knocking, you have eaten at least half of the thick gritty icing with a serving spoon, gasping it down almost as if you had no choice, as if you were clearing away rubble, looking for survivors.
“Hey hon, what’s the trouble?” Jake says, and you hardly hear him. You are still staring at the cake.
He stands beside you, takes your face in his hands, and makes you look at him, but you have trouble processing anything except the fact that the skin under his eyes has no fine papery lines, that there are no pits etched beneath his eye sockets like thumbprints, because he is still, of course, too young for all of that. What the hell is he hanging around with you for?
Part of you knows you are as good-looking as guys always tell you, even in spite of the lines and pits. You have something of what made your mother the beauty that she was. But this is not reassuring. This is horrible. Because it is still not enough, and it is fleeting, and you will wake up one morning the dumpy round person that you were as a kid and a lonely teenager, before you discovered aerobics, bouncing and jumping your way into a bathing beauty’s body and bad knees at age twenty-seven.
“Lisa,” Jake says and snaps his fingers.
When you finally see him, really see him, you gasp and grab the front of his shirt and kiss him deeply—in a way you never did even when the two of you were together those six months. Jake works as a youth minister at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. And all those kids tell him their problems. And he fills the rafters each Sunday with haunting acoustic-guitar renditions of “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “I Come to the Garden Alone.” And all of the moms touch his arm when they seek advice on matters they have probably fabricated, their fingers so light, like whispers. Why did you ever let him go?
You collect ex-boyfriends the way some women collect shoes. At first, when you start dating someone, you are breathless with the possibility of the woman you might become. You imagine how you will shape yourself around his contours—which are nobler, wiser, more transcendent than your own. Over the first wine spritzer with a guy, at the O’Charlie’s Happy Hour or the Holiday Inn Lounge, you know how it will be—the size and shape of the house you will share with him, the kinds of nights out you will have with his friends, the sort of old couple you will become. You have, from an imaginary perspective, been the wives of many people, including an architect who took you to live in a converted French farmhouse; a sports reporter who brought you to every game he covered for thirty years, smiling at you and waving during the half-time show, as if those half-clad girls weren’t even there; and a fireman for whom you cooked casseroles and learned to like canned corn and mourned after his early and heroic death.
The reality never quite matches though. You are more than disappointed, almost annoyed, when you discover on the second date that the architect hates Europe, that the sports reporter quite enjoys those half-clad girls, that the fireman is going to criticize your cooking from the start and took the job he has because he rarely has to attend a fire. It never comes back, that initial excitement.
But is it back now? you wonder as you are kissing Jake. Are you excited about him or are you excited about the prospect of being excited? You savor the taste of the Miller High Life he has been drinking in front of the Orioles game at Phil’s apartment—Phil, another ex, through whom you met Jake, this man whose lips now feel so right, whose chest, which you raise your hand to touch, is narrow but firm, with a heart beating strong enough to feel in your fingers.
Jake suddenly realizes what’s happening and he drops the gift bag in his hand and he clutches your hips, your back, and he starts kissing you for all he’s worth. When Marilyn comes back, you and Jake are on the kitchen table beside the cake. Jake’s jeans are around his knees, and your legs are nearly behind your head; your bad left knee is at a strange angle.
“Oh Jesus,” you hear Marilyn mutter, and then she fumbles the new cake and drops it. She leaves it there, retreats to the kitchen doorway. “Call me later?” she says. “Don’t worry,” she adds. “I’ll intercept your dad.” Count on Marilyn to think of that.
A few minutes later—the two of you have recovered from the interruption and are moving together with even greater vigor—you’re studying Jake’s face, sweat trickling down his considerable nose, and you think how there’s nothing special about this. It’s like brushing your teeth, driving your car, something people do everyday, something that in and of itself has no significance, no matter how long it’s been since you last did it. You wrap your legs around Jake’s back and match his rhythm. “Oh,” he says, looking at you with awe and admiration.
Breathless, you focus your eyes on his, run your finger down the side of his angular jaw and then smooth his dark eyebrows, one and then the other. Bright afternoon light streams through your gauzy kitchen curtains, dust floating in the air over Jake’s shoulder. The wet tips of his longish hair are curling, like some 70’s heartthrob from a poster. He is beautiful, which is more than an observation; it’s a feeling. The feeling is in that same place in your chest where the hole is. It’s like an air bubble, swelling against your breastbone, swelling like it might burst. This is good. This must be good.
“Talk to me,” you say. “Tell me something you’ve never told me before.”
“Okay,” he says and stops for a moment, looks right into your eyes. There is a long pause. “I think I’m going to marry Keira,” he says.
KATHY FLANN’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.