Fiction

Happy Birthday: A Short Story by Bontle Senne

Ada

 

Today is Simon’s birthday and he’s having a party. Not a party like a normal person with guests and gifts, f*ck no. That would be easy. That might even be fun but Simon wants a circus. He wants to be ring leader instead of birthday boy.

“You’re in a bad mood today,” Jamie remarks on the way to the Armchair Theatre.

It’s a good venue. Simon hired it out. I thought his family owned it for a while: He likes it that much.

I don’t respond. I’m not in the mood for a fight and if I say something, there will be a fight. I am in a bad mood. I don’t know why, except that he hasn’t been himself lately. He hasn’t been Jamie, he’s been James. James isn’t exactly my favourite person. Too… I don’t know. Worldly? Does that make sense? James thinks he’s got the whole universe, and the natural order of things, pegged. He’s just a guy. Just a James, but he doesn’t see it that way. Jamie is just less full of that pretentious, new-age sh*t, I sometimes love but f*cking hate.

“You think Simon’s gone too far, do you? With not inviting anyone?” he continues.

I’m non-committal. “Maybe.” The way he phrased whatever he really wanted to say is too vague for me to actually know what kind of answer I’m meant to give.

I can hear the party already.

“Maybe,” he agrees, “but he is our friend.”

I give him my look. It’s dark as he parks the car (he almost hits the car guard) Jamie can’t see me or my madly rolling eyes. Our friend. Oh yes, of course. Our friend.

 

James

 

I must admit I didn’t take it seriously when Jack told me. We were a mess of body on the couch she likes so much, legs coiled round each other like snakes. I knew Simon was having a party, Ada had mentioned it, but I let Jack tell me anyway as I curled her bright, light hair between my thumb and fingers. He was hiring out a venue, to be announced, for his 21st birthday. There would be no speeches, no unending photo-ops; just a cake and some friends. Three friends in fact: Ben, Ada and myself. Jack is just assuming she’s invited. The rest of the guests are, coincidentally, also to be announced. Turns out none of his other assorted friends and acquaintances have been invited. I laughed and made some crack about a rent-a-crowd but Jack didn’t see the humour, turning her mouth away and muttering something uncomfortably indistinct into her forearm.

“What?” I ventured.

“Nothing,” she said, “Just don’t forget your mask. I think one will get sent to you. We’re all meant to wear masks.”

“Your brother definitely has a taste for the theatrical.”

She shrugged and turned her face back to mine as I reached for her far-away hand.

“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands,” I mused, three-quarters expecting her to protest that her hands weren’t small at all.

Instead she smiled, “And now you are reciting poetry to me? That’s funny. But maybe I should be grateful that it is good poetry at least.”

She is a surprise. It is good poetry, Cummings actually, but I didn’t expect her to know that. Who knows that?

“Where did you come from?” I sighed into her hair.

Jack grinned, “Mercury, Venus… the moon.”

 

Ada

 

I slip away from Jamie the minute we get stamped and walk through the door. The place is packed with masked figures, indistinct girls and boys all having a raucous time. I’ve ordered my first drink already by the time Jamie catches up with me.

“Where did you go?” he asks, slightly peeved it seems.

It’s a stupid question. I went where he’s found me: to get a drink jackass.

Putting on my own blue mask, I choose to tactfully ignore him.

“Ada? I’m talking to you.”

“I heard you. I’m getting a drink. Go… talk to someone or something.”

Jamie’s quick eyes sweep the room, “Who are all these people?”

Curled forward, almost onto the bar, I sip my drink reluctantly. It’s a little strong for my liking but nothing I can’t stomach. “Rent-a-crowd,” I answer blankly, “Simon hired the venue and the guests.”

“What? Why?” He seems more amused than he should be. I don’t find this funny at all. I think it’s strange, I don’t understand why but I don’t think it’s funny.

“Ask him yourself,” I mutter.

“Why are you in such a bad mood? What did I do?”

“Can’t you just go find Jack or something?” I sigh heavily. He’s tiring me.

Taking in instantly the sudden flash of his eyes, in the way you learn to do after spending enough time under someone, I realise that he hasn’t taken that well at all and I just don’t know what his problem is now. I didn’t realise until now, his green mask is really nice. I wonder where Simon got all of these… were they expensive? Were they made for him?

“What?” I ask but already James’s slipping away from me and I shrug, turning my attention back to my staunch drink.

 

James

 

I find Jack with Ben, animatedly talking his ear to sleep. I know he’s not really listening. The guy has no patience, no concentration span. Especially not for girls who aren’t going to put out. I interrupt them with a hand on Ben’s shoulder and he turns to shake my hand.

“What happened to you?” Jack asks as I join the two properly, slipping in between them.

“My girlfriend.”

I didn’t notice but Ben has already escaped. He’s good at that: just vanishing as though you imagined him there. It’s a talent that must come in handy some days.

“Ah… I see,” Jack nod strangely knowingly, “Having a good time then?”

I can’t even reply. Maybe she’s teasing me, maybe she’s just being a bitch. I can’t tell… what am I doing with these girls? Both of them? They are disasters, they are messing up my life and I’m enjoying it. Is it even worth it? The drama, the craziness… for all the grief Ada brings me, I do love her. I’m just starting to think that’s not enough.

Jack’s hair looks very red tonight. The deep blue mask suits her. It suits every girl here.

“And what happened to avoiding each other tonight?” Jack continues.

“Nothing, just-”

“Never mind,” she purrs, placing one hand on my arm. Jack slices me open with the deliberate, platonic neatness of her touch, “Let’s not talk about that right now.”

 

Ada

 

“Happy Birthday darling,” I say, not slur, definitely not slur, as I peck Simon very slightly on the lips. I only realise a second later, a second too late that that may have been a bit strange. I have never touched his mouth before. I may have thought about it though. I can’t say I didn’t like it and something about what that might mean makes me blush a little. For the first time this evening, I am glad for the mask. The green ones are really so nice though. Simon’s off-sets his too-blond hair so nicely: Why do boys always get the pretty colours? I don’t even like green but I want to swap.

“Thank-you Ada,” Simon smiles, not affected by the sudden hint at something ‘good friends’ don’t hint at.

“Having a good time?”

“Well, there’s certainly lots to look at…You look a little sad behind your mask though.”

I smile. That is true but comforting me at his party… this is really unfair. I’m not being a good guest at all. “It’s nothing another drink won’t fix,” I say, “Can I buy you one to celebrate?”

“Celebrate?” he asks casually.

I expected that look I’ve been collecting lately, that ‘you’re a raging alcoholic, I’m worried about you. Please don’t have another drink Ada’ look but Simon isn’t like that. He cares but enough to know that I like my life, as is. I drink. A lot. I’m very aware of that and it’s okay. Really. Some people (read: me) just function better when the whole world is going to sh*t. Simon scans the room; his eyes darting from this guest to that, looking for someone, or anyone, no doubt.

“The day of your birth?” I venture.

He stops short of waving me away with a quick, cheerful, “Oh… yes, sure.”

“Why so distracted?”

“I got you a gift.”

“On your birthday?” I laugh, “You’re too much.”

“I’m afraid you won’t like it.” Now I have all his attention, and he has mine.

“What is it?” I tease. I’m glad that the music isn’t so loud that we can’t have a conversation. It isn’t my taste in music though. Too… dancey.

I fake amazement as he presents a wallet I don’t recognise like he’s a magician pulling a bunny from a hat. I wonder whether that makes me the beautiful assistant.

“Where did you get that?”

It doesn’t look expensive. “Guess,” he dares.

The wallet that I only now realise he has just swiped, falls neatly between us as he orders us a drink… Maybe it is expensive and I just can’t tell…

“You’re a thief!” I say. I can’t believe he’s stolen someone’s wallet.

Simon turns to me and allows me a genuine smile. He says, “Among other things,” in the voice he uses to set up his riddles. What’s the answer, I wonder?

“But you have money. Too much of it, judging by what you choose to spend it on.”

“I don’t have any money, it’s my parents’. Also, I think a birthday party is a very legitimate expense.”

“Sure buddy. I’m sure your parents agree.”

“Ada, if there was a budget on this party, no one told me.”

“Exactly how much is all of this costing Simon?”

He looks around, taking in what he’s done. “A lot” he admits, “but it’s worth it.”

“Maybe but not with paid guests.”

He shrugs. “My real friends are only in it for the perks anyway…”

“Simon, what I meant was you don’t need to steal. Why did you do this?”

“For fun! For you: You looked bored and sad sitting here; I’m cheering you up, I’m providing the entertainment. But, okay I’ll concede, maybe I should have just… not. Whatever. It’s amusing.”

I don’t know what the appropriate response is so I just let that one slide.

“But don’t you feel more alive Ada? More awake now?”

I do but shrug, “You’re the one who stole it.”

“And you’re the one who’s going to return it.”

My eyebrows take their cue and rise a little as I ask wryly, “To who?”

Simon tips his head in the direction of a guy standing near the bar, looking a little confused. Of course, I can’t see his face but he’s ripped and he’s tall and I’m drunk and pissed off. I turn to Simon. There’s a familiar evil gleam in his eyes. I could be imagining it, I probably am, but I see his dirty little mind thinking what I’m thinking and we both know this isn’t going to end well. I down my drink, peck him on the cheek, swallow hard, grab the wallet and go busy myself with further ruining my relationship with Jamie.

 

James

 

“What don’t you like about yourself Jack?”

“Nothing. There’s nothing about myself I don’t like.”

I laugh but not because I doubt her. I believe her when she says this. She’s not being vain or funny. She doesn’t think she has faults. Not explicitly. I mean, all her shortcomings, she’s just accepted as further proof that she’s not like the other girls.

 

Ada

 

“Is this yours?”

Mr Right-Now didn’t even see me march over here from the bar. I have clearly surprised him but I hold out the wallet at face level so that his hand might brush past my face as he gets it. It doesn’t. But this is a good thing. Some sign that he isn’t a total psycho.

“Yes. Thanks. Where did you find it?”

He opens it, checks inside. “I saw you drop it.”

“Oh… thanks.” He looks relieved, I guess there isn’t anything missing.

 “What’s your name?”

“Simon.” Oh… I’d forgotten about that. All the guys were supposed to say their names are Simon. And all the girls? Ada. I was less than impressed when I found out.

“No sweetheart, your real name.”

He hesitates but says “John.”

Non-descriptive, bland John. Unoriginal. But not unpleasant.

“Ordinarily, I might have kept that wallet John,” I let the words slide out slowly, “It’s a good thing that I’ve been drinking enough to be nice to you.”

 He grins uncertainly and I feel sure that I can tell what he is thinking.

“And sadly no, I haven’t been drinking enough for this to just be the vodka talking,” I continue, “I’m just generally like this. Wait a while though; I’m quite unrecognisable after a few more.”

He laughs easily this time flashing his slightly off-white teeth. He has nice teeth. Big. Brushed often. I know I don’t like him very much. Something about his smile and laugh has a lack of sincerity; he’s not pretending- just well-rehearsed. His variety of small-chat wouldn’t necessarily be flirting but I get the feeling that he means it to be foreplay. Maybe it’s worked on other girls. I’m not drunk enough yet to decide whether it would work on me.

“I don’t drink so I wouldn’t know,” he says finally in a drawl as studied as the smirk.

It’s strange to be flirting behind a mask. I wouldn’t recognise the Ada that borders quite happily on cheating on her boyfriend without the mask: It’s how she got so fearless.

“Ah, so you can take advantage of pretty little things like me completely sober?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Really? That’s a pity.”

“It is?”

“Sure. What makes you think I don’t want to be taken advantage of?”

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t such an uncontrollable flirt. If only someone would just take me to one side when I start getting into these ‘moods’ and quietly explain to me that although sometimes it is endearing to be so brash and cute and flirty, now was just not one of those times. Straight away I wish I hadn’t said that. Again he laughs but this does not put me at ease. A cold quiet feeling of dread overtakes me. I have given him an opening; carved a crack in the dam wall that I cannot plug up in my ever-deepening state of non-sobriety.

James

 

“She looks gorgeous,” Jack says, blowing out her last wisp of smoke.

“Ada?” I ask without asking.

“Yes. She looks like she’s going to her matric dance in that dress.”

“No.”

“No?”

“She was much prettier at our actual matric dance.”

My girlfriend is flirting like a maniac with one of the actors. The way it looked from this side of the room, Simon was her wingman. This f*cking family…

I’ve never realised how much Ada likes to wear dresses. It’s funny that she would. Ada’s so much more and less ladylike than she seems… f*ck, I’m tired of this.

“Did you guys go together?” Jack continues without encouragement.

“Are you kidding? Ada went with Justin de Bruyn.”

“Who was he?” Jack’s so perky all of a sudden. So…

“An uber-jock: Captain of the water-polo team and her high school sweetheart.”

She nods, “I can see that somehow…”

“Yeah.”

Jack’s being so…cute. “And then she ended up with you,” she muses.

“Yeah.”

“How did that happen?”

I actually think about this question… how did that happen? “I’m not sure.”

“Who did you go with?” she teases. She must be having a great time. I don’t get it.

“I went alone.” I don’t look at Ada: it would be hypocritical to mind what she’s doing because, to be fair, I’m doing the same thing.

“Tragic. But you did end up with me.”

She makes me smile somehow and I see for the first time, that she’s also wearing a dress. A red one that I can’t believe I didn’t notice. Every other guy in the room must have and I smile at the thought. They’re both f*cking gorgeous, I think but “Yeah,” is all I say.

 

Ada

 

A hand curls itself around my arm.

I pretend to be annoyed as I turn to see whose hand, “You again.”

“Yes, me. Do you remember my name?” He looks better than when I last saw him.

“Yes… Robert,” I take a swig, “I’m not that drunk.”

“Can I borrow her for a minute?” he pretends to ask my friend.

I am mid-conversation so I make sure to ask, “Did you want something?” while we’re still within earshot.

He answers casually, “Your phone number.”

I laugh. Loudly. So cheesy.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. You’re full of sh*t.”

“What did I do?”

“A very bad impersonation of someone who actually has game.”

“Game? Aren’t we feeling ghetto.”

“Touché…. Hey, where’s your mask?”

“Oh, I’m not a guest. Just passing through.”

I’m sceptical. Why does sound like bullsh*t? “The bouncers let you in?”

“I’m a regular,” he shrugs, “I just wanted to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise to see you chatting up our friend over there.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“You aren’t wearing a mask either.”

I instinctively reach to my face to check but he’s right. My mask has gone and I didn’t even notice. Oh well.

“Give me your hand,” I order.

“Why?”

“So I can suck it. Why the f*ck do you think? I’m giving me your phone number.”

“Don’t you mean-”

I dismiss him with my look and he gives me his hand. “F*ck, you know what I mean.”

“Wouldn’t you rather just put it on my phone?” he suggests.

“Why? Don’t you remember my name?”

Robert reaches into a back pocket and hands me his phone. Fancy. I like.

“I know your name,” he says.

I’m trying to concentrate on punching the right digits into his phone. The f*cking thing is too small!

“What’s the problem?” I must be taking longer than I realise.

“You phone is tiny. Maybe like something else?” I tease, thinking now I’ve gone too far. A badly timed joke in bad taste. F*ck.

He says all nonchalant, “You’ll find out soon enough I guess.”

I fake shock. What did he just say?

He puts up his hands in his own defence. “Joking… I was just joking.”

“I think I’d like you better if you weren’t.”

I smile, all sweet and demure. I should keep him around actually. He’s not as easy to push around as I thought. But that really was a bad joke: one I won’t make again.

Robert gestures to my new friend with the big teeth. He’s looking a little peeved. Or maybe just confused again. I don’t care either way but he’s waiting for me to finish with Robert so maybe I should be polite and go make-out with him.

“I’ll let you get back to that then,” Robert says, without missing a beat. That is the expression right? Sounds right… He’s wearing a slight grin and I smile too.

“Yeah. What’s-his-name must be getting impatient.”

“See you around.”

“Do you really remember my name?”

“Ada is a nice name. How could I forget it?” And then he’s disappeared, gulped down by the rent-a-crowd. When I turn around and start chit-chat up again with that smug bastard all I can think about is Robert and his tiny cell phone.

 

James

 

From somewhere a cake has been produced. It’s huge, like a wedding cake. I expect someone to jump out of the top from inside but when I say this, Jack only laughs and says I watched too much TV as a child. I didn’t actually but now is not the time; she drags me to the centre of the club where the cake has been wheeled and where I’m in prime position to watch Ada fall apart.

 

Ada

 

It’s time to sing Happy Birthday. Everyone is gathering around the cake that must be half my size, with, what I’ll guess are 21 candles, all glowing valiantly.

Someone has hit the lights and the effect is magic: suddenly this is an intimate gathering of Simon’s closest friends, suddenly we are 16 again and this isn’t gimmicky, it’s fun, we’re all having fun and we’re all in awe of that beautiful cake.

Abruptly and, finally on the verge of doing something really naughty, I say, “I want cake. Let’s go to the front,” and nearly fall over as I spin around to do just that.

I think… John (that is his name right?) mercifully catches my arm and I don’t go down, just stubble a little. I somehow remember to thank him, just a minute too late, but it’s something considering the state I’m in.

Things are a little… mmm… blurry but the lack of hand-eye-whatever isn’t as bad as being able to smell myself through my fingers: My pores are pissing liquor.

I think of how boring John is as I look for Simon in the mob. I wish he’d just leave me alone (John, not Simon) but now I’ve raised expectations and it seems a little unfair to say, ‘sorry buddy, I have a boyfriend’. And maybe because this is the first time in hours that I’ve actually thought of my boyfriend, I see him.

On the other side of the cake, Jack and Jamie seem to be having some deep and meaningful conversation. He says something and she laughs. Obviously I can’t hear it from here but I’ve heard Jack’s laugh enough to know what it sounds like and to know that the scene I’m witnessing is a dangerous one. It’s how he looks at her when she laughs.

Not the way boys look at girls in music videos, no, not that ‘this is how you look at someone you love’ thing… I look at Jamie and he looks like he’s thinking, ‘Oh. There you are. I was waiting for you. I’m so glad you’re here’ and there’s this sharp pain: This stab, stab, stab where my heart is and I think it’s breaking. But broken hearts keep beating. If my heart were really broken, I’d be dead. It’s almost too much: the thought that this won’t kill me. Now, the light the candles are throwing onto everyone’s masks is not gently glowing and dancing, it’s casting shadows that screw-up the way they really look. Everyone is so strange, this is a mess, a circus and I’m afraid of them. I can’t explain why but I’m going into a panic. It’s so hot in here. I don’t know why I even came. Where’s Simon? And then they, this army of green and blue painted faces, are singing Happy Birthday. It’s tuneless, cheerless but I know I’m the only one who thinks so. They’re all smiling. John is smiling. And Jack… the last bits of her laugh have washed out of her face and she sings along with the others. She looks frightening too, in the unsteady flickering of the birthday candles but she is also… pretty. Not in her hard way… no, softly, quietly pretty and this realisation is enough to finish me. Is it really so unbearable for Jacqueline to be gorgeous and brilliant? The answer comes to me, unprompted and undiluted- f*ck yes. F*cking unbearable is dead spot on. I break away from John, I think he’s calling me but I make for the exit as Simon breaks through the crowd, blows out his candles and makes a wish.

 

James

 

I think she looks as though she is going to bawl and then Ada turns and bolts for the door. I start after her but Jack grabs my arm.

“What?” I sound harsher than I meant to but something else is overriding the impulse to be nice and polite with her.

Jack’s face twists under the mask. “Where are you going?”

I don’t have time for this. I jerk my arm away from her and rush out into the street. One of the bouncers is a scary guy which isn’t new or surprising but this guy is really looking at me like he wants to cut off my balls. My mind does a quick count of every nightclub bouncer-related incident I can remember that ended in court cases and headlines and some sorry random like me, unconscious in a private-hospital bed.

When I see Ada, I guess I see why I’m getting the feeling like I’m going to get my ass kicked and I reason that he can’t be such a bad guy after all, pushing the mental newspaper clippings aside.

It must have rained while we were inside, all the cars are wet but Ada is slumped against one of them, sobbing hysterically. I don’t know what to do but I go to her anyway.

“Ada?” I start carefully, “What’s wrong?”

She doesn’t look up, just cries harder and the wind whips past us, blowing up the back of her dress. I rush forward to hold it down. She shivers violently and I’m pathetic but I hate to see her like this. Ada stops sobbing. She rubs both palms against her face and her hands come away black with her mascara.

“Can we go home now?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say as I rub her shoulders. My hands are freezing.

Leading her to the car, I know I’m an asshole.

I haven’t seen her face yet.

I wonder if she knows… I wonder, Why does everything have to be so hard all the time?

I have so many thoughts in my head… so confused but I feel nothing. I think. I think. I think but I feel nothing.

 

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