Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Birthday Candles

Julie blew out the lone candle on her birthday cake and wished really hard. Her breath hit the flame and the flame went out and smoke followed her breath and left a trail in the air. Everyone looked at her and smiled and asked what she wished for. She told them she couldn't say, that it would ruin the wish if she said it out loud. 

Truthfully she couldn't say what she wished for. Some years ago a melancholy had gripped her and hadn't let go. It was the slow sinking kind of melancholy. It was like she imagined life in winter in the Pacific Northwest must be. Not cold enough to kill you outright, but cold all the same, and always there, dripping and raining and sapping your strength. 

Her parents had moved to Arizona sometime early in her memory. They moved from Missouri and while she didn't have any specific memories she remembered green, bright green and three was something back there with waving grass, and a thunderstorm. 

The smoke alarm went off then and Julie's mom realized she'd never turned the oven off after she took out the roast and the yellow squash and the zucchini. Suzanne got up from the table and knocked over her wine glass in her haste to get to the oven. Marv got up and dragged his chair by the back to a spot below the smoke alarm. He stood on his chair and disassembled the alarm and took out the battery. He put the battery in his shirt pocket and got down from the chair. Julie watched thinking to herself that something about the way her father moved so methodically would be important to remember. She thought maybe someday he'd die and this is what she would remember about him. Then she mentally flogged herself for thinking about this. 

Julie's boyfriend Stan got up from his spot and went to the kitchen to see if he could help her mom. Stan was always useful like that, Julie resented him for this. It's what the melancholy does. 

Julie's melancholy turned people upside down and inside out around her. She would think of things that she should love about people. She would make long lists of their redeeming qualities and then begin to think less of them for these traits. Julie suspected this was because somewhere along the line she had learned to hate herself on some level. She suspected that she disliked people for their good traits because she thought she deserved to be miserable. Julie sat at the table and watched everyone around her move with competence and purpose and she felt jealousy. She was jealous of the way her Dad took the smoke alarm apart without a worry that he might break it. She was jealous of the way her Mom remembered the root of the problem and went to go fix it. She was jealous of the way her father and mother worked perfectly as a team, disassembling the parts of the problem, the smoke and the noise from the smoke alarm. She was jealous of the way her boyfriend tried to help.

She knew intellectually that nobody expected her to solve this problem. She also knew that didn't matter. Julie sat at the table and brooded and looked at the cake in front of her with the lone candle on top of it. The candle wick was burnt and curled in on itself and the pink wax had melted away from the outside and showing the white underneath. Julie looked at it and felt disgust, the old familiar light dusting of disgust she felt when she looked in the mirror. Not good enough. Sick. Wrong. Waxy and pale and poorly shaped and curled in on herself. Just like the half-melted pink candle. She wondered if her purpose was over. If she'd had a flame and it had been lit and blown out and if she could be re-lit or if she should just be put in a drawer or thrown away. 

Her father and mother and boyfriend came back to the table. Julie tried to pull all the black muck of her thoughts deeper inside, tried to shove it down and not let it show. She practiced this quite a bit. She shoved it down and tried to have a good time. Smiled as her mom passed her a plate with cake and ice cream on it. Mint chocolate chip. Green like Missouri. Inside she felt gray and rainy like the pacific northwest. Outside the sun blazed and baked away the suburbs of Phoenix. 

After they ate their cake her mom took the candle out and put it in a box in a drawer. It had twenty-three single candles, all a little burnt, showing some of their insides, a little melted and shaped weird. She put the box in a drawer in the back of a closet upstairs. She stroked the outside of the box before closing the drawer. 

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