“I’m going to bed,” I remind her one last time.
“Yeah, fine. I’m just saying . . . five bucks says there are streamers. Are you in or out?”
“What is the matter with you?”
“In or out?”
“In,” I say. “I’m in. Good night.”
“Good night!” Rachel finally says, and gets off the phone. I lay my head down and smell Thumper. He smells awful. Dogs smell so awful, and yet smelling Thumper is wonderful. He smells heavenly to me. I close my eyes, and I drift off to sleep, where my brain tries to make sense of all this news. I dream that I get to my birthday party and everyone yells, “Surprise!” I see Mom making out with a guy dressed as a race-car driver. Rachel and Charlie are there. And then, just as the yelling dies down, I look through the crowd, and I see Ryan. He makes his way to me. He kisses me. He says, “I could never miss your birthday.”
When I wake up, I know it’s a dream. But I can’t help but hope, maybe, just maybe, it’s a premonition.
So, honey, what are your plans for your birthday? The big three-oh is coming up!” my mother says when I finally pick up the phone. Her voice is cheerful. My mother is always cheerful. My mother is the type of woman who rarely admits she’s unhappy, who thinks you can fool the whole world with a smile.
“Uh,” I say. Do I have a chance to prevent this calamity? I could tell her that I have plans, and then she might give up on this whole thing. But she’s already bought Charlie’s ticket. Uncle Fletcher is coming. “No, nothing. I’m free,” I say, somewhat resigned.
“Great! Why don’t you and Ryan come over, and I’ll make you dinner?” She says it as if the world’s problems have just been solved. My mom didn’t really make dinner when we were younger. There simply wasn’t time. Between working a full-time job as a real estate agent and doing her best to get the three of us to and from school and finished with our homework every night, we ordered a lot of pizzas. We had a lot of babysitters. We watched a lot of TV. It wasn’t because she didn’t love us. It was because you can’t be two places at once. If my mother could have solved that physical impossibility, she would have. But she couldn’t. So even though I know she’s not actually going to be making dinner, that this is all a ruse, the idea of a home-cooked meal by my mother sounds sort of nice. Not in a nostalgic way but rather in a novel way. Like if you saw a duck wearing pants.
“OK, sounds good,” I say. I know that this is my moment. I should mention that it will be just me. Here is my opportunity to start the conversation.
“Oh, I wanted to ask you,” my mom jumps in. “Would it be OK if I invited my boyfriend, Bill?”
Hearing my fifty-nine-year-old mother use the word boyfriend is jarring. We need a new word for two older people who are dating. Shouldn’t our vocabulary grow with the times? Who is taking care of this problem?
“Uh, no, that’s fine. I was going to say, actually, that Ryan won’t be joining us.”
“What?” My mother’s voice has become sharp where it was once carefree.
“Well, Ryan is—”
“You know what? Whatever works for you two works for me. I know I sometimes get greedy with wanting to see the two of you all the time.”
“Yeah,” I say. “And I know that Ryan—”
“I’m really eager for him to meet Bill, too,” my mom says. “When he gets the chance. I know you two are busy. But one of Bill’s boys is married to just this shrew of a woman, and I’ve been telling Bill about how I really hit the jackpot with Ryan. I guess it’s different, sons-in-law versus daughters-in-law, but Ryan is such a good addition to the family. It does make me worry, though. Who will Rachel choose? Or worse! Charlie. I swear, the boy’s probably got ten kids in six states, and we’d never know it. But you, my baby girl, you chose so well.”
This is one of the things my mother says to me most often. It is her way of complimenting both Ryan and me at the same time. When Ryan and I first got married, he used to tease me about it. “You chose so well!” he would say to me on the way home from her house. “So well, Lauren!”
“Yep,” I say. “Yeah.”
And in those two affirmative words, I dig myself deeper into the hole. I can’t tell her now. I can’t tell her ever.
“So what does Ryan have to do that is more important than his wife’s birthday?” my mom asks, it suddenly dawning on her that this situation I’m presenting is a bit odd.
“Huh?” I say, trying to buy myself time.
“I mean, how could he miss your birthday?”
“Right, no. He has to work. It’s a big project. Super important.”
“So you two are celebrating on another night?”
“Well, that’s great news for me!” she says, becoming delighted. “I get you all to myself. And you’ll get to meet Bill!”
“Yeah, I’m excited about that. I didn’t know you were dating anyone.”
“Oh,” my mom says. “You just wait. You will just die. He is so charming.” I can practically hear her blushing.
I laugh. “That’s great.”
“So me, you, and Bill, then?” my mom confirms.
“Well, how about Rachel?” I say. I don’t know why I’m playing this game. I know everyone on God’s green earth is going to be there.
“Sure,” my mom says. “That sounds lovely. My girls and my man.”
Ugh. My mom has no idea how she sounds when she says stuff like that. I mean, maybe she does know how she sounds, but she doesn’t know how she sounds to me. So gross.
“Let’s tone down the ‘my man’ stuff there,” I say, laughing.
She laughs, too. “Oh, Lauren,” she says. “Let loose a little!”
“I’m loose, Mom.”
“Well, get looser,” she says to me. “And let me sound ridiculous. I’m in love.”
“That’s awesome, Mom. I’m really happy for you.”
“Tell Ryan he has to meet Bill soon!”
“Will do, Mom. I love you.”
I put down the phone and drop my head into my hands.
I’m a liar, liar, liar. Pants on fire.
The next couple of weeks are hard. I don’t go out anywhere. I stay in bed, mostly. Thumper and I go on a lot of walks. Rachel calls me every night around six to ask me if I want to get dinner. Sometimes I say yes. Sometimes I say no. I don’t make plans with friends.
I watch a lot of television, especially at night. I find that leaving the TV on as I fall asleep makes it easier to forget that I’m alone in this house. It makes it easier to drift off. And then, when I wake up, it doesn’t feel quite so stark and dead in the morning if I’m accompanied by the sounds of morning television.
I wonder, constantly, about what Ryan is doing. Is he thinking of me? Does he miss me? What is he doing with his time? I wonder where he is living. Numerous times, I pick up the phone to text him. I think to myself that nothing bad can come from just letting him know I’m thinking about him. But I never send the text. He asked me not to. I’m not sure if never hitting send is a hopeful or cynical thing to do. I don’t know if I’m not talking to him because I believe in this time apart or if I think that a simple text won’t matter anyway. I don’t know.
I imagined that by the time a few weeks had passed, by the time Thumper and I had gotten into a rhythm with our new life, I would have made a few, some, any observations or realizations. But I don’t feel as if I know anything more now than I did before he left.
To be honest, I think I was hoping that Ryan would leave and I’d instantly realize that I couldn’t live without him, and he’d realize he couldn’t live without me, and we’d come running back to each other, each of us aching to be put back together. I imagined, in my wildest dreams, kissing in the rain. I imagined feeling how it felt when we were nineteen.
But I can see that it’s not going to be that easy. Change, at least in my life, is more often than not a slow and steady stream. It’s not an avalanche. It’s more of a snowball effect. I probably shouldn’t pontificate about my life using winter metaphors. I’ve only seen real snow three times.