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My birthday is at the beginning of July.
I have always loved birthdays. I have a chain of birthday memories that run all the way back to the year I was three, although Dad insists that no one can remember that far. I got a doll for that birthday, she had real hair, not the painted kind, and was dressed in a ballet skirt, and when I took her out of the box I thought she was alive.
So, you see, I do remember.
Later there was a circus birthday when I saw my first elephant and ate my first cotton candy. And there was the bicycle birthday, and the tennis racket birthday, and when I was twelve there was the birthday that brought Trickle.
But this particular birthday, the one on which I turned sixteen, there was no air of festivity. This was my own fault, for my parents wanted to give me a party.
"Sixteen is such a special age," Mother kept saying. "Don't you want to invite some people to celebrate? Or if you'd prefer to have it just family, we could go out for dinner someplace nice and then maybe to a play."
"No," I told her. "I really don't feel like doing anything. I've outgrown that sort of thing."
The truth, of course, was that I would not share my birthday with Julia.
Julia. Just the sound of her name was enough to make me feel slightly sick. When I heard my Mother speak it, her voice filled with warmth--"Julia, dear, you really must do some posing for me. It's a waste to have a beautiful niece and not to use her for a model"--my stomach churned.
"Julie," my father called her. Every time he saw her his face brightened, as though she were the second daughter he had always longed for.
I held myself apart from them all and watched, and it was a strange feeling, as though I were a visitor from another planet observing something of which I was no part. I watched Julia smiling at my father and calling him "Tom." I watched her helping Mother in the kitchen, moving deftly about with a pan or a dish towel, taking over chores that formerly were mine. I watched Bobby tease her into a game of dominos and saw Peter's eyes follow her about with a kind of hopeless adoration.
But worst of all was watching her with Mike. For the first time in my life I wished that he did not live next door to us, for it made it much too easy for him to wander over after work, for no special reason, to sit on the porch steps and chat. He was as nice to me as he always was--nicer, really--for he no longer tossed me playful insults or called me silly nicknames. He was politely formal and very kind.
"You look really nice today," he would say. "I like your hair like that," although my hair was no different from what it had always been, "Is that a new outfit?" when I was wearing the same tired pair of denim shorts and faded plaid shirt that I had worn all summer the year before.
But he was not kind enough to try to hide his reason for coming.
"Is Julia around?" he would ask avoiding my eyes. And Julia always was.
"You're not mad, are you, Rae?" she asked me. "It wasn't as though I could help it. These things do sometimes happen."
"You made it happen," I said bitterly. "You knew Mike was mine.
"He wasn't yours," Julia said in a reasonable way. "People don't own other people. You told me yourself the first day I was here that you weren't going steady. I didn't break anything up. Mike says you were just good friends, that you've always been like a little sister to him."
"That's not true." I tried to speak with dignity. "He may say that now, but he wouldn't have said it a month ago."
"Things change," Julia said with a shrug.
This could not be denied. Things did change, and the thing that seemed to have changed the most was Julia herself. When I think back now, it is hard for me to decide exactly whom to picture when I say the name "Julia." There were three Julias--all different. There was the Julia who arrived with my parents that first day, hesitant and frightened, the haunted, tight-faced girl who stood uncertainly in the doorway in the shadow of my father, and held out her hand to me and said, "Hello." Then there was the later Julia, relaxed and self-confident, the quaint touch of the hills gone from her speech. This was the Julia who plucked her eyebrows so that they no longer hung like bushes over her huge eyes and used my lip gloss to widen her mouth and make her thin lips fuller and warmer. This Julia laughed and chattered and used Albuquerque slang and went with Carolyn to the hair dressers' and had her thick mane cut and styled into a long shag.
"She's copied Carolyn," I remarked to Peter, who immediately bristled as though he had been personally insulted.
"You're jealous," he said. "You've turned into a real cat since Mike threw you over."
"Threw me overl" True though they were, the words cut me to the core. I could not believe that my brother had said them. "What about you? Do you feel thrown over?"
"I never went with Julia."
"But you would have if you could," I said cruelly. "You fell for her like a ton of bricks, and you know it. And you're not over it either."
"So?" Peter said. "That's why I understand how Mike feels about her. No guy in his right mind could help falling for a girl like Julia, and she's got a right to choose anybody she wants. It burns me up to hear you run her down just because she has something that you haven't."
"What is it she has?" I asked, really wanting to know. "What are the qualities that have you and Mike so enchanted?"
"I can't explain it," Peter said."It's just--something. A kind of feeling. A sort of--magic." And he blushed, embarrassed at having used a word that sounded so romantic."She's just--special somehow."