Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, so Eve plans a party. There are the usual anxieties. Who would come? Would Tyler like his presents? Then there are the special worries, the ones other people didn’t have to think about. She won’t focus on those.
She makes a cake, a bigger-than-life-size iPad that takes a day and a half to decorate instead of the six hours the Internet site promised. The problem is getting the paint the right consistency so the lake doesn’t bleed into the shoreline. And all those tiny icons. She’s tossed dozens in the trash, false starts where the Facebook f was too wobbly and the camera came out looking as though a giant thumb had pressed down hard. She hesitates over balloons. Do they even matter at night? In the end, she decides, why not, and drives home from the party store with so many fat balloons crammed into her backseat that she can’t see out her rearview mirror. She imagines being pulled over by the police for driving under the influence of helium.
Melissa’s in the kitchen when Eve arrives home, and helps carry in the bags. She reaches for the balloons and frowns at the rainbow of colors. “Pink, Mom, really?”
Melissa’s long black hair is pulled back in an untidy topknot Eve knows her daughter has worked for hours to achieve. One of her tank top straps is twisted, revealing the pale strip of skin beneath where the sun hasn’t lingered. Eve wants to tug it straight and warn her daughter to be careful, but Melissa has heard it all before. “Pink looks good in moonlight,” Eve says.
A knock on the kitchen door. It’s Charlotte and Amy, arriving early to help. Dear Charlotte.
What would Eve do without her kindness, her humor? Charlotte has pulled her through the dark days. She has kept Eve sane.
“One spicy chili dip, extra sour cream by request,” Charlotte says, setting down the dish on the counter. She’s wearing a determined smile on her face. Amy looks mutinous. Eve guesses they’ve been having another mother-daughter battle all the way down the street.
Charlotte’s hair is short and dyed dark red. It cups her head and suits her high cheekbones and long neck. The day after Owen served her with divorce papers, Charlotte went out and had her long blond hair chopped off. What do you think? she’d demanded as she stepped into Eve’s kitchen. She’d run her fingers through the short wisps, making them stand up. Do I look like someone who knows how to have a good time?
Amy’s carrying a package, the electric blue wrapping paper crumpled at the corners and the white ribbon twisted into a crooked bow. “It’s Force Field Three,” she confides in a whisper, as if
Tyler could hear her all the way from his room upstairs. “Do you think he’ll like it?” Her brown eyes are wide and her lashes pale gold, a smatter of freckles across the tops of her cheeks. She’s a sprite, a funny little elf always dressed in shades of pink, much to Charlotte’s private dismay. She thinks it shows no imagination.
“He’ll love it,” Eve promises, putting a hand on the child’s small shoulder. Is it okay that Tyler spends so much time staring at a computer screen?
They go out onto the patio, the air heavy with heat. Amy skips off to help Melissa tie the balloons to the trampoline. The sun’s holding itself just above the horizon, sending out greedy shoots of orange light that carves shadows across the patio and grass. Eve used to love the sun, would lounge outside for hours, letting it toast her skin, her face tilted to the warmth. But this is as close as she comes to the sun now.
“Any word from David?” Charlotte asks, and Eve shakes her head. There weren’t that many flights between Columbus and Washington, DC. It could be that David had raced to make the last one and hadn’t had a chance to call beforehand. I’ll try and be there, he’d said. If he could wrap up the project he’s working on. If he could catch an earlier flight. She could drown in ifs.
“He’s bringing Tyler’s present. He would have let me know if he wasn’t going to be here.” She says this, wanting reassurance. She says this, wanting to make it true.
“Maybe he wants to surprise you.”
Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The gate would creak open and David would step into the yard, his brown hair rumpled over his high forehead, that knowing smile that reached up to his blue eyes. David used to love to surprise her with a note taped to the bathroom mirror, a single flower sent special delivery.
Her parents haven’t called, either. But at least they’d sent a card, a blue envelope propped on the kitchen table where Tyler would find it when he came downstairs. Inside would be the usual check, which Tyler would pretend to be thrilled about. Money meant nothing to him. How could it?
At 8:11, the bolt shoots back and Tyler shuffles out of his room, his camera in his hand. “Happy birthday,” she says, throwing her arms around him. He ducks his head in embarrassment, lamplight winking across the lenses of his sunglasses.
“Happy birthday, dweeb,” Melissa says, lightly cuffing him on the shoulder.
His friends are on the patio, elbowing and jostling. Four of them, when there should be seven, but at least his best friend’s there. The boys are all different heights and sizes, caught at that awkward stage where they don’t even look like they belong to the same species. They cheer when Tyler steps out to join them. He fits right among them, not too tall, not too short. He smiles when he sees the glowing paper lanterns. “Cool,” he says, and holds up his camera.
The pizza arrives and Charlotte helps her set out the food. Amy flits around, snatching up a piece of fruit, chasing fireflies blinking in the distance. A few neighbors have shown up. It’s painful to see Albert without Rosemary. He’s aged, moving slowly, holding onto the back of a chair for support. Sophie makes a brief appearance, and so does Neil Cipriano, who stands a careful distance away from everyone. No sign of the new neighbors, the Rylands, but that’s no surprise. Charlotte had been the one to sell them the house, and she’d raved about how wonderful they were. You’ll love them, she’d assured Eve. They’re the sweetest family. But Charlotte knew her reassurances meant nothing until Eve had a chance to talk to them about Tyler. Eve had stopped on her way to the party store to greet them as they stood in their driveway watching the movers unload their furniture. Holly had listened to Eve’s request, but it had been Mark who’d reached out to accept the basket of incandescent light bulbs. Sure, he’d said. No problem.
What would she have done, otherwise? Tyler would never have been able to walk out his front door, let alone go into his own backyard. She’d called David to share the news and gotten his voicemail. Guess what, she’d said, leaving her message, not knowing when he’d pick it up.
Tyler seems to be having a good time. He’s jumping on the trampoline with his friends, the fabric sagging alarmingly low, burdened as it is by the weight of five adolescent boys. They’ve rigged the sprinkler to rotate beneath them, and they’re howling with laughter as the water sprays back and forth. Eve had offered to rent out a movie theater, or drive everyone to a nearby cave to spelunk, but Tyler had shaken his head at every suggestion. Nothing, he’d told her. I don’t want anything.
He’s growing up, David said when she worried Tyler might be depressed. It would be reassuring if that was true, but what if it wasn’t? Tyler hadn’t liked the therapist she’d found. I’ll find someone else, she’d offered, but Tyler had scowled. Just stop, Mom, he’d said, and so she has.
But she and the other XP moms talk. Fourteen’s a dangerous age, old enough to understand, but too young to accept. Fourteen-year-olds chafe against restrictions, defy the rules that have kept them safe. She’s heard about the terrible battles the other mothers have waged. Doesn’t he know that he has to wear his sunglasses? I caught her sneaking outside! She’s listened and commiserated. Tyler’s already started to take risks. He won’t wear his mask when she takes him to his medical appointments. He hates it, keeps it on the shelf of his closet. It’s not like she can force him to put it on. The other mothers listen, murmur reassurances. Even the best kids rebel.
She brings out the cake, candles flickering in the darkness, and they sing happy birthday. She sees her husband’s features reflected in their candlelit son, the fullness of his lower lip, the roundness of his eyes. Tyler makes a wish and blows. Charlotte glances at her and immediately picks up the knife and begins serving cake, so that Eve can step back into the shadows and compose herself.
Fourteen birthdays so far. She remembers them all: His fourth, when all the kids ran around barking, wearing floppy Dalmatian ears she’d hot-glued out of black and white felt, and ate birthday cake baked in a big steel bowl like dog food. His fifth, where they fished for prizes with magnets tied to strings. His seventh, when they wore cowboy hats and roasted hot dogs over a bonfire. His ninth, when she wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! in phosphorescent chalk on the sidewalk all the way down to the park where his friends waited to jump out and surprise him. His eleventh, when she converted the backyard into a moonscape, and everyone ate astronaut ice cream and flung glow-in-the-dark Frisbees that trailed white blurs of false light.
They’d all been wonderful, in that imperfect way birthdays are, but the best had been his very first, before they knew. She’d set up a wading pool and Tyler had splashed in and out all afternoon, clapping his hands, his dimpled knees churning. Her parents and David’s father had been there, laden down with presents, so many that she had to set a few aside to open later. Three-year-old Melissa had run around singing her favorite Barney song and fallen asleep in David’s lap. It had been the happiest birthday by far. There would never be another like it.