Birthday Dinner - Ruth Niemiec

Luca raises the wine glass to her mouth. A simple move to conceal her disdain. The dining hall is dimly lit, festoon lights hang low across two walls. The low lighting is enough to hide some things; dark circles, smudged eyeliner, a jus stain on a shirt, bloodshot eyes. But it is not quite enough to conceal festering detestation. Jack is holding court. It’s his birthday dinner. He is charming. Weaving magic over his masses, always entertaining, Jack. Tonight his mannerisms are exaggerated and he’s had too many glasses of pinot noir. Twice it’s spilled over the side of his glass onto the sleeve of my lilac blue dress and I’ve discreetly blotted the stains with a napkin. More than twice he has leaned on my chair, steadying himself when standing up and sitting back down. My husband. Jack. Twenty years older than me. Almost exactly. We share the same sun sign, but with my water moon, I’m far more emotional than he is, also private and I suppose, like he says “consistently in need of affection and physical expressions of love”. His moon is in Sagittarius and I often wonder if that’s the one thing that urges him to divulge, to our circle, stories of us hiking in the Andes, drinking snake blood at a marketplace in Hoi An, Vietnam or waking up hung over and naked on the beach in Tulum and even eyeing off hookers sitting in windows in the red light district of Amsterdam. Of smoking hash and seeing the walls move. Our stories are no longer ours, they belong to friends, co-workers and families.

I met Jack when I was 19. We slept together after our first coffee date. I ordered a strong long black. It was at a small café just down the road from the school at which I was a student and he was a lecturer. He reached across the table and placed his hand atop mine and I accepted the expression of affection immediately. I was lonely, living on campus, no close friends and my head in books every night of the week. A week into the courtship he took me to his best friend’s birthday party and just like now, he kept his audience enthralled. They laughed, eyes wide, clasping their hands in front of their faces, marveling at his stories. His cocksure dialogue. I laughed too, eyes wide too. Now I laugh too, just to be polite. Most of the time, just to be polite. Sometimes I stuff a dinner roll or a bread stick into my mouth just to avoid being polite. It’s hard to laugh at stories you’ve heard a hundred times. I wonder if looking away, glancing at the floor is witnessed and ignored by our company, or just not seen over the narcotic spell Jack casts on his crowd with his grandiose gestures and baritone. Luca and I fucked last night. She confessed how she had felt and how much she missed me, the 5 years we hadn’t seen each other in person. All those years we only saw each other in photographs and video calls. Luca told me how she looked forward to seeing my name show up, bold, in her email inbox. An email unread, a rush, something to carry her through the day. She looked away from me when she explained sometimes she hit refresh, desperately hoping that something from me would come through. Even if it was just a silly meme or snap of my dachshund, Frasier. Luca was embarrassed, scared and she apologized for the confession, trembling a little as she spoke. I didn’t accept her apology. I shook my head. Something inside my stomach stirred. We sat beside each other at the dinner table, watching the flat screen mounted on the wall, displaying an open fireplace, quietly sipping Jack’s bottle of whiskey. 30 years aged. I slipped my hand onto her lap. Jack was asleep. I picked up a Kalamata olive from the tiny ceramic bowl in front of us. I popped it into Luca’s round mouth, then ran my index finger over her bottom lip, slowly. I licked my finger, salty brine. I took Luca’s hand, led her to the garage through the laundry and gently closed the door behind me. Tomorrow was my birthday. Luca slid into the back of Jack’s car and I followed. She tasted like sunshine. Her mouth sweet and salty. New to me. We hadn’t even tried to be quiet. Lost in the moment. All hands, hair, lips, and thighs. Rough, slow, fast, gentle, digging our nails into each other’s backs, then tracing finger tips over stinging skin, barely touching. I told her I loved her. It could have been the wine from 7pm talking, it could have been the 10pm whiskey. It could have been because of her almond shaped, hazel brown eyes, her curly black mane or how her hand perfectly fit the arch of my back. But it wasn’t. Tonight we sit, hearing Jack tell all about how Jack wrote his first novel when he was 17, but didn’t try to have it published it until he was 21 because he was “acutely aware” that if it were successful, it would distract him from finishing his philosophy degree. This tale I’ve heard at least 100 times over the years. I stand up as laughter at the table erupts. Mostly unnoticed, I assume. I navigate my way down the dim hallway, the wine dizzying me but helping me stay upright at the same time. I step into the cubicle and plop down on the toilet and send a text to Luca. I dig into my bag feeling for my lipstick while balancing the phone between my thighs. The text screen displays typing, not typing, typing, again no typing. The bathroom door swings open. It needs an oil. Familiar footsteps, followed by, “Honey, are you in there?” Luca’s velvet voice. I open the door. She slips inside. Laughter. The lipstick still in my hand. Her lips again on mine and her hair tickles my face, I breathe in; vanilla and honey. We stand looking at each other, speechless and my heart fells like thunder against the inside of my chest. We return to the table. Everyone is seated. The main courses have arrived. Guests have spread the starched cotton napkins over their laps, some of them are already gnawing on lobster, all heads down. Low chatter. Jack looks at me and then at Luca. He looks back at me. He looks down at his plate, a fillet of white fish and Potato à la Hasselbacken. He nods. Slowly he reaches across the table, picks up a bread roll, pulls it apart and shoves it into his mouth. The room feels bigger now, my shoulder blades shift apart. I look to Luca and her face, softer now. “Happy birthday” she whispers. A smile breaks across her face.

Ruth Niemiec writes and resides in Melbourne, Australia. She completed her Bachelor of Arts, with a major in Professional Writing, at Victoria University. Her work has been published in various places online, in print and she also works as a freelance editor. Her night job is in theatre.

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