A Birthday Gift

The Stones entered the restaurant with the awkward grace of teenagers at a wedding procession. The two rooms lying on either side of the reception area smelled of fresh cut roses and lemon juice. Mozart breathed out of unseen vents with the vibration of violins. Tables were clothed in starch white and gold-rimmed china and the silverware was so flushed with light that the prongs on the forks nearly rang. Even the fish in the aquarium near the door floated silent with peering eyes as people stood waiting for their tables.

The stillness made Leanne nervous. She hated to sit in an empty restaurant. It made her bones crush through her skin. She hated it most when she had to endure the dinner hour with Calvin in silence. She could manage on the quiet evenings at home where she discarded her wifely position by having dinner in front of the television while he sat at his computer a few feet away but out of sight, shifting animated wild animals into virtual cages or digging so deeply into research over nothing that he lost sense of what he had been searching for in the first place. But in an empty restaurant, she had to be on her guard, balancing her words to comply with Calvin’s mustached arguments like a spoon on the rim of a coffee cup, afraid she might say something that would reveal too much and set off the game that, however civilized, would always end with her feeling battered down by inexhaustible reason. After thirty-two years of marriage, there was nothing more she wanted Calvin to know about her and nothing that she felt worth the battles.

They had led separate lives since their second child, a boy, had joined the navy. Leanne tried to tell her husband about the echoing shifts in the house that terrified her, left barren in their son’s wake, and the purple clouds that hung above her head as she moved from one room to another in a pointless effort to forget. She had taken to reading books on astronomy because the vastness of the universe comforted her. But the moment she unfolded the constellation maps or opened the newspaper to read the horoscope, her husband would frown, saying, “I only hope that you’re not going off into some kind of cuckoo world with all this, Leanne.” He really used the word cuckoo, like some laconic old-timer. It made her sick to listen to him talk to his students when he brought them to the dining room table to tutor them in Math and Physics. She would come into the living room and offer them coffee only to find him settling into a lecture about nothing that had to do with numbers or formulas. His favorite was about the old man who taught the boy to fish rather than gave him a fish when he was hungry. Even the sound of Calvin’s voice, a buzzing depth that everyone else found soothing, circled like a wasp around her head. Lately, she admitted to having an almost wicked sensation of righteousness when she saw the students gazing over the monk bald head as if they were counting the minutes in their breaths when they could continue with the task at hand.

As the host led them through the comfortably candled room, she relaxed a little. There were people but the air around them hushed the cadences of their speech. She could not help watching their faces curve with relaxed emotion – laughter, joy, attentiveness. But she heard nothing, as if she were watching a pantomime.

Calvin lifted back a chair for her to sit down. He was making an effort, she could see that. Special occasions always brought forth the consciousness that he was perhaps after all a lucky man to have a wife that was raised to take caretaking as her purpose in life. He seemed anxious that her fifty-eighth birthday would be something he could recall later, when the shadows around their bed became thick and, hit with despair at two children escaped from her precious rendering of them, she felt trapped with this muddled old-timer and her rage would errupt and she would scream for a divorce. Even her youngest son had begun to encourage her – He’ll never give you what you need. There had always been a strange sort of communication between them, perhaps because the doctors had predicted a lung infection would take him before the age of three and she had fought with the little body curled up between blankets with bears on them to catch the breaths that kept trying to get away from him.

But when Leanne thought of divorce, she thought of Calvin, shuffling around a dirt-eaten apartment, his unshaven face sucked into the glare of his computer as the hours passed, rags crusted dry on the clothesline from lack of use while he coughed and sputtered in and out of the dust. She had married for duty and duty was an insatiable beast.

She leaned over, searching her mind for something safe and came up with “Who recommended this place again?”

“Pauly,” he said. “The lab kid I told you about.”

He had told her nothing of course. She met Paul at one of the gatherings at the university where wives were compulsory. She felt a deep annoyance that her husband was calling a thirty-year-old man by a name that belonged to a little boy. Paul had the boyish pallor of an eager artist, it was true. He told her he was an artist, or had been for a time after he finished college. But then he married and had a son and built a career in computers. He helped in the lab and tutored high school students along with Calvin. Calvin approved of him because he always volunteered to do extra work for classes, usually the work that her husband felt was beneath his professorship. Because of this, Calvin had allowed himself and Leanne to move in closer to him than to any other graduate student. With the quivering mustache of pride, Calvin had once explained to Leanne his elaborate methods of “keeping distance” from his students.

But Leanne had been warmed by the young man’s unsanctioned love of art more than his mechanical knowledge of computers, his tan skin glowing like a copper sun against his snapping gray eyes as he talked about his love for the Impressionists. She almost found herself giggling like a goose because she imagined he flirted with her, although in her learned modesty, even she was willing to admit that with solemn eyes and vivacious smile she was more attentive than some of the other professors’ wives.

“Paul has good taste,” she murmured now as she spooned the pearl sauce over the cup of artichoke.

“He’s always finding the best places to eat,” said Calvin. “The best ribs, the best burger. Cheapest, too.“

That Calvin took her comment literally did not enrage her as much as his complete alienation from the young man’s dreams. She learned early on that Paul never spoke of his art to anyone at the university. She made the mistake one day of mentioning the Impressionists to Calvin and he had looked at her, his bald head stained with red spots from the sun streaming through the laboratory window, his cold green eyes slicing through the metallic laboratory tools that surrounded them. Then, he had dismissed her with, “I think Paul is more sensible than that, dear. I know him better than you, after all.”

She let Calvin believe this because it was easier than getting tangled up in one of his elaborate arguments that left her confused and frazzled. But Paul himself had shown her his art the afternoon of the party he had given his six-year-old son.

She thought it odd at first that he would invite her to a child’s party but he had begged her on the phone, saying, “You get along better with kids than my wife.” Arleen, a doctoral biology student, seemed to Leanne to have the glossiness of a woman trying to prove to everyone, but mostly to herself, that she could be as good a mother as she was a scientist. But her idea of motherhood was as constricted as her non-human organisms. She kept picking hairs off of her son’s shirt, quieting him when the pitch of his voice reached above the dog barking around his feet, and closed in on the small space around him with such force that everyone, including Paul, were forced to keep a firm distance.

Leanne watched Paul, his dark hair like waves across his forehead, his bright eyes vast among the candy colored streamers, as he stood against the doorframe, his long arms behind him. He gazed at his son as if trying to remove himself from all matter and float soul first towards him, separating his mother away from the small space around the little boy to try and give him room so that he could breath and smile. All afternoon Leanne saw how much he wanted to reach him, the same gray eyes begging the boy, blanketing the strong back and hands that were already showing signs that he would be as tall as his father.

She had moved towards Paul, smiling up at him with all the silence of her empathy.

Without moving his head, Paul whispered, “They’re so proud of her. She invented some kind of formula that might help doctors with earlier detection of breast cancer some day.”

Leanne did not ask who exactly it was that was so proud of his wife.

He suddenly looked at her, distress shadowed in his eyes, making them grey beads. “You judge her harshly, don’t you?”

“I don’t know her,” said Leanne.

“Your generation, I mean,” he said. “Motherhood isn’t a full-time job for her as it was for you.”

Leanne remembered her own mother, a small woman with a beauty that brought people to her like a powerful light. Her mother, who had turned away when Leanne’s father came home dragging his robust frame, his eyes nearly wincing from having bent over his accounting books all day in his job at a bank. She remembered going without eggs in the morning or sharpened pencils because her mother salvaged every penny she could to pay for the house she wanted and then saved again to furnish it. Her mother’s idea of motherhood was perhaps as rigid as Arlene’s, if only one when one direction and the other another.

“I’ve no right to judge anybody,” she said.

She moved closer to the table then, feeling sharpened by a need to prove herself worthy of her words and, taking a spoon from the hands of one of Arlene’s friends, who was having trouble digging it into a barrel of ice cream, made perfect round hoops of the treat in the little plastic bowls, handing them out to the children. She could feel Paul’s eyes watching her.

Later, when the party had calmed down and the children were outside playing, he took her arm and brought her down to the cellar where he had set up a studio. Victorian statuettes lined the walls.

“Not my wife’s favorite era, so I brought them down here,” said Paul. He began to disrobe what looked like slabs of glass in the center of the room.

“There’s beauty in them,” Leanne said, moving closer to examine the fine cherub faces and the hem of the petticoats.

“She says it was the most oppressive era for women,” said Paul.

“But a lively one too,” she said with a smile. “Anything was possible.”

“Yes,” he said. “We’ve sort of shut out possibility, haven’t we?”

Leanne turned around. By then, he had uncovered the slabs and the spark coming off of the slit of light in the corner of the wall caught her eye.

The sculptures were glass carvings of children involved in elaborate games with elves, seahorses, and pixies. Their fantastic quality, the ridges of the children’s faces bent on serious play and the magical figures made her breath quicken, struggling to pull away from her like the nights she had breathed through the lung infection with her son.

“I haven’t much taste for angles,” he began, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked as if he were about to fall back.

“Neither does the light,” she remarked.

“You don’t like them, do you?” His voice immediately shook, but not with the artist’s defense, as she had imagined it would. It was more like playing with fire, a dare for himself to sit up and listen to the words of someone whose opinion he respected.

She did not know what to say at first. She cleared her throat, intending to give him the praise she knew he wanted. But instead, she said, “You make the children look as if they already know what lies ahead of them.”

He looked at her with the transparency of pale gray. He took her hand and held it for some time.

When they went back upstairs, Arlene said to her with a hearty smile, “Has he been showing you his treasures in the cellar? I told him he should be doing illustrations for kids’ books. He can make a lot of extra money that way.”

Neither Leanne nor Paul answered her.

Calvin was insisting now on dessert.

“The crème Brule is supposed to be something special here,” he said. “You like crème Brule. You used to make a good crème Brule.”

“I haven’t the time for such things,” she snapped, his throaty voice irritating her through the amber lighting behind his head.

“No,” he said. “Your cuckoo interests have been taking up most of your time.” His mustached smile was laced with malice.

The server seemed to sense that the evening was wearing thin on both of them and brought a plate with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and a pile of whipped cream. But Calvin made him take it back because the chef has put too much chocolate syrup.

“Do you always have to put everyone out?” Leanne said. She could have bitten her tongue.

But Calvin seemed in no mood to argue with her tonight. “Remember when you brought home that kohlrabi when we were first married and you didn’t have a clue what to do with it?”

“I hate cooking,” she said.

“You’re a good cook,” said Calvin. “The kids always thought you were better than their friends’ mothers. Did you know that?”

“I hate cooking,” she repeated, her voice amplified in the dull air. The jellied cream of the Brule stuck in her throat like the muddled words of his old-fashioned slang.

When the bill came, there was a red stamp smacked across the blue type. It read PAID.

Calvin didn’t seem to notice. He carefully slid the credit card out of his wallet.

“It’s been paid, sir,” said the server.

“Can you take a tip on a credit card?” His face was moon thick as it peered at the server.

“He said the bill’s been paid,” said Leanne.

She seethed inside at his empty blinking eyes. “By whom?”

“I can’t tell you that, sir,” said the waiter. He threw Leanne a cautious smile as he cleared away the coffee.

“Well, I’ll be – “ Calvin’s voice cracked as they left the restaurant. “No one knew we were coming here.”

Between the silk of light that showered her lap on the passing street as they drove home, Leanne gazed out of the car window and smiled. She was aware that the edges of her mouth were trimmed like the children’s mouths in Paul’s glass imprints.