Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Birthday Story

I sometimes think that the best stories are those left to the readers' imaginations. Consider one of my favorite short stories, written by Ernest Hemingway :
For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn
And that's it. That's the entire (written) story. For such a short piece, the number of questions it brings into mind, and the number of possible interpretations, are astounding. A comedic understanding would be that the clumsy father bought shoes of the wrong size, and realized it too late for returns to be made. But, as a person with more of a taste for the tragic, I would read it as being some terrible tragedy- perhaps a fatal accident before the full term, for instance.

The story I'm going to tell next is also one which lends itself to interpretation. I won't claim that what I'm telling is what exactly transpired, since I never really got to know the complete details, but as things go, my interpretation incorporates all the facts I know. So, from my point of view, it's pretty valid, but if you have any alternative readings, be sure to share.

This happened about six months after I moved into my new home, which was sited close to the university at which I was lecturing. After getting to know the neighborhood, which had the cozy university town feel to it, I started frequenting, on weekday evenings, a small cafe near my home. The cafe was owned and run by Karen, a charming and witty lady just pushing into her mid-thirties. She would often tell amusing anecdotes about her previous customers, and that, along with the delicious chocolate cakes which were never too sweet nor horrendously bitter, convinced me to become a regular at that cafe.

My schedule usually involved getting a slice of cake along with some warm peppermint tea, and then slowing consuming the two items over the dailies or a book. If my eyes happened to be strained due to overuse at work, I would probably strike a conversation with Karen or some of the other regulars at the cafe. There was almost always an interesting story to pass around.

It was one of those eyestrained days when this story happened. I was halfway through the newspaper when I decided that the sharp pain around my temples was too much for me to bear any more reading for the day. Cake and tea weren't the best foods for a eyestrain induced headache, so I was prepared to leave, if it weren't for the heavy downpour. Resigned, I slumped back into the chair, and rested my eyes.

It was in that moment of bored contemplation that I was suddenly aware of the somber quietness. To be sure, the cafe never had the rowdy atmosphere of bars or pubs, but the background would always be filled with some level of chatter and conversation coming from the cafe regulars and their life stories. But now, there was only a soft silence amidst the sound of rainfall outside the cafe. Queer, but welcome nonetheless, for noise did nothing to sooth headaches. I did start feeling better shortly after.

Though my headache had dissipated somewhat, the rain had not stopped. Feeling that this might take a while, and with nothing else to occupy my time, I did a lazy scan of the cafe. It was then that I noticed something strange.

There was a young man sitting alone in the corner of the cafe. That in itself was queer, for the corner seats were usually occupied by privacy seeking college couples from the nearby university. But the man did not appear to be a student- judging from his appearance, he should be in his late twenties, and ought to have graduated some years back.

My interest somewhat stroked, I continued to study this odd person. Perhaps I had caught the wrong idea at the wrong instant, and perhaps he was just a random passerby who was unaware of the connotations of the corner seats. Maybe he was an out-of-towner that happened to be caught in the rain, and sought some refuge here, taking dinner at the same time. Maybe, there- hmm, no, the last theory didn't make sense, I realized.

The man was not having dinner, not unless you would consider a cake dinner. It was no normal cake either, but a birthday cake as indicated by the candles topping the cake. And, if I was not mistaken, one made in this cafe, which was pretty rare, since you would need a special request before Karen would make one.

If my eyesight did not fail me, there were three candles on the cake, 2 large, 1 small. Queer.

And there were two small plates on the table, each with a slice of the cake. One from which the man was eating from, and one with its own spoon, totally untouched.

Perhaps there was another person due, perhaps delayed by the sudden and heavy rain. This would help explain the other slice of cake, and also possibly, if I were forced to make a judgment, the aura of moodiness from the man.

Some time passed, and the rain stopped. The candles on the cake melted. The man got up, made his payment, and left the cafe, the single slice of cake virgin, untouched.

There was nothing left to do, and with the rain gone, it seemed a good time for me to leave too. I got up and slowly made my way over to the counter. Karen was just cleaning up after the cake-man, bringing the uneaten cake, save for two slices, back to the kitchen area for disposal. When Karen passed by me on the way to the kitchen, I managed to catch a glimpse of the cake.

"Sweet 21, Selene"

When Karen returned, I popped the question, "Who's Selene?" Seemingly taken aback by my question, it took a long moment for her to weigh an answer. Finally, she merely pointed to one of the photographs plastered on the wall behind the counter. This was the kind of picture wall where everyone puts a happy picture, and promptly forgets about and ignores. I myself had not paid much notice to the wall of pictures before.

There was a particular photograph on the wall, a bunch of people celebrating a birthday at the cafe. The man from earlier on was there too- or should I say, a younger and possibly less unhappy version of the man, five or six years removed. There were some other girls in the photograph, but I would guess that Selene was the one in the center- the birthday girl. Bright eyes, an incandescent smile, a sweet-seeming girl. Perfectly happy and innocent.

The time stamp on the photograph was today's date, five years ago.

I felt an uneasy tingle in my gut. Hesitantly, I asked, "Did something happen? Perhaps like five years ago?"

Karen only gave a slight nod, before retreating to some other part of the cafe.

It was a terrible story, one so terrible that I had hoped that someone would jump right up and shout, "AHA, fooled you didn't I?" But there was no such declaration, it was real.

Was there some tragedy? I don't know for sure. And I asked myself, would fate be so cruel as to allow some sort of tragic event to occur on one's 21st birthday? There was no reason, I would have thought. But then, what if cause and effect were reversed, and that one's 21st birthday was the cause? An intense celebration, a few loose drinks... Not so difficult to believe, then. But it makes the entire affair take on an entirely regrettable feel, even moreso than before.

And that is my version of the most terrible birthday story I know.

1 comment:

Benedict said...

Crisp writing. Fascinating use of suspense as an end. Nice.