The Birthday

By EIDER RODRÍGUEZ

Translated by JULIA SANCHES 

 

At the end-of-year meeting, the teacher had informed me that Izadi needed to take up a sport, “discover the strength she had inside her,” “meet people,” “socialize,” “work on her independence.” The teacher said these things and other things, just as he did at the end of every school year. I pretended to be surprised, but I knew all of that already. Usually, I was on top of her, and I figured that was a good thing, or maybe I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. In any case, Izadi was special, and that was the price to pay for raising her with principles. I wanted to enjoy her company as much as possible—after all, I’d wanted to have her so badly. Before Izadi, I’d never taken care of anyone, at least not for such a long period of time, and it was more complicated than I’d thought it would be, much more complicated than just loving someone. Weekends, holidays, every single day… I took care of everything as if it were a lesson plan. I was tired; maybe that was why our relationship had deteriorated. So that summer I signed Izadi up for kayaking lessons even though she didn’t want them. 

I’d walk her to the club entrance, then pick her up when class was over. I’d spend every second of those two hours thinking about all the things I should want to do and then get overwhelmed. Instead of feeling free, I was sad and angry. Usually, after dropping off Izadi, I’d go to a café in the Santiago neighborhood, where I read the paper like I used to do back in the day or enjoy a cup of tea in the sun. But I could never help myself and always wound up back at the river, where I’d sit on a bench and look for my daughter among the other kayakers: she was always on the edge of the group, always, though I wasn’t sure if that was actually true or if I was just imagining things. 

Now and then I walked along the riverbank. Always scared of going too far, I took short trips. I didn’t know the place well. To the left, small white houses with tile roofs and red windows; in front and to the right, the skyscrapers of Irun. But if I managed to forget everything around me and focused on the river and nothing else, I’d realize that it was actually a wild stretch of space, a place I could return to again and again, and just be myself. I’d heard somewhere that a long time ago people used to tell women sick with sorrow to watch the flow of the water, that the movement would help them let go of negative feelings. Whatever it was, I’d found unexpected nuances in the river, like the smell of marshland and the mystery of silt.

When I went to pick her up on the last day, Izadi showed me an envelope. 

“Claudia invited me to her birthday party. It’s tomorrow.”

There was a dolphin on the invitation and, on the back, a hand-drawn map with a red dot; beneath it, the street name and date. “Bring a swimsuit.”

“Who’s Claudia?”

“A friend.”

She rolled down the window and yelled: “Claudia!”

In the distance, a girl in a baseball cap raised her hand. She was taller than my daughter, her body fuller. 

“Mom said it’s okay for me to go!” Izadi yelled.

This birthday party could get me a few hours to myself. 

“She has a mark on her face,” she warned me. “That’s why she’s always wearing a hat with ear flaps on it.” 

“I hadn’t noticed.” 

I looked around for the girl, but she was gone. 

“Why don’t you ever come watch me?”

We had a minor argument. I calmly explained that I needed space too, and that she had to learn to be on her own, without me. I didn’t admit that more often than not I wound up watching her from afar. Izadi fell quiet. It was her way of running away. The kingdom of silence, I called it: When will you be coming back from the kingdom of silence?

“What’s it like? Red?” I asked. “Is it red? Hey, I’m talking to you. Is it purple?”

She said nothing until we pulled up in front of our house. 

“Brown. I think the other kids find it gross. But I don’t.”

“Good,” I said. “That’s really good.”

I glanced at her in the rearview mirror to show that I was happy with her, but she gazed straight ahead, her face set in a stern expression. She has pretty eyes. A lot of people have said so. Sometimes I wonder if the man who donated his sperm was attractive. If attractive people do that sort of thing too, or if the people who do that sort of thing are more special than they are attractive. Special in good ways and bad ways. Can people be special in ways that are neither good nor bad?

Whenever I got caught up in those kinds of thoughts, I always wound up going too far and then had trouble finding my way back. 

 

Izadi had zero interest in giving her friend something homemade. Against my better judgment, we went out and bought a Soy Luna journal, but only on the condition that the two of us bake her a cake together. 

“Have we got a deal?”

“Whatever,” she said.

But I wanted to. I liked it when we created things together. Izadi conceded. She was full of nervous energy. She enjoyed poking around other people’s houses and kept wondering what Claudia’s house looked like.

“I think they’re rich. Claudia says they’ve got a pool. And a room full of toys, a room just for playing in.”

“Having lots of rooms means you have to work a lot to pay for them. And working a lot means you can’t spend quality time together.”

“Why can’t we just make a normal cake?”

“Whole wheat is normal.”

“It’s for old people.”

“You like it.”

“Nobody else does.”

“It’ll be delicious, just you wait.”

“Will we ever be rich?”

“We already are.” We circled back to the subject over and over, but she never let up. “We’ve got a house with two bedrooms just for the two of us. A fridge full of food. We each have our own closet. We’ve got strawberries growing on our balcony. You have a grandmother and a grandfather. And you have friends. A van. A bunch of shoes. We’ve never gone hungry. We’re not sick. We go on vacation every summer.” 

“Yeah, right.”

I gestured at her to stop beating the eggs. 

“I’ll finish up. Go away now. Please.”

I didn’t look at her. I knew how to use silence too. 

Izadi busied herself cleaning the fig tree leaves with a damp cotton ball, just like I’d taught her as a little girl, as a way to self-soothe. When I was done, I went to hug her, but she shied away. Again, trying to do something nice and making a mess of it. We were like alchemists who turned gold into garbage. 

“Come here. You’ll like this!”

She was calmer now, and I let her do her thing. We put the cake in the oven in a heart-shaped pan. After taking it out, we filled it with carob cream and  I let Izadi dust the cake with caster sugar as a reward. Then she got dressed. Her nose was covered in freckles from the sun. 

We followed the map and quickly found our way there. Tied to the fence outside the house were two red balloons. 

“She was burned,” Izadi said before getting out of the car. “That’s why she has that mark.” She looked in the mirror and pinched her cheeks, making herself look ugly. “They took some skin from her back and put it on her face, but you can tell.”

It was a Basque-style house, old but in decent condition, with vines and a bougainvillea creeping up the façade, blanketing half the house, and hedges crowded together along the fence. Izadi remembered to grab the present. We followed more colorful balloons to the backyard. Claudia came out to welcome Izadi. She was bigger than I’d thought. Arabesques covered more than half her face, and some of her scalp. Had it not been for that, she’d have been a beautiful girl with dark eyes and full lips. I smiled at her. Two women sat at a table smoking. As soon as they saw us, one of the women stubbed her cigarette out in a flowerpot and walked up to me. 

“I’m Nieves, Claudia’s mom. You must be the mother of her new friend.”

“Yes. I’m Izadi’s mom.”

She wore her hair like Rita Hayworth, in a very purposeful do. Her face was partly disfigured, and her dark, cascading locks screened the section that had been devastated.

The woman sitting at the table got up and grabbed her purse. 

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” She walked up to the girls, who were in the inflatable pool. “Girls! Behave yourselves. I’ll come collect you in a couple of hours.” She turned to face us. “Give us a kiss, Nieves.”

I was too embarrassed to admit I had to leave too. 

“Izadi and I made this cake,” I said once the other woman had gone. 

“Thanks! I’ll just set it over here.”

On the terrace table were a Disney-themed tablecloth and plates, as well as plastic dishes filled with popcorn, sandwiches, cold cuts, and some soda. 

“It’s shaped like a heart. How adorable!” She glanced at the girls; you couldn’t see anything from the side. “Claudia! Come see what your friend brought for you.”

There were two other girls besides Izadi and Claudia, also around ten or eleven years old. 

“Coffee?” she asked.

As she laughed, her mouth became deformed, as if an elastic band were tugging at her lips. 

“I don’t drink coffee. Thank you, though.”

“If you’ve got to run errands, go ahead—I’ll manage. This is how it is with summer birthdays: fewer people come to parties than they do during the school year. Claudia’s used to it…. You have no idea how hard it was in the beginning! Now she’s in charge of figuring out who’s in town and who isn’t, and of sending out invitations. Three out of four kids were able to make it.” She lowered her voice. “Which is fine by me, of course.”

“I think I’ll stay, if you don’t mind. It’s nice here.”

I sat down beside her on the wood bench, which was in the shade beneath a tangle of vines. 

“We planted these vines eight years ago, right when we moved in. Just look at them now.”

We gazed up. Nieves closed her eyes. She looked like a reptile. The burn ran down from her neck. I closed my eyes too. We sat there like that until Nieves let out a sigh. 

“My husband did all this. He built the structure out of four pieces of lumber. He’s from a village in Logroño, but his family moved to Bilbao when he was a kid, and apparently they had one of these in the courtyard. He put it up when we moved here from Bilbao, and look at how much they’ve grown in so little time,” she said as she looked at the hanging vines. “You’re right, it’s nice here.”

“I’ve got a black thumb. I only buy the hardiest plants. I don’t even care if I like them or not.”

“I’m pretty useless too…. Plants need so much care, faith, and trust. And some of them have to be left alone. The less attention you give them, the prettier they are.”

She grabbed a spring onion with her fingers and placed it in her mouth. 

We gazed up again. The vine’s branches were red, as if blood ran through them. It was hard to believe such a weak and splintered trunk could be the source of so much life….

“They’re having a wonderful time,” I said, turning to face the pool. 

“Kids are at their best when they’re with other kids. Is your daughter an only child too?” 

“Yes.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about.”

We closed our eyes. 

The girls sat at the table wrapped in towels. Izadi, who was very slender, trembled, her lips bluish. She pointed at the popcorn, and I gave her permission to eat; it was a special occasion. I had to make an effort not to think of the poison contained in each fistful. The two sisters grabbed a paper bag from beneath a chair and pulled out Claudia’s present: a pair of pajamas with a pink tutu. Claudia immediately put it on. 

“Oooh… how lovely!” Nieves exclaimed. 

Claudia smoothed out the skirt, lifted her arms like a ballerina, and pirouetted. She looked grotesque. When she took off her pajamas, I saw the patch of skin on her back that had been turned into a cheek. 

Izadi handed Claudia her gift too. Claudia opened it and gave her a big hug. 

Soy Luna!”

Izadi blushed. Her arms ran up and down Claudia’s back without ever fully touching her. Claudia looked like she could be Izadi’s mother, even though she was only a handful of months older. 

“Put on some sunscreen. It may not look it, but you’ll get burned,” Nieves said, tossing a bottle of sunscreen to the girls. 

Before they could get away, Nieves grabbed her daughter. She squeezed lotion into the girl’s hands and Claudia applied it to her body. When she’d finished, Nieves slowly rubbed lotion on her daughter’s cheek with her pinkie finger, adding a thicker layer to the burn mark. Claudia glanced over at me to see if I was looking and I smiled at her, wanting to convey that everything was all right, that the world was perfect, that she was perfect. She breathed out. 

Nieves tucked the curtain of hair she used to cover herself behind her ear, then rubbed lotion to her own face, applying a thicker layer to the half that had been burned. I didn’t look away, not wanting to hurt her. When she’d finished, she let her hair hang loose again, stylishly veiling half of her face. She smiled at me. Her bottom gum showed when she smiled. She rubbed the remaining lotion on her knees and lit a cigarette. 

“We’ve got to be extra careful with our skin,” she said.

“Where are you from? Bilbao?” I asked. 

“If only!”

“Hendaya’s not a bad place for a fresh start,” I said. 

“That’s what they say,” she replied, even though I’d never heard anyone say that before. “We’re doing well here, much better.”

“Loads of people move here to start over,” I said, wanting to fill the space between us with words. “Another way of life, different weather, other customs, another language…. Sometimes it’s nice not to understand what other people are saying, don’t you think? And it’s all just around the corner.”

“That’s right, just around the corner. And what brought you to Hendaya? You’re not from here either….”

“We’re real estate exiles, or at least that’s what I say whenever anyone asks. In a way, though, we just wanted a fresh start too. You know what it’s like having a kid….”

“Boom!” she yelled. “A bomb goes off smack in the middle of your day-to-day, except no one but you has heard the blast. Am I right?”

“No one.”

“After the accident, we needed a change.”

“Accident?”

She pointed at the cigarette she was smoking. 

“A cigarette butt that wasn’t put out right…. The whole house went up in flames while we were sleeping.”

“Was it a long time ago?”

“It’ll be nine years this September. We were living in Bilbao. Everyone in the neighborhood knew us, and it wasn’t easy…. We’d come straight home from work. On weekends we ran off to Logroño, where no one had an idea who we were. The insurance company did the right thing, and the local government gave us some money too. So there you have it. It was Clemente’s idea to come here. He works at Decathlon, in the office, and he asked to be transferred to Irun. We aren’t the sort of people who spend too long thinking things over. We’re impulsive. The rest is history. What about you? Divorced?” she asked, as if she’d figured out the solution to a riddle. 

“No… it’s just me and Izadi.”

“That’s great too.”

“Yeah, like everything.”

“Want a drink? I’m parched. I’m going to have a beer, I think. Would you like one? We’ve got some Moscato too. It’s the only wine I can stomach.”

“I’ll have a beer, thanks.”

As she went off to fetch our beverages, I watched the girls. I didn’t have the courage to tell her I didn’t drink; it seemed rude, though I couldn’t say why. The girls sat on the grass. Claudia was talking, the two sisters were listening to her, and Izadi had her back to them and was staring at something on the ground. I resisted the urge to tell her to turn around and listen. 

“And you know what the worst part is?” Nieves asked, once she’d come back from the kitchen. “I’ve picked up smoking again! I’m incorrigible. I’ve started my own business, and the stress has gotten to me. At least, there’s no one to tell me off anymore. It must be even harder for women who’re getting started in their twenties. Don’t you think? What do you do, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I work at a health clinic, in admin. I’m not passionate about it, though it has its upsides, and it doesn’t take up much mental energy. I can take time off in the summer to be with Izadi, do things at our own pace.”

“Time! How lovely. I’m going to call the girls over to eat some cake before their mom comes to collect them.”

She took a swig from the bottle. I noticed she had to wipe off the beer dribbling out of the corner of her mouth. 

 

Nieves lit the candles, and we sang Claudia “Happy Birthday.” Izadi moved her lips like a ventriloquist while pretending to sing. Claudia puffed up her cheeks and drew near the candles. She waited for the song to end. On her skin were shapes similar to those made by the lit candles; there, curled up behind the flames, her scar seemed to move. 

We clapped for her when she blew out all the candles. Claudia was so happy, she seemed to glow. She looked a bit too sensitive, which wasn’t a good thing. She held her hands on either side of her face, her eyes brimming with tears. 

Nieves sliced the cake, which was made of donuts, and offered me a piece.

“Once a year won’t kill you.”

I said I didn’t want any. Our cake was intact. Instead, as a way to thank her, I grabbed a pickle, even though I hadn’t eaten anything like it in at least a decade.

“Look!” Nieves said when she heard the car horn. “Your mom’s here. Go get dressed.”

Claudia and Nieves walked the girls to the door, their hands filled with candy. I went up to Izadi, who was sitting on a folding chair, holding the unfinished braid that Claudia had abandoned halfway. 

“Are you having a nice time?”

“Yes.”

“Really? It doesn’t look that way. We can leave soon, if you want.”

“Not yet, please.”

“Not yet—soon.”

Claudia and Nieves walked back, laughing with their arms around each other’s waists, as if sharing a secret. They had burn marks on the same sides of their bodies, though you couldn’t tell from afar.

“Claudia’s just had a wonderful idea,” she said, and then let her daughter speak.

“Stay for dinner? I’d love that so much. Please stay,” Claudia said, on her knees, hands held in prayer. 

“Clemente will be home any minute now with Chinese takeout. He always brings way too much, and we end up eating leftovers for days,” Nieves said. “Do you have any food restrictions? I could throw together a salad, a tortilla, or both.” 

I glanced over at Izadi. I found it hard to tell what she really wanted.

“Please!” Claudia said. “It’s my birthday!”

I looked at her textured cheek. 

“Sure, why not?” I said, answering for both of us.

Izadi stood in front of our cake and stared at it. 

“Do you want a piece?” Nieves asked. “Don’t be shy.”

She took a slice and handed it to her. 

Izadi ate the cake with relish. I was moved. Nieves took a piece for herself as well and ate it in small bites with her hand held in front of her face to keep the crumbs from falling out. 

“It’s delicious. You’ve got to send me the recipe,” she said. “Do you want to borrow a jacket, or should we head on inside? It’s gotten a bit chilly.”

We helped clean up, then went into the house. The girls ran upstairs. Nieves made her way to the kitchen with the dishes, leaving me alone in the living room, which was cluttered with things. Dark, heavy wood furniture stood beside wicker pieces, colorful cushions, and plants. Everything was arranged strangely, in a way that seemed temporary. At the same time, the space felt somehow tidy and clean. On the coffee table, over the table runner, were four remote controls. The small red lights of various electronic appliances glowed around the room. An L-shaped sofa took up most of the space, opposite a large television fixed to the wall. In the hollow of the fireplace were dolls. On the marble mantelpiece above it was a mouse made of shells; next to it, Christ on a cross with scorched feet. When Nieves returned to the living room, I looked away from the fireplace. 

“Which one of you plays?” I said, pointing to the Yamaha keyboard behind the sofa. 

“Claudia and I play a little,” she said. “But Clemente is the real artist. Before,” and by that she meant a long time ago, maybe before the fire, “he used to be in a band. He’s a wonderful singer. But he only performs for us now. It’s a shame.”

We sat on the sofa. She slipped off her sandals and made herself comfortable. I did the same. From upstairs came the sound of the girls’ footsteps as they ran this way and that. It was soothing. The moment that changes everything, I thought, the moment when you’re not around and your daughter turns into what you’ve been wanting her to become. Then, on the small glass table, I saw a photo of them. It was hard not to look at it. I felt uncomfortable, even though Nieves must have been used to it. Or maybe because of that—because everything felt like part of a plan. 

She picked up the photo and blew on it before showing it to me, wiping away the dust with a corner of her dress. 

“This is one of the few photographs we have left.”

The photo had been taken in a studio. In it they were sitting on the floor, barefoot, dressed in white. She wore a summer dress with a ribbon at the chest and a smile that seemed unbreakable. A Mediterranean beauty, full-bodied and easy. I hadn’t pictured the man like that: tanned skin, broad forehead, an elegant mane that made up for the hair thinning around his crown, shirt unbuttoned at the chest, the hem of his pants turned up. He was stocky and had a scorpion tattoo on his arm and leather bracelets around his wrists. Claudia was the only one in the photo who looked serious; she would’ve been around one and a half. 

I pictured all that skin and fabric on fire, burning like paper napkins. 

“What a gorgeous family,” I said.

“Aren’t we just?” She turned the photo around and contemplated it. “This is what we used to look like. My husband and I had been watching a movie and fell asleep on the sofa. It’s a miracle we got out alive… And Claudia… now that was a real miracle. She was asleep in a room in the back of the house. My husband saved her…” Nieves coyly shook her hair. “I saw him run through the flames, and after a while he came back out with Claudia wrapped in a blanket, both of them on fire…. I’ll spare you the details. Trust me, it’s better that way.”

“At least she doesn’t remember anything….”

“Nothing, fortunately…. We lost everything. Our house, clothes, photos, memories, the letters Clemente and I used to send each other…. We wrote reams and reams of letter, starting when he was away on military service, and after that, you know, he went to England to learn English…. Now everyone’s doing it, but it wasn’t like that at the time. We’ve been together since we were seventeen. I’ll stop there. We lost everything. You can’t imagine what it’s like. Losing everything. Every single thing!” 

“Look at you now, though,” I said, trying to express something I couldn’t put my finger on. 

“Look at us now,” she said, content. “I still have nightmares about the muslin curtains that used to hang in the living room…. The wind makes them billow into the house, and they’re just floating there, like sails puffed by the wind. Except they also look like two ghosts swirling around me, and I’m lying on the sofa, sometimes watching TV, other times watching Claudia, asleep next to me, and all of a sudden the curtains are on fire…. That’s when I wake up….” She opened her eyes and sat up stiffly on the sofa. “I should probably stop talking. I hate hearing about other people’s dreams. It’s the most boring thing ever. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never given it much thought.”

“I hate other people’s dreams.”

“What I hate is other people’s vacations.”

Nieves laughed. 

“You were born again. And the credit’s all yours.”

“Sure. But you know what? It’s not like it’s done us much good. We live on the margins of what’s considered normal. People can’t hide the way they feel. When it’s not pity, it’s disgust. Then there are those who want to prove to themselves how kind they are and lavish us with attention. You wouldn’t believe how many wretches there are out there. Good people too, of course—that needs to be recognized. There are a lot of good people.”

It was odd: the way she talked, you’d think I belonged to neither of these groups. 

“My biggest worry is Claudia. How’s she going to manage in the future? And the surgeons are miracle workers. You should’ve seen her…. Look at how beautiful she used to be… and still is… at least to me.”

I tried to hold back a compassionate smile. 

“She’s very beautiful. Besides, she seems resourceful. Izadi’s crazy about her.”

She was happy to hear this. “Yes, she’s very confident.”

“And joyful….”

“I’m not sure about the first one, but you’re dead-on about the second part.”

Clemente whistled as he opened the front door, and Nieves’s expression underwent a subtle change: an unexpected, passing smile that conveyed a sense of peace, or maybe happiness. It dawned on me that she may not have felt comfortable in my company. I suddenly felt a nuisance.

He walked in, weighed down by various bags. His entire face was burned, and, strangely enough, I found that it made less of an impression on me this way than if his face had only been partly burned. The corners of his eyes looked as though they’d been melted, but his burn marks were otherwise uniform, with different textures and a soft variation in hue. He shook my hand. His hand was also burned. He gave Nieves a long kiss and ran his hand through her hair.

“I see we’ve got guests. What a nice surprise!” he said after moving away from her. “Where’s our angel?”

“Upstairs, with her friend from kayaking class,” said Nieves.

He had less hair than in the photographs, and he was grayer too. He wore his hair in a ponytail. He quietly took off his jacket, hung it on the coatrack, and sat at the piano. He rolled up his sleeves, unbuttoned his collar, and waved his fingers in the air. I noticed the scorpion had escaped the flames. 

Claudia came down the moment she heard the beginning of “Happy Birthday.” She hugged her dad tightly from behind. Nieves stood in the middle of the living room, proudly observing the scene. Izadi came downstairs and sat beside me on the sofa; I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. When he finished playing the song, Clemente pulled a handkerchief from his pant pocket and wiped his face. Nieves put a cold beer on the keyboard without having to ask; Clemente had a sip, then began to play again.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide. No escape from reality….” He sang a cappella, in a falsetto. “Open your eyes. Look up to the skies and see…. I’m just a poor boy. I need no sympathy, because I’m easy come, easy go…”

Nieves and Claudia looked at each other, perhaps adhering to some family code. 

Izadi and I went up to the piano. 

Clemente played the first couple of chords of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and moved his head side to side.

Mamaaajust killed a man…. Put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger; now he’s dead.

Unexpectedly, he had an admirable voice.

Mamaaalife had just begunbut now I’ve gone and thrown it all away….”

After the first verse, he looked over at us with a tired smile. By then we were all standing behind him, leaning against the sofa, both mothers softly dancing with their daughters, in silence, as though afraid of ruining such a precious, delicate moment. 

After he finished the song, Clemente remained still for a moment, his back to us. We also didn’t move. 

He turned around, and I thought he’d gotten younger, like we were all younger and lighter than we’d been before.

He finished his beer. 

Nieves went outside to smoke a cigarette.

“You can come, if you like,” she said before leaving.

“No, I’m okay,” I answered. Then I looked at Clemente. “Do you not smoke?”

“Vade retro,” he said, dropping one of his shoes on the floor and slipping on a flip-flop. “As much beer as I like, the occasional glass of whisky. But tobacco?! Visit any city in Europe, the real Europe, I mean: Paris, Brussels, Barcelona… look at how many smokers live there. In undeveloped places, on the other hand, they’re a dime a dozen.” I had the impression he’d made that speech more than once; he seemed bored of his own words. “I’m starving,” he said in a different tone, rubbing his belly. “What about you, girls? You hungry?”

Then he pinched Izadi’s waist.

“This girl’s skinny as a bike. Do they not feed you?”

Izadi moved away from him, though without being impolite, and followed Claudia upstairs. 

“You have a beautiful voice,” I said. “I was completely mesmerized.”

“You weren’t expecting me to, were you?” he said with enthusiasm, then looked at me more intently than I’d have liked.

“Beautiful and special.”

He let out a laugh and repeated, “Beautiful and special.”

I remained serious and didn’t look away. I wanted him to know I was being honest. It was important to me. 

“A shame you’re married. I’d have loved to sing at your wedding.”

“I’m not married.”

“Don’t be upset now,” he said as he held my hand. “There’s no reason to. I don’t take myself seriously—it’s better that way.”

His skin was soft, and I rubbed his hand with my thumb for as long as I could. We let go when we heard Nieves walk in. 

By then the smell of Chinese food had saturated the living room. Nieves brought in a flower-patterned oilcloth and placed it on the coffee table, then pulled the containers out of the bags and set them out on top. We sat around the table, on cushions on the floor. 

I noticed that, after Clemente arrived, Nieves seemed to grow smaller, as if she’d lost stamina. But she didn’t seem sad or angry, just more at peace.

Claudia and Izadi took the lids off the containers, exposing all kinds of gloopy dishes. Clemente brought out the Moscato. We sat on the floor. The two of us used forks while everyone else used chopsticks. Nieves winked at me before we clinked glasses. Her hair was held up with a clip, revealing the burn mark on her face. She was energized again.

“Here’s to many more years to come!” Clemente said. His eyes brimmed with tears, as did Nieves’s.

Claudia kissed the tips of her fingers and blew it to her parents.

“We’re so proud of you, honey,” Nieves said, blowing her a kiss.

Izadi was staring down at her plate. I held her chin so that she’d have to lift her head, then brushed her cheek with my hand. 

The food wasn’t as big a deal as I’d thought it would be. They served our cake for dessert, and everyone loved it. I felt like a part of their family. We had a lovely time, and I have a feeling they did too.

As we said goodbye, I hugged them.

“Thank you so much. Really.” I set my hand on my heart.

“No, thank you,” said Nieves.

“Keep playing,” I said to Clemente. “It was so wonderful to hear you.”

He came up to me and smoothly tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. Nieves closed her eyes, in agreement. 

They walked us to the gate. Clemente held Nieves by the waist, and she rested her head on his shoulder. No promises were made, by anyone. 

I asked Izadi to sit in the front of the car with me. Had she had a good time? I asked. She nodded yes, but I wanted her to say more. We drove home holding hands. 

I felt like I had found something special that day, the same magical feeling I got when collecting seashells on the beach, and I wanted to hold that magic close, so that it couldn’t get away, so it would live inside me forever, even though, as we drove home, I knew the magic would gradually wear off. 

 

 

 

Eider Rodríguez was born in Errentería (Basque Country, Spain) in 1977. She holds a BA in publicity and cinema and a PhD in literature. She has worked as an editor and screenwriter, and is currently a professor at the Universidad del País Vasco. Eider is the author of four books of short stories and a novel,Material de construcciónwhich was recently published in Basque.

Julia Sanches is the author of more than a dozen translations from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and original writing have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review Daily, and The Common, among others, and been longlisted and shortlisted for the National Translation Award and the PEN America Literary Awards. Julia has received support from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, PEN Translates, and the New York State Council on the Arts, and sits on the Council of the Authors Guild. 

[Purchase Issue 23 here.]

The Birthday

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