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The Birthday Cake

by Rupa Wood

Winner of the Summer 2021 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Larissa Pham.

‘I heard that if you’re seeing a man and there’s a girlfriend in the picture you leave an earring in his bed for her to find,’ Tabesh’s niece tells me as she forces herself to look bored and eats birthday cake with a plastic spoon. She wears a backpack to school. She shouldn’t know anything about men, or earrings in beds. I hand her two cups of soulless tea without sugar to give to her grandparents.

The first ring of the doorbell of doom was rung by my mother in-law, all deep orange lipstick and fragrant wrinkle cream, who handed me two huge white cake boxes tied with thin gold ribbons. You could have sliced an artery with such ribbons. A sweep of an air-kiss as she gives me her coat and not so much as a glance through her bi-focaled frames in my direction. In her mind I’ve failed. To look someone in the eye who’s failed only encourages their devastation. The cakes are large white moons, stabbed with pink rice paper flowers. Complicated paper doilies. One cake with Tabesh’s name spelled out in piped icing, the other with his brother’s name, Sahir, wishing them both Happy Birthdays in corrupt cursive.

They’re not twins. Sahir is Tabesh’s younger brother by four years but they are both born on the 29th of February. Sahir comes to the door in a black suede jacket, the kind with cords that tie at the top. He hangs the jacket up himself, but doesn’t look me in the eye either. Before the sun was up I started preparing the flower vases and incense burners, taking the gaudy dinner plates my in-laws gave us out of their boxes. Tabesh said he was taking Lola to a hospital appointment so was out most of the morning. The appointments seem to get longer and longer. The girl Sahir brings has this really great smile, as though it’s the only thing she knows how to do. She makes an effort with everyone, complimenting the aunts on their jewels and quickly moving past fifteen uncles wearing suits that are too tight. I feel sorry for her, wearing her best sparkly clothes. Sahir watches as she tries to play with the children who wriggle away from her as she joins their games.

When the last of the family had left, coated in wool blends and hats with appointments to the royal family, I opened up the windows and let cold cleansing air suck out their Opium perfumes and poisoned Dior. They’d all made it, everyone but Tabesh’s sister. She’s not come home since starting university. Water surges through hidden pipes above as Tabesh runs the shower upstairs. Pressing the pedal to the bin, I throw in the floral centre piece. Lilies of the Incas and blood clot roses. I don’t want it to remain fresh for seven days.

Tabesh and I were engaged in India. The Imam’s call to prayer carried on a gauze ribbon over the city. We stood amongst the unfinished walls of the fourth floor, places where someone had imagined a future where there would be windows and doors, and looked down on the streets turning to shadow below. He knelt on the dusty ground at my feet. There was a purity to it, to do what so many before us had done. It seemed as though it meant there some sort of safety in being part of a family.

Closing the door to the glasses cabinet, I listen for noises upstairs. Tabesh will be in the bedroom, blinds drawn, watching basketball. Lying down on the carpet, I reach under the couch to fetch the hidden parcels. Sahir likes to send me things to use when I make videos for him. The first parcel is a pale box with a picture of a spider on the postage stamp. Opening it, I find carefully layered tissue paper tied with a grey velvet ribbon. I like to tear the packaging to pretty things. It feels like breaking a flower. Inside is a dark pink silk robe, the fabric is almost like water in my hands. Undressing feels like a relief, my clothes tight and heavy without me knowing it. Tying the robe in front of the mirror above the mantelpiece I dab on glittery lipgloss and try and do something with my hair. I once worried about how I looked on camera. But not since I stopped making the videos of my own free will and Sahir started forcing me to send them. I now know I look great.

The instructions he gives for the videos are always specific. Bullet point list. I love how definitive they are, as if you could trace your tongue around the edge of what’s being asked of you. The second parcel is a brown padded envelope. Inside, a dark lacquered box, as though for jewellery. Opening the lid is a single golden fork, strung to a padded bed of satin. As I’m stacking a pile of books to make a place to put my phone, they fall and I’m still for a moment, listening for Tabesh. A black shadow sweeps across the sky outside and is gone. It is quiet except for the announcer, a distant muffled voice.

Setting the huge cake box on the table with one hand, filming with the other, I open the lid to reveal the iced cake sitting on a silver cushioned cake board, three quarters of it left. When I’d cut it into pieces to hand out to the guests, following Sahir’s instructions, I’d made sure Tabesh’s name remained. Sahir’s eyes were on me, my hand on the cake knife; mother-of-pearl handle, separating melted candles, counting out napkins, feeling as though someone was licking the back of my neck.

I prop the phone up on the stack of books in front of me. On the screen, a woman in a pink robe sits in front of a huge, extravagantly frosted cake. She unties the robe and moves it from her shoulders. Naked, she picks up a gold fork from the table, looks directly into the lens, scoops up some white crescent moon and its dark shadow, and begins to eat. There’s a place just below Sahir’s eye, at the top of his left cheekbone where he keeps a secret sadness. Sahir has only ever sent me two photographs of himself. I look at them often. If you saw him, you’d think his face looked mournful, but it isn’t. The hurt is contained, in a small, specific place. Occasionally, the picture looks different. It’s not sadness under his eye, but something more sinister, like cruelty. I can’t help but wonder what it tastes like, this part of his face. The videos Tabesh made with his sister were hidden, not so deeply, in his phone. In a folder marked ‘Productivity’, in second folder marked ‘Utilities’. I don’t know whose bed it is; it’s not ours. Perhaps it’s hers at university. The videos are edited down so it’s not clear if she knows she’s being videoed. The ceiling, movement, sheets, sometimes just sound, a few minutes before Tabesh comes. No, she doesn’t; she doesn’t know she’s being filmed.

When I found the videos on his phone, Tabesh was asleep next to me. I got dressed and practically ran out of the house. I called Sahir. Not that we’re close; it was just the only thing I could think of to do. He sounded shocked. Thinking back, maybe he wasn’t. He reminded me they were all adopted as children — though why should that matter? Since then, he’s told me lots of things about Tabesh. That they once shared a woman. Lots of things. I’m unsure now what to believe, I also maybe no longer care.

Tabesh’s wedding ring is on the hand he has on her head. The videos were not made so long ago.

Sahir sent me a text to check in and see how I was the day after I’d called in the middle of the night. He texted the next day, and the day after that. I sent a photo, proof that I was alright, a smile on my face and a cup of coffee in my hand. It was a lie. Perhaps it was the first lie I’d told. How powerful a lie can be. After a while he asked for another picture and then he’d asked for a picture of me in the sun, and pictures in new clothes I’d bought. And then made requests for things I should wear …

It’s cold without the robe. I get a bottle of champagne from the fridge, slowly lifting the cork, muffling the sound with a cloth. Drinking champagne alone, surely something only the truly vain and immoral would do. Perhaps I should care whether the neighbours can see me as I close the windows. Dark plum blossom on black boughs, aching blue sky.

Sahir and his girlfriend have bought a house in the suburbs. When Sahir’s girlfriend was handed his cake in the white box, she said something about going running, and laughed. I would like to see her run. Sometimes I see women in the street that look like her, hair tied back, baseball cap, full makeup, black leggings. I like to imagine the huge monster that’s chasing them.

Waiting for Sahir to reply to messages is unbearable. I become uncomfortable even in my own skin, slipping out of the house at night just to pace around the block. His cheekbone haunts me like a ghost. Sometimes I feel like I’ve joined a cult, complicit in my own indoctrination, knowingly giving up my soul.

It was awful; Sahir was the first thing I would think of when I woke up at daybreak and the last thing at night, like cigarettes. I would find myself trying to reach him in sleep. His eyes like hands that have caught a moth. Pulling the sheet over my body and imagining myself in this dark, black suede seam, in a place that belonged to him.

I tried to stop the messages. It was a terrible, torn feeling. Ground down, addiction. The idea of being without him unbearable; being tortured by my feelings equally so. Either option just as horrendous. In the end the choice was made for me.

Several days had passed and I’d not replied to his messages. My phone screen flashed with five screenshots of a folder. He’d stored all videos I’d sent to him over the past months. The video of me pouring fourteen-year-old scotch down the sink. The video of me putting the key to Tabesh’s Benz in the recycling and setting the bin out in the street. The video of when I keyed his car. The video of me deleting his hard drive. The video of Tabesh and I in bed together when I keep my eyes closed except when I look into the lens of my phone standing on the dresser.

Sahir’s messages meant he was prepared to send my videos to Tabesh. I was being blackmailed and I no longer had a choice in the matter.

The next day I bought three black dresses and a professional eyeshadow palette for the videos he was going to force me to make. I longed to be something Sahir desired. He had made me that and more; he wanted me against my will. It was enough, knowing he was prepared to try to hurt me to get what he wanted.

When I married Tabesh I imagined any thoughts of another man would be easy to tear into tiny shreds, like little strips of cloth. But nothing turns out the way we expect. For better or worse, I am bound to Sahir.

I put down the fork and complete the rest of his instructions. Tying the sash of the robe, I pick up the phone, holding it above the box, showing the empty place where I’ve eaten a portion of the cake. Crumbs and knife score lines mark the peeling foil-covered cake board. I’ve done exactly what Sahir’s asked. Where there was once Tabesh’s name, spelt out in pink icing, now there is nothing. I’ll edit the video in bed, next to Tabesh while he sleeps.

Slipping into Lola’s room before heading upstairs, I turn on the hall light for her. She’s breathing peacefully. The doctors gave us an unreasonable amount of hope for the future. She’s also begun having seizures. She wants a horse for her birthday, ‘…not a pony, Mama.’ She liked the cake her grandma brought. I cut some into pieces to put into Tupperware. Tabesh can take some with them when they go to the hospital tomorrow.

Turning the page to Lola’s calendar reveals our plans to go to Sahir’s new house for a meal with the family. It’s a large house with many rooms. Someone could easily get lost in a bedroom looking for the upstairs bathroom. I’ll bring my gold earrings. They have tiny diamonds in them, like light on a dagger’s blade.

Turning out the light, I imagine Sahir’s face as he watches my video. The place below his eye flashes with changes. I drift towards that changing place. I’m never sure of its meaning. Where a man waits in the dark with a tangled list of demands. Where Tabesh holds his sister’s long hair in his hands. Where Lola is no longer here and her voice can’t ask me for a horse.

I am vanishing, into the black.

RUPA WOOD studies an Mst in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. She is a multi-disciplinary artist exploring the philosophy of commonplace magic.


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