HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME


My boyfriend Dave picked me up in his red truck. We went to a party and got drunk, then had sex in an upstairs bedroom like we used to do—people knocking on the door, telling us to hurry so they can use the room. This time a new girl, Mandy, unlocked the door in the middle of it. I slid down my skirt and Dave pulled up his jeans, and we went to the church lot across the street, where I gave Dave a blowjob. When I was done, he wiped my mouth with his shirttail. Then he told me that he loved me. I thought it was the best night of my life.

My name was Eileen, but people called me Kitten.

My mother and I lived with my mom’s sister, Peggy, and Peggy’s boyfriend, Dustin, who filled up the pool every summer. The backyard lead to a forest where I sometimes ran to try to get away. Just last week it snowed.

My father was admitted to an institution, and after he got out, he decided to visit once a month. Last week for my mom’s birthday, he left a box of tampons with a note saying, Happy fucking bloody birthday; for Valentine’s Day he gave me a toothbrush and a cookie jar in the shape of a brown Guernsey cow.

*

When I got home from the party, I went to the basement, where Dustin was waiting up. His big eyes lit up every time I saw them. He was a car salesman, always smiling. He’d sold a Stealth the week before and now he wore his Stealth jacket everywhere. He drove new loaners from the dealership.

The basement lights were always dim, and a Miller Light sign hung on the wall above the fireplace, which was near the pool table that accumulated dust. A stairwell wound down from the kitchen. It was steep, and last time Mom fell. She was drunk. Her room was blocked off by a door at the foot of the stairs. Next to her room was the bathroom. The rest of the basement was big and wide with fluffy brown carpet that had been there since the seventies. The walls were lined with wooden panels, and a patio door went straight out to the deck. In winter, snow barricaded the door, and in other seasons, slush and mud made the deck a hazard. Mom didn’t bring her dates through that door because Peggy didn’t like scum on her carpet.

Dustin asked me why I looked so happy. I said I didn’t know, replaying Dave’s I-love-you in my head, trying to remember the motions so I could put them in a poem. I sat next to Dustin on the sofa and he put his big hand on my leg. He’d been touching me since I first moved in. I knew it wasn’t normal, but tonight it didn’t matter. I leaned my head on his shoulder, telling him he smelled good. He always smelled like mint. He said thanks, kissing the top of my head.

*

The next day, I played Beethoven on the piano in my bedroom at the top of the stairs by the kitchen. Sometimes I sat in my room, waiting for my mom to get back from her dates. I loved to stay up late, looking in the mirror, then writing poems about how much life confused me. When I forgot to make my bed, Peggy went in and cleaned the room, rearranging things. At Peggy’s, everything had to be exactly in its place.

I played the Fifth Symphony, moving my hands across the keys as swiftly as I could. Then Peggy stormed in. She had short thin legs, wide hips, and a big chest, even after a surgical reduction. Her hair was orange. She looked like a pumpkin. She used to be a beautician.

Peggy took the sheets of music and threw them on the floor. “Kitten!” she yelled. “You took my fifty dollars!”

“What?” I said.

“You know,” she said. “The money in my drawer.”

“It was probably your own daughter,” I said. “She came to use your high-speed blender.”

Mom came upstairs. By then I was up from the piano. Peggy pawed her nails at me like a cat.

Mom stood watching. “Kitten, you better give it back,” she said. She gave Peggy fifty dollars, subtracting the amount from the money she owed me—she’d wiped out my savings account so she could get divorced. Mom told me if I stole from Peggy again, we’d end up on the streets.

*

Monday at school, Dave and I walked together in the hallways. I tried to hold his hand, but he said he didn’t like affection. I was anxious for the upcoming weekend—it would be my sixteenth birthday. I hoped for something big.

*

My father came to Baskin-Robbins where I worked. I usually walked there. It took me an hour. Mom said I wouldn’t be able to use the car because she needed it for her new job—selling insurance to small companies trying to get by. I was trying to save for a car. My boss was round and bald with tough red skin, and I never thought I’d get a raise because he pinched every dime, telling his workers to make smaller scoops of ice cream.

Sometimes I worked until eleven at night—the boss was gone by then and a girl, Susan, and I were the only ones there. I liked Susan OK. She was chubby. She kept her own pint in the back, and ate spoonfuls in-between waiting on hungry customers. I’d warned her about the calories. Sometimes Mom said she’d pick me up from work, but usually she forgot.

Dad brought my birthday card and a birthday gift to work: a check for a dollar-twenty-nine. He yelled at me because the card was sent back to his mailbox.

“You gave me the wrong address!” he said. I didn’t understand—he knew right where I lived.

“Bitch, whore, cunt,” he called me.

There were customers.

I ran to the back. I left work early and walked the long way home.

*

For the rest of the week, things went OK with Dave. Although on Friday, he wasn’t talking much. I wanted to ask him what was wrong. But I didn’t want to look desperate. I convinced myself he was probably waiting for my birthday to give me a surprise.

*

On my birthday, I woke to the sun peeking in the blinds. I spent most of the day in bed, daydreaming. Dave would tell me he loved me. Someday we’d get married. I played the piano, wrote a new love poem, did jumping jacks and sit ups, and talked to Gretchen and Amy on the cordless. Then Dad called with nothing to say. Dustin wished me a happy birthday, running a hand over my ass as he hugged me in the kitchen.

Mom gave me a card, saying she’d take me out to Applebee’s once she got some money. She kissed my cheek, then went on a date with a new guy.

Amy got the car, so she picked up Gretchen and me. Everyone knew us. People started calling us the Boob Squad because of our tits.

Gretchen and Amy gave me condoms as a joke. We sat under the streetlight, drinking the Captain Morgan’s I stole from Mom’s stash in the basement, chugging it straight from the bottle. Then we went to a party in the woods. Everyone looked high, standing around the fire. Amy and Gretchen and I drank beer from plastic glasses. Dave sauntered to the keg with his crooked walk. I asked Gretchen and Amy how I looked, but Amy talked to a longhaired guy who gave her swigs of his tequila. Gretchen walked away.

I watched Dave. His faded jeans were worn in all the right places. Did he get made up just for me? I pretended I needed more beer, headed over to the keg so I could talk to him. As I filled my glass he said hello, then walked the other way. I pulled on his rolled-up sleeve, asking for a kiss.

“Not now, Kitten,” he said. “I don’t like affection, remember?”

“But today’s my birthday, remember?”

“Oh yeah. Happy Birthday. I’m looking for someone. I’ll talk to you a little later.”

“Who?”

He shook his head.

“Who you looking for?”

“No one.”

“Tell me who.”

He rolled his eyes, then looked away, staring at the ground. “Look, I didn’t want to tell you now. But since you asked, I’m seeing the new girl, Mandy.”

I stared at the fire.

“Sorry,” he said, then walked away.

I watched him, feeling kind of frozen.

*

I found Gretchen and Amy, and after telling them what happened, I looked in Dave’s direction and he licked Mandy’s ear. Her hand was buried in his pocket. When Amy took me home, she talked about her newest boyfriend, who was a Packers player. Gretchen had one too. They said high school boys weren’t worth it, that boys didn’t have a clue. My friends offered to set me up with their boyfriends’ teammates. Amy called Dave a loser, and Gretchen said that people had been talking about Dave’s blowjob in his truck, laughing at my bobbing head.

When I got home, I ran through the front door, and Dustin followed me, asking what was wrong, holding me as I cried on his cotton nightshirt. I plopped down on my bed and he lay next to me, rubbing my back. As I stared at the ceiling, I felt him kiss my cheek.

*

The next night I finished watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Leatherface stalked his prey. The horror didn’t scare me because I knew that stuff’s not real. Screams blasted from the TV.

Peggy talked upstairs on the phone in her high-pitched voice. She was a telemarketer. Dustin came trailing down the stairs. He asked me how things were at work.

“Fine,” I said.

“They got any new tasty treats?” he said.

“Cordial Cherry,” I said. “That’s our newest.”

Dustin smiled wide, his teeth matching his white moustache. “What’re you watching?” He leaned over, resting his elbows on his knees. I smelled his wintergreen cologne.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

“Never heard of it.” He pushed back against the sofa, messed with his jeans. His gold chain covered his white chest hair, and his eyes looked like ends of lighted cigarettes.

I grabbed the TV Guide from the coffee table, turning the pages. When I glanced up, some girl was running across the television screen. I started to get up.

“You’re not leaving, are you?”

“Going to the bathroom.”

“I’ll be here when you get back,” he said.

In the bathroom, I tapped my nose with a square of scented toilet paper. I brushed my curls and stared at my face in the mirror. My cheeks looked fat. I wore the same make-up as my mom, who taught me to apply the different colors during her last few months with Dad, telling us it was time to start looking like women.

After brushing my curls and puckering my lips, I hiked my mini up a notch, took a last look in the mirror. Went back out with Dustin.

“You’re looking good these days,” he said.

I gave him a fake smile, filtering through the booklet, pretending to read.

“So what’s showing now?”

I looked at the date, which said Saturday, January fourth. Today was the twelfth. “I don’t know. Wanna see?”

“Just wondering.” Dustin smiled and looked over his shoulder toward the stairs when Peggy’s voice got a little louder. She was laughing a lot with a customer. “You got a new boyfriend yet?” he said.

“I don’t want one,” I said, looking at my watch. I wondered if I was missing any parties.

“No other guys in mind?”

“Amy and Gretchen might set me up with a Packer. ”

Dustin’s eyes got wide. He sat upright. “A Packer? How’d they meet one of them?”

He loved the Packers. I said, “They picked us up one night we were walking. Now they’re Amy and Gretchen’s boyfriends.”

“Hmm.” Dustin put his hand to his chin and nodded. He scratched his forehead.

“Packers guys, huh? Which ones? You probably can’t say, right? Get them in trouble? Everyone loves the Packers.”

“They have wives.”

“Your friends sleep with them and all that?”

I looked at the weather on the screen. “I don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t have to be shy. When I was your age, I had tons of girlfriends.”

“I’m not shy.” I rolled the TV Guide. I thought Dustin was a little stupid for following the Packers. I leaned my head on the back of the chair, letting it fall into the cushion. I closed my eyes, then opened them again.

“What happened to Gretchen and Amy?”

“They went home. Horror movies scare them.”

Dustin got up and put the movie into the player, rewinding. He pressed play. He sat at the stool where my feet were, touching them with his long fingers. “Can I see that TV Guide?” he asked.

I made the pages wrinkle. He reached across, grabbing. He moved his free hand to the nape of my neck, then crowded over me, holding me in place. I heard Peggy upstairs, stepping across the floor.

Dustin tossed the magazine on the floor. “You want to know what it feels like?” he said.

I started thinking about what happened in Dave’s truck, about his new girl, Mandy. Dustin put his lips to mine. He leaned, pressing me against the chair. I didn’t care. Everything was stupid. I pushed myself against him, feeling him harden in his jeans, and I rubbed my body over his as he slid his hands across me.

Peggy’s voice got louder from upstairs, and I closed my eyes, pretending to be somewhere else. I didn’t know where. I pulled Dustin around me while his hands glided over my back, moving downward. I heard Peggy’s footsteps move away upstairs as I rode on top of Dustin, then he flipped me over, pinned me to the floor, and the movie turned into a loud horrendous fizz, the only sound I heard besides Dustin breathing in my ear. I got numb, like I was a rag doll. He moved into me, bunching up my skirt while I thought of last week’s marijuana high, of blowing Dave in the lot. I looked at Dustin as he squinted his eyes and told me how beautiful I was. He wasn’t thinking straight. But who cares. I said thank you and kissed his neck, getting back on top, looking down at his face and eyes. He wrapped his arms around my body, pulling me closer. I thought it must be over.

I smelled and saw a little band of smoke, then looked up and saw Peggy sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairwell with her legs crossed underneath her, her chin up. She was smoking.

I got up, straightening my clothes. Dustin looked at Peggy, standing. He pointed to me.

“She attacked me,” he said.

I sat in the corner by the wall.

Peggy exhaled, staring at the floor. “You’re kind of pretty doing that,” she said. She wiped her face with one hand, and with the other, she flicked the cigarette in the ashtray perched next to her lap.

Dustin held out his hand. Peggy took it and got up and he cradled her, kissing the top of her head.

I got up and walked upstairs to my room. I got my blanket, and tucked myself in the deepest, darkest corner in my closet, covering myself. After a while, I got a little claustrophobic, so I put on my running shoes and ran out to the trail behind the house, tripping over branches and falling into leaves, then getting up, running again, going strong until I lost my breath.

*

The next day, Peggy made my favorite dish: spinach lasagna with crispy garlic bread. I wasn’t hungry. Mom went on a date with her new boyfriend, Jacob.

Peggy, Dustin, and I sat around a wooden table. I looked at my empty plate. When Peggy asked how I was doing in track, I said I usually came in last. Peggy said running the two-mile was something to be proud of. Dustin talked about his running days and how he broke the high school record. Then Peggy talked about my father. She said he was crazy. Dustin said I deserved a father figure. My father wasn’t all bad. Dustin smiled while sipping on his milk.

After dinner, he went to his room. I helped Peggy with the dishes. I felt sick. I wiped a purple mug with a purple dishcloth, comparing the two shades. Peggy wiped plates with a soggy navy towel.

“About the other night with Dustin,” Peggy said. “You like him?”

I stared at the suds, moving my hands through them. “He’s OK,” I said.

“He’s in a better mood once he’s satisfied.” She dried a glass bowl and set it down. “So if you decide you want to, you know, be with him, it’s OK,” she said.

I stared into the hot water, soaking my hands.

Peggy put a hand on my shoulder and leaned into my ear. “You understand?”

After the dishes were done, I went into my room and shut the door. I got in bed and slid under the covers, lifting them over my head. I got tired of thinking, so I tried to play pretty music on the piano. I decided on Fur Elise. Peggy came in, saying that was her favorite.

*

Dustin knocked lightly on my door. We did it in my bed.

“I’m proud of you,” he said. “There’s no reason to be shy.”

He did things to me that I never knew existed.

*

I didn’t have my license, but I drove Dustin’s car, taking Gretchen and Amy to a party. Dave walked in with Mandy, their arms twisted like pretzels. Amy and Gretchen said their Packers boyfriends had more friends who liked teenage girls, that I should try one. I wanted to go home.

When I got there, Dustin was waiting in my bedroom.

He pulled me into bed, and took off all my clothes. As I lay next to him, his hands manipulated my breasts. “We can just lay here,” he said. “This is all we have to do.”

But he ended up wanting more. I didn’t have the energy to resist. I closed my eyes mostly.

*

I woke up late for school, and as I put on my red sweater, I watched Dustin sleeping, his white head resting on my pillow, on the flowered bedding, snoring softly.

At school, I asked my guidance counselor, Mr. Hedke, to help me find a new place to live. He asked me why. I said I didn’t know. He put his hand on my shoulder, assured me. He got me out of detentions for being late and skipping, and we played chess in his office. He let me win.

*

A week passed, and Dustin was still coming into my room, though I told him I could never love you. Dustin said it was just sex. He said he wouldn’t touch me. He always did. When he wasn’t in my room, I sat on my bed, pinching all my fat, writing poems. I was always disappearing.

*

Mom came home, saying she had to get ready for some function. She was wearing one of my shirts that showed her cleavage.

I knocked lightly on her door, and after she said what is it, I stepped across the carpet, moving through. Mom painted her toenails. She looked up. It smelled like strong nail polish.

“Hey there, Kitten,” she said.

I sat on the unmade bed, wondering what Peggy would say about the messy room. “Can we talk?”

“I’m meeting Jacob.”

“Dad will be here.”

“Oh, poor you.”

“He’s not bad.”

Mom gave me her look, the one where I was stupid. “Now don’t go defending him again. Remember what happened the last time you did that?”

The day before Dad scolded me at Baskin-Robbins, I asked Mom to stop calling him a loser.

Mom went on. “How do I look?” She looked the same as always, her make-up right, her hair straight, although when she was Dad’s housewife, she used to mope around and go on chocolate binges, not fixing herself up until the end.

“You look great, Mom.”

“I’m happy.”

“Good.”

She applied another coat of polish.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Are we moving?”
“Don’t you like it here?”

I sat there, staring at her. “Dustin’s making moves,” I said.

Mom looked at me, crinkling her brows. “He’s just a flirt. Don’t take him the wrong way. He’s friendly.” Mom screwed the cover on the bottle and blew on her nails.

I pulled my knees up to my chest, watching.

“I’m late. I’m meeting Jacob in ten minutes.” Mom blew on her toes, sliding her feet into her platform sandals. She said goodbye, leaning over, kissing my cheek, raising her fingertips so the polish wouldn’t smudge.

“He’s sleeping with me.”

“What?”

“He fucks me.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She breathed deep, then bunched her brows. “Well. Wow. I’m so sorry.” She twisted her wrist, looking at her watch, then she held out her arms. She put a finger under my chin, and looked down at me. “You’ve got a lot to learn, but we’ll talk about this later.”

I looked at her. She said, “Remember one thing. You don’t have to sleep with him if you don’t want to. For the time being—just show him you’re the boss.”

*

I lay on my bed, staring at the wall. I looked at my window, seeing Dad peering in, a branch skimming the side of his face. I waved and he just stood there, then he disappeared.

I heard the doorbell ring, then knocking on my bedroom door. I answered, seeing Dustin’s smile. He said my father was there to take me wherever. Then he said Dad should take me back to his place, to the county zoo. Dustin put his hand on my shoulder. I stepped past him. He was wearing a Packers jersey, one with Amy’s boyfriend’s name spilled across the back above his player number.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” he said.

I looked at my father standing in the doorway, noticing the scar across his left cheek from a time that he’d cut it with a chainsaw. His green eyes searched my face. Leaves stemmed from his thick hair that drifted in different directions. His half-up, half-down collar made him look like Elvis, and his shirt was buttoned to the top. He stood there like a statue, his arms pulled stiffly to his sides.

Dustin stood behind me, squeezing my shoulders. He moved his hand over my back, lowering it, touching my ass. “Hmm,” he hummed into my ear. “Have a good time. I’ll miss your pretty smile.”

I turned, looking at his grin. “See you,” I said, gazing at the cross-eyed bronze giraffe that was nested on the table.

“Yeah, you fucking moron,” Dad said to Dustin.

Dustin nodded, then turned. I shut the door behind me, straightening my father’s collar, dusting the leaves from his dark hair. I smelled Peggy’s flowers in the yard.

Dad unlocked my door. He watched me as I got in, then backed off and slammed the door. It banged like startling thunder.

He started the engine, backing out the driveway. He asked if I wanted to go out for ice cream, and I thought he must have forgotten about the last time at Baskin-Robbins. It didn’t matter. I tried not to care.

We drove around the neighborhood, passing the dollhouse homes with their tailored, sculptured yards. Every few minutes Dad told me that he loved me, and I said I do too, just to make him happy. He called me Eileen, then he smiled, wishing me a happy birthday. I sang Happy Birthday to Me silently in my head, not saying much of anything, pretending to have fun.

We passed the church parking lot where Dave and I were in his truck, and I thought about it, then about Dustin, then Peggy. I wondered what my mother was doing, if she was having fun with Jacob. When Dad asked how my mother was, I said I didn’t know.

He kept telling me he loved me, and I kept looking out the window. We kept on passing things. We rode all day.