The Birthday Party (excerpt from Language of the Chaldeans)
It is Margaret who answers the door. Her face falls immediately, I instantly recognize the extent of the sabotage— I am no longer fat—or chubby enough to enforce the hierarchy of the skinny…. But wait! All is not lost yet—I’m sure some alternative humiliation will be dispatched toute suite to put me in my place…
“These are lovely” the birthday girl scrutinizes the roses for defect. Now she eyes me like pythoness about to strike. I recall, when we were both fourteen, something leopard like and predatory about Sylvie. Today she is still tall and regal. Still beautiful, but how shall I say… ruined? Somehow there is a broadcast of Spinsterhood emanating from her, an acknowledged failure…
She is a startling silhouette in vintage Dior—but almost nothing more as if the couture were an elaborate crypt to fit her in…
Margaret wears a form fitting turtleneck and ski-pants (why?) to expose her thindom—she is like Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an anorexic sleepwalker…
They have both opted for classic chignons, the hair straightened and stretched and pulled back into scalplike perfection…
In contrast all my textures are feathery, fuzzy and furry—shamanic contrivances. They’d like to disapprove, but I’m way off their radar…
She hands the roses over to Margaret who takes care of that matter.
“And what’s this, cake, oh dear, I’m afraid we don’t eat much of sweets these days—”
“But you do drink wine? I found my favorite Cote du Rhone—”
“Yes, but only white. You’re a good sport to bring all this—”
The doorbell rings. Margaret runs out of the kitchen,
“Are we expecting anyone?” Sylvie inquires
Margaret answers the door. It’s Neill—I could kiss him! He looks so incredibly suave, so handsome, so—eligible,
“Hello ladies, sorry to interrupt—Max, did you want me to come get you later, do you have my number?”
“Oh don’t worry about it, I’ll catch a cab back—” I more flippant than necessary
“Well call me if you do need a ride. Goodnight ladies.”
“He’s incredibly sweet” I say. I turn to meet the calculus of rage behind their eyes.
Sylvie came from wealth, as I remembered it. There was some indication of an inheritance and no evidence of work or career. She had been reared to become a trophy wife. A socialite in Halston at UN benefits et cetera…
Margaret on the other hand was not from money, and had always aspired to Sylvie. She did some sort of secretarial work at a government ministry. Fragments of old trivia flash by piecing together the puzzle in my head: Margaret aspired to Sylvie because she had a crush on Sylvie’s very handsome and very unattainable brother (can’t remember his name). But the brother in question was considered quite a catch, but also trés elusive. Such that Sylvie ranked as a celebrity in those days, since she could pick and choose who was fit to be presented to her brother. I recalled something about the brother scoring some well-matched society coup. He was married and also living in London…
Some secret communication between my hostesses has decreed I should not be allowed to talk about my work or exciting love life. So the conversation veers into the province of dress sizes, dieting, how to exercise without developing unseemly muscles, clothes, dresses sizes, couture, models, their dress sizes, percentage of body fat…
“Hey do you remember that story you told us about being in the Congo and going with these American attachés on some expedition to go find pygmies?”
“I was never in the Congo.”
“Yeah you were—your dad was posted there, it was our last year of boarding school—”
“I’ve never been in the Congo.”
“But your dad was posted there, right?”
“What do you mean by ‘posted’?”
“He was a diplomat—”
“No. My father was a doctor.”
I uncork the wine—I realize I am at risk of drinking the entire bottle. I insist on singing happy birthday and making Sylvie slice the cake, a wonderful rummy hazelnut and cream confection. I watch her manner with the knife, her stomach is washboard flat, I wonder how it was even possible to fit food morsels, let alone intestines, kidneys and other organs, I wonder if she’s had all those removed…
Looking closer, there is a slight curvature, beyond the thin membranes of skin and couture her stomach became translucent, as if lit up from within—(I regard the glass of wine suspiciously)—lighting up enough to make a tiny silhouette, a fetus, a boychild with his thumb in his mouth. Without warning, the eyes open and the thumb is out of the mouth pointing at me…
“Are you pregnant?” I hear myself saying.
Why did I say that?
The couture silhouette tenses, the knife drops.
There is flatline silence.
Why did I say that, I try to explain myself,
But the stomach is once more flat. In the corner of my eye in the kitchen I see a slop pail full of blood and fetal matter.
I feel a little sick.
Margaret gathers my things, cake, roses and wine and escorts me to the door. Her voice is tense and hushed—I remember that she was the kind one, after all—
“I wish you hadn’t brought that up, it just happened last week—”
“What happened last week?”
“The abortion. It was horrible, she couldn’t keep it—the man she was involved with—well I never met him, but apparently he was married—and she just had to…”
Suddenly I see everything clearly:
“Margaret, it was her brother.”
This catches us both off guard. The face contorts with surprise then rage then fear… She sees the truth in my face, she hears the subliminal context of my statement:
Margaret, look at your life, a grown woman and yet you are still a teenager in your mind—still in love with Gerard (ah, that’s the name of the culprit, the much adored brother)—after all these years. And she still has you under her thumb. You’re still under that infantile spell— she’s dangled in front of you all these years—and used you as her handmaiden. Her foil. If I were you, I’d go rescue myself. Now.
I relieve her of cake, roses and wine and leave her there, streaming tears. In my minds eye, I see her running in the other direction, the nearest payphone. Call a friend (friends? you have no friends, just the silhouette). Anyone. Help me. She will never go back there again. It’s a good start…
In the other part of my brain, a tableaux of Sylvie as Lady Macbeth, hand-wringing a-go-go, suspecting that something is awry. The phone rings, she pounces, it is the brother/lover wishing her a happy birthday. Could you come over I’m so alone… But the Brother, he has a wife and kids and a life to attend to.
Language of the Chaldeans ©2004, 2013 onome ekeh