Birds landed in the night trees. I don’t like birthdays, Lila said. A crabapple fell on the tin roof of the neighbor’s shed. My hands feel like jelly, I said. The smell of blown-out candles lingered on my clothes for days after I stayed the night.
Lila and I had lit eighteen candles, stood them in a line without holders or drips across the wooden floor of her mother’s apartment. Her mother wasn’t home. All the lights were off, though I could tell Lila was disappointed it wasn’t completely dark, not only the glow of our candles. The moon shone across the hardwood with a silver gloss that made the floor look like waves. We pulled our long, brown hair, thin with youth, up from our necks, then lied down head-to-feet. Only separated by the candles, only speaking when there was a sound outside, like we each didn’t want the other to be scared.
Maybe it was the Irish cream Lila’s grandmother had left behind from her last visit. She kept saying she doesn’t drink, doesn’t really drink, do you drink? you can have it, I don’t drink anymore. I don’t drink that. And there was no refrigerator at Lila’s mother’s apartment, and Lila knew I would never ask her why not. We didn’t talk about much, not about her birthday, or that I was moving tomorrow, but Lila was my best friend, and I liked to think she already knew.
“Florida,” my mother had said, casually, like it was something everyone did. And maybe they all would, eventually. When she told me, most things were already packed. They were all packed in my room. Three outfits were laid out on the floor where my bed used to be. A pair of jeans, a skirt I never wore, two small shirts with cap sleeves and a summer dress covered in sunflowers.
Lila was my first friend in town. While my mother and I began emptying our things into unfamiliar cabinets and drawers and trying to remember them all for later, John had gone out to grab us greasy burgers and fries that came in little wax paper pouches, and had come back with a girl.
“She’s from the neighborhood,” John said, and left us be. John was a good guy, my mother’s boyfriend since I was eight, and I guess at some undefinable point had slowly become my parent, which meant that he felt responsible for me. Lila was kind of dirty, which made me immediately like her.
We got along like young kids always seem to do. Lila and I would ride our bikes together to school, take bubble baths in our bathing suits, read together, sometimes jump the fence at the motel pool, where once I caught my toe on the way over. Within the hour, the nail was falling off, lifting open from my skin like a steamed clam.
“Gross,” Lila said, looking at my toe over the wilting sandwich in her hand, curving over like a dying flower. She didn’t look away when I reached for the nail, hanging by a small shred of white, the last sinew of a loose tooth that you twist and twist and yet still stays in your gums. Then one quick motion. I held the clear white nail up to the sun like a trophy, looking like the cloudy underside of a seashell. Olives dropped from Lila’s sandwich. I sat up and tightened the strings of my faded blue bikini around my neck.
There was something satisfying in that bald toe. People would look – Lila fawning over it like a newborn baby, bare and wrinkled, flesh shiny with newness and oil – and wince as they turned away. I would pretend to be embarrassed, the humble sweetness of an injured girl.
The Irish cream went down like silk, like stuffing silk handkerchiefs one by one down your throat until hazy and thought, why have I never had silk handkerchiefs down my throat, they are so soft and comfortable. Surely this is where they go. Until they hit our bellies, and we felt good, and lit our candles, and talked about nothing.
Never about birthdays.
But we didn’t forget them, either. Lila and I had picked out all the best candles from the corner shop, which were really just all the ones that weren’t wrapped with Jesus. Nineteen, short and square, round and tall, zig-zagging like modern dancers, one shaped like a G. We stuffed nineteen candles into her backpack and my bra, even though I never needed to wear a bra like all the other girls. The clerk complimented me, said, “Well little Bea’s grown up, hasn’t she? A true woman, your mother must be proud,” and I didn’t stop Lila from lying that my mother was dead and yelling to stop staring at my chest. And even if I didn’t laugh when she threw a candle at her like a rump tomato – and that’s what it looked like, red and nearly round, pinched in at the top, a green wick standing on end – I followed her all the same, out of the shop with eighteen candles and didn’t look back to see if the clerk had a big tomato bruise on her temple.
I didn’t get home until the next morning. We had fallen asleep next to the candles. Every single one was burned down, melted, wax sticking our hair to the wooden floors.
“I think mom’ll like it,” Lila said, lacing her fingers into mine and leaning her head on my shoulder. I really believed her. We were in her mother’s foyer, the mess right in the middle like ornate tile opposite a glass chandelier. I hugged Lila, like I always did, and walked home with bare feet, wax clinging to the bottom of my summer dress.