First fourth birthday parties. Edmund and Delilah. Triangular cheese sandwiches—two layers of white bread around neon-yellow American. Per request, of course. Our backyard, a canopy of gauze, strewn up in theme colors: pale, pale blue, and the palest green. Pastels. An Easter-time party. Said it was lucky, to be born around when Jesus was. The second time. There are plenty of Christmas babies, but a second coming—
“—is really something.” Delilah slid into the doctor’s hands—a slick, mucky effort. Light hair dotted her scalp. Tom’s hair. Tom. Tom. I felt his hand on my shoulder, felt him squeeze once.
“Oh, oh,” was all I could say in those few breathless moments between when she was out of me for the first time in nine months, and when she was in my care again. Tom continued to squeeze. I tiled my head toward the overhead fluorescent light and he was just a chin, just an Adam’s apple bobbing slightly each time he swallowed. I loved that skin right there on his throat, the softest, most secret place I knew.
“Sh, it’s okay.” Then his lips were at my ear, and I felt them curve into a smile as we watched a couple of nurses swarm around her, our Delilah, already named four months ago. “I’m here.”
“Yep,” the doctor said again, pulling his gloves off, turning away from watching the ladies at work. Well, there was a male nurse, too. Burnt sienna beard. Didn’t matter. “It’s really something. Having a baby born—”
“—on Jesus’ birthday.” The end of Delilah’s story tapered off as she entered the kitchen. She had my straight hair and Tom’s blonde, so fine and beautiful. I reached out to run my fingers through it. Edmund was with her, slight with a dark, curly head.
“That’s cool,” he said passively, which Delilah did not love. I watched her bristle, her little chin rise in indignation.
“It means you were, too.” She refrained from the name-calling, which was nice. New.
“Dee,” I said. She lolled her head back to look at me. Edmund’s eyes flicked up.
“Outside.” A simple word, almost always met with resistance. I raised the ziplock bag in my fist, filled with white frosting, the tip snipped off for piping. “Quick! I’m in the process of decorating.”
“Ugh.” She grabbed Edmund’s wrist and turned away. “Fine.”
“No complaining! Do you understand? I can cancel this party.” I waved the icing at her. Non-threateningly, of course, as if there was an alternative. She giggled. I waddled over to her, the icing brandished like a weapon, until one giggle was catching on another and bouncing them up, up, to the ceiling.
The tile was cool on my knees as I crouched and held the bag up in the air. “How’d you like a mustache?”
She tapped her upper lip, and I complied. I gave them handlebars that quickly puddled together against her skin. She’d licked it all off by the time I was finished with Edmund’s goatee.
“Now you guys,” I said, hoisting myself up, one hand on the table. “Go wait outside. Your friends are here. It’s not just Ed and Dee world anymore.”
That’s what we called it. Tom and I. His name, my employment of it.
“Fine.” And they linked hands again, and they were gone. I missed her terribly.
I was halfway through the cupcake bunnies. They were vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting. I’d whipped them up in the night before, from scratch. Dee had specified this. From scratch. Okay—scratch. Scratch. This foreign concept, followed my a wild hunt for a cookbook of some sort. I had to settle with Guy Ferrari’s. The guy with the frosted tips. Frosted tips. Such a lovely combination of words, so nice they inspired me to try to pump some icing into my own hair, until I realized that was a bad idea. But the bag had been halfway up, and it some had dribbled down, so I ran my fingers over the sticky spot, licking and licking, and—
—impulsive. That’s what he called me. Impulsive.
“Why? Because I asked for your number?”
“No. Because you bought Susan—” He was turning a pepper shaker side-to-side, side-to-irritating-side on a shelf, but here he allowed its first full rotation. Then stopped, rocking it once against the table. A lovely emphasis for his sentence. “—just to get to me.”
“Fish'll get to anybody. It's science.”
“No, probably just because I have a penchant for seafood.”
“Oh, no—” I groaned loudly, throwing my head back, not caring if the cashier looked over at us, or if the shoppers did, or if all the wheels in this Godforsaken health-nut store stopped squeaking as they turned and looked. “What’s wrong with her?” they would think. “What was in her Cheerios this morning?” Well nothing, ladies and gentlemen, except I am infatuated with this boy, in fact infatuated, and I might even—
“What? What’d I say?”
I’d stopped groaning. “Nothing. I had a vision of you eating Susan.” I’d dropped the Lazy, gone with just Susan. A perfect name, if you asked me.
“Here.” Tom reached up, grabbed a miniature bag of eight-dollar granola. He snagged my palm, spread it open with a probing thumb. My spine tingled. Actually tingled, as our eyes met and his skin was on my skin, and then was replaced with the thick plastic of the nasty elitist granola.
“For you,” he said. “On me. I'm buying. A sign of my affection.”
I tore it open right there, popped a piece into my mouth. It actually wasn’t bad. “This isn’t worth eight dollars, but—“
“—need anything else?”
I glanced up from the second-to-last doorway. There he leaned, through the archway, the sun shining through his hair. The angle was perfect. I wanted a picture.
“No, thank you.” I popped my thumb into my mouth.
“How’s it coming?” He wandered in, one-step, two step. Brown shoes, lace-ups. Fake leather, I hoped. I should have known.
“Are those fake leather?”
“What?” He glanced around.
I bent over, tapped the section where his toes should reside. “Those.”
“Oh. Gosh.” Holding onto the counter, he lifted one leg and pulled up the tongue, scanning quickly. “They were forty bucks, so they should be, and—yeah. Yes. Faux.”
“Good.” I turned back to my rabbits. “Poor cows.”
“Yeah.” And then he was behind me, his breath blowing the loose hairs from my ponytail. My spine tingled. Actually tinged, my whole spine. His hand was at the base of it, splaying out, anchoring me to this place. I dared not move.
“Hey—” It was scarcely more than an exhale. “Don't do this. Here. Any of it.”
“Any of it?”
“Any.” I stepped out from under his hand. Much as I wanted his touch, a simple touch on a simple, warm day like today, I couldn’t. It was Delilah’s day. Jesus’ return. Easter Sunday. All that good stuff. Plus Edmund—Edmund, I’d promised him a cupcake with a blue hat.
The cabinet paint was flaking. I wrenched it open—staccato, a popping crescendo—grabbed the blue, shook a couple drops into the bag, and kneaded it into the icing. Some oozed out the top, so I licked it, not even offering it to him. He just watched as I added a hat, and then a bow to another, and then some glasses to another, until nearly all the bunnies were outfitted with some funny accessory and the icing was very nearly gone.
“It’s a pretty day,” I allowed, bracing my hands under the tray that bore the cupcakes. “So follow me.”
Outside, the wind rustled the trees. The piñata hanging from our little Mulberry was dangling by a thread, its seam burst, candy and wrappers everywhere. I stopped at an untouched packet of Whoppers and stopped to pick it up, pop one out and into my mouth, balancing the cupcakes on one palm. Precarious. Malted chocolate.
“Delilah!” I called. “Edmund!”
His mother flocked over. Single parent. “Ed!”
Then they appeared, our children. I smiled at Dee, with her cute little birthday outfit and her sunshine hair. They were a vision, walking toward us in the vibrant grass, nearer to the haven of parents and shade. I set the cupcakes down on the table we’d set up. By now, a gaggle of children had gathered.
I waved some of them back, as delicately as possible. “Make way, here come the birthday angels.” And then they’d arrived. I pulled out my lighter, and felt a brush from behind.
He lit their candles quickly, and then kicked off the singing. I loved his baritone. I felt it in my chest, the way it resonated. The rest of the party joined in, almost all children and hardly any adults.
“Happy birthday to you—”
Just me. Edmund’s mother. Him.
And—oh, God. Where was Tom?
“—birthday, dear Edmund and Delilah—”
Each syllable enunciated. Dee. Lie. Luh.
That last note was held out impossibly long. A bunch of showoffs, preschoolers and their overeager parents. I kept waiting to see him here. To know he was here and listening, but he wasn’t, and—
“birthday to you.”
Also impossibly long. His hand was cupped around my shoulder, but I was enraptured. Watching, scanning the backyard for any sign of him. Then, from the house all the ways across the yard—there. There he came. Blonde hair, long legs, wide smile.
We’d sung without him. Without Tom.
I felt the hand lift off my shoulder.
A continuation of the previous story!