Taylor Henderson was turning 40 on Friday. He had asked his wife, Sharon, to do nothing about it other than make his favorite meal: chicken baked in wine sauce. Sharon wasn't a good cook, but chicken was forgiving, as she liked to say, and this one dish held up well over time, even with the small changes she made when she couldn't remember exactly how she had prepared it the time before.
Taylor and Sharon lived in the suburbs across the lake from Seattle, on a plateau where all the homes had been built as a development ten years earlier. It was an easy place to get lost in because the roads twisted and curved, none running in a straight line, so if you got on the wrong one by mistake, you followed a maze of homes, lawns, and hedges before you were able to escape back to the main spur leading to the center of town.
The house was really Sharon's idea. She thought Taylor would be glad to own such a nice place after the tiny apartments he'd lived in as a child. For herself, she wanted space where people could spread out and be comfortable. The house had four extra bedrooms for eventual children, out of town guests, and Sharon's mother, with whom she was especially close.
Sharon's mother was on her own after Sharon's father had abandoned the family when Sharon was young. She had trouble making ends meet back in Ohio where Sharon had grown up, and she complained about being so far away, so it was agreed she would live with them when the time came. The time never came. Sharon's mother dropped dead on her kitchen floor one winter morning after awakening with a bad headache.
The time for children never came either. Sharon couldn't conceive. Her eggs were healthy, Taylor's sperm was strong, but the two never connected. They discussed various medical means, all of which made Taylor uneasy. Adoption was also explored, but Taylor knew a family who'd brought home a boy from overseas with a serious mental disability, not detected at first, which held him back in school and made him violent and hard to live with.
It's okay, Sharon had said. Sometimes two people can be the whole world. He saw the sadness in her sometimes, long moments of quiet or an ache appearing as a dull light in her eyes. There was nothing he could do. It was so much bigger than he was.
The morning of Taylor's birthday broke slowly. Birds were noisy in the trees behind the house, their song reaching him in the last moments of darkness. He turned and looked at Sharon, admiring the smoothness of her cheek, how her breast rose and fell, and how her lips were parted as if at any moment she would welcome his kiss.
His penis stirred. Why not? It was his birthday, yet he hesitated to awaken her. She was not always sweet when disturbed in that way, sometimes she pushed him back or complained she should leave sleep when she wanted to, not at his whim.
Whim? Since when do I make love on a whim?
A recent argument, one of very few in their twelve joined years. It had left him feeling jaded and raw. She had gone silent for a day, keeping all thoughts to herself.
Remembering that now made sex less desirable. Still doable, of course. Sex was always doable. To that she would say doable was necessary but not sufficient, mood and timing mattered, the spirit a tender thing the body's dance either crushed or made whole.
Which one, and when? he'd asked once.
He rose and showered. She had recently replaced the His and Hers towels with large absorbent ones she liked to wrap around herself and wear while she dried her hair, brushed her teeth, and applied her make-up. The thought of how nice she looked like that—naked but for one thick towel—steered his thoughts once more towards sex. He returned to the dark bedroom where she lay in the silent rhythm of her sleep.
He crossed the room, raised the blinds, washing the room with spring light.
"What time is it?" she asked, after a moment.
"A little after six. Did I wake you?"
"It's all right."
She sat up and brought her long legs over the edge of the bed. She ran her hand through her black hair, which she'd cut short, a little shorter than he cared for. She saw where he was looking.
"I know you don't like it," she said.
"Your hair's fine."
"You hate it. But that's okay. I won't hold it against you, not today, of all days."
The bright smile she turned on him was the one he'd first seen, across the room at a crowded party. She'd been smiling at someone else, a man she was temporarily involved with, whom she later discovered was married. After Taylor and Sharon began dating, and she had opened her life to him, Taylor wanted to know if she felt bad, sleeping with a married man. She said in the first place she hadn't known he was married, also that for her, love took precedence over morality. By then he had come to see her as a generally conservative person—regular in her habits, dedicated to her work as a grant writer for a social service organization—and her answer both surprised and excited him.
But if you had known he was married, would you have held back?
Not if I'd really been in love.
Taylor approached the bed, ready to touch her shoulder, when the sound of bottles going into a recycle bin came from next door.
"Fuck!" someone yelled. It was their neighbor, Frank Moroni, a retired Navy captain. Of all the residents on their cul-de-sac, he was the most disagreeable in Taylor's mind, but Sharon liked him. She admired that he didn't care what people thought about him. Taylor thought what she enjoyed was how he looked at her, though he knew Sharon wasn't vain.
Sharon went to the window and looked out. "He must have had a bad night to be up this early," she said. The way she stood with folded arms said she was worried. With her attention elsewhere, sex seemed unlikely now.
In the kitchen Taylor drank his coffee while she scrambled his eggs. She put a little red candle in the middle of a piece of toast, lit it, and sang, Happy Birthday!
He watched a piece of wax roll down the stem, land on the toast, and harden.
When he was four, with his father in jail, his mother baked a lumpy coconut cake from a store mix, put yellow candles in it, drank her drink and sang the same thing, her voice thin and desperate, hair in her eyes, apron stained, whiskey leaking down her chin.
What the hell happened? Sharon had asked when he told her this. It was early in their relationship, and he was slow to reveal himself. She needed more from him, said she was having second thoughts about his ability to get close. It was raining hard that night, the streaks on their apartment windows like cracks in the glass itself.
She was drunk, I told you, he made himself say.
I mean your father. Why was he in jail?
A robbery. An ordinary stick-up at the little grocery store down the street. Totally unconnected to his birthday—which would have made some sense, offered a little light of redemption—I had nothing to give you, so I stole this candy bar for your birthday.
$47 from the till only got him so far ahead of the law. The sentence was eighteen months, and when it was served, Taylor never saw his father again. He thought later this was the one thing they had solidly in common, he and Sharon. Run away fathers.
Sharon put the plate on the table in front of him.
"You go to too much trouble," he said, and ate. The eggs were particularly good. She mixed them with water—not milk—and just the smallest pat of butter, the low heat of the cast iron pan bringing it all together with her constant stirring, her thin arm reaching from the rolled-up sleeves of an old office shirt of his, frayed at the collar, no longer fit to wear to work but fine—excellent—for her to sleep in.
"Nothing's too much trouble for you," she said. Then the smile. The diamond sparkle smile. Yet her eyes didn't meet his. They were looking aside, out the window, where Captain Moroni was now throwing bottles into the street.
"Oh, no," she said. She went to the front door and opened it to the glowing spring morning.
Taylor said, "Hey, wait," because she was wearing only panties under the shirt, though the shirt came down to mid-thigh.
"Are you all right?" Sharon asked Mr. Moroni. He turned his wide, blotchy face in her direction and saluted. He wavered and made his way back to his own house. Sharon looked after him for a moment, then closed the door.
"He must have heard from his wife," she said.
Taylor stood up from the table and put on his jacket. "I'm going to be late," he said.
"Go ahead. I'll take care of it."
"Mr. Moroni. I'll get dressed and go talk to him. Make sure all that glass gets cleaned up."
"Aren't you going to work today?"
"Of course. It won't take long. He usually settles down pretty quickly."
Taylor considered this while he drove to the office. He didn't know Sharon had ever taken it upon herself to deal with Mr. Moroni's fits. As far as he knew, the extent of their interaction was a call Sharon made one night to Mr. Moroni's house when he was being particularly loud. Try some warm milk, she had said into the phone. Or a hot bath. Clearly there'd been other episodes when calming was needed, but he hadn't been home for those. He often worked later than Sharon did. He belonged to a company that recovered information from computers for criminal proceedings. It was a new firm riding high for a while on initial investments from venture capitalists. But then they hadn't found as much of a market for their services as they'd hoped, and the stock options Taylor had taken in lieu of salary last year were worth a lot less than before. Sharon didn't know of the huge loss in value. So far he hadn't found a way to tell her.
On his desk were a bouquet of flowers and a card from his assistant. She was three years older than Taylor, single, and in love with him though she had never said one word about it. It was Sharon who had mentioned it after his company's Christmas party the winter before.
What the hell are you talking about, he'd asked, laughing in the private darkness of their bedroom.
The way she watches you and is so careful about what she says.
She's just afraid I'll fire her, but Taylor had known about Marcia's feeling for a while. He had even let her kiss him once, the day they landed a big client they'd later lost. I'm so happy I could just kiss you, she'd said, and he'd smiled and shrugged his shoulders. It wasn't a bad kiss, nothing worthy of Sharon, nothing that turned him on too much, just a little. Of course he'd been turned on a little. He had often imagined Marcia in bed, her pale thin limbs all around him. It wouldn't be bad, only an action allowed by certain conditions—intoxication, for one, or an overwhelming desire to satisfy his curiosity about her.
The rest of the office—six others in all—roundly wished him a very happy birthday. Todd Jenkins, his boss, offered to take him to lunch, but Taylor declined, claiming a work responsibility. He didn't like birthdays—his or anyone else's. Why be reminded, over and over, of the inevitable march of time?
He remembered watching his mother age—a process sped up by smoking and poor nutrition. She was now in her late fifties, having had Taylor fairly young, but she looked seventy. She lived in southern California in subsidized housing. Taylor had sent her money from time to time but had stopped when his own fortunes began to fail. From her he expected another insipid birthday card with embossed letters and dewy eyed animals. After the bitterness of being left a single parent, she'd fallen into a state of tender sympathy for everyone and everything. She urged Taylor all the time to let go of the past, to see his father not as an evil person but as someone flawed, who succumbed to his own inability to really connect with another human being. Taylor seldom thought of his father and felt it was she, not he, who couldn't let the past go.
The work day ran late. Taylor called Sharon to say he was on his way.
"What's that noise?" he asked her.
"I've got the television on. Keeps me company while I cook."
He hung up.
The house was dark except for one light in the kitchen. Taylor could see Sharon at the stove, stirring something. He paused to watch her from the driveway. She had on a new dress, with thin straps and some kind of sparkly stuff all over it. And her earrings were long and tossed the light in a way reminding him of confetti. He came in the door from the garage. He smelled something good, not the chicken dish he'd anticipated, something else, heartier, with more spice. Jazz played loudly from the recessed speakers in the ceiling. He caught her eye, she smiled, then looked behind her into the family room.
The sound of people shouting, "SURPRISE!" made him drop his briefcase. Sharon approached, arms outstretched, while behind her they flowed forward like the faithful seeking his blessing, and yet wanting to bless him, too, with all their reaching hands and ready smiles. He was swept up in their faces and goodwill. His best friend from college whom he hadn't seen for years was there, with a wife he'd never met. The couple he and Sharon sometimes played tennis with was smiling and shaking his hand, and Sharon was saying something he couldn't understand at first and then realized she said his cousin and mother were in the living room, waiting to see him. Sharon collected his briefcase and guided him to a table draped in white by the window, tended by a young man in a jacket and tie, who filled glasses with a jaunty flourish.
A flute of champagne was put in his hand—by the bartender, or by Sharon, he couldn't be sure.
Hands clapped and clapped. Voices then quieted and returned to murmurs as people moved a little distance away except for Brian—the college roommate—who remained. He was just the same, except for having less hair and more weight. Taylor was aware of his own wider frame, mostly in the stomach, which Sharon had quietly mentioned more than once. Brian laid his arm around Taylor's shoulder. "You look like you need something stronger. Still a Bourbon drinker?" he asked.
"Not for about fifteen years."
"What say we turn back the clock?" Brian set Taylor's glass of champagne on the counter and asked the bartender to pour them each a glass of Makers Mark on the rocks. Brian lived in Chicago and worked for an insurance company. Taylor had had no word from him for about five years. He couldn't remember why they'd fallen out of touch. They used to send emails, then one day one of them didn't answer and the other didn't try again.
Their glasses came together as a toast, and then they sipped. The burn in Taylor's throat was harsher than he remembered, and he knew he'd lost the habit of hard liquor. He strolled over to the archway which led to the dining room. Brian followed and admired the abstract art on the walls, the Persian carpet, the antique table and six chairs.
"You've done all right," he said. "Always knew you would." In college Taylor struggled to focus on his classes. He'd been involved with a woman—Audra—and their break-up was devastating. It took a long time to get grounded after that. He even took a semester off and hitch-hiked around California looking for a reason to continue with school. That reason was the depletion of his meager savings and the poverty that followed. He switched majors from History to Economics, hoping for a career in finance or banking, something guaranteeing a good living. Brian would kid him and say his future success would all one day be due to Audra's roving eye and her mad passion for her art instructor.
"She did a great job, didn't she?" asked Brian. It took a moment for Taylor to realize Brian was referring to the lavish party Sharon had brought to pass.
"And you didn't know about it?"
"Wow. My wife can't keep a secret that well. Can't keep a secret at all in fact. Every time she does something like ding the car or spend too much money, she has to confess, usually in tears."
Taylor was feeling the Bourbon. Sharon went by with a tall stack of their wedding dishes, heading for the table where drinks were being served. She had her chin on the top one to brace the whole column. It didn't seem possible she could carry them all, but she did, the muscles she built by lifting weights three times a week taut and firm.
"Hey, Lady, you need help with that?" Brian called to her, and Sharon said, "No, I'm good."
"Yes, you are," Brian said and then grinned. The bartender took the dishes from Sharon and arranged them as she told him to, in stacks of four of five. He was young and good-looking, Taylor saw now, with the bland, chiseled features Sharon always said she admired. Taylor didn't think of himself as good-looking in a traditional way, but in a deeper, more aloof fashion Sharon called the "handsome brooder." Sharon said something to the bartender, and he blushed. What the hell? Taylor thought and finished his drink.
"Where you staying?" Taylor asked Brian.
"The Hilton. Sharon said we could stay here, but I thought you might not have wanted things that cozy."
"It's fine. It would have been fine."
Through another arch leading down to the living room, Taylor's cousin, Nola, approached. She was still heavy, moon-faced, her eyes open and wide like a good-natured child. Her perfume was too strong and caused an itch in Taylor's throat. She was taller than he was in the high heels she had on, and bent to kiss his cheek. Her hand on his was warm and damp.
"Happy birthday, Cuz-Cuz," she said, her eyes tearing up. "Here we are, after all this time!" Taylor didn't understand why Sharon had thought he'd want to see Nola. They'd never been that close. Nola was close to his mother. They lived near each other in California, and visited often. Maybe that was it, he thought. Nola had been necessary as a companion for his mother during the trip north.
"You look just great," she said.
"Nah. Still the fat girl I always was."
"Not at all."
The belt of her red dress cut her flesh into large rolls. She went on staring down at him, examining him, it seemed.
"You come up with Mom?" he asked.
"Yup. And she can't wait to see you."
"Well, I'm right here." He wanted another drink.
"We put her in the living room. Let's go say hello."
His mother had had her hair done in a style all swirls and waves. The pin at the neck of her lavender dress was one Sharon had given her as a gift one year. Sharon was very fond of Taylor's mother, and had suggested that she come live with them when her own mother died. Taylor wouldn't have it. He had nothing against his mother. He just didn't want to see her every day.
Her face brightened when she saw him. She was sitting on their couch, and turned her cheek for him to kiss. After he did she continued to sit, and he realized it would be too difficult for her to stand.
"Well, this is a wonderful day, isn't it, Son?" She'd always called him that. He'd never liked it.
"Well, it's a surprising one, that's for sure."
His mother patted the space next to her. He sat down.
"That girl of yours sure knows how to put on a party," his mother said. She was tipsy. Her lined cheeks were pink, and her lipstick was smeared. "I just don't know how she does it. All the details! Getting a hold of everyone, and making all the arrangements, and then keeping it all to herself for over six months! I couldn't do it, could you?"
"Six months? She planned this six months ago?"
"Why, yes, I think so. I'll just ask Nola. Where did she go?" Taylor's mother peered around, caught Nola's eye, and beckoned her. Nola crossed the room smiling, her step heavy and firm.
"Is it time for the teeth?" she asked.
"What teeth?" Taylor said.
"Oh, you! Now you've ruined my surprise," said Taylor's mother.
"Drat! I thought he knew. Your baby teeth," said Nola, addressing Taylor. "Your mother's been saving them all these years, and she had them put up in a little plastic cube, about so." She lifted her hand, and made a space between her index finger and thumb. "Sort of a nice curio item. That you can keep on your desk."
Taylor's head throbbed. Sharon entered the room with a tray of tiny sandwiches. She bent down so his mother could help herself.
"Are these the ones with the salmon spread, dear?" she asked. Sharon nodded. "Oh, Son, you must try one of these. They're scrumptious!"
Nola helped herself to three. Sharon caught Taylor's eye and flashed him the smile. "Happy birthday!" she said and kissed him on the top of his head. Then she marched off, earrings swaying. Taylor wished she'd left the tray. He needed something on his stomach.
"You'd like another, wouldn't you Mom," he said and took the crystal sherry glass from the table by his mother's elbow.
"Oh, Son, that would be lovely!" She dropped a speck of cream cheese on her dress Nola was trying to blot up with a napkin. In the kitchen he ran into the tennis couple, Les and his wife, whose name Taylor could never recall. He couldn't even remember where Sharon had met them. In the grocery store, probably. She talked to people she didn't know all the time, then if it turned out they lived close by, they became friends. They smiled at him. Les shook his hand while his wife ate a deviled egg. Pieces of it stayed on the corner of her mouth and Taylor had to look away.
Sharon's arms reached around him from behind. "Happy?" she asked.
"Nice seeing your mother and Nola, isn't it?"
She released her hold. "You should have seen your face," she said, standing in front of him then. "I thought you were going to have a heart attack!"
"Easier ways to kill me than that," he said.
"With kindness? Love? Wild sex?" She'd had a few drinks, herself. She would be willing later, if he had to guess. Assuming she didn't just want to sleep.
"Are Mom and Nola staying at the Hilton, too?" he asked.
"We haven't decided yet. I reserved a couple of rooms for them, but I thought they'd be more comfortable here. It would only be for a week."
Taylor's shirt stuck to his back. A drop of sweat rolled down his temple. He then recognized the jazz as Coltrane, a CD he'd once loved and listened to all the time.
"A week," he said.
"You look hungry. Go grab something from the buffet, talk to your guests while I get the cake ready, and then we'll move on to presents," she said.
"I thought we agreed there wouldn't be any presents."
"You agreed. Besides, what's a birthday without presents?"
The tennis wife was nearby, watching them. Taylor waited until she'd moved off. Sharon turned to go, too. He took her arm.
"Wait. Sharon. Why did you do it?" he asked.
"This." He swung his arm to take in everything around them.
"For your birthday, silly!"
"I know, but—"
"Forty is a big deal. Not something you should never just let slide by without some fanfare."
Her eyes met his. Her expression gave him a sense of déjà vu. There, in that same spot in the kitchen under the antique brass chandelier she'd bought at a flea market, she'd stood looking up at him just the same way, but he couldn't remember why.
"Aren't you having a good time?" she asked.
"I wasn't sure it would be the right mix of people. I was going to ask your office, too, and then didn't. I thought it might have been too awkward for you."
She touched her forehead with her finger tips as if she couldn't remember something. For a second she looked sick, then it passed, and Taylor was sure he'd imagined it. She took another moment, then patted his arm and left.
The kitchen was too warm. Taylor got a fresh drink and went outside on to the deck. One corner of the sky was swift with clouds, while another was thrown with stars. The light was almost gone. It took so long to fade this time of year, you could stand in one place, watch the heavens, and still never see the final coming of night. It would just be there, all around you, all of a sudden.
Something moved on the neighbor's deck, and peering through the gloom Taylor saw it was Mr. Moroni. He sat in a wooden chair, looking up as Taylor had been just a moment before. At his feet was a box in silver paper. Sharon must have invited him to the party, and he was either waiting to get sober enough to come over, or taking time for one more drink. The sound of ice rattling in a glass said he was having another round. Taylor removed the ice from his own glass as quietly as he could, and dropped it onto the grass beyond the deck. He drank in sips. His hand shook. After the heat of the kitchen the air was now too cool. His sweat made him feel clammy, and he shivered. He made himself focus on the black trees beyond. They swayed suddenly, then were still. A bat swooped low and flew over the azalea hedge by the fence. Taylor listened hard to the twilight. It was quiet once more.
Sharon called his name from the window over the sink. He slipped around the corner, where the deck abutted the wall of garage, and crouched down on the wooden surface. His heart slowed, then quickened when she called him a second time. Footsteps, the clink of silverware, and close laughter meant people had gathered in the kitchen.
"Maybe he went to the store for something," Nola said.
"Or just for a quick turn through the neighborhood." This was the tennis wife. Taylor recognized her squeaky soprano.
"He's just gone to clear his head, bet you anything," said Brian. "Probably not used to the liquor."
"Go see if his car's gone," a woman's voice said. This had to be Brian's wife. The door to the garage opened, then closed a moment later. Sharon's high heels clacked back into the kitchen.
"It's there," she said.
"See, nothing to worry about. Can't get in much trouble on foot." Nola.
"Why don't we all take a little break, I'll see if I can raise him on his cell phone, then we'll convene for cake. Taylor wouldn't want us to put off the cake." Sharon.
A minute later the French doors in the kitchen opened, then closed. Two sets of footsteps slowly crossed the deck and stopped at the far side. Taylor's phone vibrated in his pocket. He reached in to make it stop.
"Any luck?" Nola.
"The call dropped." Sharon.
There was silence, broken only by more rustling of the trees. Taylor finished his drink and thought about standing up, saying he'd been hiding out there to make a surprise of his own, and knew he'd sound stupid. He hadn't thought about how he was going to get back in, and what he would say had kept him out.
He heard something he didn't recognize at first, and then knew it was the sound of gentle sobbing.
"It's all right. Don't blame yourself for anything." Nola.
"I tried. I've been trying for so long and I just don't think I can do it anymore." Sharon.
"You're just upset. Everything will look better in the morning."
Soft laughter drifted from the kitchen, and plates scraped together.
"There have been a lot of mornings. I'm at the end of my rope." Sharon.
"Taylor still loves you."
"But he's not there. He's just—not—there."
He remembered now when she had looked at him before the way she had in the kitchen, it was just after she said their never having children was a loss only she would feel because he didn't want them and never would.
She stopped crying. There was movement in the far distance.
"What's that?" Sharon.
"I don't know."
Taylor held his breath. His blood pounded in his ears.
"Someone's over there." Nola.
The deck rail creaked as the women leaned on it.
"I think it's just Mr. Moroni." Sharon in a quieter voice.
"Looks like he's going back inside."
"I wonder if he heard us."
Silence fell. Taylor lowered himself all the way down and stretched out his legs. The night had chilled even more. He looked up and saw the light was now completely gone, not even a thin blue glow above the trees.
"I'll go see how everyone's doing. You come when you're ready." Nola.
"The real question is, do you still love Taylor?"
There was no answer and as Nola crossed the deck, sending small vibrations through the planking.
Taylor held his breath and wished his heart would stop its pointless beating because he had never, at any other time in his life, felt so alone.