Birthday Blues

Fiction

1.

I woke up on the morning of my twelfth birthday and immediately wished I hadn’t. It was almost ten and the house had that deathly Sunday stillness. 
I went to the washroom, peed, wiped the seat clean of the yellow drops and flushed the toilet—all as mum had trained me to do.

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I went back to my room and picked up The Dark Knight Returns. I lay down on my bed and began to read. Reading kept my mind off things like how dorky all my birthdays have been. Okay, not all, but at least the ones 
I can remember. I needed no crystal ball to tell me that today would be no different.

I heard a sudden vroom downstairs—mum must have started on her favourite weekend pastime, vacuuming the whole damn universe. It was only a matter of time before she came upstairs, dragging the machine 
like a pit bull on a leash. I got up and played Back Street Boys real loud to drown the racket she was making.

Soon enough, without so much as a knock, mum pushed open my bedroom door. Mum believed in surprising people.

“There’s no need to put on the music that loud,” she said.

I got up and tweaked the controls—pretending to reduce the volume. 
It had been an entirely different ball game when Joe was around.

Mum shut the door and I went back to my book. A couple of seconds later, she opened the door again.

“Happy birthday, son. What would you like to do today?”

What would I like to do? Go bowling with my buddies, Tony and 
Mustapha, that’s what. But I kept that thought to myself. Extreme caution—if you know what I mean.

“Shall we go to the temple?” mum asked brightly. I wanted to groan. 
She continued: “First, I’ll make some food for your dad.”

Dad had died two years ago, exactly on the same date. Last year, mum cooked for him and placed the food below his framed photograph on the wall. Later, we ate the leftovers—some birthday treat.

Don’t get me wrong: dad had been a good dude. I wouldn’t say the same thing of Joe. Though dad could be cantankerous at times, he was a chummy kind of person. If I did something stupid, he’d roll his eyes and say, 
Je-sus! He used to say that all the time even though he was a full-blown Hindu, born and bred in India.

Mum too was born in India. But you wouldn’t have guessed, looking 
at her. She always wore stuff like tops and pants, and her hair was cut 
very short. Even her accent didn’t sound Indian (nor did it sound very Canadian).

Dad’s parents had seen mum in a photograph that a relative had sent them from India. In the picture, mum was wearing a sari, and she had flowers 
in her long hair and a big red dot on her forehead. According to mum, my grandparents took such a shine to her that they boarded the next plane 
to India and arranged dad’s marriage. When mum came to Canada, nobody would give her a job. She had to go to college again and take ESL classes before she finally managed to find work in a dental office.

It was a foregone conclusion that my eleventh birthday would be a no-go. After all it was dad’s anniversary, too. Mum had been weepy for days. She said that she missed dad.

After mum finally left the room, I got back to my book. I liked reading—I devoured graphic novels by the ton. When I grow up I’d like to be a writer. I like words. Nice long words, words that have a majestic ring to them. Unfortunately, my spelling sucked. Miss Bowman, my class teacher said that you must know how to spell if you wanted to be a writer.

“No sweat,” Tony said. “You can always use the spell check.”

But Mustapha said, “Only ninnies use spell check, duh.”

2.

On the evening of my tenth birthday, dad tried to knot a bowtie around my neck. Unlike mum, dad was tall and heavily built, with large clumsy hands. He appeared a little out of breath and droplets of sweat formed on his brow as he struggled with the tie. It was August and the weather was hot and stuffy. Mum never switched the AC on until the temperature touched one hundred degrees—Celsius, mind you, not Fahrenheit.

Mum had bought me a black pinstripe suit to wear to my birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. When dad said that nobody wore a suit to Chuck E. Cheese, mum simply steamrollered over his objections—like always.

Mum had invited all her friends, her relatives and their children to the party. But Tony and Mustapha were nowhere in the guest list—you’d think it was mum’s birthday party.

“Can’t you tie a bowtie properly?” mum said to dad.

She roughly spun me in her direction and started to maniplate the bowtie. I was half-afraid I’d get strangled to death.

“It’s loose. You’ll have to tighten it,” dad said.

That darn tie was choking me as it was.

“So you think you know everything, eh?” she asked of dad.

That’s how it started. Before I could even get into my pinstripe coat, they were screaming at each other. Then came the usual Act Two, when things got physical—dad gave mum a slap on her shoulder. And mum replied in kind—with a sort of a punch in his stomach. I watched the bout mutely, like a referee who had misplaced his whistle.

They stopped fighting just as suddenly and got on with the job of getting ready as if nothing had happened—like they always did. But as dad was about to pick up his car keys, he gave out a loud moan—as though somebody was tying a bowtie very tightly around his throat. He fell down with a crash, breaking the leg of an end table. Mum screamed and dialled 911.

We accompanied dad in the ambulance because mum didn’t know how to drive. I sat next to him in my pinstripe trousers and bowtie. Mum was continually on the mobile, calling her friends and relatives to cancel the party. The paramedic heard her and wished me a happy birthday. Dad looked at me, rolled his eyes and mouthed “Je-sus!”

When we got out of the ambulance we found that some of my parents’ friends and relatives had decided to follow us to the hospital. Perhaps they wanted to give mum and dad moral support. Or did they think that the venue of the party had moved? Seeing the long lineup of cars—a preview 
of his funeral procession—must have unnerved dad.

He never got out of the hospital alive. I miss dad. I think he had loved me in his own peculiar way, whatever mum said to the contrary.

3.

It was a foregone conclusion that my eleventh birthday would be a no-go. After all it was dad’s anniversary, too. Mum had been weepy for days. She said that she missed dad.

As a sparring partner, I thought. One way or another I couldn’t see the two of us trying to restart the abandoned party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Mum made chicken tikka and fried rice and offered them to dad. They were his favourite Indian dishes. When we finally got to eat the food, it was stone cold.

“The food tastes funny,” I said. “I think it needs some salt.”

“That’s right,” mum said. “Dr. Moore had told me use less salt in the cooking because your dad was—what’s the word?”

“Hypersensitive,” I suggested.

“Whatever, but I never got around to doing it when your dad was alive,” mum said.

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In the evening we went to a temple. We took the bus because we didn’t own a car. Mum hadn’t yet met Joe. The temple was in a quiet neighbourhood but it had no dome or spire or anything. It could have been mistaken for an office block—I mean, it didn’t even look Indian, like the Taj Mahal or something.

Inside, a wine-red carpet stretched from wall to wall. On a raised platform, life-size statues of Hindu deities sat in a row looking straight ahead, as though waiting to be introduced to the gathering. Mum walked up to each one of them with both her palms joined together, whispering all the while. 
I trailed behind her, doing a fair imitation of her actions and hoping that I too would look religious.

In a corner, a half-naked pujari sat on the floor distributing holy water and prasad. He spoke to us in Hindi. The priest looked newly arrived from India. A jnaani-come-lately, mum said. Mum thinks she’s got a great sense of humour. That’s the real joke, let me tell you.

On our way back, mum stopped at Wal-Mart. She bought a crappy boom-box as a birthday present for me. I wish she had bought me something cool like a PlayStation or a Game Boy. Something that would have made Tony’s and Mustapha’s jaws drop.

4.

Joginder was mum’s instructor at Singh Along Driving School for Ladies. After helping her get a licence, Joe took the liberty of renting our basement. “To lighten our burden,” mum said. “Besides, it’s good for you to have a father figure around.”

I recognized that tone. It was only a matter of time before mum would go ballistic.

There’s no denying we were hard up. Mum was doing mostly temp jobs. Even when she had a good job, she was constantly poring over the help wanted columns in newspapers. That’s because she couldn’t get along with her bosses—she found them too bossy.

Though Joe had rented only the basement, he was upstairs most of the time. Wearing a tacky golf shirt and a pair of shorts, he would strut about the house showing off his hairy limbs. He had a big bulge in his crotch as though he was carrying a pet turtle between his legs. A nice father figure he cut.

Very soon I realized that Joe was sneaking into mum’s bedroom. I could hear him beyond the wall, whispering, giggling and indulging in other -ings. Whenever Joe was with mum, I turned on the boom-box full blast. Throwing music like a coverlet over my head, I’d try to go to sleep.

Not before long, even mum’s patience with Joe began to wear thin. He never gave her any help around the house; repairing his car was all the work he did. Every weekend, he’d settle down in the driveway to repair his old Ford. That jalopy always gave trouble. Often we’d find ourselves sitting in the car, marooned in the middle of the road as Joe tried to fix something or 
the other under the hood.

But mum wasn’t the kind to give up easily. She was constantly after Joe, wanting him to run errands for her. And Joe began to change—he’d disappear into his basement for long stretches, and whenever he emerged, he looked sullen and scrappy.

On Saturday morning, a day before my twelfth birthday, I woke up late. 
I heard Joe’s steam-bellow snores in the bedroom next door. I got up and played Eminem on high. It flushed him out of the room in a blink.

“Buddy, why do you put on the music so loud?” Joe asked.

“I don’t like the sounds you make in mum’s room,” I said.

If you thought my boom-box was loud, you hadn’t heard the commotion that was going on in the kitchen. Mum had discovered that there were 
no groceries in the house even to prepare a light brunch. On Friday, before leaving for work, mum had given Joe a list of things to buy. But as usual 
he had forgotten all about it. Mum was raging mad that she had no choice but to take us out to lunch.

“Why don’t we go to the fancy new Thai restaurant in Mississauga?” said Joe. I couldn’t help admiring this guy.

“We’re going to the pho,” mum said, in a chilly no-nonsense voice.

If ever we needed to dine out, mum would always take us to a Vietnamese restaurant on Main Street and order the same dish for each one of us—a noodle soup with meatballs swimming in it. Mum had reckoned that for twenty dollars the three of us could eat our fill and still have some cash leftover for a generous tip.

Hearing about the pho, Joe burst out, “I’m sick and tired of eating item number eighteen every time!”

“Really?” mum started to say.

I recognized that tone. It was only a matter of time before mum would go ballistic. The next thing I knew, the two were in the middle of a slanging match. When it was time for Act Two, mum threw a punch at Joe. The poor man was taken aback. No woman other than his mother had ever smacked him.

Joe turned and, without a word, went down into his basement. He resurfaced twenty minutes later with a suitcase in one hand and a bunch of unwashed clothes in the crook of his other arm. “I’m outta here!” he said and walked out of the house, stopping only to bang the door after him.

The Ford coughed apologetically and refused to start at first. But eventually it did and, emitting a roar, the car sped away. Though I didn’t like Joe, 
I felt kind of sad. For her part, mum picked up the Star and leafed through the entertainment section like it was any other lazy Saturday afternoon.

5.

So now, on my twelfth birthday, I saw no signs of any birthday present coming my way. I didn’t care either—after all, I wasn’t a kid anymore.

In the evening we went to the temple in an ancient Chevy Cavalier mum had bought, with expert advice from Joe, soon after she had learned how 
to drive. The highway was busy with the summer weekend rush. But I had to hand it to mum—she drove like a pro. Cohabiting with a driving instructor seemed to have had its own advantages.

The temple looked the same. But there was a poster on a wall now asking for donations to build a dome. In the main hall, the deities continued to 
sit and stare into the air. The priest was in his corner, fully dressed in a white kurta and pyjamas. He spoke to us in English, with a Canadian accent to boot. He must have hired a really good English tutor, I thought—somebody far better than Miss Bowman. But mum told me that he had married a white lady, a Hare Krishna devotee.

On our way back, mum put on the radio. The announcer came on the air, talking about floods in some remote part of the world. Mum pulled out 
a small bag from the glove box. Handing it me, she said, “Happy birthday!”

I was so flabbergasted, I forgot to thank her. While she was listening to the announcer yakking about a mine collapse, I opened the bag and peeked inside. My eyes must have surely popped out. An iPod Nano!

Mum shut off the radio and turned to me. “The things that happen on your birthday! Floods in Bangladesh, an accident in a Chinese mine and a hurricane blowing across the Caribbean!”

Turning a deaf ear to mum, I opened the package. Silver coloured and gleaming, how beautiful the iPod looked! I was extra careful as I pried 
out the device. When I held it in my hands, I was afraid I’d leave indelible fingerprints on it.

“I think your birthdays are truly jinxed,” said mum.

“Me too,” I said, absently.

I fished out the earphones and stuffed them into my ears. Though it would be some time before the iPod started pumping music into my ears, I was already beginning to feel happy with my life. I could hardly wait to tell Tony and Mustapha about my birthday present.

“Thank you, mum,” I said. “You are the best!” I wanted to kiss her on her cheek, but held back because it would have been such an uncool thing to do.

Out of the blue, mum said: “Shall we go out for dinner?”

“Wh-where?” I asked, a vision of meatballs in a foggy soup rising in 
my mind.

“To the fancy new Thai restaurant in Mississauga,” said mum, stepping on the gas.


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