Laurel Lippman awoke to the impatient shriek of her rotary telephone. Wasting only a few seconds to wish she was dreaming, and then just a few more to regret ever buying it for ten dollars at a stoop sale, she surrendered to the screaming, plastic beast and got out of bed. The phone was old, outdated. Ironic. It sat on a wooden desk in the living room, atop a stack of old New Yorkers and beside the ashtray she hadn’t emptied in three weeks. Knowing the effort her fingers would have to make to dial a number prevented her from making phone calls she’d later wish she hadn’t made, and it was this that made her keep the phone instead of smashing it into pieces like she wanted to on this very morning.
The chilly floor against the soles of her feet made her whole body shiver. She was awake now; she had surrendered. And the telephone still shrieked. There was only one person in the world who would dream of calling her so early in the morning, and today there was a reason.
“Do you want me to sing?”
“Oh come on, let me sing. It’s your birthday! Let me sing.”
“If you want to sing, you can sing.”
“Should I sing?”
(Every year he asked if he should sing.)
“It’s up to you. You don’t have to sing”.
“If you don’t want me to sing, I won’t sing.”
“Sure, Dad. Sing. I’d like that.”
And so he sang. “Happy Birthday.” And repeat. “Happy Birthday.” One more time. Her father was not a horrible singer, he could carry a tune. And he was a charming man, one who could make up for having never kept a school photo of her in his office by singing “Happy Birthday” to her now, with the part where the name goes replaced by the word “Pumpkin”. Last year it was “Darling.” The year before that: “Sweetheart”.
Her father was a doctor and spent his days poking around at ventricles and arteries like a kid in junior high biology class stabbing a pig’s heart with a pair of tweezers. A real blood and guts kind of guy. It was his job to rummage around inside the human body looking for signs of decay and disease, to make a map of an impossible maze and find cures for the incurable. The doctor (her father) had so many maps and routes to store in his memory that he could not, evidently, commit to just one term of endearment for his (only) daughter. Pumpkin. Darling. Sweetheart. Each year it was a different name, sang to her as if he’d sang it a thousand times before as she played in the leaves and swung on her swing and splashed about in a small plastic pool in her childhood backyard.
(He had not.)
(There was no pool. No leaves.)
Doctor Lippman carried the last bar of the song a few seconds longer, to prolong his fatherly duties. While he stretched out the last “You”, she stared out her window and considered what was worse: the singing or the talking they would have to do when it ended. The people in her neighborhood walked down the street and disappeared into the subway beneath a crisp, ready, orange fall sky. A window was open and she could hear the sound of the leaves crackling and crunching beneath their feet. Life (the leaves) and death (the feet). Life would never be without death, this Laurel knew very well.
Silence. The singing was over.
“You didn’t like it?”
“I loved it.”
“That’s my pumpkin. Did you get the card I sent you?”
“I did, it came yesterday. Thank you.”
“And the cheque?”
“It came too. Inside the card. Didn’t you put it there?”
“Of course I did! Well, Tatina. Tatina put it there.”
Tatina was her father’s assistant. In addition to mailing the annual birthday card, she also picked it out, signed her father’s name (in the fountain pen Laurel’s mother had given him when he graduated from medical school) and wrote the cheque. The year Laurel had turned seventeen and was living in residence at her university, Tatina, still polishing up her English at the time, mistakenly sent her five thousand dollars instead of five hundred. Rather than point out the error, Laurel cashed the cheque and considered it justice for the fact that her father had been sleeping with Tatina hardly a year after her mother – his wife – had died. The error was never discussed.
“Did you get the other thing?”
“It came too.”
“It” was the birthday letter she received from her (dead) mother every year. Tatina sent this too, in a different envelope than the birthday cheque, to be tasteful. (It was addressed using the same fountain pen.) Her mother had depression and killed herself nine years ago. Her mother’s mother died the same way, and her mother’s mother’s mother probably would have too if not for becoming so ill first. It was two days before her sixteenth birthday when her mother killed herself and one day after that Laurel found out. She had spent her sweet sixteen staring at a cake she’d never eat with a nanny, a butler and a stuffy great-aunt who didn’t get the news and arrived to dinner anyway. No one told Laurel what was going on, but as she sat slouched at the head of her family’s long dining room table gazing out the Palladian windows at the dimming fall sky, she knew. Teenagers are an intuitive stock.
What Laurel’s mother lacked in stability she made up for in calculation, as Laurel would be reminded of every year on her birthday. Her mother had written no fewer than fifty letters for her to open in her forever absentia. Her wishes crisply instructed that a letter was to be mailed each year on Laurel’s birthday so that her life would not be without maternal guidance. The sophisticated parchment a thoughtful replacement for a now motherless existence, the letters were meant to offer omniscient advice and make her feel unconditionally cared for and loved. They felt more like a cannonball to the gut. A razor to the wrist.
Her father thought about burning them in the fireplace to prevent turning every birthday into a purgatorial hell. But, not one to deny a woman her final wish, especially after he’d been sleeping with his assistant (and the neighbour, and the tennis instructor and the babysitter) for the past ten years, he complied and mailed – rather, had Tatina mail – the letters. Every year Laurel would begin her birthday with a phone call from her father who was alive, and a letter from her mother who wasn’t. And then she would call in sick to work, the one thing she kept for herself on a day that didn’t belonged to her anymore. She would sleep until nighttime, when darkness returned and she could no longer tell if the sky was orange or the leaves were dead or alive. In sleep she would dream up the courage to stay afloat on a dance floor while her friends, who had not known her when she was sixteen, would end up the ones really celebrating. The poor postman who dropped the letters in her mailbox had no idea he was delivering the words of a dead woman.
When this year’s letter arrived the week before, Laurel slid it in the desk drawer where she kept bank statements and bills she’d slowly get around to paying. She wanted to see if she could trick herself into forgetting the ritual.
Despite her effort to bury it beneath paperwork and old receipts, Laurel knew exactly where the letter was. But she would not open it today. Old habits die hard, this one she had to kill. And she knew how the letter would go. “Keep your teeth clean, find a good husband. Wear a jacket, take folic acid when pregnant. Your blonde hair is so pretty. Don’t ever dye it.”
Her hair had been black since she was nineteen, excluding the time she shaved it all off in the bathtub. And she swore she’d never get married. Or take folic acid. Or have children, not because she didn’t want a child but because she didn’t think she had it in her to break the tradition set out for her by her ancestors.
But her teeth were clean. And later, there would be cake.
“Thanks for calling, Dad.”
“Happy Birthday, Pumpkin.”
Laurel hung up the telephone and went back to bed.