The Birthday Card
I stood up in the high school auditorium. The seat bounced up behind me, creating a smacking noise, but I was too preoccupied with the card in my sweaty palm to notice. The chatter of my classmates filled the room. I would have indulged in their enthusiasm if I wasn’t gulping in air as thick as water.
My trembling hand held the weight of my future. I better do it now, I told myself, before I turn around and make a dash for the double doors.
When I first saw the cast list for The Fairy on Mr. Hillman’s door, my knees turned to jelly. I was cast as The Fairy. Thankfully, I didn’t have big shoes to fill. I stood exactly five feet tall. On a good day, I might have added an extra inch.
He was cast as Wizard Man. That’s when my knees gave out. The student next in line caught me before I hit the ground, but I played it off cool. I just couldn’t imagine a socially awkward girl like me to lead a play with one of the most popular boys in school. It was completely out of high school hierarchy order.
As I glanced to the side stage ramp, he was engaged in a conversation that involved dramatic hand motions. He must have been explaining to his friend the story behind another Beatles song or John Lennon’s passionate voice in the song Imagine. He couldn’t help it, I told his friend in my head. He was the most cultured person I had ever known and frankly, that was the reason I fell for him. Well, that plus the way he first looked at me with those deep green eyes that harbored an ocean of dreams. He had seen me before, several times in fact, but the first time he ever really saw me was during our first stage rehearsal.
He grasped his wizard staff and stepped over to me. The staff and his huge wizard boots clinked against the floor as he approached. He raised his wise eyebrows preparing to say his line, but his lips froze. Wizard Man melted off his face as he looked at me, revealing a vulnerability I had only ever seen in my own reflection. He must have been equally as surprised by the stare we shared before it was broken when someone shouted the cue line.
Three weeks later on September 24, I left the row of seats with his birthday card in my hand. He turned seventeen years old.
The ramp was five yards away. My feet moved like a snail and I hoped he would still be there by the time I reached him. It must have been zero degrees in the auditorium. I probably looked like Casper and with no makeup on, I could have passed for a twelve year old ghost boy.
Cast members messed around with props on the stage while others were scattered in the seats going over lines for the evening’s rehearsal.
The shakes had spread from my hands to all the nerves in my body. The closer I got to him, the more I shrunk. I had to remind myself to breathe and correct my shoulders so I wouldn’t morph into the Hunchback of Notre dame.
His tenor voice grew louder the closer I approached. I soon found myself standing in front of the ramp with two expectant faces turned to me. My eyes fixed only on one. There he was, Bryan Gregory, class clown and easily one of the most liked boys in the class of 2009. My mouth parted as I lifted the card in the air. I hoped with all my might that he wouldn’t noticed my early onset of Parkinson’s.
“Happy Birthday!” I said. My voice broke into a million pieces, but that didn’t matter once I saw his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. He pushed himself up and grabbed the card from my hand. The excitement glistened from his eyes.
I slid the tip of my thumb over my fingertips, one of my many nervous habits. The previous evening, my mom had dropped me off at WalMart after my endless begging. Eventually, she quit yapping on the phone long enough to drive me. I was given exactly five minutes to get in there and get out. I sprinted directly to the card aisle and skimmed through the sections until I found ‘his birthday’. By then I had only four minutes and thirty seconds left, which is a negative two hours when a female is picking out an important card. Mom must have wanted me to win a world record. At any rate, I made it out with twenty seconds to spare, though I wished I had used them.
“Tina,” he said, using his falsetto. “You got me a card!” He flipped it open after tearing away the envelope. He took a moment to read it, which released a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing special. Just a simple birthday card,” I said, knowing exactly where I screwed up.
He did a double take over the card. The realization smacked him right in the face and his grin grew ten miles wide. He read the printed message aloud. “Cheers on your twenty-first. Now you can buy me a drink.”
His friend’s eyebrows turned inward and I thought it was the end of the world as I knew it.
I had spent the previous night pacing my bedroom for an hour deciding whether to write love, sincerely, or just Tina at the bottom of the card. I even wrote ten drafts to make sure my personal message sounded perfect.
Then he read my personal message aloud.
“WalMart sucks. No good cards left. But hey, at least I’m the first person to wish you a happy twenty-first… Anyway, happy seventeenth birthday, Bryan! Hope it’s the best. Love, Tina.”
My chest rose and fell like the speed of a jackhammer. How about that to land me in the Guinness book? I bit my lip so hard it must have been bleeding. I expected them to start pointing and laughing, but instead, Bryan took two steps forward and, before I knew it, his arms wrapped tightly around me.
He smelled like the kind of boy who lived with his grandparents and played music in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. I imagined him sitting on his bed with a pile of records and an old record player on his lap. He played all his favorites from Bob Dylan to Eric Burdon and The Animals. He knew good music when he heard it.
I couldn’t wipe that giddy smile off my face when he pulled away. He must have found my mistake endearing since he couldn’t get rid of his either.
I couldn’t wait to go home and replay that moment repeatedly in my head, each time deleting and adding a few details to make it perfect. Another one of my cursed habits.
“You know he’s going to expect something from you all the time now, don’t you?” His friend said.
I smiled and looked at Bryan who had already been looking at me. Our smiles matched.
This, I thought, is the end of my world as I know it.