It was her twenty first birthday, and she was all alone.
Well, not all alone. After all, she had the voices of her family, blaring through the speaker of her phone for over an hour as they chatted incessantly over each other, wishing her all the best and claiming they missed her and asking her if she’d tried a beer yet. She had the faces of the few friends who’d remembered on her laptop, when they’d insisted on video chatting in the afternoon, to talk about all the things none of them had been doing, all the places none of them had been going. She had the small bundle of cards that had appeared from relatives-- those smart enough to send them out weeks in advance, giving them enough time to arrive.
But in all the important ways, she was alone. She had woken up before the sun and realized it was the day that was supposed to be the best birthday of them all-- or at least, that’s what all her friends had claimed, the ones who had already hit that notorious age mark. They said it was like finally realizing that you were an adult, that you were capable of doing whatever you wanted, that you were free.
She felt anything but free. After waking up she had made herself eggs, because the thought of pancakes all alone had felt too depressing to even consider, and she had steeped an entire pot of tea, black enough to match the despair she marinated in when she thought about all the hours ahead of her she had of being alone on her birthday.
She had laid back in her unmade bed and stared at the ceiling, and reflected on what the day should have looked like. In the before, she had thought it all out. She was a planner, and in the manner that twelve year old girls plot out their whole weddings, she had mapped out how the day would look months before-- where she would go, who she would bring, what she would drink. Now, she sat alone in her apartment with nothing but a cheap bottle of wine she had bought at random that morning at Walmart with her freshly legal I.D. She didn’t even like wine, it turned out, but then there had been no one else there to steer her away from it, and now that bottle was the only company she had, so she clung to it like a desperate lover off and on throughout the day.
By four o’clock she was drunk, in the way that new-to-alcohol people will get after a few glasses, and she had decided that there was no real reason why she should leave her couch, so she was lying there, gripping her empty bottle of pinot noir, when her phone buzzed, rudely interrupting her drunken sulk. She reached down for where she had thrown it on the floor by the couch, and turned it on, seeing that her mom had texted. “Your grandfather has it,” was all the message read, and it made her sit up dizzily, reading the words again in her head, then out loud when they still didn’t make any sense.
It didn’t make sense because he was healthy. It didn’t make sense because he was smart, and wouldn’t go outside. It didn’t make sense because it was her birthday, and it didn’t seem right that a single day could hold such bleak contempt against her, especially not this day of all the days, so it didn’t make sense, and it couldn’t be true.
She stumbled to her feet, looking around, forgetting for a minute that she was still in her apartment, still alone. Then she realized it was ridiculous, completely ridiculous, that she was cowering from an idea, from a possibility. What right had something that felt so distant and insignificant in that moment to strip away this day from her?
She had reached the door before she could entirely remember why she had started for it in the first place, but then she was outside, and oh the air was fresh, and my the breeze felt like silk against her skin that had been sequestered inside for far too many hours, days, months, lifetimes.
And she started walking. It was the breeze that did it, truly. It lured her out like a siren on the sea, and she couldn’t help but follow, couldn’t help the inane laugh that rose absurdly to her lips as she walked, ran, nearly skipped down the road that ran parallel to her apartment complex. It was ludicrous, some lingering sober nook of her mind was saying, but the rest of her being had thoroughly rejected any notion of sense, and so she ran and laughed and for the first time in months felt the smallest bit alive.
It was the voices that finally made her stop. They were still some distance away, the sound of their soft mutterings drifting toward her on the same wind that had tempted her into the great outdoors in the first place. There, ahead of her on the sidewalk, she could see them. A man and a woman, arms linked together, heads tilted toward one another, immersed in a conversation she found herself needlessly envious of. The intimacy of it all made her stand, frozen, straining her ears to hear more, to know what it must be like to have someone, anyone, to talk to like that right now.
She had been so caught up in the magic of it all, the tantalizing lull of something so simple as a conversation, that she had failed to realize how close they had reached to where she still stood. Nonetheless, the spell cast over her by the longing felt in her heart, strengthened by the alcohol coursing through her blood, made it seem nearly impossible to budge from her place on the sidewalk.
That is, until the cough. It was a simple enough thing-- the man leaned away from the woman for just a second, coughing briefly into his arm, then turned back and smiled apologetically at her.
But she saw, and heard, and it made her heart freeze with something else entirely-- fear. Paranoia. Finding she suddenly had the strength to move, to run back the way she had come, she fled from the man and the woman as though escaping the scene of a crime. She didn’t stop until she once again reached her small apartment, which she slipped into and slammed the door, locking out the evil forces that seemed to her to pulsate right beyond.
She discovered that the strength had all drained clear of her body, and so she sunk down to the floor, leaning back heavily against the door. What has the world come to, she thought desperately to herself in a half-coherent manner as she curled up into a ball. What has the world come to when one will so swiftly choose fear over love, isolation over companionship?
What has the world come to, she thought, and then the alcohol and the exertion and the sorrow all did its trick, for she fell asleep, still curled in on herself, right there on the floor in the foyer of her apartment on her twenty first birthday.