The air in the apartment was thick with the smell of freshly baked cake. Clarice stood at the counter, smoothing icing over the round vanilla cake: pink, of course, Serenity’s favourite colour. The small dining room was full of pink and white streamers, balloons, and ?Happy Birthday? banners. Her baby was turning eight.
Serenity interrupted her mother’s reverie. ?Is Daddy coming to my birthday party, Mom?? The little girl’s emerald eyes were wide with naïve enthusiasm.
?He’s probably lying around drunk somewhere,? said Nathan, rolling his dark brown eyes.
?Nathan!? Clarice sighed, quickening her pace. A blob of icing splattered her hand. She licked it. Her hands still appeared young in spite of the housecleaning jobs she had held over the last four years to support her family.
?Is Daddy coming, Momma?? Serenity’s chubby face stared back at her mother. Her blonde pigtails were held up with green ribbons to match her green dress.
?He said he was busy, Princess. Maybe next time he will come.? She didn’t look at her daughter.
Nathan clenched his jaw and ground his teeth.
Clarice finished icing the cake. She picked up the red gel tube and began looping the words ?Happy Birthday Serenity.?
?Is John coming, Momma? Is he back in Calgary??
?Yes, and he said that he will bring the video camera so that he can tape your party. Won’t that be nice, Princess?? She glanced at the imitation emerald studs in Serenity’s ears. It was her birthday present to her daughter. It was more than she could afford, but Serenity had really wanted them.
?Goody, I’ll get to be on TV!? said Serenity.
?It’s a home video, dork. It’s not like you will get to be ?on TV,?? said Nathan scornfully.
?Nathan, just leave the room if you can’t be nice to your sister, okay! I have had it with you.? Since he had turned 12, he had started acting like he was the adult male in the house, like he was in charge. He came and went as he pleased. He said whatever came to his mind, without sensitivities to others? feelings. ?Just let me enjoy your sister’s birthday today.?
She took out eight spiral candles from a tiny box and stabbed the cake with them. ?Perfect,? she said quietly, her frustration subsiding.
There was a light knock. Serenity ran to open the door.
?Hello there, Serenity. How does it feel to be eight?? said John, scooping the little girl up in his arms. He was an attractive middle-aged man, well-dressed and clean-shaven.
Nathan abruptly left the dining room and slammed the door to his bedroom.
?Is your brother in a bad mood again, Princess?? John gently slid Serenity down onto the floor. She looked up at him, wide-eyed. He removed his winter jacket and hung it in the closet.
?Hey John,? said Clarice, entering the hallway to give him a hug and a quick kiss. ?Your lips are frozen.?
?Well, it is the middle of winter out there, and I see that Calgary got dumped with snow while I was gone.? John removed his boots and placed them on the floor of the jacket closet. ?Looks like I’m on time for a change!?
?Yes, you are. I’m impressed!? Clarice’s face lit up a few degrees in the dark hallway. She’d had nothing to fear.
They were interrupted by voices and footsteps. ?Looks like your little guests are arriving,? said John, quickly glancing out into the long hallway.
It was not long before the little apartment was echoing with the chatter of four small guests dressed in their prettiest party outfits. They played musical chairs as John walked around the living room with a video camera perched on his shoulder. Nathan hid in his room, avoiding it all.
But when Clarice lit the candles on the cake and everyone began singing ?Happy Birthday? to Serenity, the familiar tune drew Nathan out of his bedroom. He quietly leaned against the wall in a corner, watching.
Serenity blew out the candles, all in one breath. John cheered. And everyone clapped as the birthday girl picked up the pink-ribboned knife and sliced the cake in the centre, right through her name.
Then Clarice took over: cutting the cake, pouring orange pop into Styrofoam cups. She was starting to feel exhausted from the party, but she knew that it was almost over . . . and she would finally be able to relax. And talk with John. It had been a long three weeks since John had stormed out of her apartment in the middle of the blizzard night.
Serenity opened her presents. She pulled out stuffed animal after stuffed animal, exclaiming over each one. Clarice wondered why on earth people had only purchased stuffed animals: Serenity’s room was already full of them. Her neck was starting to stiffen. She stretched it from one side to the other.
?There is one more present to open,? announced John, removing his video camera from his shoulder and bending down to take out a small box wrapped in silver paper.
Serenity glowed. She ripped the wrapping paper and squealed, ?A Game Boy! A Game Boy! This is what I always wanted. And new games too, Mom,? she added, turning quickly toward Clarice. ?You are the best, John.?
It was unusual for John to buy such an expensive present for Serenity. Nathan looked suspiciously at him and then turned around and stalked back to his room, closing out his sister’s squeals. The hands of the clock ticked to 3:30. The few parents started lining up to pick up their daughters. The party was winding down.
Only minutes till It’s over, thought Clarice. Minutes . . . only minutes . . .
Streamers had fallen to the ground. Droplets of orange pop puddled in the empty white cups sitting on the table. Cake crumbs and torn wrapping paper were scattered on the floor, adding to the chaos. John stood by the kitchen window.
Clarice took a deep breath as she silently observed the aftermath. ?Are you staying for a while, John?? she asked tentatively.
Serenity went to place her new stuffed animals in her room and to play with her Game Boy.
John was silent. He did not look at Clarice.
?What’s wrong?? said Clarice. Was he still mad about three weeks ago? All couples argued about children, didn’t they? Besides, she really didn’t think it was his place to tell her how to discipline Nathan or to stop coddling Serenity. He wasn’t an equal partner. And she had her system figured out. It worked on the better days.
?What’s wrong?? John sighed. ?I didn’t want to break it to you today, of all days . . .?
Clarice was quiet. She knew what was next. She had been there before.
?I just can’t do it anymore,? he said. ?I’m just not ready. I’m sorry. I thought I was ready for all this, but I’m not . . . and Nathan and I don’t even get along. He seems to hate me. I’m sorry.? John’s words stumbled out of his mouth.
?I was wondering why you bought such an expensive present for Serenity. Just to cover up your guilt, I suppose??
?don’t start this again, Clarice.?
?Start what, John??
Clarice remained quiet.
John stared outside at the snowfall.
?Would it be different if you got along with Nathan??
?I don’t know.? John paused, and then said, ?It’s not just that, Clarice.?
She said nothing.
?Sometimes when I hold you, I feel like I’m holding a cement block.?
Clarice stiffened. Cement block. Somewhere along life’s gravel road, in the process of providing, nurturing, giving, she forgot to take, forgot to feel.
?I did a lot of thinking about all this last week.?
?Yeah,? said Clarice.
?We’ve been together for six months . . .?
Clarice hurriedly picked up the remaining cake and started to put it in the fridge. ?I don’t want to hear any more, John. Please!?
?See, Clarice. This is the problem. You shove the skeletons back in the closet as if they don’t exist.?
?What do you want me to say, John? What??
?I don’t know. I really don’t know.? John looked to the ground. ?I’m sorry, Clarice. I gotta go. I will bring the videotape by, and I’ll say goodbye to the kids then.?
Clarice collapsed on the sofa and looked at the mess in her living and dining room.
John leaned down to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned her face the other way, staring blankly at the wall until she heard the slam of the door and the echo of John’s boots down the hall. She took a moment to count backwards in her head. Then she got up to clean.
Clarice grabbed the streamers, Styrofoam cups, icing-smudged paper plates, torn wrapping paper, and empty boxes and shoved them into a black garbage bag. She slammed a damp cloth against the table, showering the floor with cake crumbs.
Nathan came out of his room. His hair looked tousled. He placed his box of Lego on the clean table and started building. He was going to grow up and work for a big Lego Company, designing and inventing new toys.
Serenity came out of her bedroom with her new Game Boy and said, ?Where’s John, Mom? How come he didn’t stay??
Clarice looked at her daughter with blank eyes. ?He is gone, Serenity. He will come back to say goodbye when he brings your birthday tape.?
Clarice grabbed the broom and started sweeping the floors, stirring a cloud of dust in the middle of her small kitchen. Nathan concentrated harder on his Lego creation. He took a yellow piece and placed it right on top of the red one, crushing the two together.
Serenity was speechless for a moment, and then said in a shrill voice, ?You’ll never get married. Will you, Mom? I’ll never have a real daddy who comes home for dinner every day.?
Clarice said nothing. She continued sweeping and washing the floors. Serenity looked at her and ran to the closet and slid open the door, grabbing her jacket and mittens. Nathan stared determinedly at his Lego.
?Where are you going, Serenity?? said Clarice.
?Outside! To finish building my snow igloo!? yelled Serenity. She slammed the door shut as she left the apartment. The air in there was suffocating.
Clarice looked out her kitchen window once to check on Serenity. The little girl was kicking the small heap of snow that she had shovelled into the corner of the yard. She dumped the shovel on top of the heap, picked it up again, and slammed it on top of the heap a second time. Then Clarice watched silently as her daughter sat on the pile of snow and looked up toward the hazy sky as the snow flurries fell upon her face.
Clarice had just finished straightening the chairs when Serenity came back indoors. Her face was red, and her mittens were wet. She took off her mittens and her jacket and put them in the closet.
?Nathan, can you please take the garbage out?? Clarice said.
Nathan did not move a joint. His whole body focused on the Lego tank he was building.
Clarice raised her voice. ?Nathan, can you take out the garbage??
?Nathan, Mom said to take out the garbage,? said Serenity in a shaky voice.
?Nathan, listen to Mom. Take out the garbage.?
?Nathan!? yelled Clarice.
?He doesn’t care, Mom. He doesn’t care about this family. Nathan, take out the garbage, please. Nathan, take out the garbage!? Serenity burst into tears. ?You don’t care about this family, Nathan. Nobody here cares. Nobody cares! Nobody cares!? Serenity pounced on the garbage bag and then kicked it.
The room spun around Clarice. Her children had never seen her cry. She did not remember the last time that she had cried. She just swallowed her lot in life and went on. What was the use in crying? It did not wash anything away.
?Stop it!? said Clarice to Serenity.
?Why?? said Serenity, once again kicking the garbage bag. The plastic had started to rip and the bag’s contents were spilling out onto the clean floor.
?Because . . .? said Clarice. She paused.
?Because why?? spat Serenity.
?Because . . .? said Clarice, ?because . . . I am . . . still . . . standing.? Clarice wept.
Nathan looked up from his Lego and said, ?I’ll take the garbage out, Mom.? He picked up the flimsy black bag and dumped it and its contents into another bag. ?Two bags together create a stronger barrier against the garbage,? he said. ?Then the garbage won’t spill out everywhere.?
Clarice watched Nathan trudge the garbage outside. As she gazed at the bleak landscape, the warm rays of the sun delicately pierced through the winter haze and shone on Serenity’s igloo.