It’s Christian’s birthday today; it’s obvious by the ceaseless buzzing of his iPhone throughout the early morning, vibrating on the nightstand every few minutes. The recurrent rattling of polycarbonate against the wooden top produces a comforting hum, a white noise for a deeper slumber; the sound of attention accumulating soothes him to sleep, a lovely lullaby, knowing he’s going to wake up with plenty of notifications, like a real special boy with presents on Christmas morning.
A sunbeam sneaks through a crevice of the pulled window drapes; the warmthless ray rises from the ground and crawls up the comforter, striking Christian’s face with an invasive shine. Fluttering his eyes open, he stretches, extending his arms as he contorts his torso, kicking his heels into the mattress underneath the sheets; it’s an automatic response to daylight and morning body aches. Waking up in his casket like he does every day, his home, a 30-year fixed mortgage, he glimpses over at his device still dancing around on the table, demanding to be unlocked and looked at. Christian catches the time; it’s nine eleven, but there’s no reason to panic, no, it’s a pretty good morning actually. He didn’t experience either of his two recurring dreams last night; he wasn’t stuck in some suicide cult, struggling to drown himself while his cohorts executed without any difficulty, no. And he didn’t run out of gas in the middle of the desert either, like he usually dreams about, stuck on the side of the road, gazing at the vultures circling overhead as he holds up his phone, attempting to attain a signal to call for help.
The overhead fan spins, creating a gentle wind as Christian lies, and there’s comfort in the current, wooden blades wafting, passing in a familiar movement pattern; it’s a calming visual, a safe, secure motion, a representation of routine and the comfort it brings. Supine, watching as the wheel whirls up above, Christian pushes the back of his bald head into the sateen pillow, rubbing stubble against the smooth fabric; it’s a technique to stretch his neck, relieving suboccipital tension from the night’s sleep. His second morning exercise requires the flexion of extensor muscles if he wants to avoid mid-day migraines. Retracting his shoulder blades, Christian forces his sternum upward to alleviate gnawing discomfort in his levator scapulae, holding the position with steady breath, counting backwards from thirty. It’s a pain caused by a combination of acquired tech neck and an agitated disc from an old high school wrestling injury; it’s the reason he can’t sleep on his left side anymore without experiencing numbness in his fingertips, but that’s all right; he’s used to not feeling.
Sinking into his sheets for a binge of nostalgia, his favorite drug, he indulges in a vivid montage; closing his eyes and pulling the comforter over his head, he thinks about his most memorable birthdays, back when he had hair and mornings weren’t physically painful. He recalls his seventeenth when he got his license: his clammy palms gripping the cold leather of the steering wheel, an arrhythmic heart thudding in his chest as he barely passed the second attempt at parallel parking, missing the back cone by mere inches. The catchy guitar riffs and drumbeats of Blink 182 blasted through the speakers as he drove home that morning, rejoicing in his accomplishment, humming along as he glanced at his license, imagining being twenty-three some day.
The blistering headache from the morning after his twenty first birthday still throbs whenever he thinks of it; the blood pounding at the tips of his ears, the tension squeezing like a vice around his cranium. He remembers waking up from the night’s debauchery, cotton-mouthed and dazed, his body cramped on the twin bed; the sweaty back of his naked girlfriend pressed against his ribcage, the lingering smell of weed permeating the atmosphere, a blanket of smoke still floating above the room. His rickety nightstand used to be cluttered with beer bottles and paraphernalia, ashy residue, and empty cigar wraps, a stark contrast to the clean composite wood table he now lays his phone on to charge before he goes to bed, right next to his easel stand wedding photo with “Forever” emblazoned above the image. Christian usually silences his device or puts it in sleep mode before slipping into bed, but not last night, no, he’s been anticipating incoming messages, deriving joy every time his phone lights up and purrs, basking in digital affection. And he wants to savor every notification; today, he needs to feel validated.
The allure of stimulation within arm’s reach becomes too much, interrupting his reminiscence, so he pounces for the initial dosage of dopamine, grabbing his phone with immediacy as he falls back into bed.
“Happy Birthday Christian,” the top banner reads, listed above similar messages in a hierarchical chronology; they’re obligatory texts from his sister, brother, and other distant relatives, fulfilling family requirements with minimal effort.
Yawning as he scrolls through his alerts, Christian opens his Facebook, noticing an abundance of felicitations already posted on his wall, comments from people he used to know:
“Happy Birthday, Christian!!” Jeff, an old coworker from a recruiting agency posts.
“Happy birthday, Christian!!!” his 6th grade history teacher Mrs. Gasparini comments with amplified friendliness, the antithesis of her austere attitude from decades ago when she used to give him detention for talking too much in class.
It’s captivating, really, the interminable engagement, the replenishing of red squares that pop up in the corner of his screen every time he gets a new comment, and he investigates each one, rewarded with feel-good neurotransmitters every time he clicks. The familiar names of commentors appear, but he’s more transfixed on the variance of the communications and their fluctuating punctuation. Sifting through posts and terse messages, he feels a strange affinity for the ones with superfluous exclamation points and apropos emojis, like the birthday cake, red balloons, and especially the confetti one, the potato chip-looking image that resembles a stale Dorito with glitter around it. And he hasn’t had any interactions in years with the people commenting, no, they’ve all just become digital characters from old episodes, collected profiles from different times in his life that now wish him a happy birthday every year and occasionally like a photo he shares. Which reminds him, he’s going to make a concerted effort to reciprocate the birthday wishes when it’s their turn, even though he pledges to do the same thing every year but never fulfills his promise.
Deliberating on whether he’s going to respond to every birthday comment he receives or if it’s sufficient to just like each one, he also wonders if he should match enthusiastic punctuation and emoticons in his responses, but he’s quickly distracted by his stomach growling, the thought of flavored tortilla chips lingers in his mind. He’s taken a half day from work so that’s nice, he thinks; he’s got some time to laze until having to get to the office; his wife Gabriella recommended he take a full one to enjoy his birthday, possibly get a workout in, or play a round of golf, since she has to work, but he couldn’t think of a single thing he’d want to do. He’s given up most of his hobbies to afford the nice home, have his kids Miley and Max, and check off all the other societal milestones. And if he has a shitty workout or plays a terrible 18 on his birthday, it’ll probably be just enough force to push him off the existential precipice he’s barely hanging from, a final plunge into the abyss of nothingness, succumbing to psychosis. But he’s thinking maybe he’ll give himself a break today from the self-criticism for once, let himself enjoy, if he can; but he’s not sure he’s capable of easing up the self-applied pressure, since he can’t even brush his teeth anymore without making his gums bleed.
Cooper, the Maltese, greets him in the kitchen with a wagging tail, venturing over from his floor bed, sniffing Christian’s joggers. He brushes against his leg with a firm, affectionate pass; it’s their second Maltese in the 13 years of marriage, licking its face in anticipation of breakfast, the frothy saliva milked on the little dog’s face, a dripping spit beard.
“Morning Cub, it’s my birthday,” he announces, partially anticipating a response.
“We’re getting old, buddy,” Christian quips, petting Cooper briefly before pushing the dog away, paranoid about potential pet hair sticking to his clothes and long, thin white curls gathering on his scraped Oak floor, defacing perfectionism.
Sometimes, Christian calls Cooper “Cub,” inadvertently, only because Cooper looks just like their old dog “Cub” with its same button nose and miniature teddy bear face. And they’ll probably always get another Maltese, since they’re hypoallergenic and barely shed, replacing with a copy; this way it’s like the dog never truly dies. And he knows Cooper doesn’t care if it’s his birthday since the dog is motivated by food, purely biological needs, but he’d like to think he does; Christian wants to pretend today actually matters.
Scooping kibble into the feeding bowl, the silicone one that slows down the eating process, Christian smiles and pats Cooper on the head because he can relate; he needs to slow down his own consumption and be careful devouring intrusive thoughts, or he’s going to choke sooner or later, aspirating on anxiety.
“Happy Birthday Babe, breakfast burrito in the fridge, love Gabby,” the Post-it note reads adhered to the kitchen island, the word “love” transposed with a heart sketch.
Gabriella’s scribbled script writing is an indication she was in a rush, volunteering for getting the kids on the bus in the early morning before leaving for work so he could get an extra hour of sleep. And Christian remembers the notes they used to write each other when they were first married, the love letters they left every morning, the passionate, affectionate words of two fervent sweethearts; they were longer, loving and whimsical, usually completed with at least several heart drawings, a romantic nickname, and maybe a smiley face or some cute cartoon illustration, the opposite of their current succinct notes, written with purely informative talking points to save time.
Tossing the burrito into the microwave, Christian pauses, trying to recall the preset Gabby uses for breakfast burritos. He can’t remember even though she’s told him several times, but he’ll never forget how an ex-girlfriend once told him he’d never be happy, no matter who he ended up with as she screamed at him outside the bar that summer night. Christian settles on two minutes as the safest option for the burrito and watches as it spins, observing the lopsided flour tortilla as it tumbles around on the plate. The magnetron hums as it heats his food, a dull drone that lulls Christian; his sleepy eyes mired with morning fatigue, each blink heavier than the last as he debates maybe going back to bed.
Switching on the Keurig, he inserts his favorite K-Cup, a sustainable dark roast. Steaming spurts of java sputter into the mug, trickling against the glass as he breathes in the warm mist of percolating ground coffee beans, the fresh aromatic notes of brewing ambition. He remembers a time in his life when he didn’t need caffeine in the morning to function, an epoch when he didn’t require a stimulant for motivation or the manipulation of his adenosine receptors to operate, no, just curiosity for a new day, cartoons, and cheerios sufficed when he was a kid, a simpler existence, not tethered to responsibilities. Sipping his coffee, Christian notices the empty napkin holder over by the sink; its vacant vertical design abandoned by disposable tissue, forgotten in the corner of the countertop. Hastily accessing the linen closet in the hallway, the place he keeps a stash of cleaning essentials, Christian pushes aside stocked paper towel rolls and scented plug ins to retrieve a bundle of single use napkins, unwrapping the stack of its plastic.
Returning to the kitchen, he ventures past the utensil drawer, the one that always goads him with its brushed nickel handle and interior contents, battling the abominable urge to retrieve the serrated Cuisinart knife and slash his radial artery. The thought crosses his mind occasionally, usually during Thanksgiving when he’s cutting the turkey for the family with the same knife, slicing off meat with effortless precision, swift passes made easier by its soft silicone grip. It’d be a gruesome discovery, he knows, and he’s not sure if he’s fully capable of execution, applying enough pressure to puncture his wrist; he imagines he’ll chicken out during the process, resulting in permanent damage, possibly requiring an amputation, a risk he’s not willing to take. Instead, he opens the cabinet underneath the sink, pulling out a small bin by its extendable handle to toss out the wrapper. And he doesn’t care if only 9% of plastic in the world actually gets recycled, no, he’s still doing his part and it makes him feel better, so much so that he’s almost compelled to take a selfie while tossing out the plastic with a thumbs up; maybe he’ll post it to his Instagram story as a reminder for others to recycle.
Crushing the Post-it into the crevice of his fingers, pinching with its sharp creases, Christian debates on where to dispose of the morsel since they don’t have a distinctive spot for discarding paper products, no, just a corner by the garage door where boxes build up from weekly Amazon purchases. He settles by throwing out the paper in the regular trash because it’s just a small portion, and paper products aren’t hurting the environment as much as plastic, he thinks. It’s okay, since retailers now give out paper straws with their drinks, and he hasn’t seen any blue check marks tweeting about saving the trees in a long time. Besides, his primary focus is replenishing the napkin holder and then turning on his Roomba vacuum, that’s most important, really, because if he doesn’t refill the functional device or ensure his floors are spotless, it could lead to a slippery slope, a lack of tidiness and order, real entropy, and it starts with not refilling tissue paper or cleaning the house. Then it escalates into arguing with people in the comment sections, not paying bills, and not stopping at red lights or for pedestrians crossing the street. And eventually it leads to taking all the expired prescription pills and old cough medicine the family acquired from over the years that still sits in the medicine cabinet, like the entire bottle of leftover Benzonatate, just to see what happens.
“Michael Leonard posted on your timeline,” the alert reads, commanding attention from the countertop as Christian takes a bite of his lukewarm burrito.
“Happy bday bro, enjoy!”
Michael’s not really his brother, it’s just a term of endearment, and Christian blanks on the person, unaware of anyone with two first names. Snatching his device with vigor, an energetic curiosity that’s almost thwarted by three incorrect attempts at unlocking his phone, he types his six-character password too fast for it to register. His greasy fingers slide off the numbers, but he prevails, finally, checking the friendship history. He uncovers that Michael is really Mike Adler from high school, and he’s a realtor now, using an alias, a more prestigious name, like a Hollywood actor, the type of accredited personality people trust to help buy and sell homes. And before Christian can glance at the 30 plus pictures that Mike’s wife Elyse recently uploaded of their new baby lying on a monthly milestone mat, he receives a birthday e-card from Aunt Debbie. His Gmail banner redirects as he accidentally taps the notification; Muenster cheese chunks drop from his mouth; egg droplets splatter against his screen, falling from his burrito as he scoffs down his meaty wrap, chewing with neanderthal etiquette. Wiping away residue with his thumb, smearing yoke, unintentionally clouding the bottom of his screen, he opens the pantry cabinet above to retrieve an organic heart-healthy protein breakfast bar since he’s still starving; it’s one that features adequate fiber and enough salubrious buzzwords to convince a consumer it’s healthy, regardless of the ingredients.
Chomping into the chocolate coated stick, indulging in the chalky cardboard taste, he dampens his finger to clear away the filmy glass; the high-definition fireworks burst with a heart-warming message: “Happy Birthday, Christian,” flashes in block letters against a sparkling background along with several fire emojis. It’s a real wonderful present, and he should probably thank his aunt for the eCard, send her a text, but he pulls up his Facebook feed and guzzles his coffee instead, even at its piping hot temperature, wondering what else he can eat in the fridge to satiate his hunger since he still feels so empty, what else can he consume to fill the void.
An English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper's 2020 short story "Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish" won the 'Emerging Writer’s Award' at Spank the Carp Magazine, and his short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris' work has also been featured in Hash Journal Mag, Expat Press, Bookends Review, and elsewhere. Chris recommends the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.