The Birthday Present | 451life

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The Birthday Present

A short story by Lucy Foley

She lies in bed. Through the window the sky is white, as though pasteurised of colour. She is twenty-one, in Paris.

Yesterday they stepped from the train into the morning, blue-cold like a veil drawn over everything. She had a new scarf for this: grey and soft as a kitten’s ear. They could not check into their hotel until later — he had called ahead, the receptionist was unyielding — so they stopped for breakfast in a pavement cafe. It was so like postcards and book jackets, the place, that she herself felt strangely unreal. For a capsizing second she was sure that something — the cafe, or the two of them, or perhaps Paris itself — had to be a fiction. She tried to find a way to tell this to him, but concluded that it was too odd. If she could make him feel it, well, that would be different. But words… too blunt and clumsy. Besides: a year. Still too early to be nakedly oneself.

She had a tartine, coffee. When his order came it repulsed her; the bread stuck in her throat like childhood broccoli. The sausages were maggot-white, flaccid-looking. And so many of them. Had she seen a fissure of unease in him, too? Had he understood they would be like this, ordering in his schoolboy French? She thought not, though she also knew that he would never admit it. Saucisson, he must have seen, and that would have seemed familiarity enough. He proceeded robustly, with long draughts of coffee. When he finished (a queasy smile) she felt someone should cheer. Normally they would laugh about it. But here, somehow, on this special occasion, there isn’t space for that.

She had been warned about the size of hotel rooms in this city, but she hadn’t really understood. She doesn’t think he had either. When they were shown into the room she had felt an awful pity for him, watching her. She wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter. It could not matter less. But to say so would be to acknowledge that there is a shortcoming. If they survive this, these two days, then perhaps they will be able to joke about it in years to come. How many years? Two, perhaps, for the sting to be gone. And she will wait for him to mention it.

In an effort to save the situation they had fallen together onto the bed and it had screeched off its bearings and they had laughed but then she had laughed too long and too loud, and desire had fled the room.

It was only when he had gone to use the bathroom that she had realised the door to the bathroom was a curtain, not a door. The stream of his urine had echoed with almost preternatural loudness. She began to consider, warily, whether he might be doing it on purpose. Did he want her to listen? Something he had kept hidden until Paris, until the threshold of her twenty-first year?

To make certain she wore the mask of a card shark as he re-entered the room: blank-eyed, all-seeing. She found in his face a reassuring bashfulness.

In the afternoon they went to the Picasso house. She stood for some time before La Célestine: the pleasurable horror of it, like ice held against the tailbone. And the line drawings, which hurt her with their simplicity. He appeared behind her, suddenly, and she sensed he had a gambit prepared. I could do that. She felt an unfair foreboding of irritation.

Don’t say it.
‘I think I might go and sit outside for a bit.’
‘Are you alright?’
‘Yes, fine. Just got a bit hot in here.’

It was only after he left her that she realised he was still wearing his jumper. Weird. When she walked into the courtyard he was sitting on the bench and his eyes were closed. Was he… asleep? His eyes came open as she stood before him and he smiled and she forgave him everything, even the remark he hadn’t made.

Look at him. He is beautiful. A shock in a man, indecent, almost. And so kind. She does not deserve him.

A shower. He towelled her hair dry. A taxi booked to the surprise restaurant — because their hotel, well, isn’t really in Paris. As they stepped out into the night he had listed against her. She had turned and seen the oddness in his face.

‘I’m just going inside. I’ll only be a minute. Tell the guy to wait.’

She had found him, ten minutes later, behind the bathroom curtain, curled over the bowl.

A dreadful night. The bathroom, that fucking curtain. The soles of his feet comically pink in the gap beneath it. She had mixed him a rehydration solution from the kit her mother had furnished her with. He had waved it away; it wouldn’t stay down. She felt useless as a child. He had asked her to put her headphones in, find something that would drown him out. She owed it to his pride, she supposed. But she couldn’t do it. It was important, somehow, to suffer it too.

She turns from the white morning. So tired that she feels drunk, as though the night before had been soused in champagne after all. At her movement the bedding crackles with static. He is spreadeagled, open-mouthed, breath a little stale — hardly surprising — an unwholesome heat coming off him. His arm is thrown above his head like a surrender. The sheets have marbled the soft skin with pink.

His gamble: kamikaze brave. He has done all this for her and none of it, none of it, has been what it should have been.

This feeling, as she continues to look. More dread than joy. A weakening, an opening in the chest. Like the moment just before one is about to weep.

She had thought it would come in a revelation, holy light to the prophets.
This, this is as much something lost as something gained. A yielding of sovereignty.
No one speaks of this. She hadn’t known this is how it would be.
But it is, isn’t it?

Lucy Foley's new novel The Invitation is published by Harper Collins.