Feliz Cumpleaños · Clara Ronderos

No more fear, she thought. It was a feeling she hadn’t experienced before. But that day, as she prepared to have all of them over to celebrate her fiftieth birthday - “it took me half a century” she thought - she realized the dread she felt as she was calling each of her siblings to invite them to her celebration. She should have expected them to organize or offer to give her a birthday party or an invitation to dinner at a restaurant. She deserved their love. They owed her. And yet, as she dialed each number, the familiar tightness in her stomach came gradually, stronger as the numbers beeped and the voice at the other end was about to answer. Her throat felt dry when the voice came and she causally invited each of them. “I am going to celebrate my own birthday, be sure to come; something simple, just to share this moment with you.” “Nothing fancy, no gifts,” she said to the next one, and so on. By the third call, she knew it. It had to be fear. A fear they would recognize and use against her. She remembered the subtle comments about the way she looked, the jokes about her friends or her love of music. She knew for sure it had been her kitten-facing- a-huge-dog kind of fear that had enabled this behavior ever since she was a girl. Her need for love and recognition had forced her to desperately follow their lead and bow her head to all their affronts. But now, she would do it no longer, she told herself. She had seen the face of fear. She had clearly felt its grip taking hold of her body as the idea of the party became reality with the accepted invitations, call after call.

She hung up after the last of her brothers had been reached. Went to the kitchen, looked in her fridge and thought about what she would cook. She could see them coming in, like hunters smelling their prey. Only this time it would be different. Wine, cheese and some crackers would be on the table, self-serve. No whiskey for Karl, no special butter for Jim, no sweets for Marjorie and her kids. One size fits all, she would say to them. Relaxed, she would pour the wine; only red, her favorite. After all it was her celebration, not theirs.

Satisfied with this resolution, she went back to her bedroom ready to go to sleep. Taming fear did not seem so difficult just then. Maybe facing it had been the hardest. She didn’t need protection. She would protect herself. In the mirror, she saw determination and a new light in her eyes, those proud eyes now staring back at her were not afraid, boldness was their new language.

The morning of the party was frantic. Flowers had to be bought and the house had to be cleaned. The furniture was rearranged several times, seeking the most comfortable sitting for a large group in her small apartment. “There it is again” she thought, and stopped. She would not let it grow stronger this time. Let them sit however they can. Let them shuffle the chairs and find their comfort themselves. It was not her responsibility to provide it. She sat for a while, staring at the wall where a picture hung. She had loved that picture and had to buy it: a woman at the end of a cliff, reaching out for a flying tree, it seemed to her that this image was a metaphor for her entire life, reaching out, about to fall, but hoping for that rescue, something that would save her, lift her away. Now it was time to stand still. Gravity pulled her to earth, to the chair and, breathing deeply, she took a hold of herself. No more fear. That was today’s motto. She would set the table piling the dinner plates in a corner, the glasses and wine glasses arranged in a neat row, at an angle of the other corner. The flowers in the middle would show care but not an excessive need to please. Three, maybe four kinds of cheese for different tastes, crackers and French bread, a salad, seemed polite but not desperate.

In the bathroom mirror she looked at herself again seeking the light in her eyes. She found the sparkle. She lit it to a full-fledged fire, strength that would allow her to show kindness and restraint, relaxed enjoyment, fondness without the weakness of the last forty-nine years.

All of them had confirmed. “A direct consequence of my nonchalant invitation,” she thought. The usual excuses and remarks about: “be sure to buy enough, your dinners are always skimpy” or “I would love to come but my important friend so and so is in town” did not appear this time. In a couple of hours the apartment would be crowded and noisy. She breathed in the peace of that moment, let her mind wander and took sips of her first glass of wine. Fifty years she had been a part of this family and she had never been able to do this before. No fidgeting, no last minute ideas on how to make things better, just the quite enjoyment of her resolution; she felt like she was at the center of a new universe that had been somehow hidden all this years or maybe, it had just been created.

The doorbell rang for the first time at seven, the time she had invited them. It didn’t ring again. All of them arrived, one after the other before she had time to close the door, a true invasion. Hellos and hugs, laughs and mingled conversations filled the room. From the kitchen, she heard them. The din of their usual discussions on politics, the uninteresting family gossip, inane complaints about the state of the roads or the behavior of their maids reached her like a familiar murmur. “What about this could have been so scary?” she thought, as she walked out again with a smile on her face and a platter of fruit (a last minute addition) in her hands.

Clara Eugenia Ronderos is a Colombian-American writer. She is a Professor of Spanish at Lesley University. Her recent publications include The Poetry of Clara Eugenia Ronderos: Seasons of Exile (Lewiston NY, Edwin Mellen Press, 2015), Mary. G. Berg’s translation of her prize-winning collection Estaciones en Exilio (2010) as well as Ábrete Sésamo Torremozas, Madrid: 2016) (short stories), De Reyes y Fuegos (Torremozas, Madrid: 2018) (poetry), Después de la Fábula, (Verbum, Madrid: 2018) (poetry) and Agua que no has de beber (short stories) (Alción, Córdoba, Argentina: 2019).