Happy Birthday
by Stephen Elliott

She called to wish me happy birthday at 7:30 in the morning December 3rd
I stuttered for something to say
Hearing her sweet voice drip through a phone line 3,000 miles long
I saw the desert staring at us out of the windshield of our big blue car plowing
through the American wilderness in search of work and stability
In search of happiness and success
Running away from the movies they are making in Los Angeles
And the mosquitoes on the highways of Houston
A hospital bed was still unmade
Left early
A syringe lay on a floor in a boarding house in Evanston
The engagement ring I bought her for 25 cents at a machine in Wal Mart outside
of Salt Lake city
I spent that night sitting in front of a cup of coffee during a blizzard trying not to
think while she tried to sleep beneath the comforter in the back of our big blue
car and a storm raged and spit ice onto the frozen highway of the highlands

She called to wish me happy birthday as I was getting ready to enter into my 29th
year of survival on this world
She wished I would have a happy day
She had all the good intentions a person can have
I stuttered for something to say
For words 3,000 miles long
And watched with one open eye from the living room floor as she crawled into my friend’s bedroom during Chicago’s coldest ever Thanksgiving weekend
I heard her words as she went "I have a right to be free" and I saw my friend
smiling at me, his smile saying I should understand, it’s been two years
But I couldn’t understand
I couldn’t understand anything
I stuttered for something to say
The dawn cracked against San Francisco
In D.C. she was already dressed in a black skirt
Her long legs covered in hose
A thin top with three quarter length arms
Ready to go to her first class of the day, "Criminal Law 303"
I held the phone
I saw days that should never have ended played out against a movie screen that
was far too long
Hot summers under knocking pipes
A boy with thick gelled hair sitting on our furniture in Seattle
Waiting for her with bags full of cocaine
And a gift from Victoria’s secret
And I saw the mud and the rain of Seattle for what it was, violent, paranoid and oppressed beneath her bewildered eyes that only understood what was right and what was wrong but never what was true

I waited for her during lunch hour in Chicago
A cheap flower in my hand
My pants caked with oil from a bicycle chain
I waited for her to leave her co-workers and join me for half an hour because I
was unemployed and I couldn’t stand to be alone

Without her I am only alone
She called to wish me happy birthday
I could smell her legs and feel her back stretching into a thin sweater during the
morning time
I stuttered for something to say
She said she didn’t want to freak me out
Just say happy birthday
And that she hoped my day would turn out fine
She hoped that I was doing well
Her voice was filled with memories
But not with hope
My stomach retied it’s knots and my appetite left me
I heard desperate phone calls from Moab to an unattended line
Saw letters with the wrong return address
Heard answering machines playing back erased messages
Saw computer screens filled with illicit information, email addresses broken into
Heard the rumble of a brick filled bar
Saw her stick her hand in the back pocket of that boy in Seattle as I’m coming
out of the bathroom
Felt what it feels like to want something so badly that even having it is not
enough because the want for it is so strong it consumes and cancels every other
I smelled what that felt like in a wine filled room
Drowning in the thick red soup
Swimming for pieces of bread to settle the stomach
Grasping to hold onto anything at all
To feel what it feels like to want something so bad that every other bruise heals
Like a junky that never gets sick
Until you are the curb and you need to throw up and cry so badly that you are
holding your stomach in your fists getting ready to puke through your eyeballs
Your pale skin and green lips and eyes pushing off your sweaty face,
pushing into the street
Feeling what it feels like to want something so badly that even having it is not

I held the line for what felt like a long time but really wasn’t
I heard myself saying once upon a time
I felt the soft fabric of her shoulder wet with tears
I kissed her lips for what I prayed would be the last time because I would never
make it again
I decided on survival and surrendered the rest to her
We held the phone in silence
Every possible thing there was to say ran a pattern back into itself and crashed
and ended before leaving my mouth
Perhaps she was feeling the same way
Perhaps she was unhappy too
Finally I said to her
Across 3,000 miles of phone line
Alexander Graham’s beautiful invention that allows us to hurt each other even
when we are far away
I said,
"Relationships are hard"
I paused and then I said again,
"They’re hard"


Stephen Elliott is the author of the novel A Life Without Consequences. He can be reached at  stephen.elliott@stanford.edu.