This story is by Ermina Veljacic and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rina hangs her bookbag on her chair. Mr. Nowak’s voice is heard in English, but processed through her mother tongue, Serbo-Croatian. He calls roll and takes no care to pronounce her last name right. Again. The sixth-grade classroom fills up fast. Rina had never seen so many different looking kids in one room. She’d also never imagine celebrating a birthday in America. Mr. Nowak directs students to sing the “Happy Birthday to You” song.
“Why is everyone staring at me? I feel sick.” She sinks in her seat, tucking her legs under the chair.
“You are lucky.” Nicole teases her. “My birthday is in the summer.”
“I’ll miss you in the summer.”
“Then be happy we can hang out now. I’ll come over after school to help you celebrate.”
“Time for math,” says Rina. She’d attend three different schools in two years, but the fundamentals of math never changed.
“What kind of birthday cake will you have?”
Rina shrugs her shoulders.
“Funfetti was my favorite until I tried red velvet cake last year.”
“Ladies, would you like to share your important side conversation with the entire class?”
Both girls look away from Mr. Nowak, at their notebooks. “No thanks,” Rina mumbles.
Nicole passes a note to keep the conversation going. “What’s your birthday wish?”
Rina raises her arm to signal a restroom break. She stuffs the note in her pocket as she walks behind the teacher’s desk to grab the pink bathroom key. Rina enjoys walking through the empty hall, extending her hands across the ridges of each locker.
A security guard notices her. “Don’t make lollygagging a habit here, young lady.”
Rina remains silent. The thought of walking past the woman frightens her. She signals she’s headed back to class and turns the corner. An ache starts deep in Rina’s gut. She recalls the armed guards not letting anyone relieve themselves in privacy, so she’d learn to hold her pee for hours at the camp.
Mr. Nowak erases the chalkboard, signaling the end to the day’s learning and uneasiness. Near the entrance cars had double parked in the middle of the one-way street. Rina walks slowly, trying not to step on a crack to avoid breaking her mother’s back. Nicole taught her the superstition and rhymes of elimination like “bubble gum, bubble gum, in the dish.” The friends tiptoe together, stumbling, knees high each step along the way to the corner where Rina’s mom waits for them to walk home together.
“Hey,” says Nicole, “Where’s the balloons and decorations?”
“Our homework will not do itself,” Rina responds, ignoring the question. “Remember to take your shoes off.”
The small apartment had a ragged leather sofa and loveseat covered in plastic that stuck to skin on hot days. There was a built in entertainment center that had many shelves lined with photographs, perfect attendance awards, and “Student of the month” bumper stickers. A large gold framed painting adorns the wall next to a poster of a man who looks like Santa Claus without a beard. The room smelled of cigarettes, but the ashtray on the round tablecloth with crochet floral, geometric designs, that covered the rustic wood coffee table was empty. Sun cut through slits of the embroidered white drapes.
The apartment complex, where the family moved earlier that summer, sits across the street from Nicole’s bungalow. Her family spends summers at their lake house in Rhode Island. The girls met on the first day of school and later learned they were neighbors.
Rina sits next to Nicole on the floor. They rest their elbows on the coffee table. The crochet tablecloth digs into their skin and creates an outline of the design. They spend most of the time laughing as they tackle assignments. Rina’s mom doesn’t say a word when bringing out a tray of snacks.
“What’s this? It smells burnt,” Nicole says.
“Smoked beef. ‘Suho meso’ in Bosnian.”
“Salty. I like it.” Nicole looks up at the time.
“I need to get home before my dad comes looking for me.”
“I didn’t realize it was late,” Rina says.
Nicole attempts to put her shoe on while balancing on one foot.
“Ballet classes are finally paying off,” she says right before losing her balance and tumbling into the wall.
“The graceful part will catch up with you soon.”
They laugh and embrace each other with a hug. Rina’s family doesn’t show affection. Though she knows deep down she is loved, her family rarely expresses it in words, hugs or quality time. Nicole’s hugs make bad days better, especially today.
“Wait, we didn’t cut the cake.”
Rina had tried to avoid the topic all day. Her father, a truck driver, was on route to Texas. She had not seen him in two weeks. After picking her up from school every day, Rina’s mother tends to her baby sister, practices daily prayer, sets dinner for Rina’s five siblings, prepares their clothes for the next day, and stays posted near the phone in case Rina’s dad finds a payphone at a truck stop. Rina thought his voice would be her birthday wish if she was to have one. But she knew there would be no time or money for cake.
Nicole runs to the fridge and swings the door open before Rina could say another word.
She looks in the fridge. “There’s no cake. Do you have two fridges?”
“You need to get out of the kitchen before my mom sees you in the house with shoes on and kills me for it.”
“Dying on your birthday? How historic would that be?”
“Do you not have a cake for your birthday?”
Tears tingle in Rina’s eyes as she gazes down at the floor.
“My mom wants it to be a surprise,” she tells her in a whisper.
“She wants it to be a surprise for my dad. He comes home tonight. Remember, I told you he drives trucks far. She’ll go get the cake soon.”
“Ah, she probably didn’t put up any decorations yet to not spoil the surprise.”
“You got me on a slice for tomorrow?” Nicole asks.
“Don’t I always got you?”
“And you know I always got you, too. Thank you for being you. Happy birthday, girl.”
Rina blows a kiss and closes the door. She takes two steps back, sinks to the floor and inhales a whimper. Her eyes swell up with tears. This time she can’t stop them as they drop down to her cheeks. The anniversary of her birth isn’t a celebration. It is more painful than death.