I was going to have Michelangelo’s bake you a huge cassata birthday cake with multiple tiers, and hollowed out in the middle so I could jump out and surprise you, but then I asked myself—am I what you would choose to have pop out of a cake? Might you prefer a cuddly puppy, a younger man, a woman for a change, a pile of money? Or perhaps you’d prefer to have nothing coming out of the cake at all, but rather, a small step ladder to climb inside the hollow and disappear with a wave and a wink— through a window, through a wormhole. Is there somewhere else you’d rather be? Is there someone else you’d rather be? This is why birthdays have always been so hard for us—we shop for presents, we fail, then we end up going out to dinner at L’Albatros where dozens of tables support uneasy couples defaulting to their devices, a place where it’s perfectly acceptable to look like you are still getting to know your partner of two weeks or two years or two decades.
Is it strange that President’s Day makes me think of Martha Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln, instead of George and Abraham? Martha was previously married; this I did not know. Before she was Martha Washington, Martha Dandridge became Martha Custis, then Widow Custis at age twenty-six, mother of four children (two below the ground, two above), and owner of the hundreds of slaves who worked her late husband’s tobacco plantation. By the time George Washington came courting, she’d already survived a lifetime. It’s said that their attraction was immediate. I like to think warriors recognize other warriors. Mary Todd was not married before she became Mary Todd Lincoln, but she also had four children (final tally: three below ground, one above) and she was seated next to dear Abraham at the theater when he was shot. She buried him, too. The remainder of her life was a cortège of madness and ghosts. I like to think that a warrior can read the beauty in another warrior’s scars. I like to think of scars as victory tallies etched in skin or else notched into bone and maybe the best use of this government day of rest is for us, us warriors, to sit down and count our own scars and then each other’s and wonder at how we’ve even made it this far.
Fourth of July
All that which we hate will be beaten with baseball bats, drowned in the kiddie pool, grilled with peppers and onions, blown to bits after sundown. Only then will we feel free, spilling colors against the night sky.
I didn’t get you flowers, because of the gladiators, and I didn’t buy you jewelry because of the emperor. You more than any other will understand this, because you are a student of history and it was you who told me about Caligula and how he planted spies among the colosseum’s keepers, to find out which gladiators had developed bonds between themselves, and how the emperor paid twice the usual amount of gold for duels arranged between close friends. In those days, and these days, love looked like the deliberately-slowed arc of a blade, just enough to aid the other. And those who refused to fight their dear friends were showered with roses, the worst outcome, for it meant that the crowd never wished to seem them in the arena again, and those miserable souls became slaves for life, laboring in chains within earshot of the colosseum; every roar of the crowd a fresh insult. Their names were forgotten, even to themselves. No, we are not those people. We prefer to bleed.
P.S. Do you remember how it rained on our wedding day? All the guests felt sorry for us but you laughed because you never wanted to take outdoor photographs anyway, you just wanted to dance, and you whirled around and around in the downpour with your face to the sky and my heart spilled over and the report to the emperor stated that your mascara ran and streaked your face like war paint.
Joe Kapitan writes fiction and creative non-fiction from a glacial ridgeline south of Cleveland. Recent work has appeared or will appear in Booth, Passages North, Pithead Chapel and DIAGRAM. He is the author of a short story collection, Caves of the Rust Belt (Tortoise Books).