Thirty-Four Candles (One for Good Luck)

by Kristen Evans

She sits in the kitchen, a barren stare filming her face, a stack of opened cards and letters beside her as she watches the candles die. On the table is a birthday cake with cloyingly sweet icing, the flames consuming the bright candle wax.

The hands on the wooden clock move mechanically, grinding out the moments, sonorous as they click into place. She wishes they would shut up. The little gold hand alternates between flying and trudging as the bright candles shrink. He would have commented on the subjective nature of time, pushed the glasses up the edge of his nose and launched into a full-blown discourse on the laws of physics, sounding for all the world like an old man even though they were nearly the same age. She wishes he were here to do so; then she wonders if wishing that is wrong. She knows she’s not expected to act like she’s happy he’s dead, which is great, given that she’s decidedly not, she’s never felt so empty in her life, but should she really mourn him with the sorrow of a wife when she isn’t—wasn’t—anymore? Though her mother and grandmother taught her how to display her emotions honorably when she was younger, they never succeeded in getting her to control them. This is a situation they could not have prepared her for, and she feels the weight of that. Do not shame your family. Do not make a scene. She knows, given these past few months, that she has inadvertently done both. Just her luck.

Luck. She has never really believed in it. Certainly not the way her grandmother does. She remembers being young and visiting her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Japan, filled with trinkets and prayer flags and tiny gold cats with beckoning paws as constant, almost, as a clock. Her grandmother, like many women of the country, had been obsessed with superstitions, never sleeping with her head facing north, never writing anyone’s name in red ink, never sticking chopsticks upright in a bowl. And, when things went wrong, she was always blaming it on numbers or spirits or omens of death. Even, a few times, on the victim’s yakudoshi: on their being thirty-three years old.

Yakudoshi. It’s a ridiculous tradition but here it’s taken seriously, stemming from a coincidence in which the Japanese words for forty-two and thirty-three sound like “death” and “misery” respectively. Forty-two year old men and thirty-three year old women are supposedly at the peak of troubles in their lives. Death for men. Misery for women. She had always found the idea painfully stupid. Part of growing up in Hawaii rather than Japan, as her parents had, she supposed, was putting less stock in common superstitions. But now… she’s beginning to wonder.

The stack of cards beside her now are an odd mix of celebratory and apologetic. Several, painted in sickly colors with large letters wishing her the best are scattered on the table, read and then discarded. She leans forward past the cake and picks one up. It’s meant to be funny, in the way store-bought cards often are, though the joke falls flat as she reads it. There are bonsai plants on the front, crudely drawn, with drinks held in their branches. The inside reads “‘Tree’ cheers for your yakudoshi!” He would have hated the bad pun. She knows she does.

She met him at the Obon Festival when she was fifteen, at the celebration of harvest and ancestors. She can still remember the night in almost perfect detail, can see the white and blue flowers of her kimono, feel the huge turquoise ribbon weighing down her back. She felt dainty and feminine and old. Giant paper lanterns were strung across the courtyard while her neighbors and friends danced in circles under the brilliant colored lights. As she whirled, paper fan in hand, he approached her, complimented her dress. Even now, eighteen years later, she remembers how the sweet scent of andagi clung to his skin.

The wax drips onto the white ridges of the frosting as she picks up the next card. The outside is gold and white with “Our deepest condolences” written in cursive. She doesn’t open it. What could they have to say to her that she hasn’t already heard?

She remembers being eighteen and in love and sitting on the beach beside him, their toes digging into the cool damp sand, their hands clasped under the sun-rising sky, colored orange and crimson across the water. In a burst of raw honesty, she had told him how afraid she was of losing him. Silence had prevailed for one terrifying moment. Then he rolled onto his side and kissed her, and promised he would never, ever leave.

A tinny chime fills the hungry house as the clock strikes the half hour. She resists the urge to get out of her chair and smash it to pieces.

It’s strange to her that she can turn thirty-three, an age she’s assured is still the prime of her life, and he can die in the same week. Interesting that, though her wedding ring is now discarded, the skin smooth on her fourth finger where it rested for years (though she was tempted many times to remove it), her friends still send her the condolence cards. He doesn’t belong to her. Didn’t. Didn’t belong.

Falling out of love, she learned, was almost as easy as falling into it, only it was a much less pleasant plummet with a more splenetic surface to land on. She remembers going to the hospital with him near the end of his life and worrying, sure, but mostly feeling cross that she had to wait for so long. What a perfect waste of a Sunday. She remembers, too, months before, when she realized she didn’t love him anymore and had the sneaking suspicion that he might feel the same. At eighteen, she would have wept for hours. She did at thirty-two, of course, but discreetly. He had grown ever sicker, and then he had died, and part of her (shut up) had been grateful to not have to go through a divorce, to have an easy (but so terribly permanent) way out. Maybe it was easier this way. No less terrible, for sure, but easier. She still wasn’t sure if her tears had been from a broken heart or nostalgia.

Because she remembers the good things, too. A thousand kisses, spread over the years, kneading floury bread dough together in their first home, teaching him to surf (despite growing up on the island, he had somehow never learned), their brain-tired conversations touching on the immaculate infinities, their feet tangled together on cold days. None of it will ever happen again. Maybe, she thinks, there’s something to this ‘unlucky year’ thing, after all.

Now the cake is no longer a cake but a slanting ruin dressed in hot wax. The candles are low. If she doesn’t do something, the whole thing will probably catch on fire. That might be nice. Maybe it will shut the clock up. She leans forward, closes her aching eyes, and blows. Clouds of smoke rise up as the fire putters out.

The pile of cards sits still, beckoning silently, and then the hand on the clock moves again, throwing her headfirst into the tireless long troglodytic years.