I awoke one morning to find my wheelchair had been bedecked with green and red Christmas tree baubles. It shone in the dusty light of the sun coming through my window. Careful not to knock any of the fragile ornaments to the floor, I maneuvered myself into the chair and pushed myself to the door. Cindy was at the kitchen table, her mohawk flat on the right side of her head and showing its dark roots. She was blowing on a mug of coffee in her sleeve-covered hands when she heard me and smiled, “Hey, it’s the birthday girl! How old are you now? Thirty-five? Twenty-five? You don’t look a day over seventeen!”
“How did you know it was my birthday?” I snapped, interrupting her in mid-chuckle.
“Facebook,” she replied, her smile diminishing but not disappearing. She put the coffee to her lips and jerked away. “Hot.” she explained as if I cared.
“I’m not friends with any of you on Facebook.” I protested. She changed the subject.
“We have everything you like for you today! Peanut butter cookies and milk, pink lemonade, and…” Cindy pulled a bottle of gin from below the table and grinned conspiratorially. “Also you don’t have to do any exercises today! You get the day off!”
“I want to do my exercises.”
“Oh-” said Cindy, “um, ok.” She stood up abruptly, “let me get you some breakfast first. Do you like eggs and bacon?”
I did like eggs and bacon. It was a small victory when I managed to get Shredded Wheat instead of Lucky Charms cereal as my breakfast routine, but real food was unheard of. It wasn’t just me. Cindy ate bologna sandwiches for breakfast and Henry stuck to Pop-Tarts or went out to McDonald’s. This was truly special treatment for even the willing members of the house. I felt manipulated, so I just shrugged. “Today is your day!” insisted Cindy as she pulled a carton of eggs and a lardon of bacon from the fridge.
It was clear that Cindy did not eat bologna sandwiches because she could not cook. At lunch Henry seemed as amazed as I was. He pointed out over a chicken casserole that we could eat much more cheaply and better if Cindy cooked every day. Contrary to popular belief, cereal and pop-tarts are not cheap, but Cindy was too busy talking rapid-fire about anything and everything happy and carefree that she could think of. It hurt to be so cruel to this young woman who really wanted to make me happy, but just the idea of having my birthday in captivity had brought all the emotions of being held against my will back to me. By supper, Cindy seemed at peace with my ambivalence and was happy just for the moments when she caught me enjoying myself.
Kaitlin joined us at the dinner table. “Did you like your wheelchair?” she asked. She was so quintessentially grandmotherly, I’d begun to think of Kaitlin as a grandmother figure even though she might well be younger than me. Again I was caught between politeness and assuring my captors they were not forgiven. I asked a question instead of answering, “what’s with the Christmas stuff?”
Kaitlin looked disappointed. Cindy answered “We wanted to figure out how we could make things pretty for your birthday without spending more money than I already put into food, so we pulled out the Christmas gear! I hope you don’t mind a Yule-themed birthday.”
I nodded and went back to my cheesesteak. It was so wonderful to hold food in my hands and put it in my mouth, I could not describe it to someone who has been able their whole life. When the food was finished, Cindy opened the oven and started singing “Happy Birthday to You.” She pulled on an oven mitt and pulled out fresh peanut butter cookies as the whole room joined in the singing. I was surprised to notice Henry was just as into it as everyone else.
“Who wants milk with their cookies, who wants pink lemonade? Grandma, do you want Gin or should we save it for after?”
Oh my goodness, it had been time for gin for the past two months. “I’ll have it now. With the lemonade. One part each. There’s a mixer on top of the refrigerator.” I’d noticed that mixer on my second day. Cindy’s face lit up. She made the drink exactly as I had requested, filling my water glass to the brim and pouring the rest for herself. “To Grandma.” she raised her glass for a toast. “To Grandma.” agreed the group, me included.
Over the tinkling glasses in front of me I saw a man standing in the doorway. He had long, brown hair and an unkempt beard, and was wearing a T-shirt with a sparkling horse on it. “Ella!” exclaimed Cindy. “Come, have some of this amazing mix drink! Pink lemonade and gin! Does it have a name? I really wanna call it ‘the Angry Grandma’.” I made a mental note that Ella was transgender to avoid embarrassing myself in the future.
“Cindy,” interrupted Ella. Everything had stopped. The jovial atmosphere was gone; All eyes were on Ella. She blinked and stumbled, then regained her balance. “I did it.”
“What did you do, Ella?” I asked, and suddenly all eyes were on me.
“Grandma,” said Cindy with a sudden flame of earnestness, “We are going to come right back and finish this, ok? We won’t let you drink alone.”
I wish you would let me do anything alone I thought, but instead I said, “Let me come too.”
The room was already empty. Kaitlin was there. “I have very much enjoyed having you here,” she said, patting me on the shoulder before she made her way out after them and up the stairs. Even as strong as I was I couldn’t follow them up the stairs. There were stairs going down from the porch, too. If I tried to escape I’d be more likely to topple over and start this whole physical therapy business over again than have any success.
So I sat with a plate of peanut butter cookies in front of me and a gin and lemonade. An “Angry Grandma.” I took a sip. It was the best thing I’d tasted in two months. The cookie was similarly divine. My drink was gone, and in a moment so was the one that Cindy had left. The plate of cookies dwindled rapidly until I felt so full and tired that I wheeled myself back into my room, stumbled onto my bed, and went to sleep.