‘On Her Birthday’ – Gabriella Muwanga

Derek brushed his fingers over the piano keys and pressed down with a confidence that would befuddle Mozart. The sweet melody of the piece he played rose into the air and penetrated the crowd like a wild bull in search of a red flag-bearing matador. He smiled when he looked up over the grand piano and saw Andrea in her wheelchair smiling at him from the front row. He played at Femy’s café and restaurant every weekend but this one was special and it was all because of the bright-eyed sixteen-year-old ebony beauty that smiled keenly up at him as he delivered the birthday song he had taken such trouble to write. He was sure she would laugh that mesmeric ditty she possessed when he regaled her with the hilarious tale of how he had penned his piece over a cup of cold coffee and the disturbing view of two dogs expressing their coital ardor for each other. He forced himself to tear away from her gaze and refocused on the piano- they would definitely have their time. His performance had risen to a fearsome crescendo and beneath the music he could hear the murmurs from the crowd begging him for sweet release. Again he smiled. They would all be there soon.

Femy’s café and restaurant erupted in raucous applause when he was done. He descended the stage amidst whispers of ‘well done’ s and zealous handshakes, patrons eager to gaze upon the handsome face of their entertainer that evening, blocking his view of and his way to Andrea. Once he was through with the general niceties, he was ready to join his date for the night. She had excused herself to a corner table with a great view of the room. It was a quaint little table with a linen table cloth that was expertly adorned with lilies-Andrea’s favorite flower- and sweet smelling lemon grass in a clear, molded glass vase. Derek was feeling pretty proud of himself when he sat down for dreaming up this ingenious set up for Andrea’s birthday. Her bald head reflected a small streak from the dim lighting in the café. Her eyes were sunken and her lips way too dry for comfort but her clear, dark skin had a youthful sheen that the chemotherapy had been unable to eradicate. She grinned widely at him.

“I had no idea you could play that well,” she told him excitedly.
“Neither did I!” he brought his hand to his mouth, parodying a gesture of shock, “it must be you little girl. Where do you get such powerful magic?”

“You do realize that I am not nine years old Dr. Jjagwe. Your jokes need to catch up,” she said while she expertly suppressed a giggle. Derek shot her a playful stare then reached over the table to hold her thin hand. She had only been his patient a few months but he felt as though he had known her much longer. She had an energy he had seen nowhere else before and had taken to her predicament with bravery. He had seen many a grown man crumble when they received the diagnosis she had but that little missy sitting across from him had been a rock from the beginning; a stronghold for her poor mother who seldom smiled and often cried after that fateful day. For this reason, he felt no guilt that he had smuggled her out of the hospital to have an experience on her birthday. She deeply deserved a day away from the drab rooms in the Cancer institute with their small, shuttered windows and bleached curtains; rooms rich with the smell of disinfectant and loud with the screams of death.

“Doctor,” she called. Derek was yanked from his reverie. He realized with a smidgen of mortification that he had been staring and holding Andrea’s frail hand much too tightly. If there had been any qualms before about ethical lines he might be crossing, they had worn hats and graduated to certainties.

“He wants to take your order,” she continued, drawing his attention to the short, stout young waiter holding his notebook and pen expectantly. The young waiter wore a cream shirt and a coffee brown apron that was cinched much too tightly at his broad waist. Plastered on his face was a well-rehearsed smile that gentled his harsh facial features. Silently, Derek wondered how long it had taken his employers and himself to achieve such a frighteningly polite visage. He picked up the menu and browsed briefly before saying,

“I’ll have a bowl of chicken soup and fresh fruit punch to start then I’d like the steak medium rare, Spanish rice and mushroom sauce.” The waiter jotted all this down quickly and walked away.

“Did you order?” Derek asked Andrea. She was rubbing her neck in that way she did when she was uncomfortable. She simply nodded in affirmation and gave him a weak, reassuring smile. Her eyes were red now and her lips twitched at the corners as though she was biting down on her lower jaw. She was in pain. He could recognize that almost as easily as he could recognize his own hunger to take it away from her. She couldn’t continue with the chemotherapy, a fact she was not yet aware of. It was too expensive for them and her mother was at her wits end about it. The hospital wasn’t interested in sponsoring her treatment and she wasn’t poor enough to draw the pity of philanthropists and well wishers with deep enough pockets. Unbeknownst to her as well was the fact that Derek had been shouldering the bulk of her treatment for the last month and it had left a gaping hole where his savings had once been. He couldn’t do it any longer and for a moment, it filled him with gut sinking guilt to even look at her. He shook his head in a bid to shake off his negative thoughts. This was supposed to be a happy day for Andrea’s sake.

“Are you alright?” he asked the question he already knew the answer to.

“Just a little tired Dr. Jjagwe. Nothing a nice, warm meal and a bit of fresh air can’t fix,” she replied in a manner that made her seem older than her tender sixteen years. Derek had been an oncologist for only two years, a novice in his own right, and he had witnessed firsthand how cancer ages a person. It had sprinted past nature and transformed a sweet young girl into a young woman resigned to her fate.

“I imagine this isn’t how you pictured spending your sixteenth birthday,” Derek said. He figured small talk was a better alternative to the dark thoughts that were brewing in his mind and the sad ones he expected were fighting against Andrea’s resolve. The statement brought a smile to her face and revealed a small dimple at the corner of her lower lip.

“I would have been at school. Probably would have had class all day…nothing close to this fancy dinner,” she said, “and I would have been the victim of a pinching ceremony at the end of my day.” Andrea breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“I’m honored to be a part of the upgraded version of your birthday scenario,” Derek quipped. Andrea concurred and blessed the statement with her aforementioned mesmeric laughter. He hoped for more of those tuneful doses as the night went on.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Andrea said sincerely, not a hint of laughter left in her voice. He felt a clenching in his chest as emotion gripped his heart, a feeling he mentally likened to a house being enveloped by a tornado. This just in: he had become too attached.
The two carried on a light banter. To any on looker, it looked as if a young girl was having a quiet evening with her dotting big brother; sharing hearty laughter as they waited to be served the evening special. The waiter returned with Derek’s starter but held nothing for Andrea.

“Will her order be ready soon?” Derek asked politely.

“The young lady didn’t want anything,” the waiter answered before walking away. Derek regarded Andrea for a while. One would think he was waiting for her to come up with a viable excuse.
“You need to eat,” he said finally.

“I don’t know if I can keep it down,” she confessed. She slumped her shoulders and all the animation that had built up in her drained out. It was replaced by a forlorn look and a cloud of looming angst.

“You can’t know if you don’t try Andrea.” Big brother had disappeared and the clinician’s coat had been firmly draped over his shoulders. He lifted the bowl of chicken soup that the waiter had deposited in front of him and placed it on Andrea’s end of the table.

“Have some of this. It will be good for your appetite.” Derek’s tone was gentle but firm. He fully intended to have her fed by night’s end and Andrea could sense his determination. With a shaky hand, she lifted the spoon off the table and dipped it into the chicken soup. She frowned at the mixture of aromas that assaulted her senses as she brought the spoon closer to her mouth. She could smell onion and garlic riding on the dominant bouquet of chicken. The odors seemed to consume her and offset her fragile insides. She sucked in her cheeks and swallowed hard in order to suppress her gag reflex but when the spoon touched her lips, her body betrayed her mind.

As Derek watched in horror, she heaved and spewed forth her stomach contents into the bowl of chicken soup. Once she started, there was no turning back. Her body was retching and she was straining out of her wheelchair, her eyes pleading to him. She wanted to stop but couldn’t. Her eyes spoke to him of the abasement she felt because she had drawn attention to herself. Sure enough, people on their side of the café had witnessed the turn of events and a few were kind enough not to pay too much attention.

Derek pushed back his chair and stood up. He took one large step to her side of the table and carried Andrea out of her wheelchair. The side of the café where he had spotted the ladies’ washrooms would be hard to navigate with a wheelchair the tables had been too close together. Carrying her in his arms would be a faster way to get her to the washrooms and presently he walked briskly in that direction, Andrea almost weightless in his arms.

On his way to the washroom he had seen the waiters leave the kitchen with a cake alight with candles. They had sung melodiously the common birthday congratulatory tune, marching in a merry line to an empty table. They had been completely oblivious to the young birthday girl being whisked away to cover shame she shouldn’t have been feeling. Neither did they pause in their jollity to see the same young girl being carted away to an uncertain fate in an awaiting ambulance. They were waiting on a happy, fresh sixteen-year-old girl and that feeble young girl in the wheelchair wasn’t it. In a haze, he stood and watched the ambulance drive away, knowing full well what he would have to face in the morning…whom he would have to face in the morning. He spied the waiters eating cake and it niggled. He therefore didn’t feel dark at all when he thought of the waiter on clean up duty and sported a mirthless smile.

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