Ellis had the same dream each night.
Her behind the wheel of a car, careening around sharp corners and obstructed paths. Even in an unconscious state, she could feel her chest tighten, her eyes distracted by the splotches of color whizzing by.
Small details changed from night to night, but never the intoxicating fear that prefaced an exhaustion that ran so deep it made her bones ache.
Tonight, she barrelled down a mountain, over a path paved by mud-caked grass blades. The sun cast a white so bright it hurt to look anywhere. Ellis squinted against it, her gaze blurred and her muscles tensed. She felt unbearably tired, overtaken by the sudden desire to crash and let herself feel nothing.
Ellis jolted awake, electrocuted by consciousness. Her body drenched in sweat, hair glued against her neck and sheets pasted to her limbs.
Daniel was beside her, facing the wall, his back freckled and pale. His snores filled the room, and she laid back down, compressing the feeling of disappointment that stubbornly expanded as she was met with the same familiarites she had come to resent.
Daniel was awake early, his back now covered in a thin undershirt. His muscles moved mechanically as he sliced peppers and onions that perfumed the air. If he were aware of her sleepless night, Ellis knew he would have hurried to her side, stroking the top of her head as if she were a dog spooked by a storm.
Instead, he offered her an omelet, his gaze quickly snapping from her back to the cutting board decorated with curves of color.
“No thanks.” Ellis slid into a barstool, staring thoughtfully at the granite countertop. It reminded her of the car she drove in her dream. She ran her hand along its cold surface, designed to look rough, as if it had just been excavated from an exotic cystalled cave.
They picked it out together, staring at rectangular slabs that hung on store walls, fluorescent lights illuminating the different finishes. Glossy, matte, semi-gloss, and a fourth option that refracted different colors at certain angles.
She was in a fog when they selected it, floating somewhere above, watching two people make decisions for their future home. A place that would ground them forever.
“El?” Onions sizzled in the skillet, Daniel’s eyebrows expectant.
“Your birthday,” his voice was chopped, cutting an unheard question into different segments. “How do you want to celebrate?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ellis clicked her tongue.
“We could do something small,” he pushed the vegetables around with an egged spatula. “Invite Henry and Violet over?”
Henry and Violet’s lives bore a striking resemblance to their own, living in an oversized house constructed with Henry’s senselessly generous salary. Ellis figured their similarities were the reason Daniel liked being around them. He enjoyed reinforcing the monotony of their lives—repeating the same exchanges with the same people.
“Sure,” Ellis said. She didn’t see the point in changing anything now.
Pleased, he smiled, plopping his omelet onto a plate—the same breakfast he made every Sunday.
Ellis’ favorite birthday was her thirteenth. She was living with her father, bouncing between her parents’ homes after they divorced, filtering in and out of their lives like a side character. The drastic time jumps kept everything shiny and new, even as she returned to the same place. The topics of whispers, the whitening of teachers’ hair, the dropping of boys’ voices.
Recently, her father had received a promotion, plucking him from his current home and dropping him in a completely new spot, as if he were a tack on a map. Ellis happily followed, grabbing the duffle that she never fully unpacked.
There was no furniture in her father’s apartment, but the kitchen had been updated with shiny new appliances that were sterile and silent. The first week, they ate from takeout containers, hunched over the countertops, using the same button on the microwave to reheat leftovers.
Every dinner without a table he apologized, and Ellis assured him that she didn’t mind. It made her feel adult, as if the lack of things surrounding them neutralized the age difference between them, as if they were in the same stage of life.
“What do you want for your birthday?” His head was buried in the fridge, rifling passed water bottles and soda cans to last night’s Thai food. He dumped a congealed pile onto a paper plate.
“I don’t know,” she said. The microwave lit up, rotating a heap of noodles. Ellis’ feet dangled from the countertop.
“Wanna have a party?”
Ellis had never had a real party before, and neither she nor her father knew what it entailed. She envisioned the color-coordinating party hats and stickered invitations candying parties she attended for girls in her school. Surveying his furnitureless apartment, she knew he was incapable of planning something of that caliber, but she didn’t mind. Any potential embarrassment she might experience would be minimal, knowing it would be forgotten as soon as she returned to her mother.
“There’s an ice skating rink down the street.”
Ellis had never been ice skating before.
“Yeah?” Her father perked up at her fast response.
She nodded. “That would be fun.”
Ellis handed out invitations stuffed into plain envelopes to people in her homeroom and some of the girls in neighboring classes, who she shared matching scabs with. The turnout was larger than she had expected, and obviously bigger than her father had accounted for, as he cut each slice of cake into two, covering its thinness with a slobbery scoop of ice cream.
He only purchased one decoration. A banner announcing her birthday with a long line of exclamation points, held up by two x’s of electrical tape. He sat on a folding chair beneath it, waving to her as their eyes met.
Ellis stood in the middle of the rink. Strangers from her school skated around her, encased in knitted scarves and puffy vests that billowed out as they whizzed by. She threw up a gloved hand, smiling back at him. He had also forgotten candles for the cake, but Ellis didn’t mind.
At this time next year, she would be back with her mother, popping up among people who would happily greet her, but not expect her to stay. She had nothing to wish for. Everything was exactly as she wanted it to be.
Her seventeenth birthday was spent in her boyfriend’s basement, surrounded by boxed Christmas decorations and unchalked pool cues. Thomas had recently quit the swim team, his muscle mass beginning to melt and his body starting to soften. He already told Ellis he loved her in an awkward whisper, her hair pushed to the side with his sweaty hand.
She had been uneasy ever since.
As soon as she arrived, they had sex on the couch, then drank from dusty liquor bottles he stashed beneath the entertainment unit that wasn’t strong enough to hold anything substantial. There was still a tag on the back, the evolution of its pricing visible through red, Sharpied slashes.
She didn’t particularly want to have sex, but sex had become a pattern she’d fallen into over the years, and boyfriends didn’t expect to not have sex as time persisted and it became a question that punctuated the end of every sentence.
The basement was cold and stale, air being pushed around by a ceiling fan that she watched closely as she laid beneath it, its blades whirring just above her head. She shivered and Thomas brushed her stomach, feeling the dip between her hip bones. His touch was excessively soft, treating her every movement with the same hesitancy as someone trying to comfort a stray dog.
She was wearing the silver necklace he presented to her in a bowed box, its heart-shaped pendant tucked neatly between her collar bones. Her fingers stroked the chain.
“Do you like it?” Blind adoration emanated from him at every angle. Ellis responded with small smiles and quiet gestures. When she had blown out a candle sunken into a cupcake, its frosting mixed with crumbs and dark dots of food dye, she was silent while he wished aloud that they would always be together. Hers was the opposite, longing to be somewhere very far away, but she touched his hand and let him kiss her.
“We have to do something. It’s your thirtieth birthday. You only get one of those.”
Violet’s voice was loud and overly insistent, coming through Ellis’ phone speaker so clearly that she could’ve been standing next to her in the master bath. Curled over her toenails, Ellis ran a Q-tip around each cuticle, smearing it with purple.
“We were planning on inviting you and Henry over,” Ellis paused. “Same as last year.”
Ellis only contemplated the celebration briefly. After she startled herself awake and boredom set in, but she avoided thinking too much about it.
“Listen, I know Daniel’s a great cook and all, but he could sit this year out, and we could go out. Some new place just opened that’s supposed to have great sushi. Wait, actually,” Violet backpedaled. “Maybe another place. You know sushi isn’t good for me right now.” The last part of her sentence hurried and hushed.
Violet recently informed Ellis that she was expecting. When she shared the news, Ellis waited for the second part of the sentence.
“Expecting what?” Ellis had asked. Her hands were distracted, dividing the bowl of salad between them.
Violet stayed silent, and Ellis froze before setting down a fork shining with balsamic vinaigrette. Around them, glasses clinked, servers refilled wine and blanketed breadsticks.
“Do you mean—?”
Violet nodded, her lipstick cracking as her face broke out in a smile. “We just found out. You can’t tell Henry I told you. We promised we would tell you and Daniel together.”
Ellis mirrored Violet’s serious expression. “Of course,” she said. “And congratulations,” she added, almost forgetting. Violet wanted to be pregnant. It wasn’t an accident that she and Henry had to adjust life plans for. They had done the opposite, planning their life to accommodate another being.
Silently, Ellis wondered if Violet was afraid of everything that came with pregnancy. Aside from the obvious torment that would ensue inside of her, she would be bound to Henry in an irreversible way. At the very least, Henry would be a good father, he had years of experience corralling Violet around, feeding her his mindless stream of consciousness in the same tone he used on dogs at the park.
Ellis rescrewed the lid of her nail polish. “I’m fine with last year’s plan,” she decided, already picturing them crowded around the living room table—Violet and Daniel on the love seat, her seated uncomfortably on the arm. “Daniel can make something everyone can eat.”
Violet sighed. “All right,” reluctance was at the forefront of her voice. “But I’m bringing you a really nice bottle of wine, even if I can’t drink it.”
Chuckling lightly, Ellis told her that would be just fine. Most things were.
With only a few semesters of college left, Ellis couldn’t sit still. During classes, she caught herself staring out windows, reminiscing over the same trees and crumbling buildings as always. Returning to the same four walls, speaking to the same faces and hearing the same voices.
She had never been in one place so long. Familiar faces didn’t welcome her presence with the same enthusiasm and curiosity as strangers in a new place. Unexplored cities and towns unfolded before her, offering up their wonder and mystery everywhere she looked, tempting her to stay.
She wouldn’t, but she enjoyed flirting with the idea, engaging in the people around her as if they had some potential to be part of her life, the mere thought laughable.
Feeling the town going stale around her—and herself with it—Ellis left, transferring her nearly-complete college credits to another university that didn’t accept them all, where she spent extra time she had, but money she didn’t.
The hole of debt she dug herself didn’t matter. An older, more mature version of herself would figure it out. She befriended Zapporah, her roommate, who crowded the coffee table with bongs that reflected the morning light like stained glass, bits of weed nestled between fibers of the beige carpet. They smoked every day, herding gray air with rolled rugs and twisted towels underneath door cracks. Cartoons played in the background, animations babbling about nothing. Time wasn’t real.
Ellis nearly forgot it was her twenty-third birthday. She did a double take at her phone. She and Zapporah were roaming the street, moving faster than the surroundings. Ellis stopped, buildings blurring as she waited for them to catch up.
“What is it?” Zapporah’s voice came out as a breath of cold air that clouded between them.
“Today is my birthday,” Ellis stared at the screen of her phone, the light illuminating her chin.
“Wait, really?” she grabbed Ellis’ shoulders, suddenly serious. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Zapporah’s earrings swung madly around her jawline, the gold glinting against the moonlight. There were goosebumps covering her arms. It was below freezing outside.
Ellis giggled. “I didn't know.” Her voice was distant when she answered, her eyes distracted by the stars above.
“Let’s celebrate,” Zapporah’s red lips curved into a mystery that would be left unsolved.
They ended up in a bar crowded with jerseyed college students, people throwing laced leather back and forth on screens. Ellis slept with the first man who approached her, inviting him back to her apartment without making him pretend to care.
After he’d fallen asleep, Ellis stayed awake, perched in her desk chair and swiveling around in the darkness, a lighter poised in her right hand. She flicked it on, staring at it like a birthday candle.
Dinner was done, scraped plates and cleanly licked forks all pushed in the middle of the table, half-heartedly stacked, as if they were waiting for a server to come by and scoop them up. Ellis had already offered to take them to the kitchen. A chorus of refusal erupted, and Henry told her to let Daniel do the heavy lifting for once, chuckling loudly at his own joke.
Ellis crossed her ankles under the table, unable to find a comfortable position. Wearing heels in her own home felt more unnatural than wearing them in public. She removed them quietly, while Henry spoke loudly about work, Daniel chiming in with stories that echoed the same themes, confirming that he, too, worked with the same people and knew them just as well as Henry.
Beside him, Violet was mostly silent, releasing the occasionally girly laugh, her eyes darting around rapidly, as if she was his support dog, offering company, but not wanting any attention herself.
Clearing her throat, Ellis placed a hand on Daniel’s. “Why don’t we open that wine Violet brought?”
He stopped mid sentence, smiling widely, his gestures and expression inflated for the occasion. “Of course—let me go grab it.”
He stood, picking up a stack of plates before he left and planting a kiss on her head, a reward.
With Daniel gone, Henry shifted the conversation to a general topic. Something about the risotto Daniel had prepared for dinner. How it was the right amount of cheesy—nothing like the macaroni his aunt brought to Christmas dinner every year that oozed Velveeta and shredded cheese.
“Here we are,” Daniel returned, tilting the bottle as if he were trying to sell it to the table, showcasing the minimalistic label and small lettering.
He sat the cork on top of a napkin, the brown dyed crimson. It glugged out, anxious for oxygen. Ellis swirled it around, imagining the molecules bouncing widely inside.
Henry cleared his throat. “Actually, we’ll only need three glasses.” His voice had an unusual pitch, one that invited questions, rather than dampening them before they existed.
Daniel hesitated, resting the bottle on the table, Violet’s glass still clear and wineless.
Ellis rearranged her expression, tensing her muscles in anticipation.
“Do you want to tell them the news, V?” Henry asked.
Violet looked down, mimicking the movements of a child being introduced to at an impromptu dinner party, a spectacle for adults.
“We’re pregnant,” she grinned, biting her lower lip.
Daniel clapped. “That’s fantastic news.”
“Wow,” Ellis shook her head, looking at her in wordless wonder. “Congratulations.” She sounded genuine now that it was her second time saying it, but their exchange was immediately stamped out as Daniel asked how much time off Henry would get for maternity leave. Pretending to throw a punch from across the table, Henry upturned his lip, sneering his teeth and booming with laughter.
A conservative sip of wine laid in Ellis’ mouth. She swallowed, her eyes meeting Violet’s across the table.
“Thanks, El,” Violet answered. No one was listening, their performance going unnoticed.
Ellis’ twenty-sixth birthday left her with a headache that forced her into a tense, gargoyle-esque position, her head cocked downward, fingertips puncturing her temples. It had taken a handful of one-word answers to ward off the waitress’ attempts at polite conversation before she hurried off.
Despite the pounding behind her eyes, Ellis was grateful for the sounds of existence around her, people transforming their monotonous Sunday into its most lively form. Wives chattering at silent husbands, waitresses inquiring about the forecast, children kicking each other under the table.
“Ellie, oh my god, I am so sorry. I’m late, aren’t I? Shit, yeah, I am. And on your birthday, too —how long have you been here?” Izzie’s voice was loud enough to compete with everyone else’s. “Hey, are you okay? You don’t look so great.”
Ellis’ hands dropped to her sides, lying limply on the cracked leather. Feeling began to return in the form of scattered pricks.
The waitress returned with an off-white ceramic mug, a drop of coffee running down the side. Ellis wrapped her hands around it, fingertips not registering the warmth.
Izzie accepted a menu she didn’t ask for, using it as a placemat for her elbows. “Seriously, Ellie,” Izzie’s voice dropped. “I got so worried when I lost track of you last night. What happened?”
Wordlessly, Ellis ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling the layer of grime beneath it.
“You lost track of me?” She stared at the droplet of coffee. “You left with a random guy.”
Although her words were filled with as much accusation as they could hold, she didn’t feel betrayed. Ellis hardly knew Izzie. She didn’t even know Isabelle went by Izzie until recently.
“Not even my parents call me Isabelle,” she’d told Ellis. She had been drunk, serving herself drinks with the regulars. Her lips were freshly glossed, split ends hidden in a french braid. Men with stubbled chins and ringed fingers called her back, and she had turned away quickly, rimming a glass with sugar.
“He wasn’t random,” Izzie said defensively.
Ellis retreated, sinking into the booth. Leather buckled under the curve of her back, similar to how bus seats behaved while driving over a bump. Ellis never minded sitting alone on rides home, even when she was forced to listen to the friendships surrounding her. The whispers of weekend plans or crinkling of shared homework.
In front of them, Ellis could still hear a woman telling her husband about the craft store’s recent closure, how she would have to drive across town just to get yarn. Her husband grumbled along politely, offering her his side of hash browns. He slid them toward her, showing her he ordered them for her.
“I actually did know him,” Izzie continued. “I saw him a few months ago, he was at this—”
Sighing, Ellis shook her head. “Look, I don’t actually care. It’s fine.”
She had used up another birthday on a complete stranger, but spending it alone had seemed unbearably embarrassing. Ellis had conjured images of herself all alone in her apartment, like a sad, watery animal waiting for an owner that she didn’t have.
Last night’s show of friendship at least created a memory that Elis could pretend to recall fondly. They swallowed mouthfuls of alcohol alongside each other and pressed their lips shut when their bodies tried to reject it. It had made her feel better.
Izzie gnawed on the inside of her cheek, but let the conversation die as the veil of their fake friendship was lifted. Clearing her throat, Izzie picked up the menu, flipping through the laminated pages.
“Let’s order some real breakfast. It looks like you could use one.” She pointed at a syrupy, dark image. “Ooh, you can get a side of bacon or sausage with this one. How about one of those?”
The couple in front of them got up to leave, their old, dimpled fingers intertwined. The plate of hash browns reduced to a few crumbs and a smear of ketchup.
“Ellie? Hello?” Izzie stuck the menu in front of her face. “The combo breakfast with some sausage? Sound good?”
Ellis hadn’t eaten meat in over a decade.
The illusion of suspense was unnecessary, and it felt a bit silly. Ellis could clearly picture him returning with a plattered cake in his hands—a marbled sponge with buttercream frosting, dyed a baby blue. A softened version of her favorite color.
“This is a nice couch,” Henry bounced up and down, the springs squeaking under his weight. “Is this new?”
“No,” Ellis moved further back on the arm, crossing her legs. “It’s the same.”
“I guess Danny never asks me to sit down when I’m here,” he chuckled.
Violet stared as a piece of nonexistent lint on the cushion, extracted it, and dropped it onto the rug. It was burgundy, rimmed with tassels. Ellis and Daniel picked it out on the same day they had studied the slabs of granite puddied to different displays. The stores were located beside each other. The transition from one to the other was effortless, as if living in a home that was perfectly customized would be any easier than anywhere else.
Daniel’s deepened voice rang out as he began singing before he turned the corner. He held a baby blue, double tiered cake balanced on a silver cake stand. Henry quickly interrupted himself to join in, and Violet—finally putting a rest to her own silence—did the same.
Setting the cake on the table in front of them, Ellis stood up, peering over the candles that lined the edges. Fine, loopy font spelled out her name and age in the center. Neither looked like it belonged to her.
Clapping ensued when the song concluded, followed by a deafening silence.
“I don’t know what to say,” Ellis said finally. “It looks great. Thank you.”
“Well,” Henry’s voice was italicized with expectancy. “Blow out the candles and make a wish.”
Small sticks of wax designed to hold an insurmountable weight stared back at her. They flickered, threads of smoke lengthening and intertwining.
Every year, Ellis made them carry more than they could—projecting blurry images and next year’s undefined outlines onto them, forcing them to make sense of all the things she didn’t want to look at herself.
She had spent the last two years looking away, confining herself to the same eggshelled rooms and staying alongside people who knew her better than anyone had, while still knowing nothing at all. She wasn’t sure when, but at some point, she had become complacent, letting time drag her along, tugging at her impatiently anytime she looked back.
Wishing to be far away, dismembered from this part of her life would be familiar and comforting.
It was a thought that expanded more every day, demanding attention. She flipped it over in her head, like a coin that refused to land anywhere but its side.
Ellis sighed deeply, feeling the air leave her chest. It coalesced with the smoke and burning in the air.
Was this what life was supposed to be?
She wished she knew.
Alexandra Persad is from a small, art-loving town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. She recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and Professional Writing and Editing. In her free time, she enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, where she explores themes of gender roles and female identity. She has been published in Barren Magazine, BlazeVOX Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Glint Literary Journal, Flare Journal, and Better than Starbucks, where her essay was nominated for the Best of 2020.