Submitted by Gwen Bristol
Rosa Martinez drove slowly into Burnside, windshield wipers swiping at stray raindrops and the dark of very early morning. She parked at the corner of North Twenty-third and Liberty, peered through the misty glass at the black sky, then slung her purse over her shoulder and stepped out into a chill breeze.
It took six strides to cross the pavement and six more to reach the row of tall cottonwoods that defined the edge of Hillside Park. Rosa’s feet crunched in the autumn leaves, and she looked back uneasily at her new car, purchased just two days ago from Montague Motors. It was the first car she had ever bought from a dealership. Luis had always bought battered used cars through the classifieds. Even with the insurance money, she wasn’t sure he would have approved. In the street lamps, the new car gleamed black, but in the daylight it was a deep midnight blue. Luis had never liked blue.
A sudden gust of wind shoved her shoulder-length curls forward around her face, and she turned back to the park. Her feet punched through the leaves as she walked, her quick, hard steps carrying her swiftly up the grassy slope. In just a few breaths she moved past the children’s playground to the picnic area. The back gate to Saint Mary’s Cemetery, where Luis was buried, was only twenty yards away. His grave would be visible from the wrought-iron fence.
For a brief moment the clouds above her parted, and the moon glinted on her hair and cheekbones. She was, at forty nine years old, three hundred sixty four days and a little more than twenty three hours, a stunning beauty—slightly plump, but still thin enough to look good in blue jeans and rounded enough to fill out the oversize sweatshirt that hung halfway down her hips. Luis had called her ‘comfortable’ the last time she had asked him how she looked. It hadn’t sounded romantic at the time, but he had been sincere, and the compliment had grown on her.
That had been three months ago, just a week before he had gone into the hospital for failing kidneys and a failing heart. Lifelong diabetes could do that to a person, especially if they didn’t take care of themselves. Sometimes she was still angry with him for sneaking carbs, for eating too much when he knew better, and for not checking his blood sugar more often. For not going to the doctor as soon as he felt ill. He was only sixty. That was too young to die.
And she was too young to be a widow.
The clouds covered the moon again just as she reached the cemetery. She scaled the back gate easily. Getting down the other side was a bit more difficult; her purse had caught on a pole. She wiggled it free and slid down into the graveyard. The grass was longer here, and the residual rain made the leaves cling to her sneakers. She really should have gone in through the front gate. It would have been easier to walk on the pavement, but that would have meant waking the caretaker, or at least calling ahead to get a key and she didn’t want anyone to know what she was up to. This was a private celebration.
Rosa wiped at an icy white metal bench with her sweatshirt sleeve and sat down, staring at the rounded granite stone that headed Luis’ grave. For a long time the only sound was the creaking of cottonwood branches high above her head and the whistling breeze. She felt colder now, and she pulled her hands inside her sweatshirt. A used napkin fluttered by. Rosa stomped on it, grabbed it and stuffed it in the outer pocket of her purse before huddling up again.
Occasionally a car passed the front of the cemetery, headlights peering blearily through the blackness, unaware that Rosa sat there, all alone, waiting. She checked her watch. Seven more minutes to go.
At precisely 3:43 in the morning, it happened. The travel alarm she carried inside her purse burst into an abrupt series of muffled beeps. Rosa smiled, fumbled with the alarm switch and shut it off. She cleared her throat.
“I’m here, Luis,” she said softly. “You promised me that you’d celebrate every birthday with me. Remember? When you first proposed, you promised that.” The wind sighed back at her, and she kept talking, pausing occasionally as if to listen for an answer.
“I’m fifty now, you know. You were going to throw a party, with black and silver balloons. And I was going to wear the black dress you liked so much. We were going to have chocolate cake with lots of dark chocolate frosting. Remember?”
Her voice caught, and she pulled a package of Little Debbie cupcakes from her purse. “This was the best I could do, Luis. I couldn’t make myself bake. It just didn’t seem right.”
The plastic snapped as she pulled the package open. “Of course, this would be much different if you were here. Isn’t it ironic that I can share cake with you now and not feel like I’m jeopardizing your health?”
She smiled, placed one of the cupcakes at the foot of his grave and munched delicately on the other, still talking between bites.
“Remember the time you bought me that race car cake from the SuperValu bakery?” A strange kind of laugh, almost a dry sob, caught in her throat. “And the time you had our girls decorate my cake, and there were so many sprinkles on it that every bite crunched—remember that?”
Every bite brought back a memory. On her thirty-second birthday Luis had taken the day off and spent it with her. When she turned forty, he’d taken her to Annette’s Diner for dinner. They both came down with food poisoning in the middle of the night, and Rosa vowed she’d never let him forget it.
And then, there was her twenty-first birthday, the first and only time he’d brought her roses. That had been her first birthday with him. For five years she hadn’t known he’d stolen them from someone’s back yard on his way home from work.
Rosa talked and ate and talked again, nibbling at the edges of the frosting until only crumbs remained in her hand. She brushed them gently onto the grass below.
“I don’t know why I’m here, Luis. Not really,” she admitted, feeling strangely shy. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I probably won’t do it again. But I needed you tonight.”
Her voice broke in earnest. A fat tear, almost invisible in the dark, splattered onto her jeans. “I needed you, and you weren’t there.”
Rosa swallowed hard. Hot droplets slipped from her eyes and landed on her cold fingers, her purse, her sweatshirt. She couldn’t stop them. She pulled her feet up onto the bench, wrapped her arms around her knees, and lowered her head. Huge sobs quaked through her.
Oblivious to the dark morning chill now, even to the muffled moans that shuffled away from her on the wind, she let the pain bubble up and out. Another car passed on the quiet street behind her; another piece of trash stumbled by, this time unheeded. It was a long time before she finally raised her head and wiped her face with her hands.
“I bet you haven’t seen anything like that in a while, have you, Luis?” she joked miserably. When he was alive, she’d been good at keeping her emotions in check. “Well, maybe you’ll be happier where you are now that you know what you’re missing.”
She stretched her feet in front of her and stood, slinging her purse back over her shoulder. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come, but I had to, you know? Anyway, I know you would have wanted to wish me a happy birthday.”
Almost as an afterthought, she unzipped the outer pocket of her purse, pulled out the used napkin and placed it under the cupcake on his grave. “Just in case you need it,” she quipped. “’Bye, sweetheart.”