Is there anything worse than celebrating one’s birthday? The answer, quite simply, is yes. What’s worse is demanding not to celebrate it and then having the one or two people who give a shit about your existence insist upon doing “something special” to “honor” the day. What’s to honor? You came out your mother’s vag a chemical-coated alien to experience the first in a series of the endless traumas in your life. How could any sane person want to remember this day? Cassandra Drimone didn’t want to, had never wanted to. Every year, May 1 loomed like a ticking clock signaling death. It was very literally her May Day.
This year was no different, except that she was turning forty. Forty years of nonstop surreality. And it was only getting weirder every day. For instance, she had decided to move to Taormina just in time for the odious tourist season to begin, compounded by the impending G7 summit that was, for some bizarre and illogical reason, to be hosted there. But it was the summit that ultimately led her to Taormina to begin with, for, in her role as a consular officer for the U.S. Embassy in Rome, she found a high demand for personnel in the Catania region starting in February. In addition to wanting some change of scenery, she also needed desperately to get away from her sister, Cecilia, who was five years her senior, also single and happened to be a higher-up at the embassy. Having Cecilia as her “boss” was just one of the many things that made working there unpalatable. It wasn’t just the oppressively hot summers in Rome, or that the Romans themselves all seemed to think that they were God’s gift not just to Italy but to the entire world.
So when Cecilia mentioned that she would have enough time off to come over to Sicily to “help” commemorate her milestone, it was all Cassandra could do not to retch. Because, after all, what kind of asshole would she be if she denied Cecilia her desire to lend a hand in learning how to acknowledge a birthday. I should have been born a fucking Jehovah’s Witness, they don’t have to address anything of this nature, thought Cassandra as she allowed herself her one cigarette of the day, smoking it bitterly near the small soccer field Taormina called a stadium. But no, she was of the Italian, therefore Catholic, descent. They had to celebrate everything.
Cecilia would be arriving from Rome two days before the first, and it was already making Cassandra highly uneasy. They had a tendency to squabble, primarily due to their divergent approaches to life, Cecilia’s being extremely melodramatic and Cassandra’s being highly cavalier. Where Cecilia was concerned over the minutiae of every little trivial detail (from wondering why someone did something that was for an obvious reason to watching the same episode of a show repeatedly), Cassandra put blinders on, caring not for anyone’s motivations, least of all her own. That they had both somehow managed to end up living in the same city was nothing short of miraculous. But their heritage was the one thing that seemed to speak to them both, that seemed to bind them together permanently no matter how little else they had in common. Cecilia, however, had always been the sister to one-up Cassandra when it came to being the “authority” on all things Italian. She had majored in it in college and immediately got a job working at the UN thereafter, ultimately leading her to her current cush position in Rome. Cassandra, meanwhile, floundered as she pursued a degree in Literature with a minor in Italian. It was only after working as an underpaid subtitle captioner for a few years that she finally succumbed to joining her sister in fleeing to Italy, relying on the former’s connections to get a job.
And yes, though she owed Cecilia a great deal for her so-called “success” in life (success meaning that she wasn’t chained to a desk all day nor did she live in America), there was more than a tinge or resentment that came with this “owing.” Because, of course, Cecilia never let Cassandra forget that, if not for her, she’d probably still be trapped in New York subtitling for alms. Terrible movies and TV shows no less.
Cassandra blew at an errant strand of her brown hair (recently tinted with a bit of blonde thanks to the sun) and went back to the apartment she was renting from an old woman on an unfortunately named street called Bagnoli Croce. Along the way, she encountered one of the many buses advertising The Godfather Tour. It was as tacky as one might expect and yet, this hadn’t stopped Cassandra from buying a T-shirt with Marlon Brando on it since she had moved to town.
In fact, it was what she wore to greet Cecilia at the bus station. In her blue and white striped dress and short blonde hair, Cecilia looked quintessentially American to Cassandra. But she knew commenting on this aesthetic would only offend, so she bit her tongue with, “How ya been sis?”
Cecilia grabbed her suitcase from the bus’ exterior storage compartment and returned, “I can’t believe it took your fortieth birthday to get me to Sicily. I should have come here years ago.”
Cassandra bristled. “Can we please not use the word ‘forty’? It’s very taboo for me.”
“Oh God, what’s the big deal? Can’t I get excited about it as your big sister?”
Cassandra didn’t even get a say in the restaurant, allowing Cecilia to take the helm in choosing an overhyped place called Nero D’avola, where the proprietor proceeded to brag about himself then leave them to be tended to by his son, who was so disinterested in both them and the job that all he could be troubled to do was stare at his phone rather than show them to a table. Cassandra imagined that she and her sister being two old biddies not attractive enough to warrant his attentiveness wasn’t adding to the cause either. When the proprietor saw that they were still waiting in the entry ten minutes later, he proceeded to yell at his son about the obligations of work before pleasure.
So far, it was turning out to be a rip roaring start to her contemptible birthday evening. When they were at last seated, Cassandra received a call from her father, he being the second person besides her sister who cared that it was her birthday enough to remember it by genuine memory rather than Facebook. As she got distracted talking to him on the phone, she could see Cecilia whisper something into the waiter’s ear. It made her cringe. She had specifically requested just one thing for her birthday: no goddamn spectacle of any kind. When she hung up the phone, she demanded, “Did you tell him it was my birthday?”
“I might have mentioned something about a dessert.”
“Cecilia, I don’t want a fucking dessert. The one condition I had about today was not to address that it was happening. You know they’re going to fucking sing and put a candle on it.”
“No, they’re not. This isn’t that kind of place.”
Three glasses of wine and one swordfish entree later, it was the dreaded moment of the dessert’s arrival, made even less enticing to Cassandra as a result of eating a gelato earlier in the day, specifically to stave off any notion Cecilia might have of even thinking about dessert for dinner. Suddenly, the speakers around them filled with a version of “Happy Birthday” she had never heard before as the waiter brought out a chocolate concoction with, lo and behold, a motherfucking candle on it.
Cassandra felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. Like the entire restaurant could see how pathetic her life was, how she had squandered her forty years on earth to end up here alone with her sister, the only person she could rustle up for this accursed event. And though they say it’s quality not quantity that matters, she often wondered if she would spend time with Cecilia in any capacity if not for their blood relationship.
After all, would a real friend go so defiantly against her wishes to keep a low profile? There was something selfish in Cecilia’s behavior, in her need to showcase how much she cared. As “Happy Birthday” seemed to persist in playing interminably, Cassandra glared at Cecilia. “I’m not blowing that out.” Cecilia appeared hurt by the refusal, looking around to see if anyone had noticed the tension that had flared up between them.
“Come on Cassandra. Just make a wish.”
“Okay, how about this? I wish people didn’t feel the obligation to make a to-do out of their birth and that those who didn’t want to actually got their wish respected. But most of all I wish my sister hadn’t quashed every single emotion I’ve ever had my whole life to somehow make it about her.”
With that, it was lights out. The candle had burned to the bottom of the wick and dimmed of its own volition.