Antonia Buizza – The Birthday

Nadia got up at half past six, four minutes before the alarm clock would usually go off. She walked into the white ceramic tiled bathroom, turned the shower tap on, took her pyjamas off and threw herself under the hot jet, rubbing vigorously every inch of her skin. She wrapped her wet body into a light bathrobe and leaned herself against the warm heater for a few minutes. Once she had dried off, she took it off and hung it on the chrome plated door hook. Stark naked, she stepped on the electronic scale, looked at the numbers that were appearing on the small screen and let out a sigh that sounded more like a huff.

She turned sideways in front of the huge mirror that hung over the enameled washbasin, scrutinized the little outlined breast profile and the concave belly that hung down towards the groin. She slowly got dressed: the lingerie, a silk shirt, a pair of sand colored trousers and a woolen jersey. She went to the kitchen barefoot. Her feet left damp footprints on the polished marble floor. Nadia shivered. She approched the stainless steel stove and examined her face reflected in the perfectly clean satin surface: the jet-black bob, the prominent cheekbones, the elongated dark eyes. She took a fragrant coffee pod from an aluminum jar and inserted it into the coffee machine, black and shiny, which sharply contrasted with the snow white kitchen and floor. For a moment she leaned on one of the transparent plastic chairs that surrounded the lacquered table and sipped the bitter coffee. She switched on the ultraflat screen tv located in an angle of the bookcase which was filled with books that had never been read and displayed an extraordinary chromatic harmony. The news jingle rumbled between the bare walls. The woman took the rubber gloves, a rag and the disinfectant from under the sink and began, as every morning, to meticoulously vacuum and clean the two-bedroom flat. Her gestures were mechanical; her look was fixed on the surfaces, which were subjected to a meticulous cleansing.
Only after an hour of work she put her stockings and shoes on, prepared the bag for the gym, where she would go on her lunch break, grabbed her handbag, put her coat on and left home.
It was dark when she came back to her flat. The pungent smell of the disinfectant was still lingering there. She inhaled it deeply. She switched the lights on and the stainless steel spotlights radiated a brilliant light that reverberated as every evening on the perfectly white and glossy surfaces.
She took her shoes off, stored them in the shoe rack beside the front door and remained barefoot. She put the bags down in her bedroom, hung her coat and returned to the kitchen. She came near the stainless steel refrigerator that stood in a corner, grabbed a pot holder and opened the cupboard door, being careful not to leave any fingerprints on the surface. She pulled a bag of salad out of it. She dressed it with salt and lemon juice. She switched the TV on, tuned it to a game show and sat at the table, where she ate her supper. While she was putting the only plate in the dishwasher, the doorbell rang. She unlocked the door and returned to the table, from which she removed the glass and the bottle of still water.
The door closed behind Armando’s back, who took his shoes off and greeted her with a light kiss on the cheek.
«Everything all right, honey? How was your day?», he asked.
«Good, I’m only a little tired. And yours?».
«As usual. Why are you tired? Have you been to the gym today too?».
«Of course. You know how it relaxes me».
«If you say so…».
They sat on the leather sofa, watching a police drama which had just started. Armando caressed his fiancee’s thin hair while she was dozing off on his shoulder.
«Nadia, where are the wine cellar’s keys?», he asked her, waking her up.
«Which wine cellar?».
«The flat’s one. I remember that when I helped you to move, I saw it».
«I don’t know, I don’t think I have ever been in it. However, all the keys are in that drawer», she said pointing at the bookcase. «What do you need them for?».
«If you don’t mind, I would like to store my old computer there. I have no more room at my house», he told her, getting up from the sofa and approaching the cabinet’s drawer «Here they are! Look: they’ve got wine cellar written on them. Do you mind if I keep them for a few days?».
«Go ahead», answered the woman yawning.
«You’re really tired. I better go. But… what are we doing tomorrow?».
«Tomorrow? It’s only Thursday».
«Come on, don’t pretend you’ve forgotten it: it’s your birthday! We can go out to dinner if you want to».
«Oh, yes. No, I can’t be bothered to go out to dinner. I have a great deal of work to do in the office and I already know that tomorrow evening I will be tired out. Let’s do it another time».
«Ok, no supper, I will think of something else. I’m off now. Good night, honey. Nighty night». He hugged very tightly. Nadia offered him her cheek, accompanied him to the door and closed it again with four turns of the key. She turned the TV off, went to the bathroom, poured seven sleep drops into her glass and, after she had changed, lied down. She fell asleep instantly.
[* * * ] Nadia got up at half past six. She walked into the bathroom, took a shower, weighed herself and smiled at that.
She put a gray mesh dress on and headed to the kitchen. She made coffee while whatching the news. She put the plastic gloves on, then took a clean rag and the disinfectant. She cleaned up every inch of the apartment scouring vigorously. She prepared the gym bag, put a pair of high-heeled boots on, her coat, grabbed her handbag and left home.
When she came back home it was already dark. She pulled out a bottle of Franciacorta sweet wine from a paper bag and she placed it in the appropriate refrigerator compartment. She looked at the clock: it was just past seven o’ clock. She switched the TV on, peeled a carrot and crouched on the sofa, crunching noisily. As the TV news was starting, the doorbell rang. Nadia switched the TV off and got up to open.
«Happy birthday, my love». Smiling, Armando raised an arm, thus showing a box with the name of the most renowned patisserie in that zone engraved on it. The other hand held a voluminous package of a thin thickness. «While awaiting to dine together, I have thought to celebrate with the famous millefoglie by Sweet thoughts patisserie. Have you ever tasted it? It’s won-der-ful».
Nadia removed the cake from his hands and let him kiss her, moving abruptly away when he tried to pull her close to him with his free hand. «I shall put it in the fridge, OK? I will only have a small bit since I ate too much for dinner». Then she headed for the refrigerator.
«No problem: I will eat your share too!», he said, following her. «But surprises are not over… Come here and look».
Armando put the package he was holding in his hand on the table: it was a big rectangle, wrapped in parcel paper. A red ribbon towered over it, with a pink envelope that had been placed there in a clumsy way. Nadia took it and opened it. She pulled out a cardboard cut-out. The notes of Happy birthday to you resounded in the room.
The woman read the message: “To my little doll on her thirty-seventh birthday. With love, Armi”. She examined the card for a few seconds, then refolded it and the notes faded out. She put it back in the envelope.
«Before you open it, you should know that it was love at first sight», said Armando, pointing at the package that occupied the whole table. «I had thought about offering you something else as a gift, but as soon as I saw it this afternoon, I couldn’t resist it. I also need to confess to you that the white walls of this apartment always give me a sense of anguish».
«I guess it is a painting».
«Good guess! Come on, open it!».
Nadia searched for a pair of scissors in a drawer and cut the ribbon. Then she cut the paper on one side and pulled the painting out.
It took her some time to realize what she was looking at: cobalt blue, shades of green, violent brushstrokes of red, yellow spots, purple slashes. «This picture… I have painted it myself», she said, almost whispering.
«I knew that you would have recognized it». Armando looked triumphant. «This afternoon I came to put my old PC in the cellar and I saw it. Do you remember? It dates back to the period in which you attended the Academy and you got it into your head that you wanted to become an artist».
«Yeah». Nadia kept her eyes fixed on the canvas.
«Fortunately you got your life back on track with age», he said ruffling her hair.
«Ah yes, fortunately». The woman couldn’t stop fixing the painting.
«Do you remember how funny you were? You used to wear those clothes from flea markets and dye your hair improbable colors. What I did understand though, was that behind that outlandish facade there was a good girl». He approached her and put his arm around her shoulders. Standing beside each other, they examined the picture.
He then added: «I’m no expert, but this painting looks rather decorative. I have spent the whole afternoon trying to find the right frame. What do you think, do you like it?».
«Yes, very much».
«I know that I shouldn’t say it, but the frame is worth more than the picture! So where do we hang this youthful folly?».
«I don’t know, I have to think about it first. Now move it away from the table and let’s eat the cake».
«Mmm… I can’t wait! Be generous with my share please!. I’ll put wine cellar’s keys into the drawer, I don’t need them anymore».
Nadia took two saucers, cut a generous slice of millefoglie for the man and a tiny bit for herself. She opened a bottle of sparkling wine and poured it into two glasses.
«Happy birthday, my love. We will celebrate properly on Saturday. This is just a taste of things to come», he promised her smiling.
It was 10 p.m: Nadia walked him to the door. She thanked him for the evening, let him kiss her and closed the door with four turns of the key.
She walked towards the center of the kitchen, took the canvas and laid it on the floor, against the wall. She sat on her heels and stared for a long time at the orgy of colours that stood before her eyes. After a few minutes she got back up, opened the refrigerator and took the box containing the millefoglie. She returned beside the picture, put the cake on the floor and knelt herself down in front of it. She dipped her index finger in the dense yellow cream and raised it to her lips. Then she sank her whole hand into it and filled her mouth with the zabaione, pastry and chocolate. She chewed slowly, never turning her gaze away from the painting. She licked her fingers and immersed her hand in the cake again.
She did not manage to eat the whole cake though.
Beside her youthful folly, she slipped into sleep.
At 7 a.m. Nadia opened her eyes and got up. The cake had melted away, creating a dense pool, brown and yellowish, on the immaculate marble. The woman took a look at the steel clock over the refrigerator and headed for the bathroom. The mirror showed her the image of a face which was paler than usual, with rings under her eyes, a zabaione moustache on her right cheek. She undressed quickly and slipped into the shower. She got out of it a few miutes later, put her bathrobe on and rubbed her wet hair vigorously. She collected her clothes in a bundle and dropped them into the laundry basket. In the bedroom she opened the wardrobe, pulled out a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of trousers of the same color. She prepared the bag for the gym, grabbed her handbag and a coat. Ignoring the yellow spot that was widening on the floor of the living room, she left home.
It was not dark yet when she came back home. A nice vanilla smell overwhelmed her. She turned the lights on and headed for the bookcase. She opened the drawer and took the wine cellar’s key.
Without even watching it, she grabbed the picture which was still lying on the floor and opened the frame. She pulled the canvas out and rolled it up leaving the painted part inside, then stopped it with a rubber band. With the roll under her arm, she left the apartment.
She returned after about ten minutes. She took her shoes off and headed for the kitchen. She took the gloves and the absorbent paper from the cabinet under the sink and bent over what was left of the millefoglie. She cleaned up the floor from the cream and the crumbs, throwing all in the dustbin. Then she grabbed a rag and the disinfectant bottle. Every inch of the two-room apartment was accurately scrubbed. Then she pulled a hammer and a small nail box out of a drawer. She reassembled the frame that was lying on the table and examined the wall beside the bookcase for a few seconds. With some well placed blows, she hammered two nails into the wall and hung the frame that had held youthful folly for a few hours.
It was seven p.m: she removed the rubber gloves and poured herself a glass of water. She sipped it quietly on the sofa, staring at the whiteness of the wall, which looked even more ashy, in contrast with the baroque frame that squared it.
The doorbell rang, but she carried on drinking. The doorbell rang again and for longer.
She heard a male voice from behind the door: «Honey, are you there?».
She drank the water up.
«Love? Are you there? Are you going to open this door?».
Remaining seated, she placed the glass on the small table.
«Nadia?». There was another ring, then a noise of steps that went away. Nadia put a hand in her trousers’ pocket and pulled a key out, the one with the wine cellar label. She observed it for a fraction of second, then got up from the sofa and walked to the kitchen. She threw the key in the dustbin. She poured herself another glass of water.

Translation by Barbara Pellegrini (edited by Sabrina Macchi)