about the author

Jennifer A. Howard is a fiction editor at Passages North, and her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Sycamore Review, Literary Mama, Redivider, SmokeLong Quarterly, Southeast Review, Quarterly West, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction Forward.

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What to Give your Ex-Girlfriend for Her Birthday

Jennifer A. Howard

Nap with her. Arrive in the middle of a too-hot summer day and take her up to bed for the unfussy, naked, intermittent conversation usually earmarked for real couples on Sunday mornings. When you do this for her, say, sleep. Tender her hair with one hand, even while the other is less intent on charming her toward drowsiness. Employ the kind of skittery touch (imagine yourself on Big Shag Lake, luring pike) that, with repetition, becomes less gentle, less fingertips and more hands, until the letting go that comes with sleep becomes unthinkable for her. When you visit on her birthdays, ask, tell me what you’re thinking about.

This is the present, really, this question, for the rest you would give her on other days, or on other nights at least, after the bars close. You still have a key to her place, so occasionally, on dark weekday nights, your car turns drunkenly down her street even when you hadn’t been thinking about her at all. You pay your visits, warming yourself against her on winter nights, often enough to ensure that yours is still the mouth she imagines when she is by herself.

She learned long ago about your inflexible inability to make plans even ten minutes in advance, so she can’t know what night it is you’ll show. She’s never waiting up. At 2:30 in the morning, when you are lonely for someone to go home to, she has most likely been asleep for hours, has been dreaming dreams better even than your arrival. Nevertheless she shifts, still half-asleep, over to one side of the bed or the other to make room for you. She helps you, without saying hello, out of your shirt and under the covers. The mornings after, you drink her coffee and help rearrange the furniture too heavy for her to move when you’re not here. You install the ceiling light in the back hallway, which has been waiting on you, while she readies herself for work. But on these June birthdays, when you’ve saved some of your daytime for her, she gets to tell you, I was already thinking about this, she says, us in this bed, before you came.

Listen or don’t. But do mumble solicitously, like the first time you fucked her indoors, after initial encounters in a cemetery, on a porch, aboard a stranger’s boat. That first time in an actual bed, without the noise of passing cars she had come to associate with you, with only the pulse of her landlady’s TV faraway downstairs, she demanded you, too quiet, to say something. You couldn’t talk dirty, and you don’t need to articulate what’s coming today either, but please consider her trouble with quiet, and compromise with a hum that mimics the movement of her hips.

More important, before the sing-song of the afternoon is over, make sure she has slept and slept hard, so that she wakes with the feeling of morning, not so surprised to feel you around her as she is to see the sunlight so low along the walls, to realize it is nearly evening.

Stay, while she finds something to wear for when she goes out later, with the people she sees away from home. Make it hard for her to finish dressing, your hand or mouth on just the place she is trying to cover up. Suggest she wear her glasses, then take it back, insisting she looks so pretty that you couldn’t let her out of the house with them on. She will be happy to let you stall her; no one has kissed her sober in a long time. Consider telling her she should come home to you when her night is over. But don’t say it out loud, and don’t pull her back into her bed or let her change her plans. Otherwise, in only a matter of hours it will be like usual: you on your way out.

No, this is your gift, to love her slow enough, to stick around long enough, on this one afternoon that she becomes tired of you, that she gets to be the one with someplace better to go. What she wants even more than your hands on her is someone quick to know what she’s just said is funny, eager to push the hair out of her face to unveil her mouth. Someone who smiles when he walks into a room and she is there. You are none of these things. But when she is capable of calming down, when she is homesick for the glacial affection of your busy real-time life, she will see how the girl who ends up being right for you, likely a sweet attention-deficient pothead somehow built to live at your stop-and-go pace, will be the person she most resents in the world. She won’t come over to your house when you turn another year older, but this distant jealousy will be her birthday gift for you from here on.

It’s not that she can’t fathom your life together. She remembers how you taught her how to take things easy—not letting her out of bed when she first woke up, not turning your little bass boat back toward shore until long after the fish had tucked themselves under rocks for the night. Part of her imagines throwing out her notebooks full of lists and her daily rituals of coffee and email and regularly scheduled television. But she won’t, and why should she, what, for the one day a year you can be depended on.

On her way out the door, she’ll remind you of her birthday two years ago—her favorite ever—when you camped with her, her sister, her friends who drove in from out of town just to be with her. That night, she got to follow your flashlight from a campfire encircled by her favorite people into your tent, where you slipped together into a double sleeping bag and you kept one finger in her mouth to remind her to hush.

Today’s celebration has been little substitute for that day, a day where your body on hers was just one lucky moment among many. Replace the storm door with the screen before you go. Wish, while you work, that you had it in you to love this impatient, punctual girl every day like you do this second, as she is getting into her car to leave you sitting on her porch. You don’t, but at least today you have arrived as expected. And it is just what she would have asked for, to go out into the world tonight, her skin warm where your fingers have left gentle traces of the afternoon.

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