Mine Had No Cherry
Stepping into Antichi Sapori with my brother and his ex-wife was like wearing my dress backwards. As children we looked past the burned gingham tablecloths and unsteady wooden folding chairs, air coated with the smell of dead fish. We ordered Shirley Temples and pretended we were drunk. Poked the neon-red cherries until they oozed. Our chairs became ships battling turbulent seas, guided by the quivering light at the tip of our parents’ Camels.
My family still met at this restaurant, long after I’d moved away. The tablecloths were now more holey and frayed, the chairs missing slats. I remembered the place but couldn’t look beyond its frailty.
Here was where my father and Len chose to celebrate my mother’s milestone birthday.
Where are the balloons, the flowers? I said. Len shrugged, shifted his curled lips to a smile. I guess I forgot. His ex tsked and snorted. I was glad my father invited her. She burrowed her coral fingernails inside my brother in spaces I never dared.
With ten minutes until our guests arrived, we’d have to give the restaurant a facelift with half our decorations. I twisted red (Mom’s favorite color) and gold crepe paper streamers and taped them to the walls. Sprinkled glittery stars and tiny birthday cakes on the tables. Watched straying stars float to the stained floor.
Len ordered two Old Fashioneds and huddled with his ex while I plated the chocolate-covered apricots resembling harvest moons that Mom loved and scattered them among the tables. I pointed to the Maraschino cherry in Len’s near-empty glass. Have you drunk those with bourbon-soaked cherries? No chemical taste. No cancer.
Len gulped his drink. Can I help? He bit his cherry as if testing a pearl. You can get me another, his ex said, tapping her glass, and he disappeared. Bourbon sloshed from the three glasses he carried back from the bar. Mine had no cherry.
Len nudged the drinks onto a table. He nabbed a napkin I’d folded into a crown, snapped it and wiped his sticky hands. Relax, Sis. Mom's gonna love the party. His ex responded, Long as she’s drinking.
A few swigs into my cocktail Mom’s friends arrived, her best friend, Ellen, appearing moments before my parents. I shushed the small crowd, asked them to sit and yell, SURPRISE, when the guest of honor approached.
Sit next to me, Ellen said, patting the empty seat beside her. She leaned close, her breath scented like dirty coins, and as Mom entered the room whispered, Mom told me you were her problem child.
SURPRISE, the others shouted. Mom blinked, smoothed her platinum wig. My brother leaped from his chair and hugged her. Where’s your sister? she said. I didn’t wave. I didn’t stand. Sorry, Mom, she had other plans, Len said to peals of laughter. I poked my finger in a burn hole in the tablecloth, working it so it would tear. Happy birthday, Mom, I said. Should I get you your Jack and Cherries?