It was about seven-thirty when her cell phone rang.
“Allô?” she answered.
“Joanne?” It was Karine.
“Are you planning on coming home anytime soon?” Karine asked.
“Umm, well yes, eventually. Why?”
“Uh well, because you’re missing your surprise birthday party, and I think Christian is rather upset that you are not here to appreciate his efforts.” Karine replied.
“Oh noooo.” Groaned Joanne.
“Oh yessss.” Confirmed Karine.
“Okay, I’m on my way.” Joanne answered.
It was after eight o’clock when Joanne walked in the door. She noted the untouched birthday cake on the counter of the kitchen. It was obviously decorated by hand, with some effort gone into forming fruits and flowers.
Karine, Patrick and the girls were there, and she immediately recognized Michelle, Patrice and Caroline, mutual friends from years ago. The guy sitting next to Caroline, she did not recognize. She greeted the friends she had not seen in years and Caroline introduced the man as her boyfriend, Éric.
Christian sat in the corner by the window, beside Patrick. She met his eyes. He frowned and looked away.
Joanne caught up on the latest news with her old friends, and was introduced to Michelle and Patrice’s lovely 4 year-old daughter, Mélodie. Still, Christian barely talked to her. He was not talking much to anyone, she noticed. Karine caught her eye and then looked pointedly at Christian.
Joanne sighed to herself and stood up. She walked over to where Christian was sitting, put her hand on his shoulder and asked “Will you step out a minute with me?”
Christian nodded silently and stood up.
Joanne went out the back door, where she had a view of the river from the patio. The sun had set. The breeze off the river was cool. She wished she had thought to put her sweater on. She turned around.
Christian faced her silently. His brown eyes stared at her expectantly.
“I’m sorry.” Joanne said in a small voice.
Still, he waited.
Joanne said nothing.
“Okay.” He said abruptly and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Joanne put her hand on his arm to restrain him.
He turned to face her again.
“I really am sorry.” Her voice trembled. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Why would you do that?” Christian exploded. “Don’t you expect that people are going to want to be with you on your birthday? Why would you purposely stay away?”
“I didn’t purposely stay away.” Joanne defended herself, yet in the same instant, she realized he was right, she had stayed away on purpose.
“Well, maybe I did. Sort of.” She looked down at her feet, ashamed. “I’m sorry.” She mumbled. She could not believe it. She was on the verge of crying. She never cried.
She shivered in the cool air and automatically hugged her arms around her to keep herself warm.
In that instant, as Christian watched her wrap her arms around herself, he thought he had never seen her look so vulnerable before. Joanne was not what he would call a delicate woman. She had an athletic build, shoulders slightly larger than the average woman, strong muscles in arms and legs. She had always seemed so strong and independent.
He saw her lower lip tremble, just for a second, before she regained control.
Christian sighed. He did not want to make her cry.
“Come here.” He said, and pulled her over to a couple of chairs on the patio.
She sat, but did not meet his gaze.
Christian decided to try again. “Why did you stay away?” he asked gently.
Joanne lifted her eyes to meet his. “I don’t like my birthday.” She said simply.
Christian lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t like your birthday?” It did not make sense. He waited for an explanation.
“I mean, I enjoy birthdays,” she frowned, “other people’s birthdays. I just don’t like mine. I don’t want to celebrate it.”
“But why not?”
Joanne was shivering. Christian was not sure if it was from the cool air or because of how she was feeling.
“Come here.” He gently pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his large arms around her to warm her. She laid her cheek against the side of his head.
“Why do you not like your own birthday?” He asked again.
She sighed and in a very small voice said “It got ruined for me.”
She backed away slightly to look him in the face.
“I grew up in a family that made a big deal when it was your birthday.” She replied. “We always had cake and presents, no matter how small they were, and we sang Happy Birthday and had decorations and made the person feel special on that day.”
“I had a boyfriend not long after I left here.” She continued. “Stéphane.”
Christian remembered. He did not particularly like Stéphane. Of course, he had not particularly liked any of the few men that had shown any interest in Joanne, but he liked Stéphane least of all. Stéphane had seemed so cold and calculating, like Joanne was a prize to be won, and not a person to be loved.
“I think his family must not have done much for birthdays.” Joanne continued. “He forgot mine that first year, and I reminded him. So he took me out for dinner the next day. I reminded him ahead of time the year after, so he wouldn’t forget, you know?”
“It wasn’t like I was forcing him to do anything. I just didn’t want him to feel bad in case he forgot again. It never occurred to me that he just didn’t bother with such things.”
Joanne looked away.
Christian waited for her to continue.
After a few moments, Joanne looked at him again. “He got very upset. He did not like feeling obliged to celebrate things. He made it clear that he expected nothing on his birthday and did not want to have to go out of his way for mine.”
Joanne’s face twisted and she looked away again.
Christian gently patted her arm and waited.
“It was just one of many small details. I would get him Christmas gifts, but after the first Christmas I got nothing. After that birthday I never mentioned my birthday again, and he would wish me a happy birthday and that was it. I remember when I finished my webmaster’s courses, everyone celebrated. He did not want to come with me to the dance afterwards. He barely congratulated me. I got no flowers or anything like many of the other girls did. If it had been just that, it wouldn’t have bothered me, but it was everything.”
“I started to think, if the one person who was supposed to be there for me couldn’t be bothered, or didn't think I was worth celebrating, then no one else should.”
That made Christian angry. How could anyone make another person feel so insignificant? He had been right to distrust this Stéphane. If he ever saw him again… he’d…
“I started to dread my birthday.” Joanne continued. “I would dread the calls from my family and old friends. I hated having to pretend I was having a great day. I hated having to pretend like I was something special and that I was going to do something special to celebrate my day. I hated to have to listen to them go on about how Stéphane would be sure to do something special. They just expected he would. It would have been normal. My birthday depressed me. I tried to avoid it. I didn’t answer the phone. I found some activity to take up my time, extra work, some event, volunteer work, something to get away from all those well-wishers, and the one person who didn’t care.”
“I would make sure that I was too busy to see him on my birthday, so he wouldn’t have to feel obliged to do anything, but mostly so I wouldn’t have to be reminded that he didn’t care.”
Joanne buried her nose into his neck, and Christian patted her back absently. This was the way things had been once, between them, easy and open. He missed those days, when they had been openly affectionate, and there had been no misunderstandings.
“I’d hate Christmas too,” Joanne said, “except that Christmas is for everyone, and Christmas is so much more than just gift-giving and partying.”
There was a long pause when neither of them said anything. Christian did not know how to let her know how angry he was at Stéphane and in the end, he said nothing.
“Is that why you broke up with him?” He asked finally.
“We grew apart.” Joanne replied.
“Gee,” Christian’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “I wonder why.”