Party of One
Stay Up Late cocktail
It was supposed to be the job of a lifetime, working as a chef at a trendy new glamping resort. But the contract was temporary, and she was assigned a month long gig in the middle of dreary winter, rather than the popular summer season. And the food tent’s heater was broken again. So much for glamping. For the first week straight, cold rain fell in sheets like linens waving on a line. Every day, the guests complained, incessant as summer cicadas, about everything from the scratchy towels to the hot tub’s not being hot enough.
They complained about the food, too, which hurt. Here she was, thirty-eight years old with only a gig job. Nothing in her life was permanent. Nothing mattered anymore. Her future, once so certain, was now a prison sentence. She'd had everything: friends, a bursting social calendar, a man who loved her. But those things existed only in her memories, irretrievable. And it was her fault.
Regret is a vicious thing. A dish that's too bitter? Add some citrus and no problem. A sliver? Pull it out. Sure, it'll still hurt, but it will heal. Regret, too, has a solution: a sincere apology. But what if there's no one left to apologize to?
The path to the employees’ quarters was dark but short, so she took the long way around the icy lake instead, unable to face the empty cabin. She gladly would have given up her best chef’s knife to have a roommate. She couldn’t hope to make friends—she no longer deserved that precious gift—but she ached for someone to talk to. Her only companion now was unrelenting, irrevocable pain.
She tried to imagine her friends sitting around a crackling fire, talking, teasing, laughing. She would do that little dance where you sit too close to the fire and your legs roast like the marshmallows, then you scoot back, only to feel cold again. But now all that waited for her was a single chair by the unused firepit.
Her knees creaked as she jumped over a fallen tree. The bolt of pain made her realize she was now firmly planted in middle age. The thought horrified her—not because of vanity or a sense of mortality but the idea of living all those years ahead of her in solitude. She tripped over a rock. Tempted to curl into a ball and sob, she knew the tears wouldn’t come. She picked herself up with futile attempts to wipe the mud from her hands on muddy jeans but stopped in her tracks when she passed the window of a cabin.
The pain, bright and jagged, was loneliness mixed that awful regret, but it felt physical, leaving her gasping with a fist pressed against her vice-gripped heart. The cake a staff member asked her to bake suddenly made sense. Tears stung her eyes. One of the line cooks, the one who had been shooting her looks all through dinner service then smiling but trying to hide it, moved the bouquet of balloons from one table to another.
She had been so caught up in her pain that she’d forgotten it was her birthday. Or maybe she had blocked it. Last year, her best friend had surprised her with a trip to a sun-drenched beach in the Caribbean, with the blessing of her grinning husband, who said they had the rest of lives to be together so one week away wouldn't hurt.
Joy had once been so much a part of her life that she recognized the emotion right away despite its long absence. Her hand flew to her mouth, wet with the forgotten mud. She looked down. She was a mess. But the cabin was buzzing with the happy activity of party prep, decorations going up and food being arranged on platters alongside napkins proclaiming “Happy Birthday!” in colorful, bubbly letters.
She bolted for her cabin in a bounding run that made her feel seventeen again. The cold wind rushed against her face, and she imagined it scrubbing her clean. At her cabin, she finished the scrubbing, washing away not just mud but some of the weight that had been pressing on her shoulders. She spent only a few minutes deciding on an outfit—nothing too fancy so she wouldn’t ruin the surprise.
The freezing woods that had seemed so dark and capable of hiding horrors before soothed her now. She noticed a single chirping bird in the leafless trees, and hardy cattails growing along the creek. With a final fluffing of her hair and a smile that felt foreign on her face—odd but so good, like stepping off a plane in a new city—she raised her hand to knock, imagining the partiers holding silly hats as they dove for hiding places.
The lights went off, a flickering danced beyond the window as candles were lit, then an expectant silence. Her chilled fingers curled, squeezing tight in anticipation. Her knuckles had yet to touch the door when the people inside started singing “Happy Birthday.” Her head cocked to the side in puzzlement. How had they known she was there? They couldn’t be singing to her.
Then she heard it.
“Happy birthday, dear Johnny. Happy birthday to you!”
She lowered her hand, turned, and walked back into the night, alone.