A Birthday Embrace by Ryan Norman
The best part about being alive is the sun: the UV kiss on my cheeks, my forehead. And I’ve been here a lot recently—lying on the sparse grass—a patchwork of lush green, sun-bleached yellow, and rocky dirt. But my cheeks are hot, and I don’t know if it’s the sun, just shy of noon, trying to turn me into ash. That molten star can’t make me leave. I’ve paid for this plot. Last April my headstone finally came, so I bought a handheld broom from the dollar store. I never knew how expensive it is to die. But money is a construct, anyway; a construct that has grasped my neck for 35 years. So, I catch my breath and lean hard on the macabre slab of rock, my right arm sweeping the debris from the base. All looks perfect now, but is it?
Today is my 35th birthday and all I want to do is listen to the dirt. It’s quiet but I leave my right ear pressed to the ground, my arms, and legs limp in the grass. I’m giving everything to this earth; one of these days it’s going to open its toothless maw and swallow me as I pass frantic voles falling out of their broken tunnels. But that would be ideal. I come here, to the cemetery, to my plot, so that my body knows where it will sleep; and sleep is where it all started. Since I was young, I’ve been suffering through the same dream: some man sitting at the kitchen table. But I didn’t know who the man was until I was older. It was me. It is me. Surrounded by darkness, I watch myself inhale to blow out candles on a cake. A waxy 35 melting under the flames, one burning on a 3 and another burning on a 5. It’s the puddles of liquified wax that send me into a panic, screaming in my smile-plastered face to wake up. Every time I watch the dark’s velvet fingers grasp my hair and pull me from the birthday candle’s glow. And that’s when I startle awake, every depression in my skin a pool of sweat.
And it is for this reason that I am here today, one cheek to the sky, the other on the patchwork grass. Today I am going to die. It’s a fact that I’ve been living with since I can remember. The only problem is I don’t know how I’m going to die, and I don’t know when I’m going to die. Definitely no cake; no candles; no dark on my back. This is a really nice spot though. My grave is at the bottom of a small hill with all the light, and on the hill is a full-trunked oak tree. Acorns drop and roll down the hill, stopping just a few feet from my eternal bed. And the sun is moving west allowing my cheek some respite. I can get comfortable now that the sun isn’t burning my skin; let my body melt into the ground.
But my body isn’t the only part of me at rest, my mind is quiet too. That’s the true comfort: knowing today is the day. I’m just a body after all and bodies are just temporary. In the distance I can see the wind pick up some leaves and spin them around, and I swear I saw the flicker of a flame; but I’m just seeing things. If I lie very still and hold my breath, I can barely make it out, but I hear the grass blades bend in the wind behind me. I wish someone could be with me. My heart feels high in my chest and it is beating fast then slowing down then beating fast again. Just breathe; relax. I can still hear the grass bend behind me. What was that? I flip over onto my forearm and elbow and my heart is racing again. The sun is beyond the tree and the shadow is almost touching me. I lie on my back making sure every inch of my body is pressed into the ground. It has a face, and it looks like me. So, I start chanting, “I’m just a body. I’m just a body.” The dark’s velvet hand brushes my cheek and covers my mouth as I start to sink into the earth, a body in life and a body in death.
Ryan Norman (he/him) is a queer writer from New York living in the Hudson Valley. Ryan enjoys swimming in mountain lakes and climbing tall things. He is a contributing editor of creative nonfiction with Barren Magazine. His work has appeared in From Whispers to Roars, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Black Bough Poetry, Hobart, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. His micro chapbook I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A BOND GIRL is forthcoming with The Daily Drunk July 2021 and his chapbook CICADA SONG is forthcoming with Finishing Line Press November 2021. You can find him on Twitter @RyanMGNorman or ryanmgnorman.com