I watch as my parents bring out the cake from the kitchen with twenty-one lit candles. They cannot contain their joy. They are beaming from ear to ear. They are bouncing on their feet. Yet, from the hint of uneasiness that I notice in their hesitant eyes, I know they too are thinking what I am.
If only my brother were here to complete this moment.
I cannot claim this day to be mine, because the both of us came into this world together. He left it alone only a few days later, after having contracted pneumonia. The only reference that I have to his unfairly short-lived life is a photograph that was taken of us hours after we were born. It is the same picture that I now hold in my shaky palms.
I gaze at it. He was born just two minutes after me, and yet, oddly, he looks like the older child. I like to think that, today, the resemblance between us would have been uncanny. I like to think we would have shared the same curly black hair. The same laugh. The same bashful smile. But, he would be taller than his sister, no doubt. And handsome too, being a man.
A man. That is what he would be today. However, before that, he would have to have been a boy first.
Cute and chubby, I think he’d be. Because he would be stealing from my plate at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Boys are like that. Kicking me under the table, throwing soup in my face, telling lies about how I break his toys. Pulling my hair while we play, leaving awful insects into my bed, locking me in dark rooms. All the mean little things little men do. He would have been the perfect brat to contrast my quiet and reserved little girl demeanour.
My parents set the cake on the dining table before me and begin singing and clapping. Still smiling. Still unsure. But happy.
We would grow closer with time, I am sure. He’d be the sole confidante to my darkest secrets, the one’s shoulder to cry on when boy-trouble plagued me, the one who’d chase away monsters under my bed. He would be an ally when it came to defying our parents, the one to help me sneak out late at night and cover for me, the one to defend me from anyone and everyone who dared hurt me. Because I would be his: his to love and his to protect.
The perfect brother.
As the birthday song nears the end, I recall every gift I ever received on this day over the years. With each gift that comes to mind, I try to think of a boy’s equivalent. Robots for dolls, train sets for kitchen sets, suits for dresses. Would we ever have agreed on a single cake flavour for the occasion? Would he have wanted a rowdy party, while I a small celebration? Would we have competed to see who could blow out the candles faster? Would we have rubbed icing on each other’s faces? Would we have exchanged gifts, at all, or would gifts have been negated since we were twins?
These are questions the answers to which I will never know.
My parents come around the table to stand at my sides, hands on my shoulders, pecking my cheeks. I put down the picture I hold and pick up the knife. The baby, the boy, the man missing today, ghostly images of this would-be person flash through my mind. One would think that over twenty birthdays without him would make this day easier to bear every time it came around. But the unbearable emptiness is there every single time, piercing me in my chest.
I clutch the knife with both hands and bend to blow out the candles. Fire turns to smoke, which trials upward and wafts into my nose. I breathe it in, my head feeling heavy and slow within seconds. My parents finish the birthday song, clapping excitedly beside me. But I feel incapable of doing it, my hands frozen, with the knife hovering inches above the cake. I feel weak.
A second later, I feel strong.
Because, that’s when I feel it. The invisible pressure on my hand. Faint but sure. Nudging. Pushing. Slowly helping me bring the knife down.
He slices the cake with me.
© Amaan Khan, November 22, 2018.