“The Anxiety of Two Digits”

Photo credit: Isha Gaines

The buzzer rang. In exactly three and a half minutes, she would be outside of my door. I waited for my screams to settle through the water. I dried off; noticing a scab once again lived on my skin.

An old woman with horrible hearing knew when Rhonda arrived. I was surprised she was not at her door when Rhonda walked down the hall to my apartment door. A sheet cake with balloons and elephants drawn across read, “Happy 3rd Birthday Kaleigh!” in blue icing.

My name is Stacy.

“I told the baker the wrong name and design, so when I picked up the cake I could yell and berate him into giving me the cake for half off and avoid suing for defamation of character if I was called a liar.”

I let her into my apartment.

Rhonda pulled the knife from her purse, sliding it out of its holder, “We are going to eat this whole cake!” she proclaimed as she cut it into medium squares. I set cake dishes on the table, brimmed by orange flowers and gifted by her when I moved into the apartment two years ago. I grabbed a square. I lit a cigarette and sat on the windowsill.

You know I may not have a cake for you next year if you continue with that.” She waved the drift of smoke away with concern boldened in the crease in her eyebrows. The smoke gathered around her hand like a spider in its own web.

My breath fogged over the icing as goosebumps grew along my skin. The heat soothed my scab and comforted my crossed legs. It trickled through the faint hair on my arms.

“Maybe you could meet Ana at the hospital,” Rhonda broke the silence. I took a puff of my cigarette as the plate of cake tickled in my hand.


Ana twiddled her thumbs as the mismatched tiles on the wall spoke to her. Who thought that Spanish orange and clover green could go together? Ana had been in this place before. Why did it feel so unfamiliar to her? Why had no one called her name? Given her an update regarding when she would see the doctor to begin her follow-up?


The cake needed a face-lift, so I put it in the fridge. A breeze briefly announced its presence for a break in the heat. The string from the party hat nestled under my chin. My chest was quenched from a new bottle of Queen Helene. Over the past decade, I had spent the day before my birthday at Target, a constant friend for the other 364 days of the year. But who is counting?

Rhonda stomped through the hallway as though no one lived below me. I wished she would take a hint that I did not want her here with me. I was content to spend my birthday alone. My mind played double dutch, lifting the soot from the ground as the ropes spun faster. Could I tell her I was afraid of wasting my youth? That this year I had to try 56 fashion trends and 27 new makeup styles before I entered a new decade.

I already preordered a Mumu.

“You know Trevor and Gail are engaged? I don’t even know how to congratulate someone on an engagement,” Rhonda licked her fork aggressively.

I took a long puff of my cigarette. High school sweethearts. They do not know any other body. “Just tell them, Congratulations.”

The smoke extinguished from my nose into the noise of the city. Rhonda put another square on her plate and on mine. I returned to the space in my mind where a ravine of freedom calmed my chest.


Ana lifted her shirt. Her hair brushed the middle of her back. In the mirror, she admired the roll of flesh on her side. The mirror was a friendlier reflection over six years of false companionship. She sat with her back arched and watched her chest rise up and fall down.

Last year, Ana held my hand as we shared a hammock. She talked of birthdays. The October gust of wind I loved ever so much since a friend’s 2nd grade party at a park.

“Ana, your cells look normal.”

Somehow, those words reassured after a double mastectomy, the thought of undergoing the procedure had matriculated for years in the crevices of Ana’s mind. To know she gave herself a higher chance of another birthday. To have sex again in her young body.


Rhonda busted through the hallway, “I’m going to order a bottle of wine. What do you want?”

“Pinot Noir.” My eyes bulged at the sound of my voice. I thought you weren’t going to speak? my brain contested. But the sun shined on my feet after a long winter.

I remained quiet as we waited for the wine to arrive. The sound of icing resting on my tongue was the only thing I could physically hear. Of course, my thoughts boomed. I could have sat in the doctor’s office with Ana. I could have held her hand.

Oh, who was I kidding? She would not have wanted that. She is strong. That is why she waited in a two-toned box by herself for her name to be called, only to be alone in a Patient Room for a few minutes longer. All of the thoughts of her that I consumed could have led me to an early death and I was presumably the healthy one.

I took a long lick of my fork.

Dusk began to turn the sky peach as Rhonda threw two dresses and a jumpsuit on my bed. She zipped her dress in my room as I leaned against the wall of the bathroom. A sigh energized my nerves. Guilt sat in my throat with heavily sprinkled icing as I picked up the phone.

I thought you had forgotten about me.

“No, I talked about you with Rhonda today.”

Oh Rhonda! Please tell me you two are going out tonight.

“That’s why I’m calling you.”

The hallway smelled of lavender and hairspray as I grabbed my purse.

I’m thrilled you are going out.

I kissed Ana through the phone, hung up and teased my cascade of curls.


Rhonda proclaimed, “It looks like you need to renew your boarding pass for the Sooooooul Train.”

I had to admit. My jumpsuit was fit. It was not made for creating holy matrimony. Rhonda slipped her arm in mine as she hummed softly to “Disparate Youth” by Santigold. She glowed with a pink highlighter brushed across her cheeks and a coral lipstick caressed on her lips.

A mix of tired love songs blasted through the unnecessary use of neon lights as we made our way to the back of the bar, led by the stream of screams and balloons. I picked the last of the chicken wings with my teeth. Ana rubbed my waist as we swayed together. The glass of water chilled on her lips.

“Now my favorite time of the month besides starting my period, is my monthly automatic donation to Planned Parenthood. You know they do more than what you think they do. They help with breast cancer screenings…”

As Rhonda’s voice drowned, did Ana use Planned Parenthood? She was an exception to the starving artist. She was full, but their services had to be helping her.

“The little things in life aren’t little. When your tea steeps perfectly and blends with the sugar. When your favorite cookies are on sale,” Rhonda poured the rest of the beer into Pharah’s glass.
“When you get the last bag of your favorite trail mix,” I added.

“Hallelujah,” Rhonda testified with a cheerful hand.

“You all need to get out of the house more,” Pharah confirmed as she high-fived Bailey and Gail. I saw a man in my blind spot.

“Hey girl, you don’t look a day over 30.”

“Well, I am not even 24 hours into 29.”

I laughed with the roll of Gail’s eyes in my sight. He turned to Rhonda.

“Bye,” Rhonda waved him away by throwing pretzels at him, “my neck is too supple to be a cougar.”

We walked out of the bar.

“What do you want for the last hour of your birthday?”


Bailey, Pharah and Ana bought champagne, candles and candy at the bodega. Rhonda and Gail basked in the night air. I grabbed my phone and slipped off my heels. The album, “Oops!… I Did It Again” softly played along the ceiling. Somehow, I missed the pounding of feet walking through the hallway as I stood in the shadow of the lamp.

When I told Rhonda what I was putting on the pizza, she wrinkled her eyebrows; a contrast to the strength of her coral lipstick. “Spice up your life!” became familiar advice from the days we dreamed of lipstick curved on our lips. I changed my mind and got a barbecue chicken pizza for Ana and I. Everyone else savored sausage and mushrooms.

Rhonda and Bailey held the rest of the cake as Pharah, Ana and Gail sang. My smile was tender. My heart pounded massively.

Ana kissed me on the forehead as I hugged her waist. “Lucky” softly playing in the background, as with one festive blow, the room grew dark.



Are you a writer?  We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.

Ashley Paul

Ashley Paul graduated from San Francisco State University with an English & Creative Writing degree. Her work is published in Rigorous and Blink-Ink. You can follow her on Twitter @driedinkpen. Her website is www.ashleypaulpen.com.