She wanted everything to be perfect. Not in life, or in everything, but just for this one party. If she could make that happen, maybe other things would start to follow. Maybe, if she made this party go well, she could start to make the rest of her life go well, too. So Gina put everything she had into planning and executing it.
“Are you sure about this?”
Robbie’s sister, Alicia, had made the cake: a strawberry sheet cake with cream cheese frosting. She’d made it willingly enough, but the look on her face said her question was one of true doubt. She held it out before her, head cocked, looking ready to either set it down on the kitchen counter or toss it into the trash and go buy a new one from the store.
“Yes,” Gina said, putting her hand on her hip. “Robbie loves strawberry. You should know.”
“Yeah, he likes strawberries,” Alicia said. “But I swear he likes chocolate cake the best. Right ma?”
Robbie’s mother sat at the table, watching their conversation silently. She’d help hang the decorations, but she hadn’t done much beyond that. Gina didn’t want or expect her to. She got tired far too easily, and anyway, if Gina let her take too much command, she would ruin Gina’s perfect vision of what Robbie wanted.
“Yes,” Jenna said. “He likes chocolate cake with fresh strawberries on top.”
“Why are you both waiting until now to say this?” Gina tossed her hands into the air, exasperated.
“Because you were so sure about everything,” Jenna said. She had her hands folded across each other before her on the table. As always, she sat with her back held straight. Her greying hair was perfectly coiffed, and her nails had been freshly painted before she arrived. “We didn’t want to interfere with your plans.”
“She was sure, alright,” Alicia said. She turned away as she spoke, half-mumbling as though she wanted to imply that she didn’t intend Gina to hear her, even though she clearly did. “Sure enough she didn’t want my input at all.”
Gina clenched her fist and bit back the retort that first found its way to her tongue. “I’m glad you could both be here today. I appreciate your help.”
Okay, well, Gina knew Robbie liked strawberry cake, even if it wasn’t exactly his favorite. Maybe it wouldn’t disappoint him to bad. She knew for a fact she’d made his favorite dinner. It would be ready when he arrived. The squash-and-sweet potato casserole and the pork roast were in the oven, timed to be done just before Robbie’s arrival home from work. If five minutes, she would take them out so that they could cool just enough to be edible.
“It’s Rob’s birthday,” Jenna said. “How could I refuse?”
Gina glanced at Jenna out of the corner of her eye. Her nose twitched. Jenna always hosted Robbie’s birthday party. He was her son, after all, and she’d always held it over Gina’s head as her right to throw the party. She never held it on Robbie’s actual birthday, though, if it fell during the week. Jenna hated weekday parties, so she saved everything for the weekend.
Three weeks ago, Gina had politely informed Jenna and Alicia that she would be hosting Robbie’s part, and that she hoped they would be able to attend. Robbie didn’t know he was coming home to a surprise. As far as Gina knew, none of them had said anything to him about breaking the tradition. She was looking forward to seeing the look on his face.
Gina gave Jenna a forced smile that was intended to be pleasant but probably, she had to admit, did not come across that way. She stepped around the island and into the kitchen. Alicia, suddenly robbed of a comfortable amount of space, set the cake fully down on the counter and went to join her mother at the table.
There was little left to do, in these last few minutes. The food was ready, and the decorations had been hung. There was no “Happy Birthday” banner, as Jenna had always hung, because Gina didn’t like them and she knew that Robbie didn’t either. There was a stack of gifts on the end table next to the couch. Alicia and Jenna’s stood out, because all of Gina’s were perfectly wrapped in the same black-and-gold paper.
She was proud of one of her gifts in particular, because she’d found it through browsing Robbie’s search history on a shopping website. He needed a new electric razor, and she’d been saved from trying to figure out which one with just a bit of light snooping. She’d found the other gifts that way, too, but she felt like he would be most appreciative of the razor.
Keys jingled in the hall, eliciting a fluttering nervousness in Gina’s chest. She hoped she’d made Robbie happy. She hoped he liked the cake, and the gifts, and that he forgave her for not inviting Tony, his best friend. She just couldn’t get along with that man, after all, and it seemed like it would be most pleasant for everyone if Tony just wasn’t there.
The door opened, and there stood Robbie, in his work shirt and slacks, his bag slung over one shoulder. “What’s this, now?”
“Surprise,” Alicia said. She cocked her head toward Gina, who frowned. Alicia had ruined the plan by speaking along; they were supposed to shout it together. Then again, maybe Gina had ruined it by not having the three of them hide and jump out.
“Happy birthday!” Gina said, forcing a wide smile in an attempt to recover. “Suprise! We’re having it at home. And on your actual birthday!” She stepped around the counter, moving forward with her arms spread wide, ready for a hug.
“Gina,” Robbie said. He reached up with one hand, rubbing his face hard. “What are you doing?”
Gina faltered. “What — what do you mean? It’s your birthday. It’s a party.”
“Why are you doing this?” His eyes drilled directly into hers. She’d always found their icy blue to be beautiful, but now it frightened her a little bit. His face seemed older, too, as though the lines and wrinkles had settled in deeper overnight.
“I… I just…” She felt tears welling up. She’d worked so hard to make everything perfect, and she could tell already that Robbie wasn’t happy. “I was trying to give you a good birthday.”
“What’s wrong, Rob?” Jenna said. “Is everything alright?”
“I’m fine, ma,” Robbie said. He sighed, lifting the strap of his bag over his head and hanging it on the coat rack. He sighed again, heavier, this time, when he was done. “Gina and I need some time alone. Can you guys…” Another sigh. “Thank you for coming over. Really. I’ll call you in a bit. But can you head out for now? Please?”
Jenna furrowed her brow. “What’s the meaning of this? We’re supposed to be celebrating your birthday.”
Alicia, looking from Robbie to Gina and back again, stood, taking Jenna by the shoulders. “Come on, ma. Let’s just go. There’s something here we don’t know about.”
Gina, her vision blurred by tears that she wanted desperately to somehow absorb back into her eyes so that nobody would see them fall, watched as Robbie went up and hugged his mother. He whispered something in her ear, something Gina didn’t quite catch.
They left, and Gina found herself alone with Robbie. She wiped her tears away while his back was turned. He stayed that way as he began to speak. “I asked you to leave.”
“I thought… You know, maybe you didn’t mean it,” Gina said. “I thought maybe you were just mad last night.”
“I meant it,” Robbie said. He still hadn’t turned to face her. “I just can’t do it anymore, Gina. You’re too much.”
“Robbie,” she said, stepping toward him. “I love you.”
“Stop that!” he said, his voice coming out as a growl more than anything that sounded human. Gina froze. “Nobody has called me that since I was a little boy. You didn’t even know me then.”
“Well, no, but I feel like I did…”
“You didn’t! Gina, we’ve only been together a few months. You need to stop acting like you know my life so well. Like you’ve always been part of it. You haven’t, Gina. And now you won’t be.”
He finally turned to face her. “Go back to your place, Gina. I’ll pack your things. You can stop by for them later. I can’t bear to look at you right now.”
“Robbie, don’t do this. You’re supposed to be mine,” Gina pleaded. “I’m supposed to be yours. We have a good thing going here, you know? We could make something that lasts.”
“I don’t want that,” Robbie said. “Not with you. You’re always snooping through my computer and my phone, as though you couldn’t just ask me about what you want to know. You can’t even pretend to get along with Tony, either, and he’s my best friend. What’s up with that?”
“He doesn’t like me,” Gina said. Her voice sounded pathetic, like a little girl whimpering. She hated herself for it.
“Nobody likes you,” Robbie said. “I thought I did, at first, but I don’t know why. My mom doesn’t like you. Alicia doesn’t like you. You’re unbearable. You constantly talk down to everyone and you act like you know better than they do even when you obviously don’t. It’s too much, Gina. Go home.”
Gina sniffed hard. She hated him, suddenly. She’d thought, after last night, that nothing he could say could make her stop loving him, but now she’d had enough. A loathing burned inside her as strongly as the passion she’d once felt. It didn’t matter how bad of a girlfriend she’d been or what she’d done, she didn’t deserve to be spoken to like this.
Gina shook her head, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She was still crying, but there was nothing to be done about that. Head held high, she marched toward the door. When Rob didn’t move out of her way fast enough, she drove her shoulder into his, hard, making them both stumble. She regained her composure immediately.
She didn’t turn to say goodbye. She didn’t say anything. Gina left. She could find someone else to make her life go better. She would have to. She just had to find the right person, someone who appreciated her. Then she could be happy.