#8 Belinda’s Birthday by Petrea Burchard

Damn hot flashes.

Belinda Marvel rolled over onto the empty Cheetos bag, blowing orange dust in her face. Her pajama pants pinched at the waist. Her stomach growled.

She allowed her sock feet to flop to the floor. The motion propelled her to sit up. On the silent TV screen a skinny girl sat crying and eating take-out on the bed in a hotel room, in a rerun of a reality show. Belinda smacked the remote. The screen went black.

Crumbs in the cookie package on the coffee table would not suffice. Belinda heaved herself to her feet and slogged off in search of food.

At first she hadn’t been able to do even that much. Rising from the couch meant confronting the swelling pile of mail under the front door slot. She hadn’t opened a single envelope. Now, after six weeks, the heap of sympathy cards and legal-sized envelopes had stopped growing. Belinda had become accustomed to it, as if it were a batch of mending she’d get to one of these days.

She rarely went down the bedroom hall except to use the bathroom. She preferred to sleep on the couch with its crowding bolsters rather than face the king-sized bed alone.

The dining room had its obstacles, too, namely the pyramid of birthday gifts gathering dust on the table. Belinda scurried through the curtained room, jiggling her new fat, avoiding the sight of the packages. She didn’t want to know what he’d meant to give her for her fiftieth birthday.

The kitchen cabinets gaped. Why bother to close them when you’re just going to open them again?

She’d started with the vegetables and fruits from her last trip to the Farmers’ Market. She had once dreamt of a garden of her own in the back yard. Organic whole foods, that was her.

He was Cheetos and cookies. He adored sugar-coated cereals and salty chips. High calorie, high fat, high bad, that was him. She had begged him to change his eating habits. She had worried about his heart. He was over fifty. He had to take care of himself.

The perishables were gone by the end of the first week. Then she’d tucked into the canned goods: first peaches, mandarin oranges, kidney beans and organic diced tomatoes. Then the refried beans, canned chili, spaghetti and tamales. He’d stocked up to prepare for disaster, not knowing what form it might take.

He’d gone early on her birthday morning to a bakery in Eagle Rock to surprise her with her favorite flourless cake. A drunk driver had hit his car head-on in the middle of the Colorado Street Bridge. He hadn’t been wearing his seat belt because it was too tight. It wouldn’t have mattered.

Two lean, healthy Pasadena Police officers had come to the door, hanging their heads and bearing his belongings, including the bag of pastries he’d bought. As soon as they left she had eaten it all, even the frosted long johns.

Belinda kicked aside empty cans, their gaping throats crusted and molding. She tore through a lower cabinet, tossing away a sack of dry lentils. One last jumbo bag of barbecue flavored potato chips was hiding there. Belinda plopped to the floor, ripped open the bag and stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth, then another. She couldn’t eat them fast enough. Little bits broke off and tumbled down the front of her pajama top. She picked them up and ate them, too. She stuffed herself with handful after handful.

Finally she licked a finger and wiped it along the inside of the bottom of the bag. Red barbecue seasonings covered her pajama top and chin.

Her stomach roared. It wasn’t enough.

A long, low moan erupted from her, but not from her stomach.

Sobs hit like hunger pangs. She was insatiable. Between wails she gasped the fetid kitchen air. Air gave power to sobs of rage.

“I won’t go out!”

“How could you get so fat?”

“How could I get so fat?”

“God damn drunk driver!”

Belinda grabbed the sack of lentils and threw it against the wall. For a few seconds, it rained lentils in the kitchen.

Belinda sat. She shook the beans from her gray-brown curls. Grasping the countertop with pudgy fingers, she pulled herself up with a grunt. She waddled to the sink, splashed cool water on her face and dried herself with a kitchen towel. The towel came away red with barbecue seasonings.

She blew her nose on a paper napkin. The trash can was spilling over. It stank. She found a grocery bag in the cabinet and put the napkin in it. She added the potato chip bag.

Belinda stood still for a minute.

Bracing herself on the countertop, she shuffled through the debris to the dining room. The presents on the table were wrapped in bright colors. He was creative. He was generous. He had liked birthdays. There were a dozen packages, all sizes and shapes. She couldn’t open them all today.

Her finger stroked the topmost gift, a chartreuse envelope addressed to “Beautiful Belinda, garden of my heart.” Belinda smiled. Not much of a poet. Another hot flash came with its immediate, internal combustion.

The envelope rattled like maracas. She slid a dirty fingernail under the seal.

Inside were seed packets: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce.

Belinda gasped. She clutched the packets to her chest. Her heart pounded.

She ran to the kitchen, kicking a path through the lentils to the back door. With shaking fingers she turned the deadbolt. Her heart whammed. She squeezed the seed packets to her lips and opened the door.

The sun rushed in with its cacophony of birdsong and fresh air. A lawnmower next door kicked up scents of cut grass, wet dirt and salvation. A fly buzzed past, a butterfly flitted through blossoms on the orange tree, a dog barked several yards away.

Grateful for the gift, Belinda breathed. In and out, in and out, in and out.

© Copyright 2009 Petrea Burchard All rights reserved.


petrea-burchardPetrea Burchard enjoyed a 30-year acting career before morphing into a writer. She is the author of the novel, Camelot & Vine, as well as Act As If: Stumbling Through Hollywood With Headshot in Hand, essays about the life of a journeyman actor in Hollywood.

She gained a following in the anime world as the original English voice of Ryoko, the sexy space pirate in the cult classic, Tenchi Muyo!, and continues to work in the voice-over field.

36 Responses to #8 Belinda’s Birthday by Petrea Burchard

  1. This story uses description so wonderfully. I love the rain of lentils. I could almost hear it. I also liked the description of havoc caused by BBQ chips, alas, something I know a thing or two about. Again, I marvel at how such full a life story can be contained in so few words. Kudos, Petrea.

  2. Excellent piece Petrea. I know it’s just a story, but you manage to create such a real scene, that’s so instantly alive, that I feel awful for poor Belinda and what she’s going through. Laurie said it best – Belinda will be ok and that makes me feel better. I know you’re busy, but keep up the writing!

  3. I also love the descriptions, especially the raining lentils. And I love the use of the seeds and garden as metaphor.

  4. Everyone has already said it, but I’ll add my two cents: nicely done. I especially enjoy reading a story that is moving and complete but with an economy of words. Can’t wait to see what comes next from Petrea…

  5. I love how you used Belinda’s eating habits to describe her process of coping with grief – she goes through her own food (the perishables), then voraciously devours his leftover junk food. As time wears on, she finds she cannot get enough of his food to fill her, just as if his memory isn’t enough to fill the void his death left in her. His gift of garden seeds has the entire food theme come full circle: it’s as if he returns a piece of herself to her, and she can finally begin to mend that void.

  6. Petrea, this is such a vivid, touching story — an original take on grieving and the start of recovery. You got so many sensory details into a tiny amount of space — well done!

  7. Thank you. I think it will be part of a larger work. As for a fan club, I’ve been actively asking people to read the story and comment. Folks are eager to find a positive thing to say. I’ve also received some constructive criticism via email! Always appreciated.

  8. Lovely job of creating a character and a relationship in very few words. And you also built a fine sense of place in a sparing way. Congratulations, Petrea.

  9. “toast” has posted almost exactly the words I had in my head as I read this piece. Very moving. Very real. Eating to fill the void – is there any woman you know who hasn’t been there?

  10. The short story has to be one of the most difficult and bravo, you gave us a whole story in a short piece. I love the detail, we feel her utter physical discomfort, the chaos in which she lives as we learn what has happened. And then happily, with the packets of seeds, we know she will be alright. I love the metaphor of seeds- that grow and so will she. She’ll clean up, she’ll eat proper food, she’ll lose weight and she’ll make a new life for herself. Superb. What started as despair ends so optimistically.

  11. Wonderful beginning! Where does Belinda go next? Will this continue? There are 11 gifts left, and several weeks from seed spreading to harvest. Keep the story moving forward, Petrea.

  12. I liked the descriptions so much, I tasted the chips and I recognized the maw of emptiness that no food fills. The smell… I love stories when I know WHAT they smell like.

  13. What I like best about the last line is its ambivalence—will she actually break from her prison? It’s not certain by the end.

  14. 1. I usually have ‘re-writes’ going on in my head as I read a piece. Nothing like that happened. I cannot come up with anything to change.

    2. You took me to a place that I’d been before, (different personal characters, but death by car accident, subsequent agoraphobia…) and tried to leave (stop reading)because of the raw memory, but you hooked me in.

    3. I need to see that garden grow. There’s a lot of recovery on her road~

    Thanks for writing this.

  15. Anna, you must be a writer. I do the same thing–edit while I read. I know I’ve come across something good when I finish without rewriting. Thanks. I take that as high praise.

    As for the recovery, whether it be yours or that of someone you love, here’s hoping there’s a lot of nurturing to go around.

  16. Hi Petrea,

    I was particularly moved by your metaphor for the piled up mail — like a batch of mending to get to some day. You can’t get to some day without slogging through the grief, though, as you illustrated so well in so few words.

    Best,

    Jane Neff Rollins

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