Every time I was down in the dumps, I would write in my diary about being the cement, but I'd have preferred it if my father had just pulled me onto his lap, with my cheek against the scratchy tweed of his jacket, so that I could listen to the thumping of his heart, the contented heartbeat that said, I am your father and I like you just the way you are.
He had turned twelve himself, once. So he ought to understand how important this day was to me. Only Dad was the kind of man who didn't ever say very much, even though, like some other mild-mannered people, he could totally lose it at times, and lash out at you out of the blue.
I couldn't stay in bed a minute longer. In the back pocket of my jeans there was a long list of dog names I'd been working on since Christmas. Some were underlined in red. As soon as I saw my dog, I would know which of them was his name.
After getting Carlos dressed and taking him downstairs, I saw that the door to the pantry was closed. I listened intently for any sound of clumsy puppy paws scrabbling on the tiles. To give myself something else to think about, I quickly set the table, taking the blue plates from the kitchen cupboard. Mother had designated those as our party dishes. When it was nobody's birthday, we used the white ones.
Just as I was finishing, Kes came into the kitchen, a monster zit on his cheek. He didn't look at me but softly whistled "Happy Birthday" as he stood buttering a slice of bread.
Nearly choking with excitement, I filled the kettle at the tap and put the water on to boil.
"Maybe we'll go to the movies this afternoon," my brother ventured after several minutes, his mouth full.
I gave a yelp of delight.
"Me too!" shrieked Carlos.
I grabbed a cracker and began smearing it with butter. "No way, silly piggy, it's my birthday."
"I say," said Billie, from the doorway. She was wearing a long white Indian-cotton dress, with red embroidery around the neck that had little mirrors worked into it. Sometimes she was so beautiful that you just couldn't believe someone as good-looking as that could be your sister. I knew she had been making out with boys at the swimming pool every summer since the age of thirteen, and that she currently had two boyfriends: one had a motorbike, the other his own room. They weren't supposed to find out about each other, and this had already netted me Billie's entire collection of makeup samples.
She glared at me severely. "You haven't by any chance peeked in the pantry, have you, Ellen?"
I shook my head no. My heart was pounding in my throat; my longing pierced my rib cage like a lance.
"Shut your eyes," said my big sister.
With my hand on the pantry handle, I squeezed my eyelids so tight that I saw white sparks.
"So, young people," came my father's voice out of the blue.
I opened my eyes, and there were my parents standing in front of me, their hair uncombed, the sleep not yet rubbed out of their eyes.
"It's my birthday," I said breathlessly.
My mother was smiling as she came toward me. Her robe hung open over her pink nightgown. Underneath you could see her stomach, which already stuck out a bit. When she bent down to kiss me on the top of my head, I got a whiff of her special smell, an indefinable odor that I used to find vaguely disturbing. It wasn't until four years later, when I lost my virginity to Jasper Staalman in the bicycle shed of the Rainbow, that I was finally able to place it: it was the tepid scent of sex that used to hover about my mother every morning.
"Good God," she said, abruptly standing up straight, both hands clutching her belly, "I feel the baby! For the first time! Here, give me your hand, Ellen, feel. Isn't that a wonderful birthday present?"
"Me too!" yelled Carlos. He jumped up, arms stretched out.
Reprinted from A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein by Permission of Viking Books, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Renate Dorrestein. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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