She decided to celebrate his birthday anyway. He might not be there, but they had celebrated it together for thirty years—as kids, teenagers, and adults, and then, for thirteen years, as a couple. Tim had been gone a year and a half, but it was still his birthday, and Sophie thought she’d celebrate it instead of spend it crying.
The idea came to her when she went into the grocery store and stopped at the cake and cookie counter to get a single small cookie with icing on it—her treat for herself when she was feeling down, and since it was two days before his birthday, she was sad.
While she waited for the guy who was usually so nice when she got a cookie with icing, but was being especially grumpy that day, she looked at the specialty cake area. That’s when she saw it: a small blue hippo cake.
When she was handed her cookie, she asked, “The hippo cake? How long are they good?”
“Two days,” the grumpy guy answered.
She stared at the cake for a long moment. “How long has that one been there?”
“It was here Wednesday when I worked, and today is . . . well, Friday, so it’s still good.”
Her shoulders shrank a bit, “So it wouldn’t be good Sunday.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so,” he said.
She started to walk away, but turned back and asked, “Can I order one?”
He seemed surprised, but said, “Sure.”
Sophie ordered a purple one. He had been that, a purple hippo. Early on, when they first started dating, she had a dream that he was a hippo, a happy hippo, and even though she was human, she loved him anyway and fed him leaves. Later that day, she had been trying to describe what a rhino felt like because she had gotten to pet one at the zoo years earlier. “An elephant,” she suggested, but he shook his head, smiling his crooked smile. “A pig?” He chuckled and shook his head. She thought about it. “A . . . camel?” He shook his head again. It hit her, “Like the bottom of my feet!” They laughed until they were giggling and falling into each other.
The next night he walked into her apartment with two stuffed animals—a hippo and a rhino. That’s how their nicknames were born, and they stuck for the whole thirteen years of their relationship. They rarely called each other Tim and Sophie, it was always Hippo and Rhino.
The morning of Tim’s birthday, it would be his 42nd, the bakery department called her. “What kind of cake would you like?”
“A purple hippo one,” she said, confused. They had awakened her from dreaming of him, of them being on vacation in San Francisco, walking on Fisherman’s Wharf toward Pier 29 where the sea lions are. It was something they had never done—gone on vacation together—because of the dogs. He didn’t want them to be boarded, so he stayed home when she traveled. She had called him one time from Pier 29, and they laughed when she called him later that night because he hadn’t been able to hear her at all over the sea lions barks.
“Right, a purple hippo. What type of cake?” the lady politely asked again.
“Oh,” she woke up some. “White.”
Tim had known she liked white cake with buttercream icing. He had preferred chocolate when they got together, but over the years it had changed to be white with buttercream, too.
The last birthday of his that they had celebrated together, she had gotten them each a cupcake, white with buttercream, but didn’t put any candles in either of them since he didn’t like to be turning forty. She had also gotten pancake mix, blueberries, and blueberry syrup, and made blueberry pancakes that morning. That day they had gone on a short road trip for his birthday, just a couple hours away, so they could get back for the dogs. They went to VentHaven, the museum for retired ventriloquist mannequins. They had learned they weren’t “dummies,” but “mannequins.” Sophie had been afraid that it would be terrifying looking at all of the mannequins. In movies and on TV they were so scary, but in person they were intricate and amazing, and Tim and Sophie were both glad he had chosen this for his birthday.
Then they went to the Newport Aquarium. Sophie had bought special passes for them to get a behind the scenes tour, and tickets for a “penguin experience.” They had gotten to pet penguins and spend time with them for half an hour, just the two of them and one aquarium staff. Sometimes now she pulled up the pictures from VentHaven and of them with the penguins on her computer. She had them backed up in three places. She had gotten him a penguin t-shirt before they left the aquarium, which he wore all the time after that. It was the best birthday they had celebrated in all that time together. She kept that t-shirt in a drawer with a few other things of his.
When she got to the grocery store, she went to the card department first. The second card Sophie pulled out said, “The only thing that would be better about this card would be if I got to give it to you in person.” It had a cute dog sticking out of a mailbox on it, and he had loved all dogs. It was just right. She bought it along with the cake and headed home.
She filled out the card with what she would have said to him that year if she had been able to give it to him. Things about how much she missed him, how much the dogs missed him, how hard it was going to be to turn 42 this year without him turning 42 six weeks before her. She put the card on the side of the couch and went into the kitchen and cut herself a piece of purple hippo cake. It was more of a deep lilac than lavender, which he had been in their stories and jokes, but she thought that actually made it a bit easier. Over the years she had amassed a large collection of rhino and hippo figurines, and she and Tim always liked the lavender hippos best.
She ate hippo cake, opened the card and read it, and then put it with the hundreds of other cards she had sent him in the drawer where he had kept them. One day that Tim had decided to kill himself, a year before he actually did it, Sophie gave him six cards, and it he had changed his mind. She hadn’t known that until months later when he told her. She touched the stack of cards that she had tried to keep him happy with and then slid the drawer closed.
Elizabeth Glass holds Masters degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling Psychology. She is the recipient of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council, and is winner of the 2013 Emma Bell Miles Prize in creative nonfiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of journals and magazines including New Plains Review, Still, The Journal, Writer’s Digest. The Chattahoochee Review, and New Southerner. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.