“Happy Birthday” by Cordelia Shan4 min read

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Photo by Gift Habeshaw

“Dinner together?” the older version of me proposes, her red lips open and close, saying it clear and sound.

“Our birthday, my treat.”

She takes out the lipstick and adds another layer on top, her body leaning in toward me. An unusual gust of wind sweeps between us, and she leans back slightly, balancing her weight on one leg. As the jingle of a tsubaki bell on her green kimono bag cuts through the air, her hands find refuge in her pockets.

We make our way to Raku on Queen Street West. I cannot help but roll my eyes thinking about the timing of my fifty-one-year-old self’s arrival.

“I did not think you could make it to today.”

The older self did not come all this way alone; she brought seven-year-old us, now holding my hand. “さばすしたべたい,” the younger me chimes in and interrupts the rolling of my sore eyes. I smile timidly at her enthusiasm. The strap of her backpack slips off her shoulder, and I recognize it as the same golden, cherry-shaped one I wore when I had just moved back to Beijing.

The past and the future, it seems, have caught up with the present.

Walking into the narrow restaurant, we are seated in a booth at the back. Future me orders sake, and I offer to help the three of us order saba sushi and duck udon. A yellow light shines above us.

Future me pours herself a small cup of warm sake and replaces my sake cup with a cup of tea. She muses, “What if I tell you I don’t eat saba anymore?”

“うそつき!” “骗人!” younger me and I exclaim at once, unable to accept that we might ever dislike saba sushi.

The fifty-one-year-old laughs, grasping the sides of her face with her hands, her chin to the sky. Her hearty laugh makes people around us look over, but she makes no apologies and gulps down the sake. Silvery highlights glint from her hair and wave in the commotion. I stare at the mole below the corner of her mouth. I never thought it could be so alluring.

Over duck udon soup and tempura, we reminisce, navigating a dainty dance. I notice our reflection, inverted on the surface of the duck broth; an upside-down Three of Cups. After eating, older me, with a cigarette poised between her fingers and a dull spark in her eyes, weaves a tapestry of memories that twists and moulds reality and imagination.

The younger one falls asleep in my arms after the food. A series of murmurs escape her tiny lips, punctuating the silence. I touch her round little face and gaze at her long, dark eyelashes. Fingering the waves of her hair, I notice some short-cropped pieces around her ears. I look up to see the smoke from the older one’s cigarette flowing to the ceiling.

Finishing the sake, older me orders a glass of red wine and pours more tea into my cup. “I found her crying alone beside the river today. Someone in her class cut her hair – you know, you remember.”

“Why do you never return my letters?” I wave my hand to sweep the smoke in front of us away.

“You ask too many questions,” she whispers, “but here I am, as I know you were going to do it tonight, carry out your plan.”

My gaze lingers on the younger one’s face, three of my fingers tracing the wood grain on the table. Waiters bustle around us, ferrying dishes and empty plates; their quick steps stir up a breeze, and the tsubaki bell chimes, pulling my attention back to my older self. Her hands rest on the table, left fingers rhythmically tapping.

“Will I be okay?” I pause, fixated on her round crimson nails. Then I point to the younger one, “Will we be okay?” The question hangs in the air, fragile.

Older me leans in, looks at our younger, sleeping face, and then turns her focus on me with a tilt of her head. She opens the kimono bag and passes me a piece of paper and a cigarette with two fingers, her gaze distant and filled with quiet resolve. “Remember that the opposite of success is not failure; it is never starting.”

She abruptly stands, pays the bill, and asks me to wake the younger one up. Outside, a fresh, earthy aroma trails the rain shower that has just passed. There is always rain on our birthday. Younger me offers a hug, “またあうねー” nuzzling her baby face into my coat. Older me beckons her, warning of our mother’s worry. The young one steps toward her with pursed lips.

I watch them leave, relieved, then turn, holding the note in my pocket. I know that today is not the day. On my way home, I ask for a light from a girl in a purple skirt standing at the bus stop beside the convenience store. I take a deep inhale of the cigarette, then exhale, watching the smoke drift skyward.



Cordelia Shan is made in China with various East Asian ingredients, based in Toronto, ON. A creator, writer, literary translator, and producer. Currently marinating in Creative Writing at OCAD University. 

1 comment

Allie 19 June, 2024 - 3:07 am

This is so beautiful. It feels so sad but so hopeful. I really hope Cordelia Shan continues to write as she is so graceful with her words


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