Caitlin Cowan

Today is Your Birthday

Today is your birthday. I think you are in an ashram somewhere.

The last time I saw you was just before you left Michigan. You came to the door wearing those god damn pajama bottoms. You’d abandoned real pants altogether. It was part of the Alexander Technique. I could never tell if you were fully dressed anymore, the flannel pants giving the impression that I’d caught you in some state of dishabille. But you were sleeping better, had less pain. I have nineteen hours until it’s no longer your birthday. 

The Technique was developed by an Australian actor over a hundred years ago. It’s a practice of mind-body awareness, a favorite among musicians like us. You used to quote his promise of “the freedom to choose beyond conditioning” whenever you extolled him. But moving beyond the conditioning of our bodies soon led Alexander to advocate transcending the conditioning of our minds. He wanted to fix the head along with everything else. You liked this part very much.

You know what I liked about the Technique? The time you showed me how to do it. I was lying on the floor in my basement, knees raised, your face hiding behind them: the moon behind a fence. You told me to “notice” things—the soles of my feet, the curve of my back, my arms, my shoulders. Notice where they meet the floor. I focused, intently, on one thing after another—ankles, thighs, neck. You took your hands, always trembling in some permanent vibrato, and pressed them to my hips. I didn’t need any more moments after that one: your trilling fingers on me, the carpet a bed of nails.

I said nothing about your clothes the last time I saw you, after you’d let me in out of the cold. I was hoping you’d offer me a drink to steady my hands, but you’d sworn that off too. After you named seventeen types of tea, I asked for water. Those nights when your hands crept into my pants in the back of my parked car were the furthest thing from your mind. You were past all that now. 

I used to think the Technique was a cult, made jokes about your Kool-Aid to our friends. In time, I saw its power. Your neck was no longer tensed, gripping your violin long after you’d put it back in its case. You slipped off your pain like a stiff jacket. It made you free—so free that you got out of here, all the way to India.

In my daydreams, you are always wearing white. The ground is a beautiful ochre. You lower your hands to taste it, wear it on your cheekbones like eye black. I only know India from books and movies. You’ve given birth to yourself there. Your birthday ends in seven hours, and I’m wondering how much postage to India costs, whether mail registers on your plane of existence anymore. Ink, pixels, carrier pigeons: these missives must seem so low to you now. 

Today is your birthday, and I wonder what your mother would think if I showed up on her doorstep holding a gift-wrapped banjo and a three-tiered cake. Though I couldn’t tell you the names of the streets anymore, if I got in the car, my hands and ankles would remember how to make the drive. Past the spires of Kirk-in-the-Hills, past the glum pockmark of the manmade lake we never set foot in, all the way to Troy with the squat castle of cake riding shotgun.

In this fantasy, I’ll come inside and your mom and I will eat the cake with two mismatched forks. Then I’ll bring the banjo upstairs to your room. There are only a few hours left. I’ll lie in your bed and look up at your sketch of that Dali poster I had in college: the giraffe on fire. I’ll wish you’d drawn me instead, wrote me a concerto, stayed here.

I’ll take out my lipstick—the same shade you used to wipe from your mouth—and scrawl a note to you:

did you get far enough? happy bday xx

No, I won’t; for years, the way you noticed me was my only religion. We have to try, to believe in something. It’s just that the something is always changing. One more hour. 

I’ll stare at the giraffe’s long, painless neck and dream of stringing it like a fiddle. Maybe I’ll unwrap the banjo and let it keep me company. But that would ruin the surprise.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Caitlin Cowan’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Pleiades, Anomaly, SmokeLong Quarterly, Entropy, and elsewhere. A finalist for the Levis Prize in Poetry and the BOAAT Book Prize, she’s won the Littoral Press Poetry Prize, the Mississippi Review Prize, the Fugue Poetry Prize, and an Avery Hopwood Award. She’s taught writing at the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University, and Interlochen Center for the Arts, and serves as the Director of International Tours at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Find her at