You make me smile like the sun
fall out of bed, sing like a bird
dizzy in my head…
“…spin like a record, crazy on a Sunday night,” (Reader) sang with the radio as she fluttered out of her fitting room. “Smile” by Uncle Kracker was sweet even when her crushes were limited to celebrity fantasies. Meeting Romano made the song so adorable that (Reader) could not sit still. The caffeinated butterflies from the touch of Romano’s hand returned to lift her from the ground and send her into an enamored tizzy.
“Erm, isn’t that the opposite of how you want to feel on your birthday?” Michelle asked.
“Oh come on, guys, it’s just the song! It just makes me happy and want to bounce all over the place because it sounds like cuteness and falling in love.”
Mabel could not contain her laughter and nearly fell out of her power chair. (Reader) leapt across the floor, the skirt of her dress twirling as she danced the tarantella with an imaginary Romano. Other patrons in the Guess store smiled, her joy infectious in every movement. Some paid compliments to the dress she tried on, saying how perfect it was for her. Thanking them for their kind words was the right thing to do, but Mabel, Michelle, and (Reader) all knew they were complimenting the wrong thing. A piece of clothing only carries as much life as its wearer, and through each note of “Smile”, (Reader) brought the vibrancy of cupid’s arrows to a simplistic red halter dress. Her touch would have been apparent regardless, having paired the dress with a black pleather waist belt, black grommet boots, and a tastefully understated military jacket. Regardless of how one styled a dress, no accessory rivaled a smitten woman’s vibrancy when frocked in red.
“You have to get this dress,” Mabel said, “It’s so perfect for you!”
Michelle was about to speak until she glanced at Mabel’s power chair. After getting jabbed in the shins over lunch, it seemed to risky to blurt out what she wanted to say. If she did not get jabbed or run over by Mabel, she would get yelled at by Romano for potentially ruining the surprises of the weekend. How she longed to tell (Reader) that she would need to wear more red and green after the weekend was over. That the red Guess dress was the perfect complement for the hunter green bandage dress from Bebe with all the gold buckles. Swallowing her urge to blab, Michelle did the next best thing and jumped out of the fitting room in a swanky turquoise dress, joining (Reader) in a colorful performance of romance in bloom. Summer blue swirling with rose red as the two friends sighed in their dance. Mabel swiveled alongside them, joining their color brigade with swaying purple tips.
Sometimes it was harder for (Reader) to decide what she loved more about love: the enjoyment of someone interweaving with her heart, or the way said enjoyment tightened her friendships.
Alongside the red dress, (Reader) left with a burgundy sweater vest, trimmed with a faux fur collar. (Reader) was excited to take both home until she saw the cost on the register. The vest in and of itself would have been enough to break her budget. Combined with the dress, (Reader) found herself hemming and hawing to choose.
“Get the dress!” Michelle exclaimed, “You know Romano’s going to love to see you in it, and think about how much we were twirling in them back there.”
“You’ve got so many dresses though,” Mabel noted, “You’ve never had a fur trimmed vest before, and it would be a great addition to your wardrobe.”
The salesperson gestured for (Reader) to lean in over the counter.
“I can take off another forty percent,” she said.
“Tell me if I heard that right,” (Reader) hesitated, turning her good ear towards the salesperson, “You said you’d…take off…thirty percent?”
“Are you serious?”
(Reader) was eager to accept, but found herself unexpectedly stopped by an unwanted visitor.
“You can’t accept something like this Think of the other person. You’re putting them at risk for their job, and for what? Just because you look pretty? That’s as stupid as having a sweet sixteen, I won’t allow it. How dare you even think about being this selfish in the first place. You don’t ever think about other people. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be late anywhere, and you wouldn’t accept anything like this from another person. You always said you wanted to be independent when you grew up, right? You really think taking something like this is being independent? Humph, you’re not even grateful for what you got for your birthday, or you wouldn’t consider taking the discount. I can’t even believe you’d let someone pay this much for you anyway.”
Any smile (Reader) had on her face gradually faded as her mother’s voice echoed louder in her mind. Some of the words were exact quotations from previous fights while others were sentiments expressed in passing conversations. The louder her mother became, the harder it was for her to accept anything nice. (Reader) considered walking out of Guess and stopping her shopping spree with the dress from Bebe, pretending it was more than enough just to silence her mother’s voice. Thinking about the notions of being ‘grateful’ and ‘independent’ made (Reader) want to hide from the world, feeling like the only way she could ever express both was through invisibility. ‘Grateful’ in that she should take anything her mother gave, regardless of whether or not she actually wanted it. ‘Independent’ in that she should not accept sushi from her friends, allow them to add extra money for gifts, or take the discount from the salesperson at Guess.
“After seeing you in that dress and that vest, they have to be yours! You’re just too happy in them not to have them. Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
With a few keyboard clicks, the final price was radically slashed.
“Yes,” Michelle said, “She’ll take it!”
I can’t believe it. I can’t believe someone could be so amazing to a stranger. Just…wow…to see all of this kindness after how Mom behaved on my birthday. The discounts. The extra money. The sushi boat and the fried ice cream. I don’t know what to say! I just want to hug everyone right now because everyone’s making me feel so amazing and so…wanted. I don’t know how else to describe it! I just can’t believe people would want to be this nice to me!
A push from Michelle was all (Reader) needed to give the salesperson her card. Michelle could tell right away that (Reader)’s hesitation was connected to her mother…again. The discount was hardly the first thing (Reader) struggled to accept because of her mother’s voice. Dresses were superficial compared to having a flamboyant and vibrant personality, rather than self-abnegating and submissive. In a household based in traditional values, wherein the mother always held power over the children, (Reader) found herself in frequent clashes that she could never win. For all the promises and sympathies Reader’s dad offered in fights, his alliance was always with (Reader)’s mother. The combination of Dad’s enablement and Mom’s temper was enough to make (Reader) feel broken if she imagined doing anything her mother would dislike. Had Michelle and Mabel not been around, (Reader)’s life would have been far more closed off.
“Thanks,” (Reader) said as they walked out of Guess, “I needed that.”
“Heck yeah you did,” Michelle said, “I could see everything on your face the moment you hesitated to say ‘yes.’”
“(Reader),” Mabel noted, “You’ve got to remember the world is not your mother. You’re not going to get screamed at if you accept too much generosity. It’s not “charity” or “mooching” or any of those fucking “polite” society rules your mother always talks about.”
“Besides, it’s your birthday. What’s wrong with properly celebrating it? Getting what you want and being happy with it? Absolutely nothing if you ask me.”
“Exactly. That’s why Mom and I agreed to treat you to the sushi boat today.”
“Yeah, and exactly why Romano’s been slaving in the kitchen all afternoon to make you a seven course Italian dinner from scratch.”
“HE’S WHAT?!” (Reader) exclaimed, cupping her hands over her mouth.
Romano’s cooking is so amazing, and with the way he likes to prepare everything, he must have been working on it all afternoon! Oh wow, Roma, you really are the best boyfriend in the world. I mean, I know you haven’t said anything to make it official yet, but with how amazing you are, I can’t really see you any other way. I love these dresses I’ve gotten to pieces and lunch with the girls was amazing…but holy shit, you making me dinner, Romano, that’s going to be the best parts of my birthday! Coming back to Feli’s place and you happy to see me with home cooked gourmet…it’ll be the best at-home birthday I’ve ever had! Just thinking about it now makes me feel all warm and fluttery and like dancing! If there’s ever a cure for me feeling bad after something Mom does, it’s you. You and all the food you make at home.
“Michelle,” Mabel hissed, “That was supposed to be part of the surprise!”
(Reader) was hardly able to contain her excitement, bouncing on her toes and shrieking “ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod! Romano you are the most amazing man in the entire universe and when I get over to your place I’m going to kiss you so hard you won’t be able to walk straight for a week! God, what did I do to deserve someone as amazing and awesome as you, ‘cause I wanna keep doing it for as long as possible.”
Any bad feelings created by her mother were thrown to the back of (Reader)’s mind. In spite of wearing heavy blush, (Reader) managed to turn so scarlet that her blush looked invisible. Her smile became so large that it threatened to split her face in half. Thinking back to the Guess store radio, (Reader) began to sing “Smile” again as she bounced on her toes through the mall.
You make me dance like a fool
Forget how to breathe
Shine like gold, buzz like a bee
Just the thought of you can drive me wild
Oh, you make me smile
The smell of warm tomatoes permeated throughout the apartment as Romano and Feliciano continued to prepare (Reader)’s dinner. Marinara sauce gently simmered on the stove, alongside creamy tomato basil soup, causing Romano to sneak bites of tomato in between stirs. Knowing he could not make a seven course meal without eating at least a dozen tomatoes, Romano bought extras at the farmer’s market. Asking him to not eat tomatoes when their smell was so strong was like asking him not to breathe: simply impossible. Romano skipped breakfast so he could gorge himself on tomatoes while still having room for (Reader)’s birthday dinner. Any little thing he could do to make her birthday perfect was worthwhile, even if it left him frustrated, cranky, or worse yet, smelly.
Time gripped Romano tightly as he pulled the calamari from the fridge and gutted it over the kitchen sink. Buying a pre-cut piece would have been preferable, but Romano’s budget only gave him enough for whole calamari. Romano refused to settle for anything less than the perfect birthday dinner he had envisioned for the past week, after learning (Reader)’s mother would not allow calamari in the house. One incident of food poisoning thirty years earlier was enough to keep her from ever eating it again, or tolerating it beyond (Reader)’s brother eating rings of it in restaurants. Between yet another restriction from (Reader)’s mother and seafood being a staple of southern Italian cuisine, Romano knew stuffed calamari was the perfect dish for (Reader)’s birthday. It was a gift of liberation straight from his heart, and one he knew (Reader) would treasure.
Now the trick was getting the calamari fully prepared and taking a shower before (Reader) arrived. Calamari may taste amazing on the plate, but its raw smell was one Romano hardly called seductive. The likelihood of (Reader) enjoying roses and strawberries beneath his sheets would drastically decrease if he smelled like the fish market. Romano longed to get the calamari into the pot as quickly as possible, but he also knew it was too delicate to rush. One mistake and (Reader)’s birthday dinner would be over before it even began.
“Fratello,” (Brother) Feliciano chirped, “I finished making all the spaghetti. We’ve got enough to serve twelve people for dinner tonight.”
“Great, whatever,” Romano grumbled as he pulled the calamari half.
Feliciano winced as he watched the innards separate from the cephalopod’s body.
“You didn’t buy one pre-cleaned?”
“I only had enough for one that was whole.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have chipped in.”
“Because this is my gift to (Reader), dammit! This is my dinner. My cooking. I only asked you to be part of it to make sure she got it on time! She’ll be here at six thirty, and I want everything piping hot on the table when she arrives!”
“That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have helped with the calamari. It would be your gift to her, even if I paid extra.”
No fucking way am I letting another man pay for anything for (Reader), especially you, Buttcrotch. I want her to be my girlfriend, and I have to show her I can give her anything she wants! If you step in, you’ll take her away from me and I can’t let that happen.
“Non ho bisogno della tua cazzo di beneficenza, dannazione! Posso fornire (Reader) me stesso! Che tipo di uomo pensi che io sia?” (I don't need your fucking charity, goddammit! I can provide for (Reader) myself! What kind of man do you think I am?)
“Ho appena pensato…” (I just thought)
“You just thought you could come in and take (Reader) away from me by taking over my birthday dinner for her?”
“Romano, I would never do anything like that. I just thought you’d want some help. Haven’t you even wrapped her presents yet?”
“DAMMIT! I knew I forgot something! Fuck, it’s five thirty already, and I’m not done with dinner!”
“It’s okay if you need me to take over. This will still be your dinner even if I do more than you originally had in mind.”
“Yeah, and how do you know that? You’re already making the spaghetti. I don’t want you making anything else and then pretend it’s mine.”
“So che questo è il tuo regalo (Reader). Ho fatto gli spaghetti solo perché so che sei nervoso.” (I know this is your gift to (Reader). I only made the spaghetti because I know you're nervous).
“Che cazzo ti fa pensare che sono nervoso? Non voglio che ti rovini tutto come fai sempre!” (What the fuck makes you think I'm nervous? I don't want you ruining everything the way you always do!)
“You don’t have to pretend with me, fratello. I know how much she means to you. It’s written all over your face every time she comes over.”
Romano sighed and rested his elbows on the counter, sinking his head into his hands.
If I can’t get her birthday or anything else right for her, what kind of boyfriend could I ever be? What right do I have to ask someone as amazing as her to be with me if I can’t give her something as simple as a good birthday?
“I wasn’t lying to you when I told you that you make sorella (sister) happy, and no matter how dinner turns out, I know she’ll love it. She loves Italian food, especially if it’s yours. She always has. Don’t you remember how she ran away with half of your pizza at my party?”
Romano chuckled, thinking of how deliciously adorable (Reader) looked while shoving his pizza into her face. It was a castoff meal simply made to get Feliciano off his back about helping with party preparations, yet somehow, (Reader) thought it was the best pizza she had ever tasted.
“It’s not like you were even trying that hard when making pizza anyway, and she still thought it was great. With a meal you’ve put your heart into, she’ll know. She’ll be able to taste it, and it’ll be better than anything she could get in a restaurant?”
With a small gasp, Romano fought to hold back tears. This was the first time Feliciano had anything truly nice to say about him since they were children.
(Reader)…you’re not here and you still make my life better. Buttcrotch just said something nice about me for the first time in years thanks to you.
“Y-you really mean it…Veneziano?”
“Lo voglio, fratello. Lo voglio.” (I do, brother. I do)
Romano swallowed a wad of snot and choked out, “Grazie.”
“Now, let me ask you again. Do you need me to take over or not?”
Romano was about to blurt out “cazzo, no” (fuck, no) when his left hand began to shake.
Hiding his hand from Feliciano, Romano nodded and stammered, “I have to go wrap (Reader)'s presents. They really need to look nice, you know?”
Before Feliciano could say anything, Romano bolted into his bedroom, trying to reach under his bed with his right hand. Grabbing the wrapping paper was easy, but grasping each gift was difficult, especially with his steady hand threatening to shake. Stress was one of the worst triggers for chorea attacks, and the obsessive planning for (Reader)’s birthday was starting to wear him thin.
I really hope you adore your birthday celebration, (Reader), and all the gifts I have for you.
Just as his fingers traced over her gifts, there was abrupt knock at the door. Romano’s worst fears were confirmed when he overheard Feliciano shout, “SORELLA! Buon compleanno!” (SISTER! Happy birthday!)
“Grazie, Feli!” she exclaimed, her voice loud and booming.
“You’re here earlier than I thought. It’s only 6:00.”
“I couldn’t stay away once Michelle told me what Romano was doing for dinner.”
Goddammit, Michelle! This was supposed to be a fucking surprise. You’re damn lucky you’re a girl or I’d fucking kill you!
“I see she still can’t keep a secret.”
“No, she really can’t…but it just made shopping that much better because well…I couldn’t stop thinking about Romano the entire time.”
Romano chuckled and shouted, “You’re really bad at whispering, (Reader). You know that, right?”
“No shit, Romano. I’m partially deaf…but you can’t blame me for trying, right?”
“I guess not…all right, ragazza (girl) , I’ll be out in five minutes.”
(Reader) and Feliciano giggled, knowing “five minutes” from Romano meant at least fifteen.