First Story

A birthday, a voice, a desk and connecting through coincidence


in First Person • Illustrated by Esther Lee


On my first birthday after the death of my father, all I wanted was to spend the afternoon with him at the cemetery. He had never missed a birthday of mine; not even when he was in a wheelchair in a recovery facility, and I was a little girl on the other side of the world. I grew up on that story, retold by him over and over, my imagination filling in the details: his face unshaven, wheeling himself to the payphone at the end of the hall in the middle of the night to account for the time difference between Tel Aviv and San Francisco, fumbling with his unharmed left hand, resting the receiver on his shoulder and pushing his ear against it so he could use that same hand’s fingers to dial — all this to reach me at my grandparents’ house, where it was midday and the family was gathering to celebrate my eighth birthday. No gift would arrive from him that year, but even at eight, I was okay with that. My father was alive, which was more than I imagined possible after seeing the look on my grandfather’s face when he received the call informing him, one Friday evening a few weeks prior, of my father’s stroke. 

“Will he still be able to tell me stories?” I had asked my mom as we left my grandparents’ house after the life-changing phone call, walking through the green iron gate in the chill of the Tel Aviv spring evening, the usually comforting squeak of the gate’s hinges rattling me for the first time. There was something unfamiliar to all sounds and scents from then on for me. I sensed a sudden gaping hole in a world that, unstable as it had been, held the sustained security of my strong, kind, and soft-eyed father, his low and warm voice on the other end of the phone. After the stroke, I would anticipate with a mixture of dread and elation the international calls with my father, the long-distance love of my little life. I’d sit on the bone-hard wooden chair in the dark hallway of my grandparents’ home, wrapping the coiled soft spiral of the telephone cord around my bare foot as I listened to him share all he could about his life, his longings, the San Francisco I missed terribly. He’d always say something funny to make me laugh and I would share what I could remember of my days in my Israeli-tainted accent, a sweet sound to his ears, piercing him in all the places that mattered. We’d say our goodbyes ritualistically, always ending with a 1-2-3! so that neither of us would have to say the last goodbye.  

Today, on my second birthday after his death, I am suspended between the worlds of a haunting grief and life almost feeling real again. The little girl inside of me still thinks that her father will somehow find a way to wish her a Happy Birthday, death just being the latest and most difficult hurdle he must overcome to get to me. I find myself in bed, devoid of any desire to celebrate another year around the sun with the husband I love and the children I adore. I close my eyes, feeling the tears well up and slide down my temples.  

Happy Birthday, my Nomi-Nom.  

My father’s voice floats into the stillness of my bedroom, the late April fog hanging outside my window, as gray as my father’s eyes. Gloomy, but dependable.  

Though tears still stream quietly down the sides of my face, I am now also smiling, that precious temperance of the sky when the rainbow stretches out after the swing of rain and sun — filled with the realization that my father is not going to let me stay in bed on the day he used to celebrate more than any other day of the year. 

I want more than Happy Birthday from him, but my father doesn’t say anything for many long moments. Then his voice becomes one with mine — just how it came to me in the hospital, when he told me that, if it was too much, I didn’t have to hold his hand as he was dying. That he was my father and would continue to protect me until his last breath — a breath I watched him take in the fluorescent-lit room after having gently touched his face, whispering, You can go now, Daddy, it’s ok. 

On this foggy San Francisco morning, his voice returns. Go get yourself a birthday gift from me. That fancy writing desk you’ve been eyeing at the store on the corner. Please.  

And what I hear is what he’s always said to me: Write. Please, write. 

I jump out of bed and put on some clothes, telling my husband I’ll be right back. I am a woman on a mission — but even while filled with purpose, my father’s voice is replaced with me second-guessing myself. Am I just looking for an excuse to buy an expensive piece of furniture?   

I walk to the fancy furniture store up the street and go directly to the desk I have eyed for years. I stand in admiration and bliss — until I see the price tag. I knew it was expensive, but not that expensive. My heart falls flat, but I’m not ready to give up. A saleswoman walks by, welcoming me to the store with a silent nod. 

“Are there any other writing desks?” I ask, and follow her down to the basement, where she leaves me alone to admire a desk half the price and a lot sleeker than the first one: dark brown, with golden hand-carved inlays on the sides.  

“It’s gorgeous,” I say out loud, taking a seat to get the full experience.  

I remember the last time I sought out a writing desk. The kids were little and I was in my previous marriage, clawing at any symbolic thing that would help me anchor myself to my truest identity: a writer. That desk was pretty. Someone had upcycled it, painting it a light and thoughtful blue, with silver accents throughout. I had felt so empowered, spending money we didn’t have to claim my identity and plop this desk in the middle of the living room — only to discover that it wasn’t intended originally as a desk, but was clearly a vanity. I tried to make it work by pulling out the drawer and setting my laptop on it, piling pillows on the chair to give me more height, but then my knees didn’t fit underneath it anymore. A pretty piece that still hasn’t found its true purpose, yet I still lug it with me through apartments and houses and relationships.  

This time, though, I am going to get a proper desk, for a proper writer. And I have my father’s voice urging me along. 

My thoughts are interrupted by the saleswoman, who has joined me in the basement and is holding out color printouts of the desk with all the details and dimensions.  

“I’ve attached my business card — you can call me directly if you have any questions, or when you are ready to buy it.” 

I smile and thank her, then look down at her card. My eyes widen, and I look up back at her. 

Goldner?” I pronounce. 

“Mhmmhmm, that’s my last name.” She’s very polite, and a bit reserved. I suddenly feel self-conscious of what I’m wearing, having barely pulled myself out of bed before stepping into this high-end store.  

“That’s — that’s my last name too,” I mumble, very aware of my leggings and tattered Target sweater. “It’s, um . . . Well, I’ve never met another Goldner.” 

She relaxes. Her smile is warmer, and more genuine. “I know. I’ve only met one other Goldner in my entire life.” 

I hear my father’s laughter in my head: the master of coincidences. I remember when he taught me the word, both of us sitting on his soft and painfully ugly sofa on Diamond Street, in my San Francisco childhood home. He lived for the serendipitous events that brought together people and time, magic and wonder. Later, when I was older and asserting myself, I would be mad that he thought of these things as something as base as mere coincidences, when I wanted to assign them a deep spiritual meaning. I would shudder when someone would call something a “coincidence,” believing wholeheartedly that it held a bigger meaning — a clue meant to lead me to my many destinies. 

“The only other Goldner I met was a man who was a professor at San Francisco State,” she continues, pulling me out of my thoughts.  

My father’s distinct, rolling laughter fills my ears, growing louder.  

“That was my father,” I sputter, and add for clarity, “I am his daughter.” 

The saleswoman has taken a seat at one of the carved wooden chairs for sale next to the desk.  “I heard he passed away a couple of years ago. I’m sorry.” 

My father isn’t laughing anymore, and I’m afraid her words will make him disappear.  

I stir in my seat, grasping at what to say next. I am determined to make the most of the magic at work here, to keep him here, with me, for just a little longer. To prove to myself, to the saleswoman –– to my father –– that this isn’t just a chance encounter. This is him, showing me that it wasn’t my crazy imagination that sent me to this store on my birthday. He really is telling me to buy myself a writing desk –– a desk I will have to commit to, living my life as the creator he always wanted me to be. 

Tell her. My father is back, his love of people and life ringing in my ears. Share this coincidence with her!  

I hear desperation in his voice and for the first time I don’t mind that he used that word, though I know it’s more than any coincidence could ever be. I am worried that trying to connect on such a deep level with a total stranger, with whom I share only a last name, might take the magic away from this moment. But he insists. Tell her, Naomi. Please, he pleads, his voice now raspy and urgent, the way he sounded at the hospital a day before he died, begging for food that he couldn’t swallow. 

 “Thank you,” I reply to her condolences. I wonder how she even knew about his death. “You know, I am kind of in disbelief right now.” 

She looks at me questioningly. 

“It’s my birthday today, and I was sad — really missing my father. And I swear I heard him tell me to come here and buy myself a writing desk. I have admired this store since I moved around the corner a few years ago.”  

I see my father’s face in a state of anticipation: the face he wore while listening to me, to his students, to his grandchildren — waiting for the punchline, ready to respond with a laugh or a gasp or something witty. He is waiting to hear what saleswoman Goldner will say about my story, and I am waiting with him. 

“Well, then,” she clasps her hands and rests them in her lap, taking a breath. “It is meant to be.” 

My father and I sigh in relief, in unison, acknowledging her confirmation. I don’t care if this is just a sales tactic, or if she thinks me crazy; I am happy, and it’s my birthday. I will get the desk — and I also have a story to share with my family when I return home. Then I’ll be ready for cake and presents.  

“I’ll buy it,” I say, and stand up, my thumb still grasping the papers and stapled-on business card.  

And the first story I will write on it, I promise my father, will be this one.


Naomi Anne Goldner is a San Francisco-based writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University, and her work has been performed, published and anthologized in various journals and publications including The Hill, Variant Lit, Entropy Magazine, Quiet Lightning, The Festival Review, and Qu Literary, to name a few. Founder of WordSpaceStudios Literary Arts and editor-in-chief of Chariot Press Journal, she is in the finishing stages of her debut novel.