He found himself leaning away from her, and it surprised him.
Not obvious to anyone casually observing, but there was a definite list in his posture, like a recently planted flower reaching for the comfort of sunlight.
Once, he would have leant in the opposite direction. He would have leaned over and given her a peck on the cheek, a knowing glance, and a smile.
Now, not only were those actions far from his mind, they would also be considered inappropriate.
What a difference two years make, when something that had become as natural as breathing had become as alien as the mysteries hidden in Area 51.
Noticing the angle of his torso, he shifted to correct it before anyone else saw.
He felt strange about the whole thing. He ran the scenario through his mind and quickly came to the conclusion that, no, he no longer was attempting to hide feelings from his x wife or himself.
Those feelings were simply gone, burnt out in the 24 months worth of lonely, ponderous walks, empty chairs at dinner and tears of loss.
Recognizing it as what it was, habit, made him feel better.
He could deal with nasty habits, lord knows he could.
Not everyone had been receptive about her invitation to the party, but as she was the mother of his son he felt she deserved to be there. He wanted her there as well, for multiple reasons.
He wanted his son to have his mother there on his special day, he wanted to show him that they could still get along. He wanted to give his son an example that even though things may not be easy at all times, it's important to do the right thing. And a 10 year old having both of his parents by his side as he blows out his candles is about as right as it gets.
There were other reasons as well. He certainly still cared about her, and knew that she would appreciate being there for the event as well. It was a small thing, really, to swallow the lingering tinctures of pain, frustration and emptiness to endure her presence for the benefit of all involved. Those memories will always be there, he believed, so he might as well get on with putting them in their place.
And that brings me to the final reason he wanted her there.
He wanted to prove to himself that he was ready to move on. He wanted to breathe his first breath of oxygen as a free man, to know that every step forward from this point was towards something worthwhile. He wanted to know, as opposed to believe.
For the past year he had believed that he was ready to move on, to strike out on his own emotionally, but believing is not knowing.
To know, you have to put your money where your mouth is, and that is what this party was about for him. To hold his feet to the fire, to breathe in her perfume, look into her eyes, help her hand out cake, and see if those familiar pangs of need surface.
At this point in the evening, they had not, and he knew that they wouldn't.
He was free, and it felt great. He joked, laughed, and listened.
As the evening wore on, he was surprised to find that the conversation had begun to drag for him. Not in an uncomfortable way, and as the remaining members of the party began to converse without his input he felt completely comfortable lifting his phone and checking the sports scores, his facebook status, and the daily tech news.
He forced himself to remain at the table rather than retire to another room. That wasn't part of the deal, as a big part of today was to get answers about himself and where his head and heart were.
The ironic answer was, they were right where the anatomy charts say they are, in his head and chest.
That may sound rather silly to many of you, but you have to understand that for over a decade they both resided with someone else, following her around in spirit like ethereal sentries even when business or logistics removed her from his presence.
The feeling initially felt disappointing, as he had drawn a great deal of comfort in that arrangement over the years. Having your mortality returned when you have tasted better can be daunting at first, but he knew better.
He knew that as his heart and mind had been returned to him, he was free to seek out another that in time would reciprocate his devotion, whose thoughts and love would fill the voids left in him while his were off doing likewise for her.
So, while being returned to the pragmatism of the ground may not be as inspiring as soaring in the clouds, it sure is a hell of a lot safer when the fuel runs out.
The fuel had run out a long time ago, and as he sought his next flight, the one that he hopefully would never come back down from, he realized that all planes start from the ground.
Now that he knew that the ground was his, he realized that his heart was ready for it's next boarding call.
He helped light the ten candles on the cake, sang Happy Birthday to his son, and told him to make a wish before he blew out the candles.
Because he knew that in time, wishes do come true.