I walked out on my 21st birthday party.
A little past midnight, noticing no one had noticed it was now officially my birthday, I stood up and drunkenly announced, “You’re all fuckers. Good night.”
I still cringe thinking about it.
Ten years later, I didn’t behave much better. I spent my birthday in Paris. Yet all I could do was lament about dinner at the restaurant that had been suggested – Chez Chartier. Loud, boisterous. A place where working-class families had fed their families since 1896. Where surly waiters leave your tab written on paper tablecloths and patrons climb ladders to reach the mezzanine dining room. A Parisian institution.
I didn’t think the meal was very good.
My birthday has always been fraught with anxiety. Anxiety created by expectations. Of others. Of myself. Of experiences.
Never mind my friends gather to honor my being here on the planet – some driving more than an hour to join the festivities. Never mind I spend the morning in Amsterdam and the afternoon at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, in my mind, each celebration missed the mark of being “special enough.”
Until this year..when I turned 45 and decided to spend my birthday alone. Dinner in Paris, breakfast in Rome.
It was the end of a 17-day trip to Italy. A trip where I had gifted myself with hand-stitched Roman sandals in Assisi, and aubergine leather gloves in Florence.
Where I stopped inside a boutique in Rome to inquire about a coat in the window and left wearing it. A short, smart, cream-colored trench with a ruffle. I slipped on a size small – both surprised and delighted to find it fit considering I had eaten gelato every day since my arrival – and looked at myself in the mirror.
I liked it. The coat. My reflection. I didn’t need it, and yet, the words “I’ll take it,” tumbled out of my mouth.
And where 30 minutes later, on Piazza Navona, I questioned what I “deserved,” and if I could justify “more.” Where I pulled a leather bag over my shoulder and across my body — like the one my tour guides Ishmael and Paul wore and which I had twice admired – but left it behind because it felt “too decadent.”
Never mind my mother had sent me a check as an early birthday gift. Never mind a client had given me a several-hundred dollar tip, instructing me to use it for something wonderful in Italy. Never mind I had enough for it.
I went to dinner where I ate pizza with impossibly thin crust, covered with four kinds of cheeses, arugula and bresaola…but I was still thinking about the bag. Strolling back towards the piazza I called out to the universe, “If I am supposed to have this bag, give me a sign.”
I received it, but not until after the salesman wrote up my purchase. When he placed the leather satchel inside of a green fabric bag, wrapped it with string and tied a bow.
I smiled recalling my Aunt Ellie taking me shopping at Jacobson’s – a tony department store in a tony suburb of Detroit – when I was 10-years-old. When I was doughy and awkward and wore a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut.
After purchasing trousers, a sweater, and a bag shaped like a roller skate, she asked that each item be placed in one of the store’s signature silver boxes, embossed with a J, and wrapped in shiny ribbon.
“Everything is better gift wrapped,” she informed me. Opening the packages at home an hour or so later, I knew she was right.
Thirty-five years later, she still is.
And yet, a few days later, I once again questioned my right to gift wrap my life. This time, to end my travels with a 15-hour layover in Paris. Just long enough to have dinner and to spend the night — on my birthday.
It had sounded like a wonderful idea when I booked the ticket, but as the days grew near it only sounded like a lot of traveling, a lot of navigating, a lot of work for one night.
I ignored that seemingly practical voice and went anyway – roaming the streets of Paris for the third time in this lifetime.
Crossing the Seine in my cream-colored trench, my leather bag strapped across my body, I saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame – all lit up. Just like me. I could feel it. I giggled out loud wondering, “Who stops in Paris for 15 hours just for dinner on their birthday?”
I ate a pistachio macaron on the streets before dinner, and later, mussels and pommes frites. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could not imagine anything making the moment better.
I didn’t wish for a man or a friend. For a different meal. For anyone to sing me happy birthday.
I was delighted by my own company. That I had given myself everything I had wanted most. And in doing so, rather than hoping someone else might, I was happy on my birthday.