My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.
AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.
Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”
What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.
That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.
I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.
Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.
The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.
I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.
My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.
AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.
I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.
There are these two women who deliver lunch every day at ThyssenKrupp.
One is tall and thin. Twenty-something. Calm and smiling. The other is about my age. She wears a bob and a frantic look on her face – as if, like the Mad Hatter, she’s always running late.
Each has six or so white paper bags dangling from each arm. Some containing fish. Others chicken. Some of the students will eat their lunch before class. Others after. Never during. No matter how many times I assure them it is ok. And always, always in the cafeteria. Never at their desks.
As a rule, Spanish people set aside time for their meals – even if it is only a half hour. My students laugh watching me pull an apple from my bag at the end of class. I will eat it walking to the metro – a dead giveaway that I am an American.
This is because, as a rule, Spanish people do not rush. Every ex-pat I know voices the same frustration with Spanish people walking – often five across, blocking the entire sidewalk – slowly. It seems to be the one cultural difference they never learn to accept.
Perhaps this is why I notice this woman. The one with the pageboy and the panicked look. Because her speed, as she delivers “the lunch,” seems more like that of a New Yorker than a Spaniard.
I do not know her name. Either of their names. Or if either of them speaks English. We greet one another each day with a smile and “hola,” “buenas dias” or “hasta luego.” I’m not quite sure when this started, but it has become our ritual. “Ours” as it is mine and hers, and “ours” as it is specific to us – I do not see her engaging with other teachers, or perhaps I do not see them engaging with her.
Sometimes they are pulling into or out of the parking lot in a grey, beater hatchback, in which case, we just wave.
Today was my last day at ThyssenKrupp. I have been teaching here since last September. The company, like most companies offering English lessons, breaks for July and August, and part of June and September, to accommodate the summer schedule – a truncated day with most employees leaving at 3 and working not at all on Fridays.
Today my class insists we go to a nearby bar. That I eat tapas with them – calamares (fried squid), jamon (ham) and huevos rotos (“broken eggs” over fried potatoes with ham) – and “take a drink.”
This is the group that sang Happy Birthday to me on October 20 and bought me a gift. The group that wanted to know the details of my every trip. The group I watched “16 Candles” with, without subtitles, at the end of last semester.
Yesterday I said goodbye to my other class. The group that talked about relationships, divorce and finding love again. About weight struggles, religion and the most appropriate names for primary and secondary sex characteristics.
I’ve taught them why “normal” and “not normal” are loaded words. That we say “silverware,” not “tools.” “Outside” and not “in the street.” (I explain the difference by recalling the time my brother laid down in the street because another kid dared him to, and my mother yelling at him to “get out of the street.”) We’ve watched clips of the Macy’s Day Parade together and talked about Donald Trump … a lot.
They’ve taught me about Spanish politics, explaining how it is that the country still doesn’t have a president, and the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
We part ways, yesterday and today, with the traditional kiss on each cheek. R. and I say goodbye twice, exchanging “American-style” hugs. E. invites me to her house for lunch, to meet her family, before I leave. I am deeply moved.
I tell them that some days, being with them was my only social interaction. That some days, being with them was the best part of my day. We agree they will let me know if they are in the United States, and I will let them know when I return to visit Madrid.
I drop off the attendance book and dry-erase marker in the Human Resources office for the last time, and return my badge on the way out. I take a photograph of the gate which has always eerily reminded me of the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Sometimes, I half expect to see the words, “Arbeit macht frei.” I once admitted this to my students and was shocked to learn they had the same response.
Walking to the train I hear a horn beeping. It sounds like it belongs to a go-cart. I turn to see the grey hatchback and the ladies who deliver lunch.
“Adios,” they call out, smiling and waving. Not hasta luego – see you later. Adios – goodbye.
Halloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.
In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”
My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.
This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.
And then one day…nothing.
Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.
I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.
But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.
They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.
I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”
A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.
“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”
“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.
“Call me if you need help,” she writes.
Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.
“Okay,” I write back.
I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.
“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.
I burst into tears.
“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.
I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.
I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.
And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.
She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.
No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.
I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.
I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.
“So what is it?”
Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”
The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.
I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.
I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.
I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”
“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.
“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.
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.
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.
I’ve often said nothing good comes from a sentence that begins, “So I was on Facebook…”
That’s how I found out. His engagement was at the top of my news feed.
My stomach sank to my feet. Hope dashed. Fantasy abruptly ended.
I felt sad. Silly. Stupid. Ashamed.
I love J. I always have. I knew him the second I saw him. I’m pretty sure it was the same for him.
We dated in our 20s. Ours was a sweet, sexy romance – albeit brief. Our breakup caught me off guard. Perhaps because he more than one time said, “I know I’m going to marry you. And we’ll have daughters. I know we will have daughters.”
I’ve written about this – about him, about us – before.
The last time we saw one another was in California – about 17 or 18 years ago – on Venice Beach. I was returning my roller skates. Until I found him on Facebook. His profile picture was a photograph from childhood. I wasn’t entirely certain it was him, so I wrote, “Is that you?”
“It is indeed me,” he replied. “And it is indeed you.”
In the years that followed, we wished one another happy birthdays, occasionally commented on each other’s status, and traded inside jokes – mostly about Philip Roth and liver. We occasionally had lengthier exchanges. Like on his birthday in 2012. I was delayed in Brussels. He was on his way out for a crab dinner. I told him I was getting divorced.
This past summer we spoke for the first time since Venice. After hearing his voice, I remarked, “Oh…that’s what you sound like.” I had forgotten.
That night he told me why he ended our relationship. I had asked many times over the years but he had never responded to that particular piece of the conversation. This time he did.
He said I woke something up in him. A piece of him that desperately needed healing – healing I couldn’t give him. That he had to do for himself.
He had been attracted to me. To our sexual energy. And that something about my “honest, open, dirty, loving way” got under his skin. “In a good way.” And he ran.
He affirmed that I had been important in his life. Just not in the way I had hoped to be.
I knew J was in a relationship and had been for many years. That he always exercised terrific boundaries.
And yet, there was always a little piece of me that held out hope … that maybe one day J and I would find our way back to one another – in that way. I didn’t live my life maneuvering around it. Obsessing about it. But it was there.
And now it isn’t anymore. It can’t be.
A couple of weeks ago J showed up in my clairvoyant reading and healing. He had in the previous one too.
The first time he showed up, the clairvoyant saw us holding hands, smiling, and taking a big leap together. She said we may never connect again romantically, but that we are inextricably bound for life.
I didn’t like that so much – the first part.
The second time he showed up, she simply said, “You just let go of him.” And that 10 percent of my energy returned to me immediately.
I had no idea. I hadn’t even tried. And I didn’t like that so much either.
But perhaps she was right, because this afternoon I did something that surprised me. I was drafting a personal note to send, but chose to post a comment to his wall instead – just like hundreds of his other friends had done. Just another Bozo on the bus. Not claiming any special status.
“Mazel Tov! Wishing you much joy.”
Not even an “XO” – our usual sign off.
It is not untrue. This is what I wish for him. In the most honest, open, dirty, loving way.
Some Artist Dates are easy alone. Museums. Lectures. Dance performances. Opera. Theatre. Some, like movies, I even prefer that way.
Live music, however, is far more difficult. Even when the audience is children. Perhaps even more so.
And yet, this is the set up for Artist Date 46.
I am parked outside of Schubas. My friend Matt’s band – Future Hits, self-proclaimed Fun (Yet Secretly Educational) Music for Kids, Families and Teachers – is playing this afternoon. It is a Halloween performance and party for children, hosted in collaboration with Whole Foods, The Kite Collective and Adventure Sandwich.
I stand in awe of how Matt puts himself out there. Performing. Recording. Last year, Future Hits cut its first CD, Songs for Learning, funded by KickStarter. This past summer he spent a month in South America, improving his Spanish. An ESL teacher for Chicago Public Schools, he requested, and received, a grant that paid for everything.
But right now I am standing in fear. Rather sitting, in my 13-year-old Honda Civic. I feel anxious about going inside. I don’t have children.
I sometimes feel this way walking into synagogue by myself – which I began doing several years ago.
As fresh meat, I was quickly swarmed and warmly greeted. Peppered with questions. Top on the list: Do you have children?
Pause. Uncomfortable silence. I often feel I have to fill that space. Say something clever or pithy to put us both at ease. I am getting better at just letting that dead air “hang.” Like summer in Charleston. Heavy. Still.
I wonder what they are wondering. If I cannot have children. If I am childless by choice. If I am waiting for the perfect sperm to swim into my life. I am told that this is none of my business.
Mostly, I imagine they wonder what brought me there. It’s a reasonable enough question. And the assumption that I have children is equally reasonable.
Many, perhaps most, join a congregation when their children are of school age. They recognize it as time to do what their parents had done – provide their children with a Jewish education. Sometimes for no other reason than, “this is what we do.”
Perhaps the second most popular reason for joining is the gift of a complimentary one-year membership, given when the Rabbi or Cantor of that congregation marries a couple. (I will have to query my Rabbi to see if I am correct in my speculation.)
I walked into synagogue for my own reasons. Neither recently married nor considering a Jewish education, I am the Jew who converted to Judaism. It’s a long story. One that doesn’t fit neatly into conversation over coffee and pastry after services. But it is mine. And I am assured that I have a place in the congregation.
Nonetheless, it is often still daunting walking through those sacred doors alone.
It is too at Schubas. Even after seeing my friend Joe, smoking outside. He doesn’t have kids either.
I walk in, pay $10, get my hand stamped and say to the bouncer, “Am I the only one here without kids?” “Nah,” he replies. Looking in, I’m not so sure.
The lights are dim and a bunch of little people in costumes are making kites and eating granola. Matt and his band mates are dressed in caveman attire. Think Flintstones.
Our friend Lily is selling CDs. Gene is on the floor with his son, Oscar, making a kite. Jenny is helping her son Seth into his costume.
Matt’s mom, Rhonda, is here. His dad too. I love Rhonda. Our conversations meander from fashion to Transcendental Meditation (which we both practice) – seamlessly. I feel like the universe has conspired for us to meet. We pick up where we left off last time.
Matt is delighted to see me. Grateful for the support. He always is.
I remember the first time I heard him play, at the Beat Kitchen. I arrived early and was standing on the corner outside. When he saw me, he dropped to his knees – on the sidewalk – his hands in prayer. Total gratitude.
This is why I am here – to support my friend. But I forget, falling into a swirling pit of “me.” Self-conscious about my childless-ness. Even though I (mostly) chose not to have any.
And then the music starts and I forget all of that. I forget myself. I have seen Matt perform many times, but this my first time hearing Future Hits. Even though I was a KickStarter supporter, which earned me a button and a CD.
I’m surprised. The music doesn’t feel like kids music. It is pleasing to my ear. It’s not sing-song-y like Barney. Something to be endured. I am delighted watching Emma go from bass to flute to tambourine.
The kids are invited to dance. They do, with joyous abandon. Oblivious to the concept of rhythm. I would like to shake a tail feather myself…but I’m suddenly self-conscious again. So I watch instead. Although I do raise my hand when the band asks if anyone’s birthday is in October.
There is a kite parade for the kids to show off their creations. More music and a dance contest. The winner – dressed as a werewolf – leaves with a Halloween-decorated bag of schwag.
And soon after, I leave too. Holding tightly to the light I see in Oscar’s face. In Seth’s. And the lesson they teach me. Beaming over the simplest things. Costumes. Music. Paper kites. They do not concern themselves with why they are here. Just that they are.
It is four something in the morning. I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.
I have always loved birthdays.
I’m a big celebrator in general. Ask any of my Weight Watchers members. I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes. Those subtle little miracles.
“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.
Well, 12-Step meetings. But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.
Birthdays are like that. It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day. Mostly.
This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y. A little less celebratory.
I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days. Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.
We found one another in October of my 40th year.
Ours was not always an easy relationship. Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship. Timing. Expectations. Boundaries. Those were our lessons. And we were one another’s teachers.
She sent me flowers when I turned 40. A card the following year. And then phone calls the next two. She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally. This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call. I felt sad.
Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur. Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t. I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why. It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.
So there was that.
And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.
My ex was a great gift giver.
Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower. A gift would come later. Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier. Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again. A hand-carved wooden jewelry box. Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.
He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him. I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty. She had lost hers. Found it. And gave the original to me.
I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years. Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.
I didn’t like the watch he bought me. I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time. He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there. The truth about our relationship. It was over. We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.
He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway. I couldn’t do it. I kept the watch. I am still wearing it.
When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card. Of a body in my bed. Specifically, my ex’s. I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it. To him, for so long.
I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer. “modeh ani lefanecha. Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.” I asked for several obsessions to be removed. And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone. The messages had already begun to pour in. Old neighbors. Acquaintances from grade school. Family – by origin and by choice. From Africa. And from just down the street.
I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work. Weight Watchers. It felt life affirming. As did dance class. I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop. I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist. It fits as if it were made for me.
I talked to a few friends on the phone. Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.
I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday. Or at least try to. Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated. I was unclear why. But today was delightfully ordinary.
It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue. The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen. Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray. Where you eat with plastic utensils.
Where I feel conspicuously white.
There were eight of us. Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages. And then watched my friendship with him dissolve. I hadn’t invited him. But there he was. I was delighted.
I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.
I was wrong.
I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter. It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.
And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it. I’m sick. Sore throat. Heavy eyes. Headache. Exhausted. It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count. No beach and BBQ to distract me. I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.
Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year. I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago. He was in Seattle, dating another woman. We were pretty transparent about these things. At times, painfully so.
But I was coming back to Seattle. To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin. To “our life,” altered as it was.
It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.
Labor Day was a blur through tears. Then his birthday. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Our wedding anniversary. And my birthday. In quick succession.
Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do. I didn’t yet have a house.
Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support. We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.
I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house. She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.
I don’t recall his birthday or mine. Or our anniversary. What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years. A hand-carved wooden jewelry box. A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting. Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.
Halloween passed without fanfare.
Then Thanksgiving hit hard. I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend. She also told me that once invited, always invited.
Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California. Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.
Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months. We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.” We were in complete denial that he was gone.
Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP. We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11. The airport was spooky quiet.
We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle. We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same. The only constant was that we were together.
I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house. He was noticeably absent. Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up. I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone. He had already gone to bed.
I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends. Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving. My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do. I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto. He would bake. Christmas Day we would go to a movie.
We were both pretty heartsick. Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance. We found comfort talking with one another.
New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house. I didn’t make it until midnight.
The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass. My ex rented a house that backed up to a river. It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors. We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles. I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah. I never used them.
We bickered on the trails. He was a cross-country skate skier. I was not. In our early years together I took a few lessons and got moderately better. But I never really got the hang of it. We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after. Sometimes both. It worked. Until it didn’t. When I didn’t drink anymore.
That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared. I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, while he skied hard, the way he liked to.
This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another. They were sad. We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words. I blogged about it.
By March it was over. He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.
I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle. He joined us. It didn’t seem unusual at the time.
This year I celebrated twice. Once at my friend Mary Jo’s. A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street. There were 12 of us. Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests. My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me. It didn’t feel so lonely. Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.
Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t.
June 19 was the anniversary of our first date. I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.
July 4. An entire cycle completed. Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night. That will be later this month. I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.
The sun is going down. It is noisy outside. I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park. July 4 felt like a war zone.
I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met. He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce. He’s a good hugger. Nice looking. I don’t have any feelings about him. But I’d like to get to know him better.
I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.
I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob. I read, napped, wrote and napped some more. I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.
It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone. Caring for myself. Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.