Happy On My Birthday

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

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.”

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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 do.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 81: I Could Swim In Your Voice. And Drown In My Own.

With storytellers Carmen and James.  Carmen with trophy from the Dollar Store for Best Story of the Night.
With storytellers Carmen and James. Carmen holding Dollar Store trophy for Best Story of the Night.

I am nearly seven years sober and I am sitting in a bar by myself.  On its face, this does not sound like a good thing.  Except that it is a very good thing.

I’m at Story Club – a monthly “live literature” event where three featured performers tell true-life stories, and three audience members, invited up at random – their names pulled from a monkey carved out of a coconut, the words “Have Fun” scrawled onto the base – do the same.   Artist Date 81.

My feet are slick with massage oil and slosh around in my orange peep-toe wedges.  My head throbs, a reminder of the two cysts I had removed from my scalp just this morning.

I take a seat at a table up front, and immediately wonder if I should sit on a stool at the bar instead – where “singles” sit.  Even though I have trouble seeing and hearing and engaging when I am that far from the stage.

I wonder if I should see if I can join another party of one at one of the banquettes against the wall.

I wonder if it is ok to take up this much space – me alone.  It is a question that has haunted me my entire life.

I stay at the table, order a club soda with lime juice, pull out my reading glasses and dive into my book.

I am sitting at a bar alone with a club soda and a book.

At the table to my right, a gaggle of girls talk about San Francisco.  About writing.  And about a secret Facebook group of women writers – 26,000 strong.

I want to tell them I used to live in San Francisco.  That I too have been wooed into the fold of these female wordsmiths.  That they both excite and frighten me.  And that I’m not even sure how I came to know them.  But I say nothing.

My name is pulled from the coconut monkey – the first of the evening.  I climb to the stage, take a breath and begin reading…”The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.”

My voice is sing-song-y and gentle.  A heightened version of what I call my massage voice.  It is sweet and loving, lilting and melodic.  It tells you the things you wish your mother had told you.  That you are human.  That you are lovely.  That you are good.

I hear my poetry professor Catherine Kaikowska reading her work – perched on top of a desk.  Her legs crossed, Diet Coke in hand.  Hair wild.  “Deja-rendevous. Deja rende, rendezvous.”  Hypnotic.  I could swim in her voice.

But I would like to drown my own.  I have fallen out of love with it.  My voice.  My story.  Just this moment.  I am bored with it.  All of it.

I have not written about love and pain and loss.  I have not written about sex.  I have written about my connection to my body, to my spirit.  It feels esoteric.  Less familiar.  Less sexy.

I have left out the juicy bits.  The part about tearing off my lapa – my West African dance skirt – and jumping into a pond naked with my crush after the sweat lodge.  The part about him plucking me out of the water – naked – when my strength failed me and I could not pull myself onto the high dock.

I have not written about any of it.  I have not given him a clever moniker and chronicled the story of my heart.  I have held it instead.  Held my heart.  Held my words.  It feels unfamiliar.  Untrue.  It is the story I am used to telling.

But tonight, James and Carmen tell it instead.

James (AKA GPA – Greatest Poet Alive) who has committed to memory the story of Maria breaking his 5th-grade heart when she circled “no” in response to the query in his note – “Will you be my girlfriend?  Yes?  No?”  Not even a maybe.  Not even a spritz of Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel to the paper could sway her.

Carmen who invites us into her bedroom and her psyche at the moment when her friend with benefits asked her to talk dirty to him in Spanish.  Her words are funny and irreverent, honest and sad.  She rolls her Rs and says things like, “Aye, Poppi.”  She feels like a caricature.

They are storytellers.

I fear that I am not.  That I am only a writer.  At least right now.

Carmen – one of the gaggle of girls talking about San Francisco and the secret group of women writers – tells me otherwise.  As does James, when we gather together after the final performance.

My story is lush, he says.  That he closed his eyes while I read.  Listened to my words.  Let my voice paint the pictures for him.

He let my lilting, sing-song-y massage voice – the voice that tells you that you are human, that you are lovely, that you are good – my storyteller’s voice, tell him a new story.