Somewhere in the new millennium ‘life begins at forty’ morphed into ‘forty is the new twenty’. I am so old at this writing, I can’t say that I remember if either were true at the time I reached that two-score milestone. It was, I recall vividly, an arduous ascent to climb its peak from the rather deep valley I’d been living in the year or so before. Towncommons Massachusetts had been my home for almost six years, after leaving NYC behind. Alejandro had been my caring life partner for nearly a dozen years. And after unsuccessful attempts at launching two different careers, I’d gone back to college to finish a degree in Education while working full-time in merchandising for a national chain of young men’s clothing stores.
My first New England career was working for friends whose company created historic costumes. A tech theatre background in stage costuming had given me enough experience to be trained by a gifted woman in fine tailoring techniques. I enjoyed the work, which also served as an outlet for a dormant artistic bent. However, after devoting nearly three precious years, the money was nowhere near enough to sustain my share of finances for our household. I’d earned more ten years earlier, so it felt like I was back-peddling uphill rather than sailing ahead with the rest of the pack. Living where we now lived, in the epicenter of rural loveliness, possibilities were limited and prospects for genuine employment looked dismal.
Alejandro’s house was huge-eight rooms on a well-traveled main route and just perfect, we were certain, for a gorgeous little retail space. Doesn’t everyone dream (at least once in a lifetime) of having a business and being your own boss? Thus was launched The Toy Shoppe Inc. and career number two, with me as the man behind the counter. We created a wonderful store in an unused sunroom with a neat selection of non-violent toys with no batteries required. The first Christmas was a huge success. We doubled the area the following year by incorporating a front parlor, but sadly it did not double the sales. I could pay the suppliers, but not the staff-that being me. The third Christmas the store was open only in between substitute teaching assignments. Still I found myself quasi-insolvent. Luckily a friend found me the men’s clothing gig, so I could keep my financial head above water. The Toy Shoppe Inc. was officially closed.
School was the only positive constant in my life as I approached my all-important birthday. I was enjoying learning like I had as a kid in elementary school, when everything I heard or read was new, fresh and amazing. I didn’t dare worry, that if after all this work and self-sacrifice, I would not find a teaching job. I’d suffered more than enough disappointment to allow myself to dash yet another dream. I was on schedule for the following spring, to become a member of the Class of 1990.
Nobody loves to celebrate birthdays more than Alejandro. He is one of the few people I’ve ever known who will throw himself a birthday party. It is not a selfish notion-he just loves to entertain, to cook and fuss over people and be surrounded by friendly folk all enjoying a good time. When we lived in New York, he always made a fantastic party for me with our huge group of combined friends, and I likewise returned the favor for him. With my approaching fortieth, because I was so uncertain of just how to handle this major age hurdle, he agreed to respect my request to not mark it with a fete. Several of our NYC friends wanted to take us out to celebrate, so we would spend a weekend in The City. Of course, from the very beginning of our relationship, we had both pledged to never allow the dreaded surprise-party option be employed. Each of us had negative experiences we did not choose to repeat ever again.
During those years in the toy store, I’d met many locals, usually feigning friendliness while maintaining a professional air. Small town folk can be highly dangerous I’d learned. Many are often uncomfortably too curious-particularly if you are one of two gay guys in a relationship from New York City in the 1980s. Need I say more? There was an interesting couple who had only recently moved to Towncommons. He was a physician and his wife a doctoral student at the same university I was attending. They had two young sons and discovered the store one wintry cold weekend. Mr. Dr. came in first, looked around a bit and we began to chat. He was a fascinating guy, and explained they’d lived in several different cities around the country while completing his studies. Mrs. Dr. appeared in the store the next day or so, like a splash of color on a snowy landscape, and was just as simpatico as her husband-neither of them typical of the locals I’d grown accustomed to. I let down my guard after the first few minutes with her, and we ended up carrying on as though we’d known each other since forever.
She talked about forming a gourmet club, once we’d established all of us enjoyed fine dining and loved to cook and entertain. She’d been part of one of these groups in their last home and it sounded like fun. You needed four couples, she explained. The host couple was responsible for the main course. One couple brought the soup or salad, another the dessert and the last provided the accompanying wine and drinks. The host couple chose the theme for the meal. The doctors had met a newly arrived Jamaican couple at their church, and we’d befriended a husband and wife duo early on who ran a small business in town themselves. The eight of us were an interesting mix. We ended up enjoying many wonderful meals and some great parties together. The gourmet club was insisting we do a 40th dinner party for me. I nixed that plan, convincing them that I simply was not up to any standard celebrations, no matter how much fun they all might have.
My actual birthday that fortieth year fell on a Saturday. We’d spent the weekend before in Manhattan and had an incredible time playing, shopping, going to the theatre, being wined and dined by friends, some of whom I had known for twenty years, from my original college days. It was a fun, nostalgic and very special way to mark the occasion. But I kept insisting I was technically not yet over-the-hill. (A true Pollyanna, I was delaying the inevitable.) That would come soon enough, next week back home in Towncommons.
Alejandro had decided we would pass the actual anniversary at a favorite restaurant in a historic little town, popular with tourists and quite close to our home. It was a fine dining spot-well, as close to fine dining as you could get in our part of Central Massachusetts. Regardless, it would be exactly the way I wanted to turn forty.
The dining room was beautiful. Our table was perfect. We had a glass of champagne as we studied the menu and a wonderful bottle of wine with our entrees. The place was busy but relatively quiet and the meal nicely paced, never rushed. Upstairs is an upscale bar/pub, serving a lighter menu with glorious desserts and piano music on the weekends. Alejandro thought it might be fun to order dessert and drinks up there to end the evening. It seemed it would only make a perfect evening even better.
To reach the upper level there is a wrought iron spiral staircase. I wasn’t smashed, though I remember carefully ascending the winding steps because I was a bit tiddly. Upon reaching the top I heard a group somewhere in the darkened candlelit room shout “surprise”. Immediately following, a bold piano arpeggio cued the entire restaurant to burst into that nasty, insipid song that for years had caused the juvenile me to cover my ears with my hands. I recognized the faces of the gourmet club beaming as they sang the tune I’d managed to duck for a week now. And although in fact it is a relatively short piece of bad music, in the time it took to totally shame me and finish their evil anthem, my life passed before me:
Who were these strangers, these faces that a year or so before I’d never even seen before? Why were they here? Had they replaced the real friends I left back in New York-that family I’d adopted, some in college and the others that I’d won after partnering with Alejandro? I had given them all up by abandoning the city I so adored, to move to this picturesque, nowhere place that was actually no more than a desert camouflaged by colorful autumn leaves and Americana. And where was my real family on this very special eve? In Cleveland, right where I had left them when I’d chosen to reinvent myself and leave the Ohio me behind. How had that worked out for me so far?
Maybe it was not forty, that particular F-word I was trying to dodge, but a more heinous one. It was Failure, perhaps, which seemed to successfully follow me no matter where I went, that I had hoped to avoid yet hadn’t. It was my acting career that never was. Then the string of jobs in The City to take its place, from one seemingly exciting industry to another that had challenged me, but other than a salary, had given nothing back. Each job had left me with a new puzzle piece but I couldn’t put them together to make any sense out of the whole. And this last series of careers seemed to only take away from me, leaving huge voids.
The singing ended. Applause, hugs and kisses from my well-wishers, and another drink brought me back to reality. I survived the evening and a chocolate birthday cake. I found a way to enjoy ending the night with my well-intended companions. Alejandro’s looks begged forgiveness and I understood he’d had no choice but to give in. The only thing I knew I dare not do that night, was to look in the mirror. Even I would never recognize who I had become.