I’ve had many, many birthdays since my earliest recollected fifth, and even many that I don’t remember at all. Like thirty. I know I was living in New York City, yet there is not a glimmer of recall at how I spent it and thirty is such a nice round number you would think there should have been some memory. And yet I see vividly my seventh, because I had my first “kid” birthday party with boys and girls from both school and the neighborhood. There was my mother, hosting over a dozen rowdy rugrats in our rec room, while being nine months morbidly pregnant, carrying my soon-to-be-baby brother.
The theme was circus, so of course it was clown everything: plates, cups, napkins, tablecloth, party favors and matching cake. The only thing NOT clown was the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game which I hated playing, because already at age seven I understood the meaning of passe. Mom’s ankles were swollen like the balloons hanging from the ceiling and she was feeling miserable, (she was only months away from being forty years old), but she was smiling and cordial to all those rambunctious little bastards who were my guests.
About half-way through the fete, after traveling up and down the basement steps schlepping for the umpteenth time, I caught a glimpse of the angst and discomfort show through her own painted smile. She resembled the clown faces that surrounded us everywhere we looked, pretending to be happy for my birthday while these rotten kids were making a mess of everything and creating still more work than her poor, expectant body could ever handle. On top of all this, my father was on the verge of his first ‘nervous breakdown’, a concept we were all learning to comprehend and work into the daily routine of our simple lives. I can never look back at seven and not first flash to that seminal period of our family history when crazy took over the reins.
At sixteen a friend from high school named Gemma attempted to throw a surprise party for me. She was supposedly cooking a birthday dinner at her parents’ house at 8:00 p.m. which was tres chic for West Buttfok, Ohio where by 5:30 most everybody had already finished doing the dishes even on Saturdays. We were super-close pals and had been hanging out together for a year or so. I’d gotten ready way ahead of schedule so I decided to walk over a little early. Maybe I could help her out with the cooking. I showed up at her door a bit before 7:00. I still remember her little sister’s face at the door, totally shocked which seemed odd as she adored me and enjoyed when I visited because I fussed over her. Gemma came up from behind her with shower wet hair, clutching her bathrobe to her chin. She looked really pissed and before I could say a thing she announced something to the effect of “So surprise, asshole”, (she definitely used that particular term of endearment), “you just blew your own surprise party by being the first one here!”.
Twenty-five was one of those birthdays that I judged as a traumatic mile marker. I was aggravating myself for several weeks before, announcing to anyone who would listen that I would soon be celebrating my Silver Birthday. It sounded like such a pivotal number. You could be in your early twenties and still be considered just a crazy college kid. That had long been my excuse to family elders my first few years in NYC trying to land an acting job. They viewed it as having no career and absolutely no direction in life. (Forget about the fact that I was unmarried with no sign of a girlfriend.) Twenty-five I was somehow interpreting as a serious signal that my frivolous years were behind me. I took the day off from work. I spent my entire birthday alone going out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between meals traveled from one cinema to another, taking in three different movies. I was home in bed and asleep by nine o’clock that night, over-fed, filmed-out and now seemingly devoid of my youth.
My fortieth birthday was spent in NYC even though I was living in an eight-room Victorian on the common of a sleepy New England town with my partner Alejandro. We went into The City for the weekend to celebrate. My good friend Giuseppe took me to lunch at Le Cirque and spent a fortune on a simply amazing afternoon of food, wine and conversation. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a more magnificent luncheon! Then it was off to the theatre to watch a college friend play Mother Superior in NUNSENSE. She was incredibly funny in the role and just seeing her ultra-Protestant self in her nun’s habit was a scream to this forty-year-old lapsed Catholic/lapsed thespian.
Turning fifty looked to be an inexorable milestone. The year was 1999. My mother had died that June, so it was official – I was now an orphan. Everywhere we turned we were being bombarded with Y2K hysteria. I refused to stuff my mattress with my meager life savings and my retirement package likewise was going to stay put, doomsday advocates be damned. Certain unnamed relatives of mine in Michigan were stockpiling dried beans and rice in the cellar to no doubt observe their End of Days final meal. What sort of last hurrah style celebration would be appropriate for my golden birthday with all these factors considered? I settled upon a trip for David and me to see our dear friends Mickey and Minnie in Orlando. My younger brother and his family flew down to meet us, as we had vowed after Mom’s funeral that we would get together before the end of the millenium to do something together that was actually fun. It was a childishly wonderful fifty we all celebrated that year.
Once you have tallied these many years, birthdays seem to take on another meaning all together. You truly miss those friends and family who aren’t around any more to mail a card, make that phone call to sing an off-key version of the birthday song, or send an email. Now your refrigerator’s face is peppered with those ubiquitous little doctor’s appointment cards reminding you (sometimes seemingly into the next millenium) that you are mortal, slowly falling apart piece by piece. Yet even though I begin each new morning with an aspirin and three different pills for my blood pressure, I am still that foolish twenty-five-year old. When I pull on a pair of jeans I wonder why the tag reads W34 when I am certain my waist is the same 29 inches it has always been. Passing the medicine cabinet mirror as I stagger into the shower each a.m. without my glasses on, why do I catch a glimpse of my grandmother? The woman has been gone since 1990. I have always adored her, so why should she haunt me?
I think for my seventieth, if I am still around and still possessing all my marbles, I shall throw for myself a surprise party with a clown theme. I am betting I can pull it off without a hitch. And by then, so much time might have elapsed that Pin the Tail might have come round full circle again.