A Baseline for Comparison
The coolest birthday party I ever had was when I turned eight or nine — nobody, not me, not my parents, not my sister, can remember the exact year. It was a cold, overcast day, the kind of day where it seems likely that it’s going to rain but never quite does.
But my eight-or-nine-year-old self didn’t care. I was having a miniature golf party, and as long as the verdant artificial turf green remained unflooded, it was on.
You have to understand that there was maybe one miniature golf place near where we lived, and we only went there once or twice a year. But we drove past it all the time. The giant plastic lumberjack looked stoically towards the southwest, maybe thinking of his old girlfriend in Arizona.
I hadn’t yet experienced the miniature golf mecca that is Ocean City. I mean, they have a course there that (a) has pirates (b) also has flames (c) has a pirate ship (d) whose plank you get to hit the ball off of. It’s like one of those things you talk about when you hit the end of a party and everyone’s lying on the floor and talking about what they’ve been waiting so long to talk about. One friend is lonely; another isn’t sure if he should break up with his girlfriend; I want a miniature golf course with a fully functional pirate ship.
No matter how many candles you put on my cake, I’ll never really grow up; it’s just my standards that change. A working windmill and an emo lumberjack were enough to blow me away back then.
When I told my mom this, she was kind of pissed. “What about your soccer party?” Oh yeah: we had a picnic at Centennial Park in Columbia, the city James W. Rouse designed in the days before SimCity, and went to a minor-league soccer game that night. Afterward I got to have my picture taken with the goaltender, which should have been a dream come true, since I played goalie for my rec soccer league.
One lesson is that soccer was a game that I played but, as a full-fledged American, could not love. Another is that memory is a strange thing. We remember tiny things: silent looks and small gifts, street signs and chocolate ducks. And sometimes we forget the things that people who love us do for us for no other reason than that they love us.
I wish I knew why I forget things.
The Art of Being Surprised
I’m at my sister’s graduation: May 15, 2004. I am filled with pride — it has been ratified by the Board of Visitors and Governors that my sister is smarter than me — and also a weird sort of hope. Everyone is talking about the great things these graduates will do. They told me the same thing three years ago, and though there are certainly people I know who have gone on to do great things, most of us have settled for getting by. Our futures have yet to unfold, even now.
But maybe they will yet unfold. Maybe hearing the magic words three times will make it happen. I don’t know. It’s spring. This kind of hope is hard to avoid.
Anyway, I’m talking to a girl I used to hang out with back when she lived in DC. Now she’s in Philly, doing theater stuff. Maybe going onto great things — it’s always hard to tell with theater.
We’re catching up, talking about random things that you talk about when you aren’t sure what to say, when she says: “I’m coming to your party.”
It’s my sister’s graduation: May 15, 2004. My birthday is ten days from now. There is no party that I know of.
I don’t say a thing, just turn around and start walking away. Already I’m thinking: please forget. Please forget now. This was just an average conversation, one of those things you have with people you haven’t seen in a while, one of those things that gets wiped from the slate so that you can keep remembering that the wire that burns inside a light bulb is called the filament. What is she doing in Philly? You don’t remember already. Some theater thing.
Throw it away now. Don’t remember. Please.
She comes back, apologizes to me. She forgot it was supposed to be a surprise party. Fuck, I keep thinking, though I try hard to be polite: her apologizing is only going to get this lodged further in my brain. She’s never had a reason to apologize to me before.
A few days later, I send out invitations to a birthday party I’m planning for Memorial Day weekend. It’s a game: I pretend I don’t know and they pretend they’re fooling me.
Only three people say they can make it, and that’s counting my sister.
I become hyper-paranoid. On the day of my birthday, I go out to lunch with my sister and one of my co-workers, and on the way to the restaurant, I’m thinking: there’s no way it could be now. I only told them where I wanted to go ten minutes ago.
They taunt me for being so overthinkative, so I assume they’re both in on it.
Maybe when I go to my parents’ that night, everyone will be crammed in the living room. There’s a little scream right when I open the door — somebody too excited to wait, too burned up by forty-five minutes of waiting — and then the chorus, always the same chorus that wishes you a happy birthday.
But the only unexpected things waiting for me are an absolutely wonderful cheesecake, a pair of lime-green shorts (which my sister points out will go nicely with a black shirt, but still…), and a pair of miniature radio-controlled tanks that, because they were designed by Europeans, do not have the capability of making laser-gun noises, let alone blowing the crap out of each other.
I feel weird the rest of the week. Maybe they heard I knew and decided to cancel the whole thing. Maybe a cheesecake is all that a boy can hope to get for his 25th birthday.
I’ve always wondered when the downturn begins. The point where birthdays aren’t really fun anymore. That feeling you have at Christmas and you wish you could open just one more present, though there’s nothing left you really want. You just want to be surprised.
Saturday comes and my fake party turns real. All three of my guests — this counting my sister, who felt obligated to come no matter what — arrive and for a little while, it looks like maybe we’ll really be going with Plan A tonight.
Then Rob starts puking in my bathroom.
He’s been acting sick since he got here — said he had a migraine, which he’s had recently — but this new twist, this new ill fortune means that almost nothing will be possible tonight. Maybe we can rent a movie. That’ll be cool.
Why the fuck did he come in the first place? I think as he retches into the toilet again.
We try to keep talking, like how you do when babies howl in restaurants, but I’m thinking: this is the worst possible way things could have turned out.
Rob comes out eventually, stumbles a little in search of a glass of water.
“Where’s your medicine?” Jessie asks.
“It’s at my apartment,” he says.
So what is there to do but to drive him back? Jessie got a ride with Rob in the first place, because she can’t drive. So it’s all me. My sister takes her car, so I can come back with her afterwards.
I’ve almost locked my front door behind me when I think: God, my bathroom must smell terrible. So I dive back in to hose the thing down with Lysol, only —
Halfway through the drive down, Jessie asks, “Why are you smiling? Are you thinking evil thoughts about people?”
“No,” I tell her, and make up some excuse.
This Time, For Real
I remember Rob opening his front door. I remember seeing something hanging from the ceiling of his apartment — something curly, something that moves in the slight rush of air that comes when the door opens.
I don’t remember walking in. I don’t remember if the lights were on or not. But I do remember knowing that there are people waiting for me inside. That’s not the surprise. The surprise is that there are eight of them.
Eight is not a number that sounds like a lot when it comes to parties. You have to understand what happens after the magic words are laid upon you, after you have traded your cap and gown for something more practical, something more comfortable and expensive. Something that worries you sometimes. You have bad dreams but aren’t sure why, and yet this badness, this not-quite-nightmareness becomes reassuring in a weird sort of way. You don’t expect it, don’t ever like it, but you know how to deal with it. You put on your shirt first in the morning, then your pants. It makes it easier to tuck things in properly.
You are more alone than you have ever been: partly by choice, partly by force of habit, and partly by fate. You see your parents often enough to be counted as a good son, and if things get rough, you’ll always be able to rely upon them. But it’s not really the same. And your friends grow further and further apart. It feels like a miracle when just five of you can get together.
It’s a surprise to see Mike, who has just bought his first house in Pennsylvania in pursuit of his new journalism career. It’s a surprise to see Matt, who’s been studying in Connecticut, and Jill, about to intern in Philadelphia. It’ll be a surprise to see Katie and Tess, arriving a few minutes later, from the Eastern Shore. All these people who I never would have thought would come.
They shout, “Surprise!”
“Fucking awesome,” I say and we all start drinking.
Is there any better way to start a party?
Things are great and slightly blurry; I am eating/drinking Jell-O shooters and talking about Transmetropolitan with Steve and eyeing the crab dip bubbling on the stove in the kitchen and discussing house-buying with Mike and looking at the decorations dangling from the ceiling, still spinning slightly, and eating some Asian snack mix, the kind I always think about buying at the supermarket but then decide it’s too expensive, and commenting on how it tastes weirdly seafoody — “It’s the seaweed,” someone points out — and I’m talking to Sarah and my sister on the couch about the future when Rob tells me to stand up. So I do, and he blindfolds me. Half-blindfolds, anyway: everything is gauzy and red but still visible, but I figure this kind of thing is best kept to myself. He tells me to sit down. I ask where and he tells me there’s a chair behind me. So I sit down.
Then someone reaches over and folds the blindfold over itself, so I can’t see anything. There seem to be two possibilities as to what happens next:
- A stripper. Nahhh…
- Someone I never ever would’ve guessed would be coming. Like never. Who wants to do naughty things to me. Why else would there be a blindfold involved?
The blindfold is yanked off and there’s a woman standing in front of me who I’ve never seen before in my life. She’s wearing a black bra and pair of panties. She has blonde hair and blue eyes and tan skin. She’s smiling in a genuine sort of way, like maybe she’s just as surprised to see me as I her.
The best answer to almost any question is “all of the above.”
The Rules of Staring
One of the most important rules about meeting strangers, especially beautiful ones, is that you shouldn’t stare at their bodies. It’s just disrespectful. It indicates that you regard them the same way you would a painting in a museum — which is respect, in a way. But which would you rather have people pay respect to: you, the undefinable you, the you that makes up dreams for yourself and likes pizza with extra cheese and is afraid of thunderstorms but would never admit it to anyone… that, or your boobs?
This much everyone agrees on, I think. It’s just polite, you know?
So what are you supposed to do when the stranger in question is a stripper? I guess the normal answer is that politeness isn’t normally on the agenda when strippers are involved, but keep in mind that viewing this scene are many women who I would like to consider me respectful to women. Among them is my sister.
But at the same time, it seems kind of dumb not to stare. I mean, really.
She has a weird look on her face that maybe should be considered seductive. She’s narrowing her eyes, half looking at me, half looking somewhere else.
“I’m sorry, but this is really weird,” I say.
I don’t know her name and she probably doesn’t know mine.
Rob tells me her name afterwards — “That’s the second stripper I’ve met with that name!” Steve exclaims — and that she’s a college student, studying international relations and/or business, and that her parents don’t know she’s doing this on the side to help pay for things. Maybe all this is true; maybe it isn’t. But it seems like the kind of thing you would tell someone you don’t really want to know you.
In the end, I decide that the only thing that counts is that she was pretty, and that it was fun.
It was really fun.
A Few Pointers on Succeeding At Asshole
After that, we spend a hell of a lot of time drinking, which probably would be boring to talk about even if I remember exactly what went down. Instead, some advice on playing Asshole, the drinking game of kings:
- Drinking games are always about screwing over your fellow man, but Asshole much more than any other. The question to ask yourself when it comes to playing your cards: am I still going to be able to screw people if I play this card? It’s almost never worth it to split up a pair just for the sake of being able to play a card. Ideally, you want to get rid of your cards in one or two profanity-inspiring torrents.
- A little cruelty makes people respect you. Too much makes you look like a real asshole. For anything more complicated, read yourself some Machiavelli and pretend it has some relevance to a drinking game.
- Katie tells me that cheating is possible if you are the designated asshole. You shuffle the 2s to the bottom of the deck, thereby giving yourself the edge. At the time, I took her at her word, but now that I think about it, I don’t get how you’re supposed to keep track of where the 2s are. I decide to cut to the chase and skip myself once while I deal. The only person who notices is Matt, and drunk people will believe anything as long as you say it enough times.
There’s Reason To Believe
Right before the end of the night, Mike pulls out a guitar and starts playing. Sure, why not? Everything is possible tonight. For a journalist, a purveyor of truth laid down in solid, black ink, he’s got skills.
I don’t remember any of the words from what he plays — well, maybe something about a bed-and-breakfast that serves pancakes or waffles and has walls painted periwinkle — but I remember looking at all the people who had come tonight, who had sung “Happy Birthday” to me in that goofy chorus that everyone always falls into. The time for magic words has come and gone, but something still remains in us. My sister is learning to be a teacher, to make people smarter than her. Mike will be an editor someday of something important. And Tess really is a teacher, for serious, and Sarah is looking for something better. Matt is learning to discern good from evil with science, and Jill is finally going to do what she’s wanted to do, and Lindsay spends her days outside, guiding people through rough waters. Jessie is quietly working towards a master’s, and Jenn has just finished her bachelor’s. Katie still dreams of Broadway… and Rob, underneath his bravado and Regis Philbin-inspired ties, is as kind and loyal a friend you could hope for.
All I can say is: surprises are what you’ve wished for for so long that you forget you ever wanted them. And then they happen. So easily that you were foolish to ever believe they were impossible.
They are hope.