The Thing About Birthdays

Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

We are sitting across from each other in a restaurant booth just large enough that we can't quite lean across the table and kiss, which we know because we tried, awkwardly, after he made a toast to celebrate my 35th birthday.  There is a plate of bacon-wrapped quail legs in between us, and I keep looking at it and thinking that it seems vaguely out of place.  We aren't the fig-stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail type most days.  But, here we are talking about how Sam has never had a wedge salad before and how the tiny quail bones make me almost sad enough to not eat them.  Not quite, mind you, but almost.

And it feels strange not to have the kids there with us because we travel in a pack these days, but at the same time it's always been second nature for me to sit across from this man and tell him everything in one long, filter-less outpouring.  We are one big parents-out-on-a-date cliche because I can't keep myself from telling the waitress that we are out because we have a babysitter, with a giddy emphasis on those important words, and Sam can't help but tell her that we are celebrating my birthday, though really we are just saying these things for ourselves, for the sheer joy of announcing our own personal celebration.

It's not until the quail plate is cleared, with those tiny bones heaped up like some macabre miniature graveyard scene, that I fully recover the memory that had been stirring as I watched that plate sit between us.

Fifteen years ago, we somehow ended up with a gift certificate to Chili's, and as we were sitting across from each other in that restaurant booth eating our free meal, we realized that it was our first real date.  We were already inseparable by then, already talking about marriage, and yet our entire relationship had occurred as whispered conversations in crowded parties and late night talks in each others' cars and on each others' couches.  We lived in a kind of pack back then, too, barely out of our teenage years, mostly renting cheap apartments with roommates, a group of friends all sort of living on top of each other.  It seemed the natural reaction to the loneliness of outgrowing the family of your childhood and not yet having the family of your adulthood; I think we all tried to douse that loneliness a little by not ever really letting ourselves be alone.

So, Sam and I fell in love in a crowd, fell in love in stops and starts that made us the train wreck that everyone couldn't help but watch for a while.  We stumbled through one messy transition after another, from friends to dating, from dating to engaged, from engaged to married. Not one second was picture perfect; not one milestone failed to trip us up.  At Chili's, on our first real date, Sam said, "Well, if I had realized this was our first date, I would have ordered something nicer than a burger."

But I didn't care, really, because when I was with Sam, I had always kind of felt like we were the only people in the room.  What did I care if there were other people around us all of the time?  When he looked at me, I couldn't see those other people anyway.

If you think about it, celebrating the same day each year is a bit arbitrary.  We might just as easily measure our lives by the meals we've shared or by the restaurant booths we've sat in.  Fifteen years ago, my boyfriend and I ate a free meal in a Chili's booth.  Fourteen years ago, my fiance and I designed our wedding rings at a different restaurant booth, sketching out our ideas on a cocktail napkin that I still have tucked into the pages of a scrapbook that I never got around to finishing.  Today we sit together, grinning at the novelty of a dinner out without the kids.

It's funny how all of those memories come back like a faucet turned on full force.  In this one moment, the waitress is removing our plate and I am remembering all the booths we've sat across in the last decade and a half.

Crystals of salt from my empty margarita glass keep getting stuck to my elbow.  You'd think that might motivate me to sit up straight, but even after 35 years of trying, I have never managed to learn to eat without leaning on the table.  My belly is full, and I am tempted to walk around to Sam's side of the booth and lean, warm and sated, against his side.  Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

And I answer, distracted from my reverie, "Yes, but this is the calendar we have adopted, and this calendar lends itself to a repetitive, annual schedule."

But that's not what I mean, because celebrating another year of this life has little to do with the calendar and more to do with being able to celebrate each day as it passes so that, at the end of a year, I have spent my time soaking up the particular marvel that is my own meager existence.  The thing about birthdays is that they really are arbitrary, in a way, and if everything about our growth is hung on that one day each year, then the celebration is just some robotic kind of ritual we keep up as a matter of habit.

The thing about birthdays, though, is that they magnify who you have been all year, that they become this vivid slideshow of how far you have (or have not) come.  And as arbitrary as it may be, I can't help but wonder if this is why we become less and less enthralled with our birthdays over time, that as each year shows less and less growth than the year before, these slideshows of another year past can become increasingly painful to watch.  I look across the table at Sam, and I can't help but see all those years, all those meals, all those tables.  I can't help but mention our two lost pregnancies and how much of the last year was mired by my frantic desire to get pregnant again, to hold one last baby in my arms before I hit the too-old-for-procreation age of 35.  Birthdays can leave you feeling misshapen like a candle still soft from burning, but that's the thing about birthdays, we get to watch the shape that we've become from all this use and all this life and all this trial by fire.

I am halfway to 70, and who knows, maybe my child-bearing years are over, though I hardly feel different than that girl who sat at Chili's on a belated first date 15 years ago.  I am drinking a toast to the end of my 35th year, and the thing about birthdays is that they should be a look ahead just as much as they are a look back.  I am wiping margarita salt off my elbows and realizing I have never ordered quail for myself in a restaurant and thinking how far we've come, this husband and I.  And through all of it, I am thinking that this coming year is going to be the best one yet.  I am sad and happy and still messy in my transitions, and I am just so glad to have another year to get it right and mess it up and eat cake and make toasts and introduce Sam to wedge salads.

That salt follows me, like confetti, all the way home, and boy am I glad for its persistence, just another souvenir of a life well lived.

Image credit, used under Creative Commons License


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