I usually cry on my birthday. It started when I was seven. I was having such a good time at my party that I didn’t want to leave, so I ended up peeing in my favorite dress. It was a yellow dress my mother sewed, with little white flowers and had a matching bonnet. I had worn it earlier that year as a flower girl in my aunt Sydelle’s wedding. When I turned eight, my father had a massive heart attack not on, but right around my birthday. At nine, Thurman Munson, my favorite Yankee, died in a helicopter crash, and on it goes. At 40, a friend who got stuck in my living room for two years after breaking up with her boyfriend finally moved out. It was a tumultuous extraction. By 42, crying on my birthday was habit.
During one particularly painful pre-birthday, my friend Sandy confessed that she, too, had had terrible birthdays all her life until she staged a birthday reclamation. It involved birthday hats, singing, a cake with candles, and child-sized chairs.
That’s not my style.
This year, the strategy was to keep myself so busy that I’d forget to cry. I start off by booking a whale watching cruise in the Far Rockaways. And since my neighbor offers me her car, I drag Obi along and make him drive. Obi’s good like that.
I have to pick him up on 200th Street, which causes me heart palpitations. I don’t drive in the city too often. He’s running late, but it takes me twenty minutes, once I find a spot, to parallel park the VW Bug. I buy provisions – coffee and scones from one of the best cafes in the city. Obi also thinks ahead and meets me with a couple of bananas and a mangled Poland Springs bottle filled with New York City tap water. We hand each other printed directions on how to get to Riis Landing. We’re armed with his super-smart phone and my sort-of-smart phone. We’re ready to roll.
Both of is are strapped for cash and forget about tolls and things like that until we see the signs. But between the two of us, we scrape together enough to get us there and back. The ride’s easy – forty minutes to Riis Landing, and another twenty minutes driving around because we can’t believe that we found where we were supposed to be on the first try.
A large teenage boy eats his Luncheables on the upper deck as the boat waits for a couple of passengers who are running late. A woman I previously believed was a man complains as her husband, who is a man, nods in agreement. They were on time, the woman explains to the captain. So, why wait for someone who isn’t. The captain responds thus: it isn’t about time, it’s about the experience. And the woman smiles, made demure by the wisdom of his gravelly Brooklyn drawl.
Obi and I share the scone and most of the corn muffin. The motors start and the boat pulls away from the dock. As we chug into the Atlantic, he muses about heading nowhere with a cast of cut-out characters cut from the Book of Cliche.
It’s true. A group of leather-faced, box-blonde chain-smokers and their bearded biker boyfriends are grouped at the stern of the ship, guarding their cooler of beer. Port-side, a couple of Japanese tourists with fancy cameras bypass the majesty of the water to take pictures of themselves eating over-cooked hotdogs. A hipster father and his precociously precocious son walk hand in hand through the boat, examining nuts, bolts, and levers, as a smiling, teenaged, short-shorted naturist passes around the huge, hairy scale of some sort of ocean-life. We hold onto the railing as the vessel ventures yonder, into the ocean.
The bow of the boat cuts the water, which crashes down in waves like shattered blue-green glass and I’m smiling so hard that my teeth hurt.
We go out. Far out. Until we can’t see the city anymore and the water appears flat and mysterious in the distance.
“I wonder about the first person who ventured over the edge of that flatness,” Obi wonders, above the din of the motors and the herding cries of the smoking ladies trying to find their sons.
I’ve had similar thoughts while flying on a clear day. I try to imagine how the first person who ever hovered above the clouds felt watching the world from an unchartered angle.
The dolphins come out. Pod after pod, gracefully carving the waves, so clearly part of the Atlantic and its rhythms. We eat the bananas while standing in the sun, the spray of the ocean misting us as our chain-smoking friends open another beer. We share the last crumbs of the corn muffin. We finish the water. And we see a whale.
“It can’t be that hard to find our way home,” I offer when we realize that neither of us printed out directions back to the city. His phone is dangerously close to dying, and mine never works when you want it to. I jot down the directions before the batteries fade. But, here’s the thing about my handwriting, sometimes not even I can read it.
“There’ll be signs,” I say.
It’s close to five, and we’re a little peckish. The corn muffin, scone, and two bananas, weren’t quite enough to hold us for ten hours. As we venture into the rush hour traffic we assumed wouldn’t exist, parched, hungry, and happy, we agree that neither one of us would survive more than five minutes in the wilderness. Maybe six, if we had a box of matches.
A few years ago, I wanted to compare and contrast dates with a survivalist and a tree hugging vegan. My hypothesis was that the ability of a beer swilling, bearded, paranoid, misanthrope to kill and skin a deer was of less value than a yoga-posturing vegan’s people skills, flexible body, and the willingness to subsist on greens and carrots. But ever since I bought twenty-five pounds of Quinoa in a fit of survivalist angst, the lines have blurred.
We make it home. And though it takes Obi just as long as it took me to parallel park my neighbor’s car, we have time to pee, walk the dog, splash water on our faces before we head out towards the proverbial campfire to listen to an acoustic set with a favorite musician.
Sometimes, you hear your story in someone else’s songs and find yourself, if for a moment, not sitting across from your best friend, but from the ghost of someone you used to love, and might love still. This happens to me in the middle of one of the songs. And so I smile and nod and pretend to tell my past love what Citizen Cope is telling his. And then the song ends and our reunion fades away. I smile at Obi and thank him for the adventures of the day and for helping me forget to cry.
Later that night. I tune the orange ukulele I bought myself for my birthday.
This is gonna to be the best midlife crisis ever.