I remember always wanting a horse. Being six, seven, eight years old, wearing my cowboy hat and boots and a pair of mini–six shooters, the holster’s rawhide anchor straps chafing my thighs. “Happy Birthday” is sung. My dad is a veteran of glee clubs; he loves to harmonize. Happy birth-day to youuuuuuuuu. And then my mom’s soft hand, like a mask over my eyes. The gleeful claps of those in attendance. Make a wish! Make a wish!
I blow with the entire force of my lungs, my being.
And then I open my eyes.
I’m not sure where we would have put a horse in my suburban Baltimore neighborhood. But my country cousins had horses, and that’s what I loved to do at summer camp back in those days when I was kind of husky and asthmatic. I think I remember wanting to be Roy Rogers, which was my favorite show. Hi ho Silver and away! The Lone Ranger was a guy who did a good deed and then slipped out of town, leaving a silver bullet as the only evidence that he was ever there. A guy who let his work speak for him, no end-zone dances required. And he had that fabulous horse that did wheelies and all kinds of fab tricks I tried to imitate on my Stingray bike, which I got instead of a horse for one of those birthdays and loved immensely, because on my bike I had the same kind of freedom to roam, though I often pretended it was a horse. I fell off a lot. Knocked out the stiches in my elbow twice.
Happy fucking birthday.
When I was 10 years old I wished desperately for a small reel-to-reel tape recorder (an early inclination toward media?). I got a fishing rod and reel instead.
I remember my parents sitting me down and drying my tears, explaining lovingly that they’d already bought the rod and reel, and that my grandparents were going to arrive later in the day with the object of my desire.
What they brought was more like Toys “R” Us than RadioShack. By dinnertime it was inoperable.
Happy fucking birthday.
My dad’s birthday, rest his soul, was two days before mine. We lived an hour from Chesapeake Bay. My parents were really into sailing but never actually bought a boat. (My mother was vocal about not being able to properly use the facilities while bobbing on the water—something about needing her feet on terra firma.)
During my high school years, for our joint birthday, my folks would rent a sailboat for a four-day trip. Something like 28-feet with a galley, a main cabin for my folks, bunks for my little sister and me. As you can imagine, sailing this thing was not easy. Despite my parents’ certificates from a sailing school in Annapolis, we were the definition of weekend duffers. There were all kinds of muddy shoals; on several occasions we had to be towed. There were mosquitoes and summer storms. There was the time we lost the grill over the side. Not to mention being 15, 16 and 17 years old and being cooped up over a long birthday weekend with your family, whom you loved dearly, of course, but.…
I think it was on my 17th birthday, in 1973, that my mother broke down and agreed to smoke pot with me—but only if I could make it menthol, like one of her True Green cigarettes. I spent quite a bit of time emptying a cigarette of tobacco and reloading it with weed. At happy hour, we fired it up. She had a puffy, early 1970s hairdo, and her eye makeup was always perfect, even on the boat. After a few “drags” she was done.
“I feel nothing,” she shrugged.
Then she promptly fell asleep, right there in the cockpit.
Party on, mom.
Happy fucking birthday.
I remember my 23rd birthday. I’d just moved into a cool renovated basement apartment in an old house with brick walls and track lighting. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest staff writer at the Washington Post at the time. Working around the clock over the past two years, I’d lost a lot of my hair on top, so I didn’t look that young, which suited me just fine, because I’d been dating this 32-year-old woman who lived upstairs, a member of a group house that occupied the top three stories.
She made me feel worldly and showed me a lot of stuff. She educated me about sushi, Vietnamese food, drip coffee, artsy films at the Key Theater—hey, I was fresh out of college and didn’t do much of anything but work. As our relationship became more intimate, this smart and talented professional woman also educated me about the raging case of herpes she’d been given unknowingly by some asshole. This was 1979 and nobody I knew had even heard of AIDS; as it was, herpes felt like a death sentence, there was no known cure. Maybe I was young and shallow, but even though she explained we could still be safe, there was no way I was having anything to do with that. As you can imagine, the breakup was somewhat awkward.
Anyway, I remember my parents driving from Baltimore to Washington to see my new pad and to take me out for my 23rd birthday. In my rare spare time, I’d begun decorating. So far I’d collected a high-tech folding dinette table, an antique clock, several framed posters—an ironic Magritte; an actual handbill from an English theater performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; something Guernica-related; and some photos by Post shooters I’d befriended. Upon arrival my parents proudly offered up their own presents: two expensive, signed and numbered posters by the artist LeRoy Neiman, each depicting a different one of my youthful passions—soccer and lacrosse.
I know I would have loved these colorful works on my bedroom wall when I was 14, but it wasn’t exactly the urban-sophisticate look I was going for in soon-to-be-fashionable Adams Morgan. I hung the posters at the end of the hallway that led to the basement door. Of course, there was a stairway in there, leading upstairs. I kept the door locked.
Today is my 57th birthday.
And guess what?
I’m expecting no presents. There is no party planned. I have no plans at all—except a vague notion that I’m going to do the things I do every day, the things I love—some writing in the morning, a walk near the beach with a female friend, some Korean BBQ with my homeslice, who is headed off to college in a few days, this kid whose diapers I used to change. He was two when we moved to California. Oy, how I remember the Sturm und Drang of toilet training—entire date nights with my ex-wife devoted to the subject. And I remember predicting he’d be out of diapers by the time he went to college. I guess I was right about that one.
What I’ve learned about birthdays is the same thing I’ve learned about life. You need to be your own party planner, but you don’t necessarily need a party.
These days I see my birthday as a way to celebrate my life—the semblance of things I’ve built to make myself happy and comfortable, this little world that works for me. I no longer hope to receive from others the stuff I really want and need. Instead, I understand that I have to ferret out those things for myself. It’s all about me providing for me, feathering my nest, making it right. Who can do this for a person better than they can for themselves? Who even wants to?
Last year on my birthday I was doing something else I like to do on my birthdays, buying a present for a loved one—in this case, my son. We were at this youth-oriented clothing store when I saw it, this kitschy sign I had to have—colorful and sparkly single letters in a bulbous, happy font, strung out along a line: Happy Fucking Birthday.
I put it up in my dining room, but I never got around to taking it down—and here it is, my birthday again.
I guess I leave it there as a reminder.
Photo by Shutterstock