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Well, it’s my fucking birthday again. One year ago today I remember being so sure that this was the year that everything would turn around. I could sense it. I could feel it in the air. But here I am, a full year later, just as screwed up as ever, still making the same mistakes over and over. So I am initiating a new tradition. My plan is to carefully scrutinize my past in the name of not being condemned to repeat it by writing myself an annual report on my birthday. Kind of a personal state of the union to help me chart my profits and losses or at least get a clearer picture of what I am doing right and wrong. I’m not stupid enough to think it’s going to keep me from making mistakes ever again but it would be nice if at least I could start making some new ones.
Okay. So, still living alone. Still an art teacher and still not minding it too bad. Although I wouldn’t have believed it possible when I turned thirty, turning thirty-six doesn’t feel like that much of a nightmare. And what more could a thirty-six-year-old girl mired in the quicksand of the one-year anniversary of a painful breakup want on her birthday than a long day of sulking, followed by a chance to go out to dinner with her narcissistic mother and father? Nothing eases the pain of a searing depression like the joy of watching one’s elderly parents pick petty fights in upscale restaurants.
As always, the fun started the minute we were seated at a table in a pleasant little bistro near the ocean called Kettle’O’Fish (which I ordinarily would have condemned based on the ’O’ thing but it was actually pretty nice). My mother took one look at the complimentary tureen of crudités being placed before us, gave the smiling waitress a withering glance, and said, “That’s a very meager amount, isn’t it?” The waitress stared blankly for a few seconds, picked up the crudité arrangement, and took it back into the kitchen, where probably every member of the staff pissed or spit on it before she brought it back a carrot stick or two heavier. I, of course, sat quietly cringing like I used to do in the seventh grade, only too aware that neither of my two options provided me with any solace: to invoke the wrath of my mother by daring to criticize her or to sit in quiet humiliation, doing a little out-of-body traveling, pretending to enjoy balmy breezes in Bora Bora.
“So what if everyone in this restaurant hates my mother?” I could say to myself unconvincingly. “I’m used to that by now. A lifetime of such incidents have enabled me to produce antibodies that process the bodily fluids of restaurant employees into beneficial dietary supplements, like riboflavin or vitamin B12.”
I could also harbor the tiniest glimmer of hope that the jury was still out, among those who would condemn us, on my father. It was possible that maybe the waiters and waitresses might think I was his child from a previous marriage.
However, what my father lacked in active vitriol, he compensated for with sheer arrogance. His tenacious grasp of the obvious had long ago given him the impression that as the bearer of a superior intellect it was both his duty and his burden to patiently explain even the simplest processes of daily living to nearly everyone he met, not just once but every occasion that they met. Which is why my birthday lunch found him lecturing the busboy in excruciating detail on the preferred way to pour water from a pitcher.
“Listen to me carefully so I don’t have to eat my damn lunch soaking wet,” he began. “If you don’t hold that pitcher with two hands how the hell do you expect to get any directional stability when you pour?”
If I’d ever used that tone of voice on any of the kids in the high school classes I’ve taught, I would have received enough dramatically incensed exhalations to be pushed across the room like a sailboat in a hurricane.
Next it was back to my place for the annual celebratory birthday drink, a pleasant yearly ritual that I almost ruined for them both by not knowing about the water spots on my champagne glasses. This, of course, sent my mother into a tailspin. When she finally recovered from the nightmare of being exposed to potentially life-threatening bacteria during a visit to her own daughter’s house, and the rewashed glasses were polished to an almost terrifying state of cleanliness, the champagne was dispensed by my father with one of his patented two-handed pours. That’s when my mother offered her annual toast.
“In the coming year,” she said, hoisting her blindingly clean and gleaming glass into the air, “may half of all your dreams come true.”
“Mom,” I said to her, “isn’t that kind of pathetic?”
“Well, it’s realistic,” she said, taking a sip of champagne and staring into the middle distance.
No point in ignoring harsh realities in a birthday toast, I thought to myself, realizing that she had given me something for which I should be grateful. Because if realism was her point, she could have said, “May half of all your dreams die a horrible death.”
Then she did her part to make sure I didn’t score better than 50 percent in the dream department this particular birthday by giving me yet another piece of clothing there was no chance I would ever wear in this or any other lifetime: an unstruc- tured floor-length velveteen tunic with a gold rope belt and gold braid trim, a kind of high-fashion Greco-Roman monastic sheath.
In addition to being inappropriate, it also succeeded in making me sad that my mother was still energetically continuing her tradition of wasting time every single year searching out and buying me things that were not my taste, especially since she never failed to follow up the gift bestowal by telling me how much she paid for the garment in question, I guess to ensure that it would receive the respect to which it was planning to grow accustomed.
“This is not an inexpensive dress” is how she began this year. By the third glass of champagne she worked in the exact dollar amount, disguised as special care and cleaning instructions. “Be sure and get this dry-cleaned,” she said as offhandedly as she could. “It’s a two-hundred-and-sixty-dollar item.”
This was my father’s cue to begin his lengthy semiannual lecture on how to correctly remove wrapping paper from a gift.
“If you take the time to remove the tape slowly, the en- tire wrapping paper comes off in one big, untorn sheet.” He demonstrated, as though performing a trick for a poorly attended after-school magic show. “Just follow your creases carefully and it folds back up nice and flat.” I wore the same expression I’d been perfecting for decades, carefully constructed to convey such a visible amount of real comprehension that my father would feel no need to repeat himself. There was, of course, no chance at all that this would happen.
But the best was still ahead—the part where my mother insisted I try her gift on for them and provide a little fashion show. It has become an annual high-water mark for my feelings of self-loathing, an annual opportunity to see myself looking older, and fatter, and uglier all at once than I have at any other moment of the year. This year, when I caught a glimpse of myself in the window behind the very sofa on which my parents were sitting, I reminded myself of a bulldog who had just come home from the groomer with a bow tied around her neck. I looked like I was trying very hard to be something I was never intended to be, and failing in the most embarrassing way possible. I felt like Janet Reno in a fluffy ball gown.
Happy Birthday to me.
By now, my mother was deeply into full-out gush, showering me with the only compliments she ever offered me in fiscal ’92.
“See?” she said to my father. “She never buys the feminine styles. But look how lovely she can look if she wants to.” My father agreed, or pretended to agree. I could never tell if he was paying attention.
They were soul mates, my mother and father. They claimed to adore each other, as if the word “adore” meant “argue with ceaselessly.” And although they criticized and demeaned each other as much as they demeaned me, they lived in a weird little universe only big enough for two that was impermeable to criticism unless they were delivering it.
During these birthday moments it seemed as if everything positive I had ever honestly perceived about myself was incorrect. All I could do was stand there running a quick scan in my brain of the easiest, most trouble-free, cost-effective methods for killing myself.
As I saw it, I could take every pill in the medicine cabinet, without even knowing what pills were in there exactly. Would a whole bottle of Sudafed bring a painless death sentence? What about twenty-five Zoloft? If they didn’t kill me, might they at least provide enough relaxation to give me the courage to stumble out to the car with a hose and suck up exhaust?