It is the night before my birthday. My 56th birthday to be precise. Not a great number. I am single. And whichever way you count — from the last real boyfriend, the last time I was in love, the last time I had sex — it’s been a long time since I have been with someone.
My oldest friend sends an email to find out which insurance company I use. She thinks that maybe her therapist can recommend a therapist for me in my network.
I tell her the name of the insurance company, but I say I’m not sure I want to be in therapy. Been there, done that.
“Hmmmmmmm,” she says. And now I need to justify myself. Or so it would seem. “I just need a new haircut and some more girlish clothes and to figure out how to socialize a bit more,” I say. It’s all I’ve got. I don’t want to tell her to back the fuck off. But that’s what I want her to do. My reply fails in its mission.
“No offense but,” she writes. She is quoting her 16-year-old daughter. Imitating how her daughter prefaces a particularly withering comment, as if this humorous reference will lessen the sting of what is to come. “No offense but. Figuring out how to meet people isn’t hard. I could write you a list. So could you. It’s actually getting yourself to do it that’s hard. And that’s (one place) where I think a therapist could help.”
“No offense but,” I reply. “No offense but I think you’re wrong. You’re not a straight female of a certain age. And I don’t want to have to have a conversation about how fucked up I am the night before my birthday.” For emphasis, I tell her about an icky incident at work to make it clear I’ve already had a bad day and that this isn’t helping.
“Okay, nighty night,” she says. “Talk tomorrow.”
We have plans for my birthday. Plans that have been the subject of much to-ing and fro-ing for days, because it’s not anything I would really want to do on any day, much less my birthday. Something I would have passed on on any day but my birthday. The plan is to go with her and her girlfriend to hear Andrea Bocelli singing in Central Park.
When she first mentioned that she’d gotten tickets, she asked if I’d like to go and I said sure. She then said she’d gotten four tickets and could her girlfriend come. And I said sure. But as the day of my birthday drew nearer, I began to feel that it was a bad idea. A very bad idea, in fact. I began to feel that I might very well erupt when the time came, and I tried to back out of the plan.
“Okay, let’s do something else,” she said. And I felt trapped in two different ways. I didn’t want to spend my birthday with her and her girlfriend. And I didn’t want to nix her plans to do something she’d evidently wanted to do enough to get tickets for it in the first place.
“No, let’s just do it,” I said. Changing your mind is a no-no, in her book, and so I had to justify that change in some convincing way. And so I asked her to forgive any pre-birthday nuttiness by considering how I might be sad to still be single at this advanced stage of the game. From there it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the idea that what I should do is get back into therapy. I’d opened the door and she’d come barging through it.
The day of the Bocelli event, there was still more to-ing and fro-ing. I said I would meet them up at the park, where the concert would be held, at 6:45. Couldn’t I get there earlier? she wanted to know. What was the earliest I could leave work? Begrudgingly, I agreed to meet her there at 6, telling myself that I should prefer to leave work on time on my birthday, than stay an extra 45 minutes just to make a little headways in all the uncompleted tasks of the day.
I raced to get to the park on time, smashing myself into a rush hour express stuffed with harried commuters. At 42nd, I jumped off for the local for the rest of the trip to 72nd. As I ran across the platform for the local, a woman running from the local to the express smacked into me. She apologized and ran to her train, doors still open. My train had clapped its little doors shut before I got there. Six minutes later, another local arrived. And I boarded it, my desperation growing.
When finally I emerged from the subway at 72nd street, I got a text from my friend saying that she was at Central Park South, which was the end of the line for the concert, and her girlfriend was on a bench at 71st. The rains that were predicted hadn’t yet come, but it was windy and cold. Unseasonably so for mid-September. I found the girlfriend on the bench and told her I was going home. Then I called my friend and told her I was going home.
“No,” she said.
“Really, it’s better,” I said.
Then I fled the scene of the concert, walked three blocks west, and bought myself a vodka and a soup and salad at a wonderful French restaurant — a restaurant I would have been happy to go to with a mate, if I had one. After the soup and salad and a pathetic confession to the waiter that it was my birthday and that I might just need a second vodka tonic, he brought me a piece of flour-less chocolate cake on a plate beautifully decorated with fleur de lis-like scrolls and the words “Happy Birthday.” On top of the cake was a mint leaf and a single candle — a candle that broadcast to everyone in the restaurant that the bedraggled woman at the table by herself, bravely fighting back tears, was celebrating her birthday alone.
Humiliated by this public display, I blew out the candle as quickly as I could, failing to take the time to first make a wish. But I have a wish. And with cautious optimism, I allow myself to believe that it might come true.
Only later, when I spoke to my friend again, did I learn that she had given the original extra ticket to her therapist, who had, in turn, given it to her husband. When I bailed for the night, my friend quickly texted her therapist and reported that now she had a second extra ticket, and the therapist picked up that one as well.
My friend and her girlfriend had left the concert before it actually started, as the park was too crowded (at eight they still hadn’t made it to Sheep’s Meadow) and the girlfriend was too cold. But the therapist meandered over at nine or so, and reported back to my friend that she’d enjoyed it thoroughly.