Happy Birthday

i’ll cry if i want to

Hey, I know a lot has changed, but will you guys be coming to my birthday party this year? I’ve been making plans. There’ll be pizza and wings, like there always have been before. I’ll try to find a good movie. I think it’ll be fun.

Do you remember the first one, in 2005? That June 26th, I turned eight. Thanks for filling my dining table. Thank you to the ones who were willing to sleep on the sofa. Thank you for staying up with me to wake my brother in the middle of the night, pretending to be robbers about to kill him. Even today, I haven’t forgotten about it.

Did you notice? I celebrated my 8th, 17th, and every birthday in between with the same exact cake. The only things that changed were the candles, and even then, we reused those all the time. Like the hot wings and the breadsticks and the two-liter bottle of Coke, Carvel’s Original Ice Cream Cake found its place at the table the same way you and I did. The first time we called the icing swirls on the cake “veins,” we practically wet ourselves laughing—we told ourselves we were eating the birthday girl. It’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense to me now, nor is it still funny, but that was what humor was back then. Every year after that, all I had to do was whisper “yum” as the cake came around for us to start giggling again. What was it about eating a chocolate layer and thinking it was intestines that made us bang on the table with laughter?

I remember what it felt like to lie on the floor with you, trying to escape the heat and mosquitos after playing badminton on the lawn. Lying flat on the ground, we saw all the little fibers in the carpet, the quarter under the couch, the way our hair fell around our heads like tangled weeds. One of us fell asleep every time. The rest of us talked about life and held hands. My mom would walk in, and wonder why none of us were speaking. Looking at each other, we didn’t know either.

We didn’t need much to be entertained. Every year, people asked why I put so much work into organizing an event that most kids stopped having after they turned 10, and there were times when I started wondering, too. But every year, as soon as the school year ended, I thought about us and found myself in Walmart looking for streamers again. In time, I realized it wasn’t a hassle for me—it was a habit, something that felt stranger not doing than doing. I stopped writing formal invitations. You stopped asking for my address. We were a simple group that thrived on chips, board games, and shared memories that accumulated every year. After all of you went home the next morning and I finished picking the paper plates off the floor, my mom would ask me about what we did. I could never quite remember. She would also ask me if I had fun. I always said yes.

I loved falling asleep with you after staying up late together. After screaming and jumping and rolling around in our sleeping bags, I had the best night’s sleeps I ever had. We slept in total peace, after unloading an entire year’s worth of thoughts, aspirations and fears. Secrets love the dark, where no one can see how hard you’re blushing, and no one needs to smile when they don’t want to. I made funny faces while you were talking sometimes, just to make sure that I was really hidden in that blackness.

Through the years, what we talked about changed, but the honesty and trust between us was constant. Each time after turning off the lights, we made a pact, the classic promise to keep what was said sealed in a room for eternity. I don’t remember the first year we talked about what we thought love was. But do you remember that time we figured out we all liked the same boy? When I invited someone’s crush one year by a dare, and he actually came? Sometimes I wonder if I still care so much about these things because I actually do, or if it’s because they remind me of you.

I’ve also forgotten the first time we stayed up all night, not just for the act itself, but because we still had things to say. Was it 2010, when we first entered middle school? 2007, the year your parents divorced? Or 2013, the year the first of us started to leave for college? Past nights always had to be punctuated by games and other ways to keep us awake. That night, the words kept spilling out until the sun came through the windows. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about anymore. I don’t remember who started crying first. I don’t remember whose parent it was standing there that morning, laughing at our sleepy eyes. But I remember the feeling of it: soft, close, and real.

You made the night of my sixteenth birthday one of the happiest of my life. That was the only year I really felt the need to plan, to make it something big— blame it on society, hormones, that one 80s movie with Molly Ringwald in it. By that June, every giddy nerve in me believed that turning sixteen was the most important milestone of my life.

Which is why after a month of planning, when the Carvel Original Ice Cream Cake had melted because I had put it in the fridge instead of the freezer, I wanted to cry in front of all of you. I thought about all the hours I had put into the night, the fuss I caused over a trivial party, the way the cake box, melting in my hands, seemed to be nothing more than justice for my stupidity.

But you all ate it anyway. You loved that disgusting, melted soup that could only be served in scoops. You ate the whole thing, so that there weren’t even leftovers for the next morning’s breakfast. And now, that liquid cake is still a mess in my mind, but I remember it much more beautifully than something like that deserves. I remember it because of you. As all of your arms wrapped around me and I hid my face in half embarrassment, half joy, you taught me how to love unexpected things. You turned my shame into a blooper that still makes me laugh.

That night, when you had all fallen asleep, I got up by myself to read the guestbook. I don’t think I ever told any of you of this, but even now, I pull it out to read. I keep it in a small box, with the birthday cards I’ve saved each year, and the little pictures you drew with them. That night, I looked at the pages filled with your handwriting, I wanted to cry for a second time—not out of sadness, but because I knew if my life depended on me telling an incontestable truth, I could say: “These are my friends.”

But as much as that was the truth, it was equally undisputable that every finished party meant we were getting older. We knew it; our time in this small town was counting down, and the last few gatherings seemed to take on a sense of urgency. When my mom started talking about moving out, all I wanted to say was Wait! Wait, just let us have one more year, for the sake of holding on. But I stopped myself, maybe because I felt like I had already received too much. What right did I have to one more birthday speech, one more game of Truth or Dare, one more morning waking up to your pillow? I thought of the countless others who were all ready to leave their childhoods behind, and the way I was still pathetically calling for mine to come back.

So I didn’t object. We unceremoniously left the house I had lived in since I was six, and on June 26th, 2015, I turned 18 alone.

Some part of myself tells me to get used to it. This must be how everyone is supposed to celebrate their birthdays after a certain age—no more goody bags, no more pizza, no more talks about crushes and naïve fears. When we get older, these kind of things are no longer supposed to afflict us. I think about my parents, now passing the middle of their lives, who have never had a birthday party since I knew them. I think now, I need to get older the same way they do.

But another part of me wants to strongly, insistently, dearly hold on. It’s true: our town no longer binds us together. Our lives began to diverge that summer, the moment we touched our diplomas with our left hands and shook our principal’s with our right. But I hope that when the weather starts to warm again this summer, you’ll wonder why something feels out of place, and why you left space open on your calendar near the end of June. I hope that soon enough, you’ll remember me. This summer, let’s eat a cake again. We’ll celebrate more than just school ending, or another year on my age—we’ll celebrate coming home.