On my 25th birthday, my boyfriend took me out to dinner at my favorite dive-y barbecue joint. He gave me a bottle of white wine he'd gotten on his recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, and the sweetest gift ever--a mix CD he'd made of all my favorite songs by Britney, Christina, *NSYNC, D'Angelo, and Sisqo. I was in love with him and thought we'd get married, and not just because he could do the "Bye Bye Bye" dance, although that helped.
The next weekend, I had a big birthday party at a dance club downtown that played pop music. My boyfriend was late. While I waited for him, I kept drinking bottles of beer and going outside to check my voicemail in case I'd missed his call, but I didn't have any messages. He finally got there a little before midnight and when I asked him what took so long, he told me that he'd just been hanging out with a girl he was friends with (who he is now married to). After my party he stayed over, and he kissed me goodbye in the morning. My head was pounding and I remained in bed the whole day, except when I was racing to the bathroom to throw up. The following weekend we broke up over the phone, and I never saw him again.
Three years later, my friend and I who were both turning 28 decided to throw a Saturn Returns birthday party. I was involved with a man who would be out of touch for weeks at a time, and I didn't even want to tell him where my party was going to be because I didn't want to be disappointed when he didn't show up. But he promised he'd be there and pleaded with me to tell him where it was, so I did.
Our Saturn Returns party was at a karaoke bar in the East Village. Most of my close friends couldn't make it and all the acquaintances I barely knew showed up, so I felt like I was all alone and surrounded by strangers. I kept staring at the door and checking my cell phone, waiting for the guy I couldn't stop thinking about to walk in or call to tell me he was on his way, that he was almost there. Then the party moved to a dance club a few blocks away and I waited some more, pretending to listen when people talked to me, going through the motions of dancing, molding my mouth into a smile. He never showed up and he didn't call. The next day I woke up with an emotional hangover, my eyes puffy and my head pounding from crying, and I knew I had to stop seeing him.
On my 30th birthday, the guy I was dating took me out to dinner at an upscale, dimly lit restaurant in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Between laughing and talking, we peeled the leaves off an artichoke and drank a bottle of white wine. I ate giant scallops in butter sauce for dinner and we split chocolate cake topped with ice cream for dessert. He gave me an iPod Shuffle which was the greatest gift in the world, since I was the last person to still be lugging around a CD Discman. It was my best birthday ever, and I couldn't believe that I had this amazing, adorable, brilliant boyfriend who was doing such nice things for me. After many years of being single, I felt like I was finally becoming the girl I wanted to be and having the things I never thought I'd have: a girl with a thoughtful boyfriend who cared about her and wanted to make her birthday special.
The next weekend, my friend Tess* threw me a big 30th birthday party. She entitled it "Jen's XXX Birthday," made a reservation at a tapas place in Manhattan, and sent out an Evite. For the occasion, I got my hair blown out straight and wore a strapless top and sparkly eye shadow. The guy I was dating was supposed to pick me up at my apartment and we'd take the subway to the city together, but that afternoon he called to tell me he'd meet me there. That night, as I was about to go into the restaurant, my cell phone rang. It was him, saying that he couldn't make it. Getting off the phone quickly before my voice started cracking, I felt tears well up in my eyes. I did not want to go inside. But I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and pushed the door open.
As I walked into my party, Tess ran up to me and put a pink birthday tiara on my head. Thirty of my friends were there, lined up at two large communal tables, all smiling at me. Tess had bought a huge sheet cake from an expensive bakery, and she and her boyfriend brought a duffle bag so they could carry my presents for me when we went dancing later. But still, between gulps of sangria, I kept excusing myself to run downstairs to the bathroom and cry, or go outside and lean against the wall of the building and cry. Amidst all these people who loved me and wanted to celebrate my birthday, all I cared about was that he wasn't there, and on top of that, I felt even worse that I was too upset to be able to appreciate everything Tess had done for me.
In the morning he called and apologized, and promised to help nurse my hangover. He came over to take care of me, but instead we got into a fight and wound up breaking up.
Over the next several years, sometimes I threw birthday parties for myself. I'd come up with a theme, like "Bringing Sexy Back" the year Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds came out or "Picnic in the Park," send out cheerful Evites, and bake Duncan Hines yellow cakes with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. But something would go wrong, like most of the guests leaving my "Bringing Sexy Back" party early, after the mani/pedis but before the wine bar, or the tropical storm that forced my potluck picnic into a crowded pub. Blowing out the candles on my Duncan Hines cake, I'd wish for love and success, but it was just a reminder that another year had passed and I still didn't have any of the things I wished so hard for. I was losing hope as the voice in my head piped in with, You're going to be alone forever! and You'll never be successful! And surrounded by friends and acquaintances, I felt all alone. So some years I didn't do anything for my birthday, thinking that no expectations would mean no disappointments.
Last year, I woke up on the morning of my 35th birthday very aware that I was nowhere near where I'd expected to be at my age. I thought that by the time I turned 35, I'd have my life together. I thought I'd be married and have kids. I thought I'd have a successful career and financial stability. I thought I'd live in a brownstone or at least a one-bedroom apartment decorated with Pottery Barn furniture. But here I was at 35, living in a studio apartment that didn't have room for a couch, single, broke, and unemployed. And yet, I didn't feel crushingly depressed. I felt, somehow, OK.
For my birthday that year, I wanted to do something that reflected how I liked to spend my time now, so instead of having a party at a bar and going dancing, I went with two friends to a spiritual lecture at a yoga studio. But this still felt disappointing, like it wasn't celebratory enough.
This year, about a month before my birthday, I started to feel that familiar birthday malaise creep in. I didn't want to plan a big party but I didn't want to just let my birthday pass by unnoticed; I wanted to celebrate and actually enjoy it. So on the day of my birthday, I did some of my favorite things, like going to Starbucks and taking a yoga class. Spread out over a couple of weeks, I planned lots of little celebrations with family, friends, and co-workers, and a birthday party with a small group (but more than two) of my friends that incorporated my other favorite things--burgers and milkshakes. And throughout the month, I booked appointments for pampering like getting a haircut and blowout, pedicure, and massage.
Earlier this month I turned 36. I still live in that same studio, I'm still single, and I'm still broke. But my life has been showing steady signs of improvement, and I've let go of comparing myself to a vision of where I thought I'd be at this age. I'm celebrating my birthday the whole month long, and I'm enjoying it without the high spikes of anticipation and low crashes of disappointment. I'm allowing myself to appreciate what's all around me, instead of focusing on what, or who, is nowhere in sight. This year, the doom and gloom voice in my head has piped down and I feel hopeful again, and even though I'm single, I no longer feel so alone.
*Name has been changed.