Let’s begin here. Happy Birthday is a horrible song that gets exponentially worse as the number of people singing it grows. No one knows what tempo to choose and at least a third of the group starts too high and by the time the third Happy Birthday rolls around the room is filled with questionable falsettos and half-assed head voices.
I spent my 26th birthday quietly. In my opinion there was little to celebrate. But then I’ve never been big on birthdays. My mother is the one who remembers the day I was born not I. Although if I had to guess I’d say that I slept a lot and ate a lot as I’m sure being born is pretty fucking exhausting. But in 2009 it was more than my general birthday ambivalence that led to the quiet. My New York City employment rollercoaster had finally come to rest at the place I most dreaded, and I would be moving back to my childhood home in less than a month. There was absolutely nothing to cheer.
But late that evening I realized that I had gone the entire day without cake. While stuck in the depths of my melancholy, I’d forgotten about the one piece of birthdays that I always enjoy. So pants were put on and flats were slipped into and I ventured out of my studio, one and a half blocks up and three blocks over to a place I frequented regularly.
How often I visited this particular wine bar and restaurant might embarrass some people, but I refuse to be embarrassed by my frequent appearance at a place where I felt happy and comfortable. In fact I was so happy and comfortable there that that year one of the bartenders and I exchanged birthday gifts. I gave him a copy of selected essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and he gave me Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. It was a sweet and funny acknowledgement of the spiritual questions he knew I’d been wrestling with in my twenties.
I opened the door and claimed a stool at the middle of the bar. When the bartender approached me, I leaned in a bit and half-whispered, “It’s my birthday and I haven’t had any cake.” Soon enough a flourless, chocolate slice and a glass of wine were set in front of me. I didn’t feel like returning to the quiet of my studio. Living alone had once been such a joy but now the space amplified my loneliness, my sadness, and my regret. So I stuck around slowly eating my cake and watching as my wine glass kept getting magically refilled. I was waiting for midnight and for the end of a day I never cared much for.
It was the usual Friday, late-night crowd. A couple of other regulars, including a woman with a shaved head that I very much envied and the French guy who played Spanish guitar weekly, shared the bar with me. The restaurant emptied and the doors were locked but still we lingered. For a few moments, I let go of my sadness. Midnight came and went without my noticing.
“It’s Samantha’s birthday!”
The bartender’s sudden proclamation caught me off guard. I looked at my phone and began to note that my birthday had actually ended about forty minutes prior. No one took notice of me. Instead the woman with the shaved head suggested that they all sing Happy Birthday. I cringed slightly and prepared myself to smile through a horrible song that I didn’t even want sung. A song that was no longer relevant.
But for once every piece fell into place. No one started too high or too low. Somehow they all fell upon the same tempo. As they reached the final line, the more musically inclined took the opportunity to harmonize with the rest.
I smiled broadly and wondered how long I could put off the journey home.