I was born during the height of rush hour on a snowy Monday morning in the first week of January. My father – less calm in a birthing scenario than my mother, who thought it prudent to take some time to apply several coats of mascara to her lashes before heading into labor – almost ran down a school crossing guard in his quest to make sure I wasn’t pushed out somewhere along the Expressway on the North Shore of Long Island. He was promptly pulled over by a cop, received an immediate lights-blazing escort to the hospital, and I was born two hours later, my mottled and purple face the first visual indication of what would become my lifelong tendency to try to avoid the dread that comes with waiting.
You’d think, perhaps, that someone who hates waiting would therefore enjoy having a birthday right at the beginning of a brand new year, but you would be wrong. I’ve never been a fan of my birthday, and that’s a feeling I’ve experienced for a very long time. It’s not the growing older part that upsets me. I’ve always looked (and, unfortunately, sounded) rather young and I don’t much buy into the commercial notion that gaining another year at this stage of my life will rob me of anything essential. No, for me the problem is when my birthday falls and how much happier my supposedly celebratory day might feel had only my parents chosen way back when to procreate, say, in July instead of in April. Even as I write that sentence, I can recall how heavy my father was during the time of my infancy. He eventually lost one hundred pounds immediately following his divorce from my mother, an act that – as you can only imagine – thrilled her to sharp bitty bits. But now I’m wondering if maybe there was a lack of air conditioning in the house back then during the throes of summer that led to them choosing to do it in April. I’m also now wondering if, even as an adult, the idea of my parents doing it at any time of year will ever strike me as anything other than seriously revolting.
The problem with a birthday that falls on the very first week in January is that the world itself feels completely devoid of enthusiasm. You know how people grumble about that stagnant kind of lull that exists between Christmas and New Year’s? That, my friends, is nothing compared to the lull that exudes from the pores of everyone I know in those dull days that follow the end of a light-filled holiday season.
The first days of January are like this: cold, grey, dark at 4:30PM, and a ton of TV shows still on hiatus. The world goes inside at sundown and rarely comes out again until morning when it’s still dark. I find myself driving to work these days while staring at the shifting shape of the cloudy moon. The streets feel narrower during winter and the bare branches of the trees exude only starkness. The shadows I often think exist only quietly inside of me seem to emerge where everyone can see them.
The tenor of January is ruled by stagnancy. People are celebrated out. They’ve done the festive thing since Thanksgiving and now they’re ready for a fucking break. The majority of the people I know spend January consumed by thoughts of how much money they’ve recently spent or by identifying the newest reasons that illustrate why certain members of their family are very likely clinically unbalanced, and they are doing all of it while heading into Day 3 of a ubiquitous New Year’s diet – and nothing makes people cheerier than eliminating carbohydrates and sugar after spending the last few weeks swan diving into any and all shit made out of dough. This right here? This is a sentence that’s been uttered during every single birthday dinner I can recall over the course of my entire lifetime: No cake for me. I’m only eating vegetables and protein now! The saddest part is not that those closest to me will refuse to indulge in a slice of layer cake that’s meant to celebrate the moment I burst forth into the world or the very clear fact that their lives will not, of course, only involve vegetables and protein from this point forth because everyone breaks eventually and shoves a Twinkie or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s down their throat. What I see as the saddest part is how many times it’s been me who has uttered those words at my own birthday celebration because that’s the sort of bullshit that transpires when your special day falls smack dab in the middle of fucking Resolution Season.
But this I swear right here and right now: I will eat cake on my birthday this year and I will not feel guilty about it, not even when I feel the frosting settling into that spot on my inner thighs that I’ve spent the last six months thinning down. I will simply shrug when those around me wave away a slice of cake of their own. I will blow out my candles in one swoop using all the breath control I’ve learned from Pilates and I will not have to think hard about what my wish for this year of my life will be because I already know what it should be and a bit of it has already come true. But premeditated plans for cake consumption aside, the apathy that fills me because it’s about to be my birthday has not abated. I feel mildly ruled by a plodding beige nothingness this time of year, which is perhaps the very last way I want to feel during a time that’s meant to feel celebratory. And maybe it’s that – that dichotomy of something that’s supposed to be singularly special when life itself is experiencing a cyclical reset – that explains why early January birthdays can suck so majestically.
I usually feel this way, but I don’t always feel this way. I’ve had a few birthdays when the endless fog of blah lifted and I felt yanked free from the mental muck I sometimes think could maybe drown me. As a child, I had the Chuck E. Cheese party so many others also experienced where I rolled gleefully through a pit of colored balls as my mother stood on the sidelines clutching her chest because her child was submerged in a plastic pool of germ. I celebrated one year at a store where my guests and I made and then ate our own chocolate. I had sleepovers during middle school where we all dipped our hands into bowls of orange Doritos and watched movies like Friday the 13th Part 7 and went in pairs into the bathroom to see if maybe Bloody Mary wanted to join the festivities and whomever fell asleep first would wake up to find her training bra frozen. We would all try to stay up until the silver light of another January dawn filtered through my blinds. Pizza was served at most of my birthday parties, but one year my mother got everyone McDonald’s and I still remember the unconditional pride I felt because my mother knew I wanted that day to feel extra special and she also knew the easiest way to make anything feel special for me back then was to accompany the day with salty fries and some barbeque dipping sauce.
Rarely did the weather cooperate on my birthday. A blizzard snowed out my Sweet 16 and the event had to be rescheduled during a time when you couldn’t alert seventy people simply by tossing out a group text and I had to wait an extra few weeks to wear my off-the-shoulder red dress with my opera length white gloves. My sister, born in August, used to have sundrenched outdoor mini golf parties; in comparison, I grew up hearing about one birthday I had where my parents made me a giant picnic around a blanket in our basement. I was two. I’d apparently begged for a Picnic Party, so they did what they could because an outside picnic was in no way feasible, what with the thick layer of ice covering the entire neighborhood. The birthdays I had in my twenties were all about tromping around the city, arriving at bars, and tossing off heavy coats to reveal our skimpiest outfits underneath. I learned early on how to successfully navigate the frozen tundra in heels, but I have yet to master the art of covering up adequately to avoid nipple frostbite. Those birthday bar years were slightly more fun than many of my other birthdays. The nights were lubricated by alcohol and whatever it was we’d smoked and we would often celebrate on the third week in January instead of on the first because all of our schedules worked better that way so there would then be a bit of time between the New Year’s comedown and the next festive moment and that bit of extra time made the festivities pop. I liked spending my birthdays back then with both my friends and my boyfriend. I would feel a crackle of daring blazing inside of me for the entirety of the evening and I would be up for anything and sometimes those nights ended in more than a bit of a haze, but I would convince myself the next morning that looking for symbols in the mental fogginess of my mind was the sort of thing real adults probably do.
My fifteenth birthday was not spent at a bar, but that’s not the reason it was nothing but miserable. I’d lost my father only five months prior; I already felt like there was no longer a trace of light in the world, so I hardly needed the dankness of a January day where everyone gamely pretended that I should feel joyful. But my seventeenth birthday was way better and it still exists in that soft pocket of my mind where I catalogue the eras of my life by the person I loved at the time. Oh, yeah – if I ever loved you, you still exist in me somewhere and I will forever associate certain months and movies and songs and times of day with you. It’s just who I am, who I have always been. I may not choose to go riffling through those mental back catalogues all that frequently, but they’re all in there and in the one clearly labeled with the face of my first love is the day I turned seventeen. I received a burgundy silky sweater and a matching miniskirt from my mother and I also unwrapped a beautiful marcasite necklace. I loved everything – I actually still have the sweater – and I dressed extra carefully for school in my new goods because it seemed important that I be a little dressed up that day. I was the sort of person back then who often dressed to impress a certain guy and I knew this particular one loved me in little skirts and he’d once told me I looked really pretty in deep bold colors and I stopped to check my reflection before I left for school and I knew I was staring at myself through the lens of what would eventually be his approval. (By the way, I am still someone who will toss on an outfit or a pair of shoes for a particular person and I will still buy a bra or a top because I think a certain man will approve. I’m not all that proud of having such a pattern, but being that I’ve recently broken my pattern of late-night snacking by embracing the joy of intermittent fasting, I shall have to save the vow to stop trying to impress certain guys via my wardrobe for another day.) What I recollect with the most clarity on that seventeenth birthday was the moment I arrived at school, saw the Happy Birthday banner my friends had affixed to a metal railing above the common area where we all hung out, and then realized the guy I was most excited to see wasn’t where he usually was at that time every single morning. On that particular early day in January, the boy I liked more than anyone else on the planet was home with a stuffy nose and glands the size of watermelons and, despite the sweet compliments I received from others, I knew my outfit had been worn in vain.
During lunch I walked over to the bank of pay phones near the lobby of my school and I called him. He knew it was me when he answered the phone and he sleepily sang me a very congested version of Happy Birthday, his whispery voice sexy this time because of phlegm instead of intent.
“Has anything exciting happened for your birthday yet?” he asked me.
“Yes!” I told him. “There was a humungous parade in my honor and it’s almost time for the band to play.”
He laughed – I could always make him laugh; I can make him laugh still – and that right there, along with a beautiful book of poetry he gave me called The People Who Didn’t Say Goodbye, was my finest present.
I remember the year I turned twenty-one because there were so many pictures taken from that dizzy night. There was also a ton of video taken of me the next day after my college campus was buried under two feet of snow and I was buried beneath probable alcohol poisoning. I remember the year I turned thirty mostly because I’d expected it to feel like such a huge thing and it just didn’t, so I was pretty much waiting around for an avalanche of feelings or epiphanies to overtake me and nothing ever did. I know my first visit to Nobu was for one of my birthdays and I know I went to a hockey game for another. I know there have been thoughtful presents and lavish dinners and a trip here and there. I also know that there’s just a profound feeling of isolation that overtakes me this time of year and it doesn’t matter how social I usually am or how much I know I’m not alone. My fleeting seasonal anxiety darkens the sparkle of what is meant to be a special day, and I think there’s a possibility I will always be this way.
While I may not be the kind of person who plans elaborate birthday celebrations or can’t sleep the night before because of the trembles caused by birthday excitement, there is one thing I quite love about that one day in January. I love the phone calls and the texts I receive from people from all the eras of my life. My phone is ever-present on that day and it’s hot to the touch by evening. That day is my high school friends sending me balloon and cake emojis and my college friends calling to sing to me. It’s my siblings and my nieces and my nephew and my mother checking in on that day and the day after to make sure I had a nice birthday. It’s the people I work with planning when we should celebrate and it’s the men I once really cared for checking in with sweet messages so I know we will always be connected. It’s the voices of all the ones who will always matter telling me that I matter too, and it’s that alone – well, that and a strawberry shortcake with my name scrawled across it in bright pink icing – that I’m craving as I head slowly into this next long year.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter