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2004-07-12 - 12:13 p.m.

It wasn’t my intention at all to be anti-social, but suddenly faced with the opportunity to sit in the back corner of a birthday party, alone in a dimly lit booth, sipping on a glass of wine and reading “The Stranger”, I simply couldn’t resist. Rare are the opportunities to truly get your brood on, and I had to take advantage of this, even if my bright blue bowling shirt probably rendered the scene ironical, rather than poignant.

I knew all of one person at the party: an old dancing partner from my swing days. (Swing as in “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing,” not “Do you swing, baby?”) She invited me and my two college buddies, just in town for the weekend, down to the party. I wasn’t sure it was the best idea to drag them down to a party where ninety percent of the population would be out four degrees of separation, but having run the gambit of about fifteen bars over the two previous days, my bag of tricks was running thin.

The promised company of beautiful women was the enough to seal our fate.

She didn’t welch. The landscape was peppered with sights enough to keep our attention, but something was off.

The birthday girl greeted us with the warmth of a smile so wide, you could see the inside of her cheeks. She bounced about, flashing that same toothy grin to everyone that arrived, brimming with the fervor of a coked up ten-year-old girl, looking to show off her new party dress. Attendees showed equal doses of enthusiasm, giggling their hellos, over expertly dressed presents, and expertly dressed dates. Party dresses, fancy blouses and well-polished shoes littered the dance floor, and their utter exuberance, mixed liberally with Metropolitan hip-ness, was enough to render the scene nauseating

Weren’t the cool kids supposed to be slightly dour and haughty? This is the way I’ve always seen it done. It is more than mildly disconcerting to see a grown man, dressed in a button down shirt, and loosely hanging tie, waving his arm-banded hands in the air like he just didn’t care. Flanked by long glowing hair, a woman planted her purse down in our booth, effectively halving my seating area, off to bump and grind with enough force to break an entire retirement home worth of hips. My swing friend had intended to make introductions, but a woman who slides and writhes over the dance floor to “Bombs over Baghdad,” doesn’t quite seem well matched to the man immersed in Albert Camus. It was everything we could do not to fix the purposely lifted collar of a gentleman jamming by the wayside.

They were well dressed, rich, beautiful and absolutely happy.

I ordered a bottle of wine, rather than another glass.

One of my college buddies pointed to the back of the crowd,

“See that guy? Receding hairline, just at the back of the circle, can’t quite get in. We should save him. Grab him by the arm, and say ‘Come with us…’”

I’ve never been much of a birthday guy. This year, I waited at my local bar, counting down the minutes until it was over, celebrating its conclusion with a whiskey shot. My twenty-first, traditionally commemorated with vomit and regrettable sexual couplings, fell on a Tuesday. I still went to a bar and took advantage of their “21 pitchers for $21 on your 21st” deal, but the three guys that eventually showed up had to leave around eleven. We had class in the morning. Three pitchers went into our gullets. We left the remaining eighteen for a group of frat boys in the corner. They got one apiece.

So far, the best birthday present I’ve received was a subscription to the Onion, a paper you can get for free in New York. The sentiment was greatly appreciated but it didn’t change the fact that I could pick up the paper on the corner outside my apartment, three days before it got dropped in my box.

During my academic years, my little day fell solidly in vacation time, when all of my friends were off skiing, or cruising, or doing whatever it is people do in Martha’s Vineyard. My vacations were usually filled by my parents, catching up on any backlog of nagging that might have been left undone. Between attic cleaning and lawn mowing, I lovingly leapt into terrifically horrible television programming, eventually gaining a deep understanding of the marvelous body of work of Martin Short. When the big day did come around, the immediate family would gather round a cake, still in the pan, often topped with the marshmallow based purple crud my mother occasionally used instead of frosting.

One year, my mother dropped in one of those trick candles that never go out. We sang the song, and I made with the blowing, and on cue, the trick candle snapped back on. I blew it out again, and it snapped back on. This went on for about two minutes, while my sisters giggled.

“It’s a trick candle, honey…”

“I know.”

I kept at it for another few minutes, while my Dad poured out cups of coffee. Eventually, my sister threw up her hands, pulled the candle out of the cake and ran it under the water in the sink.

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