I turned 23 yesterday.
I used to think that birthdays were nothing more than an excuse to wear a hat and ingest an alarming amount of chocolate cake. It didn’t take long before I traded the hat for low-rise jeans and the cake for a bottle of Pineapple Malibu. Slowly but surely, they became another painful reminder that I was alive.
That sounds dramatic. Maybe it was.
I see those Tumblr pictures and I have to laugh. They feature the bottom halves of girls with thigh gaps and short shorts and captions that say things like “Summer Love,” as if summer isn’t fun and love is out of reach without those two elements. I have to laugh because I had the thigh gap and the short shorts and summer still seemed like an endless stretch of eternity that I would rather have slept away.
My July birthday was something I loathed, yet waited around for every year in a desperate sort of anticipation. I kept waiting to wake up more at peace, more mature, more fun. I kept waiting to “grow out of it.” I imagined opening the door for the people who arrived at my party and feeling safe in their presence, like nothing would change and we could always contort our mouths into pained smiles and pull the strings in our backs to release an enthusiastic “Let’s be friends forever!”
I waited for these things, and yet, I woke up with the same knots and insecurities that I had fallen to sleep with the night before. I woke up with the same fears that had always kept me from having fun, the ones that reminded me that I was different and strange and everyone knew it. When the people floated through the doorway and wished me a happy birthday, their smiles of admiration looked more like contempt, and I always found myself searching their palms and their eyes for the instrument or the secret that they might use to damage me further.
This is not anyone’s fault.
My July birthday was a mirror to the way I felt about myself. My July birthday was a reflection of the expectations I had and the standards I set, and the sick way I sat around feeling like I was the only one who had the right to sadness and humiliation. My July birthday was a reminder of the truths I couldn’t face, and the way they made me a liar.
I celebrated 23 years on Earth at the bedside of a dear friend. I celebrated 23 years watching her breathe peacefully inside a deep slumber, grateful that she was breathing at all. I celebrated 23 years by reflecting on the 7 and a half I’ve been lucky enough to know her.
Her fingers twitched in mine, and I knew for certain that this must be the most valuable gift I’ve ever held. They were warm and full of life, full of strength and, though they remained still, they clung to life with a vicious tenacity that one can only find in the hands of someone who has beaten (no, smashed) the odds. As she does this, I know what my July birthday means (and has always meant.)
My July birthday is another mark on a tally on a score sheet of a mind game, a brain teaser more puzzling than any riddle. My July birthday is the candle that remains lit after all the others have been blown out. My July birthday is the gift that I do not deserve, but am given anyway.
My July birthday is a mirror to the way I feel about myself, and my July birthday felt pretty fucking great this year.