In my 41 years, I’ve only had four birthday parties. My birthday falls in the middle of August when my classmates and friends were either notoriously at camp or on family vacations, so my mother always had an excuse for skipping a kids’ birthday party. What did I know of American birthday parties anyway? We celebrated most of my birthdays with family and my parents’ friends. Cousins or else children of my parents’ friends comprised the kids at the party.
My mother would cook up a spread to make Thanksgiving jealous. Russians don’t do a potluck. When you are invited to someone’s birthday, you are not expected to bring a dish or your own beer. You bring a gift (cash) and you are fed herring, caviar, potatoes with dill, and, at least, seven different types of mayonnaise salads. That’s just the first course.
Vodka was endless and everyone drank it; wine only came in the 90s for those faking nonalcoholic status. The tables were always set with vodka and one-liter bottles of seltzer. No one drank plain water; the kids sipped seltzer out of shot glasses because we were rehearsing.
It was always too tight at the table, which never accommodated all the food. Guests took turns making toasts. First to the birthday girl, to her mother, to her father, to her grandparents, to good health, to happiness, to good fortune! The more they wished, the drunker they got. Shot glasses never remained empty for long. Generations blurred as parents and children drink together, one morphing into the other.
The first birthday party I recall was when we still lived in Queens and I was turning ten. I have a visual of myself in front of one of my grandmother’s infamous cakes, with my hair down, with the front pulled back in a bow. I’m wearing a light pink and blue sundress with a cotton lace trim, purchased just for this occasion. I don’t remember which American peers came to the Projects apartment party or what we ate (pizza?) or what we did (pin the tail on the donkey?), or what was in the small plastic goody bags we hopefully knew to give out. My one distinct memory is getting nauseous before anyone got there. (This may have been my first panic attack.) I stood on my knees, in the itchy dress, staring into the bottom of the white porcelain bowl, thinking, “If I could just throw up, I’d feel better.” The party happened, uneventfully, leaving with me no lingering joyous snapshots to reflect upon. I didn’t have another party until I was 18 years old.
The summer before I went to Boston University, I convinced my parents to let me go to UCLA to take a photography class and live in the dorms for 8 weeks. This glorious summer was my gift from the universe for 4 shitty years of high school. I met cool West Coast folks and hip NYC girls who went to private schools. I got to live on one of the prettiest campuses in the country, with three outdoor swimming pools. This was the summer I discovered sex, drugs and rock and roll. California is all they say it is. I worked on my tan daily and had a driver (friend with a car). I took black and white pictures and hung out in the darkroom with college artists. I smoked weed after midnight on the football field on top of the yellow spray painted U-C-L-A. By the time I made my way back home to Staten Island in August, my mother suggested celebrating the milestone 18 with a party at a Russian restaurant. I had been to many such parties, but never with myself as the star. On the heels of my California high, the new more adventurous me agreed to the event.
Russian restaurants / night clubs in Brooklyn are not just a meal, they are a full body, sensory experience. You get too much food, too much booze, and way too much feathered-costumed entertainment. Women try to out-slut one another in a silent competition. The dress, the body, the hair, the shoes, the purse, the jewelry. Russian girls in the bathrooms of Russian restaurants can size you up faster than a pimp. I wore a dark purple taffeta, knee-length dress with a square rhinestone-encrusted belt buckle. The strategic v-neck, puffy skirt, and mean tan made me look skinnier than ever. My long curls bounced around me as I twirled on the dance floor to the music of heavy Russian accents singing Michael Jackson’s Beat It. One of my 17-year-old cousins kept up shot-for-shot with his dad and puked into his plate before he passed out into it. I danced more than I ever had and smiled so intensely, my jaw was unfamiliarly sore the next day. All of my relatives showed up for the event. Maybe because it was a “round number,” as the Russians call it, or maybe it was because I had never invited them to a party before.
My 25th birthday was the next time I felt pressured to gather people around myself in my honor. The whole grown up birthday party concept still confuses me. Why am I supposed to shell mega bucks to throw myself a party? For my quarter century fete, I hosted a brunch at Blue Water Grill in New York’s Union Square. It was lovely-ish. I chose the menu, the attendees, and the timing. One, two, three and we were done. Unfortunately, most of what I reflect upon was my relationship with my boyfriend at the time. We had just gotten back together after splitting up for two weeks after he found out I cheated on him. I’m sure the molten lava cake was delicious but all I remember is the sour taste of shame.
It was 15 years before I would consider another party. With 40 at the door, the familiar muttering rose up again. “You really should do something. You only turn 40 once.” I deliberated for months and finally decided to throw a small sushi/sake game night at our apartment. I etched little shot glasses with a G ❤ 40 to give out as favors. My sister drove down from Maine. We hung twinkling white lights and lit candles around the apartment. I wrote a speech just in case I got too drunk. I bought a dress I would never normally have worn, but because I was playing into the insecurities of a number, I donned the low back, knee-length, flowy bright cantaloupe dress. I wore too-high wedge heels and worried I would either fall over or my boob would pop out due to novice fabric tape application. I didn’t get drunk enough to read the speech, but still ruined the dress by drawing on it with Sharpie. I maintained my host role throughout the evening, ensuring everyone had a good time, the exact opposite of what I wanted to do on my birthday.
If I make it to 65, the birthday buzz will start back up again: “Let’s mark this digit, let’s jubilate!” I won’t fall for it, though. I’ve learned my truth. I prefer a quiet respite off the grid, at the beach with my family, followed by pizza and ice cream. (Ironically the quintessential menu for an American kids’ birthday party.) As long as I don’t cook on my birthday, as long as I am breathing, loving, squeezing the shit out of life, I’m celebrating!