Saturday, January 4, 2014

Forty-five With a Bullet

For no reason whatsoever I woke up at five o'clock this morning and found myself inexplicably throwing back the covers and rolling out of bed. Three minutes later I stood shivering in my kitchen, sipping a glass of orange juice and staring out the window at streetlights muted by the low-hanging exhaust of chimneys spewing incessantly in the arctic pre-dawn. It looked remarkably like Armageddon. "Happy birthday," I whispered.

This is probably the case for most people, particularly as we get older, but I don't remember much about most of the forty-four birthdays I've had before today. I mean, of course I remember the last few -- I'm not that fucking old -- but it gets harder and harder to pinpoint the details of any given birthday. I remember turning seventeen because that night my girlfriend surprised me with a warm bed rather than the rear compartment of her mom's hatchback -- her sister's family were out of town, so we had the run of the place for the night. It was an awful lot like being a grown-up couple rather than a pair of fumbling, horny teenagers (which we were, we just weren't humping within inches of the spare tire for once). That night she also gave me Stetson cologne: who could forget that?

A few years after that I turned twenty-one, as was the custom of the time, but that one doesn't stand out for the reason you might think. It was my junior year of college, and my buddies and I had returned to campus from Christmas break the night before my twenty-first, everyone with an assortment of beer and liquor in tow. I can't tell you what I drank that night other than to say I drank all of it, and the next day I didn't manage to peel myself off my mattress until four in the afternoon. I had a hangover my buddy Peaches would classify as an existential crisis, and the last thing in the world I wanted to put in my body was booze. Or food. Or oxygen. That evening as I clung to what was left of my life, my pal Josh showed up in my dorm room, listened patiently to my feeble pleas to be left alone so I could just die, then said, "Fuck that. You're twenty-one, we're getting drunk." So he drove me to the store, stuffed some money in my hand and sent me inside to purchase the devil's elixir, which we did indeed drink until we were drunk, thus confirming that legends aren't born, they're made, often by other legends.

The next thirteen birthdays were a blur. Then came 2004, when my daughter, who was eight at the time, announced that she wanted to make me lunch for my birthday. When she asked what my favorite food is, I replied (of course), "Sandwiches." I suspect most of my friends are familiar with my feelings about sandwiches, but for those not in the know, here goes: I believe making someone an excellent sandwich is one of the truly great gestures one person can offer another. Depending on my mood, I put it either just behind or just ahead of donating a kidney. The girl of my dreams, if she exists, will almost certainly appear out of nowhere holding a freshly made sandwich and say, "Here." If ever I needed proof that I got immeasurably lucky with the kid who ended up being my daughter, Braden showed up on my thirty-fifth birthday and made me the best sandwich I've ever had. Somewhere out there is an eighteen-year-old knucklehead who has no idea how fortunate he's going to be someday.

It's stunning to me that Braden made me that sandwich ten years ago. Ten years -- ten years, man! And that's the proof of middle age, isn't it? That a decade passes like that. No matter what age you are, time is always slipping through your fingers. When you're young, the illusion that you'll live forever arises in part from the fact that you can still feel the texture of the fabric as it slides between your thumb and forefinger. The older you get, the more that fabric feels like bittersweet, shiny polyester.

And yet we go on. There's a lot of Samuel Beckett rattling around in my head today, which is strange because I haven't read Beckett in -- dare I say -- a couple decades. I admit, the last couple weeks I've felt a tad glum about turning forty-five, and I suppose it's as simple as, all of a sudden, I'm starting to feel my age. Nine months ago, I was counting the cash drawer at work, and I found a wheat penny. I used to collect coins, and so it's just a long-standing habit to flip a wheat penny over and check the date, which I did -- except, this time, I couldn't make it out. I tried holding it at different angles to the light, tried holding it closer, then at arm's length, but no matter what I did, I couldn't see the numbers. Everyone in my family, including my daughter, has been wearing glasses for years. Mine were the last eyes standing. Until this past year: the year I got old.

I said as much to my buddy Hank a few months ago, and without skipping a beat, he scoffed. "Old?" Hank said. "Fuck that. This is the year you got good." Hank has standing to scoff at a sentiment like this: he was there for the worst of it, having watched from the front row as I stuffed myself down the rabbit hole in 2010, and never once leaving his seat while I burned up nearly every last chip of collective goodwill during the two years it took me to pull myself out of that particular abyss. After witnessing all that, seeing me entirely back on my feet must seem like a bit of a miracle to him. And the thing about the appearance of a miracle is that it makes every other miracle seem possible. Including living forever. Including living happily ever after. And quite possibly including bifocals. So it goes. Happy birthday.

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