When I turned fifteen, my friends threw a surprise birthday party for me. Fifteen is a strange age--it was for me, at least. (Although, really, I've been known to claim that nearly any age is awkward. How does a 23-year-old dress professional but not frumpy? Is 34 too old to still have yourself a good giggle at names like Richard Stiff?). I was the kind of fifteen-year-old who still had parties with streamers and cake at my mom's house, and no thoughts of trying to score alcohol or the drugs. I had a mad crush on a guy two years older named Johnny.
Johnny had taken my best friend and me to the movies to see RoboCop that summer, sort of by accident, the thing kids do in suburban Virginia. He was driving around our subdivision; we were walking around. We knew him from marching band. He had a long-term girlfriend and was well-liked by everyone. He played the bass drum. After the romance of RoboCop, well, my heart leapt just to see his car.
I got home on this fifteenth birthday, and all the guests shouted their surprises. Johnny was there, with his smile and his strawberry blond mullet. (Oh come ON, everyone had a mullet then.) He'd graduated long ago, I'm pretty sure, from parties like mine to things having sex and drinking, but he was there IN MY HOUSE, and he'd brought a present: a fishbowl with a fish for me. (It will say nothing good about my maturity when I tell you that when the fish died, I kept it in the bowl for longer than is considered "not creepy" because it had come from Johnny.)
I still have pictures from that party, including one that he and my friend Jeff had taken of themselves. Johnny's mouth is open and he's laughing. I spent the rest of the summer looking at that picture, wanting to grow up already.
That was the first birthday where I'd had an age-related epiphany. I realized, with Johnny's sudden appearance in my mom's kitchen, that he was not, alas, a realistic romantic prospect for me. He was older and popular and looked very strange among the same sort of streamers that we'd put up just a few months ago when my little sister Jill turned four. It was only later that I realized how kind Johnny was to come, to put himself in the awkward situation of being The Crush Who Totally Made The Girl's Birthday, the person she has in mind when she blows the candles out.
It's been twenty years. I'm blowing out candles tonight, and to be honest, I'm a little amazed that I can still conjure up the girl I was then. My small epiphany this year is that I have grown up, that at thirty-five, I'm more or less the person that I will ever be, that unless I'm willing to break people's hearts, this is the trajectory of my life. I'm not a heartbreaker, and more than that, I'm not especially interested in changing the trajectory. I like being a grownup and what's going down around here.
At the same time, though, I've been a little sad to acknowledge the dimming of that feeling that anything was possible, the sky wide open with the potential of anything, from my becoming a doctor, the president, a lawyer, right on down to being able to parlay a platonic viewing of RoboCop into a splashy love affair.
This morning, though, my grandparents called me to sing Happy Birthday, which is the absolute highlight of every birthday. "Thirty five," my grandma said. "I wish I were thirty-five."
"Thirty-five is the best time in your life," my grandpap said. "After that, things could get better...or not. But thirty-five, you have everything you need."
I'd planned on wishing for something that rhymes with schmestseller. But now, I'm thinking that maybe it's time to switch gears, to stop yearning for The Next Big Thing. Basically, to celebrate.