As I write this, the hours are counting down on February 7th. Soon it will be February 8th.
My birthday. This used to be the most exciting day of the year for me. This used to be a day I loved so deeply, I prided the number eight, the month of February, the astrological sign Aquarius, my birth stone amethyst. I prided myself. When February rolled around and I knew that my birthday was only a week away…less than a week away…just a couple days more…tomorrow…I would relish the anticipation. The mounting excitement. I planned parties and outings with friends. Perhaps not the safest or most appropriate; I spent my 15th birthday tripping on acid at a rave, but nonetheless it was always a day to rival all other days.
Now, I want to stop time. I want to obliterate February 8th from the calendar, bomb it from existence, leave a charred smoking pit in its place and skip to the 9th. Now, I hate my birthday.
I’ll be twenty-nine this year, but I know that tomorrow, I will spend the day fighting not to turn eighteen again. Last year, when I turned twenty-eight, the ten year anniversary of having turned eighteen, I spent the night of my birthday in the Emergency Room being treated for a drug overdose after I attempted suicide. I remember being halfway out of my mind high on the drugs I hadn’t taken to get high, crying for my birthday cake while the nurses, just a few feet away, openly mocked me. I remember being chastised by acquaintances for trying to abandon my children so permanently. I remember bearing the brunt of my husband’s fury and distrust for weeks. I remember having to explain to CPS that I hadn’t been with the kids, that it hadn’t been about the kids at all. I remember hearing from my mother how wrong it was to spend the money she and her sisters had given me for my birthday on drugs, how I had taken food from my children’s mouths by spending those $20. I remember the whole world thinking I had acted like a petulant child, attempting suicide because I didn’t get the party I wanted.
None of those assumptions were correct.
This year, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you all, whoever you are reading this from the United States, from Japan, from Australia, from Spain, from wherever, why I hate my birthday.
Which is to say, I’ll tell you how I spent my eighteenth birthday.
Since I had been a gawky tween fresh out of braces, I had wanted to turn eighteen. I remember obsessing over the year: 2006. 2006, 2006 I’ll be free. Ironic now, how 2006 became the year that would imprison me forever.
I was so full of wants when I was a kid.
I wanted to grow up.
I wanted to be heard.
I wanted to buy cigarettes, not just from Jimmy, who would flirt with my friends and I instead of checking our IDs, but from anybody.
I wanted to vote.
I wanted to be an Adult.
I wanted big breasts, which it seemed I could have if only I were an Adult.
I wanted curves. I wanted men to look at me. Not just the creepy old men who liked that I looked like a twelve year old boy, but the desirable men. The classy men. The men with money, who talked about literature and politics, who would whisk me from the theatre to acid-laced raves, who would teach me to love myself, who would love me.
I wanted to be eighteen.
It wasn’t a big party that I wanted that year. I just wanted to do something I couldn’t have done before.
I invited my friends to the hookah bar, and I booked a hotel room in my name.
I felt like these were adult things, things the child I had been the day before could not have done. I was happy with these things.
I invited a few of my friends, most of whom were already eighteen and could therefore join me. I invited my boyfriend.
There was one more thing that would be happening that birthday: It would no longer be illegal for my boyfriend and I to have sex.
I wanted to hold his hand in the streets while we strolled to the hookah bar.
I reached for his hand. I remember the sky was clear that day. A pure, sun-stained blue. The air was crisp, cold, but tinged with warmth. Spring was approaching. I reached for his hand.
He jerked away. My friends flanked me. I don’t know if this was intentional, if they saw the small motion of rejection, but I was grateful to have them with me. My boyfriend hung back, sullen, head bent low, eyes roving. He kept scuffing at the little baggies on the ground, checking to see if there were any drugs inside.
I liked the taste of the shisha, and the thick, smooth smoke it became. I liked hailing the waiter to change the flavors, from fruity to flowery, to something exotic and spiced. I liked the hookah bar, which was decorated on the outside with a large, grinning Chesire cat. I liked how dark it was, and that we lay against pillows on the floor, the big hookah as centerpiece, the hoses snaking out for us to grab as we pleased, languishing in the experience of smoking. I imagined this was what opium dens were like. I imagined myself in the company of Edgar Allen Poe.
My boyfriend was jittery. He took quick, uninvolved hits. He squirmed, looked around at the other groups, let his eyes rest on a group of pretty, big-breasted girls. Eighteen hadn’t really done anything for mine, to my disappointment. He went outside to smoke a cigarette. I couldn’t believe it. Who leaves a hookah bar to smoke a cigarette?
My friends distracted me with jokes. I never fully appreciated the goodness of girlfriends. One of my biggest mistakes in this life has been to undervalue the love my friends have shown me. I should have just told my boyfriend to fuck off, if he was so bored. I should have gone bowling with my friends. Maybe if I had known that my favorite bowling alley would close forever in two years, I would have.
But probably not. I wanted that hotel room. I wanted my boyfriend, who hit me, but I loved him anyway. I wanted the birthday that I had planned since I was fourteen.
When I said goodbye to my friends, evening was drawing over the city, and with it a billowing blanket of rainclouds.
“We should check into the room,” I told him. He agreed, sullen.
I had picked this particular Marriott because it was one of the few affordable downtown Seattle hotels with a pool. I love swimming. The feeling of being submerged in water, of buoyancy, is the definition of joy, to me. It was the first thing I wanted to do, after dropping our stuff in our room. And it was my birthday, so we did it.
Well, I did it. He just kind of hung around by the pool, looking bored and forlorn and distant. I asked him what was wrong. Nothing. Nothing was wrong. I asked him why he didn’t come into the pool. He just didn’t want to.
I did a couple laps. I tried to keep the momentum of joy going, but I loved this man, and the loneliness of his distance had ruined the swim for me.
We went back upstairs. He crawled into bed, turned his back on me.
I sat on the little couch in the suite.
“Why are you being so weird?” I asked.
He didn’t reply.
“It’s my birthday. What’s going on? Did you relapse?”
I sat there for a while, feeling sadness enshroud me.
“You don’t love me because I’m not a minor anymore.”
“Shut up,” he finally said back. “I’m not a fucking pedophile.”
So I said, “I’m hungry.”
“There’s a Subway down the street.”
“Will you go?”
“No!” he shouted, half rising from the bed, animate from anger. “Leave me alone.”
I gathered up my things. As I was about to leave I asked him if he wanted anything. He mumbled his order, and I left.
I remember that the darkness which had overtaken the world outside seemed to mirror something within me. I remember the heartbreak I felt on that walk, the defeated calm. I remember a small voice asking, “will he hit me tonight too?” I remember the louder voice that responded, the voice of reason, the voice of denial, saying, “No, he wouldn’t do that. Not on my birthday.” And then an echo, his voice this time, his weird little superstitious mantra floated through my mind “knock on wood.”
He didn’t even want to join me for the sandwich. My veggie sub sat unwrapped in front of me, the scent of vinegar sharp in the air, as I began to cry.
“Stop crying,” he moaned.
“It’s my birthday,” I snapped back, defiant, echoing the words of Lesely Gore that my mom used to sing-shout when I was a kid, “I can cry if I want to.”
And then, finally, he came to me.
“Shut the fuck up,” he shouted. And punched me in the face. And dragged me to the ground. And kicked me. And punched me again.
Trauma memories are like jigsaw puzzles with a few missing pieces. There are enough there to know what you’re trying to put together, but there are gaps, details missing, edges and small parts that don’t fully connect.
I don’t remember how I got from that ground to the bed, but I remember the terror of being suffocated with the deluxe guest pillow. I don’t remember how long he hit me, but I remember the bruises and aches up and down my arms, my back, my legs. I don’t remember if I walked into the bathroom or he dragged me, but I remember him ordering me to strip and get into the shower. I think he had drawn blood this time. He hated when he made me bleed.
He made me get under the faucet just long enough to get wet, then pushed me out of the way while he went under the shower head. When I tried to get out, to dry myself and warm up, he ordered me to stay. He wouldn’t let me get into the water again, he just made me stand there, shaking, growing ever colder, while he languished in the hot water and soap. When he was finished, he pissed on the floor by my feet.
Later that night, after my boyfriend fell asleep, spent from rage, I crept quietly out and returned to the pool. My body was welted now, but it was late so there was nobody there to make judgments on it. The chlorine stung at the small scrapes all over my body, enough of them to make me feel like my body was burning. I floated in the pool, feeling my skin burn where my lover had hit me. The human silence was amplified by the soft echo of the water lapping around me. I imagined the city outside, dark, empty of everyone and everything; a whole world disappeared without explanation. I was alone. I was alone. I was alone.
This was my entry to adulthood. Whenever my mother tells me to stop whining about the past, to grow up, I think of this. Whenever my mother-in-law tells me I’m acting like a child, or strangers look at my clothing with a smirk on their face. Whenever anyone criticizes me for my lack of career, for my immaturity, I think of this. I think about how I became an adult under the fist of my ex. I think about how alone I was. I wonder how, and when exactly, I was supposed to have done all this growing up.
When I went back upstairs, he was in full slumber, his open mouth heavy with drool. I walked over to the bed and shook him awake. He glared at me with bleary, angry eyes. I crawled on top of him.
“You’re going to fuck me,” I commanded. I could feel the rage beneath my skin, curled in my fingertips curled against him.
There were so many times that he had forced me to perform oral sex after a beating, so many times he had raped me. This command didn’t make sense, and he knew it.
“Why?” he asked, voice still husky from sleep but growing alert with interest.
“Because it’s my birthday,” I said. “It’s my birthday and I want to fuck on my birthday.”
So I fucked the guy who had just beaten me. Like sex always was with him, it was quick and unsatisfying, but it was something I had asked for, one small thing that I had asked for on my birthday, and gotten. One small thing that was mine.