VERY MERRY UNBIRTHDAY
“You know, John,” I said thoughtfully, tapping my pen against the desk calendar, which was resting on my knee. “If we do it Sunday afternoon it would be lower-key than Saturday night, and that might be nice. Or what about a brunch? You love brunch,” I reminded him from my perch on the kitchen counter.
“Do what?” John asked, sounding a bit distracted. He was sitting at the table, holding a red pen in his mouth, rather sexily I must say, and glaring at a draft of his column.
“Your birthday party.”
“Ah,” he said, taking the pen out of his mouth and swirling a switch-these-words figure-eight in the middle of the page.
I drummed my bare feet against the cabinets and waited.
“My what?” he asked finally, looking up at me.
“Your birthday party!”
“Tris…” he began warningly.
“Come on, John. You SAID no surprise parties! So I’m consulting you!”
“You know I don’t want a party, Tris.”
“John, it’s a big birthday. You HAVE to have a party.”
“Do I?” he asked. “And why is that?”
“Because parties are fun!” I said. Duh!
“Birthday parties for me are NOT fun,” he corrected.
“They are too!”
“Not for me,” he said. “Tris, let’s drop this. A birthday’s just another day at my age, and…”
“ ‘At your age’?” I mimicked. “John! You are NOT old. What better way to feel young than a party, anyway? You aren’t making any sense,” I fumed.
“Apparently not,” he said, “since you seem to be having trouble grasping what I’m saying. Let me try again. NO parties, surprise or otherwise. I don’t like birthday parties for myself; you know that!”
I scowled. I did know that. Sort of. I mean, there WAS that ill-fated surprise party in our past…but that hadn’t been my fault! Sheesh.
“Come on, honey,” he said in a softer voice. “We can do something nice just the two of us. We’ll have a nice quiet dinner. How does that sound?”
How did it sound? John using the word “nice” twice in two sentences?
Frankly, it sounded sucky.
However, I did NOT tell him that.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But you’re no fun.”
He capped his pen and stood up to kiss me on the nose. “I know,” he said. “How do you stand me?”
“It’s not easy,” I told him.
* * *
“I know!” I cried, sitting up in bed and smacking the light switch.
John sat up too, very slowly, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes. Oops. How was I supposed to know he’d been asleep already?
“What is it? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, I just had an idea for the party…I mean for the NOT party, we don’t have to call it that…” the words tumbled out in a rush as John glared at me through sleep-slitted eyes.
“Tris,” he said, teeth gritted, “it’s after midnight.”
“But your birthday’s in less than a week and if we’re going to…”
“We’re NOT going to,” he said firmly. “No party.”
“I mean it, Tris.”
He ruffled my hair. “Go to sleep. And turn the light off like a human, please…we don’t live in a barn…”
I turned the light off very, very gently. First two nices in TWO sentences and now a weirdo cliché? It just wasn’t like him. Something was definitely up with John.
I snuggled down next to him. “You know, you’re not going to be THAT old,” I told him comfortingly.
He snorted and wrapped an arm around me. “Thank you so much, darling, that’s very reassuring.”
Huh. Sarcasm doesn’t become him, really.
* * *
“John,” I ventured over breakfast. “If we just had a couple people over to the apartment, that wouldn’t REALLY be a party, you know, just people we like all in one room, and it would be really nice…”
(Going with the word nice seemed an inspired idea; after all, it WAS his new favorite word, wasn’t it?)
John put down his banana and dropped his head into his hands.
Gingerly I touched his shoulder. “Uh, John? You okay?”
He looked at me through his fingers. “Depends. Are you finished torturing me about this party?”
“I’m not torturing you!” I protested, hurt. “It’s just I want you to have a good birthday, and EVERYONE loves parties!”
He sighed. “I know you want to help, sweetie. But not everyone loves parties, or at least not everyone loves them when they’re the guest of honor.”
Hm. That clinched it. John’s subject-verb agreement was off! That only happens when he’s VERY upset.
I touched his cheek. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
He turned and kissed the inside of my hand, right on my lifeline. His lips were very warm. “I’m sure.”
I brought up the party only once more, as we juggled coats and bags by the front door.
“John, if we…”
He put a hand up. “Tris…I appreciate your wanting to make me a party, but I really and truly don’t want one. Please.”
“I’m never mean when you want to throw ME a party,” I sulked. He’d thrown me a great one last year, too.
“That’s because you like birthday parties,” he explained with infuriatingly calm logic.
“Tris, leave it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Or what?”
“I mean, this doesn’t exactly fall under a rule, does it? You can’t spank me for wanting to throw you a party!”
John turned up the collar of my jacket and flipped the lock and bolt on the front door. “No,” he agreed, “but I can spank you for driving me insane.”
“Are you insane?” I asked as we walked down the hall.
“Not yet,” he said, “But I’m getting there.”
I pressed the elevator button very quietly, to avoid pushing him over the edge. No one wants an insane man at a birthday party, after all!
* * *
I pressed the intercom button on my office phone and buzzed Mel. “What kind of party would you throw for a party pooper?” I asked when she picked up.
I could practically hear her roll her eyes. “I wouldn’t throw one at all,” she said. “Why don’t you just take him out to dinner and shut up about it?”
“Because parties are better! And because it’s a big birthday, Mel, he’s going to be—”
“Cates!” Glen’s voice cut through out conversation. Hurriedly I hung up and swung my legs off the desk.
“I’m on it, Glen!” I called, trying to sound efficient.
“On what?” he asked, sounding puzzled, as he walked over and tossed a stack of clippings onto my desk. “Sort through these BEFORE the McAnthony interview,” he ordered.
“Oh. Right. I’m all over it,” I assured him with a winning smile.
The smile earned me my second eye roll of the day.
I get NO respect.
* * *
So, before I go on, here’s the story. You know, the one where John is born? (Or, as Simi would say, where “John gets borned.”) Here goes:
A bunch of decades ago (four to be exact, but do NOT tell John I told you), in a far away land (about sixty blocks away, to be exact), John’s mother checked into NYU Hospital to give birth to her little girl, April.
Or so she planned.
She’d always wanted to name a little girl for the month she was born. (My investigative reporter’s sense tells me it started in first grade, when the prettiest girl in my mother-in-law’s class, May Jones, pulled her pigtails.) Unfortunately, the attempt had been pre-empted two years before with the birth of the hoped-to-be-named June shortly after midnight on…July 1. Mrs. Winter was disappointed, of course, but Elizabeth turned out well even if she DID miss out on getting a cute month-name. This time, however, it was going to be different. Because this baby – April – was a supremely well-behaved baby. For instance, she never kicked in utero except while the Winters were watching football on TV…such propriety! Such grace! (Which was how she decided on the baby’s middle name. April Grace Winter…pretty, isn’t it?)
Mrs. Winter (I’ll keep calling her that to distinguish her from MY mother or, as she is more commonly known, “The Terror of 68th Street”) was, as you can imagine, quite distressed to go into labor around noon on March 30. She’d been hoping to hold out a couple more days just to make sure April could be appropriately named. The Winters went to the hospital – a neighbor watched little Beth – where Mr. Winter proceeded to undertake that all important 60s approach to his child’s birth: he paced around the lobby for hours and smoked the pink and blue cigars of the other new fathers. Meanwhile Mrs. Winter did her best (kegels?) to keep the child out of this world until the stroke of midnight. The doctor, shaking his head, pointed out that his patient was the only woman who wanted to prolong her labor! But prolong it she did, until the baby was born, ever proper and thoughtful, at 12:03 on April 1.
Visions of April Grace swirling in her first pink tutu filled Mrs. Winter’s mind as the doctor called “It’s a girl!”
Well, of course it was! When Adelaide Winter made plans, they came through. (Elizabeth had been a fluke. A charming, bright, adorable little fluke…but a fluke nonetheless.)
Mrs. Winter was just reaching out for the baby when the doctor cheerfully added: “April Fool’s!”
I suppose I don’t have to get into the rest of the story.
Suffice it to say, as my mother-in-law would agree, they shouldn’t put all those sharp shiny instruments in birthing rooms if they don’t expect angry new mothers to use them in times like these! And doctors should know better than to make April Fool’s jokes. I mean, especially to a Winter…
Poor Mrs. Winter was so flustered by the unexpected bodily addition to her new baby (although to quote Spencer Tracy, “thank goodness for that little difference!”…or our sex life would certainly be less fulfilling.) that she couldn’t summon her naming creativity. She named him the first thing that came to mind and that was John (no middle name) Winter’s first day on earth.
He’s turned a year older and a year better on each successive April Fool’s Day, which in my opinion has always seemed a rather undignified holiday to produce a man like John. And for her part, Addie Winter gave up hope of naming her children after months, which is a good thing since in later years Natasha was born in December and Corrinne in February, neither of which would have made particularly attractive names.
And that’s the story of how my John was named. Signed, sealed, edited. Stamp my byline on it if you like.
With that out of the way, it was time to start convincing John of how much he needed a party.
* * *
I attempted to bring some more evidence up the next morning as John asserted his youth and virility by dragging for an endless run through Central Park. The sun was shining, the other joggers were annoyingly fit, happy people littered the park and strolled arm in arm across the footpaths, and the grass smelled delicious. No wonder I was feeling so annoyed. “John!” I called as I tried to keep up.
“What?” he asked, enjoying himself FAR too much. I’m sorry, but running is just NOT my thing. I get enough exercise chasing down stories without having to chase down John too.
“We need to grab reasons to celebrate, don’t you think?” I asked John, jogging a little faster to keep up with his quicker pace.
He shot me a look and continued running, effortlessly. Grr.
“Jooohn,” I whined, or rather puffed, gasping a little for breath. If he was trying to prove how young and fit he was, he’d succeeded. And then some.
He stopped and bent over for a moment, then led us over to a bench. I collapsed gratefully while he bought two bottles of Poland Spring from a vending truck and tossed one to me, then dropped down beside me.
“I see your point,” he said finally, sounding annoying NOT out of breath. “But we’ve been celebrating. We went to that St. Patrick’s Day party,” he ticked off on his fingers as John will. “We’ve got Glen’s party in the country for Memorial Day, and don’t forget Mary Ann’s Yankee bashes.”
I grinned. How could I? Mary Ann was hands-down my favorite neighbor. The first spring we’d lived in our co-op, I’d answered our door to find a tiny person with enormous blue eyes and a winning smile. I’d made the mistake of assuming she was selling Girl Scout cookies (“We’ll take three Thin Mints and two Tagalongs, and shouldn’t you be wearing your uniform?”), but she’d forgiven me, eventually.
(She has quite a right hook.)
Co-op lore taught me Mary Ann rang the bell of every apartment in the building to invite the residents to her annual Yankee opening day party. The party was a great time – I mean, unless anyone spoke, in which case they had to face Mary Ann’s wrath. She was especially focused when one of her pet boys went up to bat…she claimed she was watching their form, but I saw her eyes glaze over at Jeter’s butt-wiggling. Hey, she was a woman after my own heart!
She rang our bell again during the Subway Series, looking particularly adorable while holding a Yankee bat from Bat Day in her hand. I was charmed, but later Darian Smyth from across the hall informed me that she carried that bat not for effect, but rather in case she ran into any Mets fans.
All I can say is, thank goodness our boys came through. She’s not exactly the forgiving type; this fall she circulated a petition to have Arizona removed from the Union.
I focused on John again. “Those are all good parties,” I conceded. “But a birthday party is DIFFERENT, John!”
“Because it’s a guest list WE pick,” I explained. “It’s all well and good to go to Mel’s seder or Glen’s party or an office dinner or a benefit. If WE throw the party, it’s all the people we love in one place. What’s better than that?”
John sighed. “Honey. I agree with you in theory, but I just don’t feel like making a big deal out of my birthday this year.”
“You’re NOT old,” I assured him, kissing him enthusiastically to prove it. It was true! Here I was, practically a decade younger, and I was red-faced and panting after our workout. John on the other hand, except for a slight sheen of perspiration that just made him glow, looked positively unruffled. His hair was perfect and his arms and chest looked even more delicious than usual through the thin fabric of his cool-max t-shirt. Mmmmm. I kissed him again.
Perhaps I should have worried about PDAs? But then a passing rollerblader gave me the thumbs-up.
I love this city, I really do.
* * *
I pushed the door open the next night, ready for another round of Party Hearty vs. the Party Pooper. “John?”
He was standing in the kitchen archway holding an envelope and looking, for John, rather distinctly irritated. I recognized the look, and I recognized the envelope.
This was not a good. I considered my options:
2. Face the music
3. Change my name, shave my head, and join a cult in the Midwest.
“Come in and close the door,” John said.
(Apparently I was taking option 2.)
“What’s the matter?”
He handed me the offending envelope. “What’s this?”
I swallowed. “The maintenance check?”
“Yes. I see that. Why is it here?”
“It’s stamped and addressed, look!”
“Yes, I see,” he said gently. “But what is it doing HERE?”
“I meant to send it,” I said, sighing. They might as well set the gallows up now. I was guilty, guilty, guilty, and may God have mercy on my soul. An imaginary gavel smacked down in my head.
I chanced another glance at John’s perfectly calm but unmistakably annoyed expression. Unfortunately it didn’t seem like the gavel would be the only smacking going on tonight.
“I meant to send it two days ago. I got distracted.”
John sighed. “You’re going to have to drop this off by hand tomorrow so we don’t get penalized, Tris.”
“I always get it in on time. I was doing really well with that!”
“You were. You were doing wonderfully,” he admitted and I smiled. Time off for good behavior, maybe?
“But you’ve apparently been too distracted this week,” he continued. Damn. “Tris, I told you to stop obsessing about this party issue. If it’s gotten to the point where you’re forgetting your responsibilities…”
“ResponsibilitY,” I emphasized. “Just the one thing!”
“A rather important thing though,” he commented dryly. “I don’t particularly want to be evicted, do you?”
“We wouldn’t get evicted for being ONE day late!” I snarked before I could stop myself.
“That’s not the issue,” John said firmly, eyes very set. “We have an agreement about the responsibilities for this apartment and getting the maintenance in on time is yours.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll drop it off tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” he said, kissing my forehead. “Go put it in your bag now so you don’t forget.”
He knows me TOO well. Wondering if I was going to get off – but doubting it, since it WAS John, after all – I tucked the envelope into the front pocket of my bag, and then slouched back to John, trying to look appropriately penitent.
He held out a hand. “Come on then.”
He shook his head. “We have an agreement, don’t we?”
I nodded with a glare, reminding myself to call my lawyer in the morning re: just how binding this agreement was.
He sat down on the couch and patted his knees. I sighed and unbuttoned my khakis. It’s funny, this sort of interaction. Not funny ha-ha, but funny interesting…no fighting, only minor rebellion, not the sort of free-flowing emotional catharsis we engaged in other times. It was no less an important part of our relationship, this sort of break-the-rules, pay-the-price, get-on-with-our-day interaction. They weren’t always this calm, but at this point in our relationship we’d done this dance so many times it was perfectly natural. It was as casual and secure a transaction as folding our undershirts or sharing the Times on Sunday mornings, feet in each others’ laps.
Oh, I’m not saying I wouldn’t get emotional DURING it. Spanking hurts and that’s all there is to it. But after six years, minor infractions, rarer now but still certainly an issue, don’t require the kind of reassurance they once did. I loved him, he loved me, we would take care of this problem, eat dinner, catch each other up on our day, and probably stretch out in front of the news for a while. It was just another way we took care of each other; after all these years, there were so many things we did for each other, consciously and unconsciously, in any given day. Such was our rhythm; such was our shared life.
John slipped an arm around my back and gave me a quick squeeze, then began with a particularly sound smack that made me yelp slightly. “When should you mail the maintenance check?” he asked, swatting me a few more times.
“Before it’s due!” I pronounced confidently.
I could feel John smiling slightly above me. “When? Some months?”
“No, every month!”
(Okay, if I’d liked the Socratic method, I would have gone to law school. But I didn’t think this was a particularly smart time to bring that up.)
“So we don’t have to pay a penalty! And,” I added smugly, “because it’s the right and responsible thing to do.”
“You’re an angel,” John said with a chuckle. “Now STOP worrying about my birthday, please, darling, because it interferes with your normally angelic behavior. I love you, but I don’t want a party. So STOP worrying about it – it’s distracting you from what you DO need to think about. Got it?”
“Yes!” I cried enthusiastically, since he’d been keeping up an impressive rhythm of smacks during that little speech.
“Your responsibilities to this apartment, to me, to you, to our relationship…they’re important.”
“I know!” I winced as his hand continued to descend. “Okay, I got it, John! You can stop!” I added hopefully.
“Thank you for the permission, sweetheart,” he said, then proceeded to complete another firm and increasingly stinging round across both cheeks.
I howled in response, kicked a bit, then accepted my fate by silently cursing into the couch cushion.
John finished on his own schedule, guided by his inner John-clock as always, then righted me and pulled me down on his lap.
I sniffed and cried a little more into his neck, enjoying the closeness. He kissed my damp forehead, then pushed my hair back, running his fingers through it a few times. I let him soothe me for a few minutes, then sighed against him, signaling that I felt better. I stood up and he helped me adjust my clothing, then kissed me.
“I love you,” he said into my hair, pulling me close for one last hug.
“I love you too,” I grumbled, “but that hurt.”
He smiled. “It was supposed to.” He flexed his muscles. “I wouldn’t want to lose my touch.”
I rolled my eyes. He was SO mean.
It made me GLAD I’d left those “Fabulous at Forty” pamphlets in his briefcase last night!
* * *
Sleeping on my stomach that night convinced me to stop torturing John about his birthday.
And if you believe THAT, I have some lovely swampland in Florida available to you at a special price…
No, really. I was kind, devoted, obedient. Oh, and John threatened to get out the paddle if I so much as mentioned the word “birthday” before the 1st.
The morning of the 1st I woke up early, said “rabbit rabbit,” the kissed John awake. I stroked his beautiful 40-year-old shoulders and kissed my way down the firm expanse of his 40-year-old chest. Four decades had honed his stomach muscles and I stroked one hand over his hip and – oh, you don’t really want to hear all this, do you?
Suffice it to say we barely made it to work on time, and we were both so punch-drunk that we agreed to meet for dinner with nary a peep from me about his meanness concerning the lack of party. We ate a delicious dinner at Cipriani, and John didn’t even get annoyed when I arranged for white chocolate fondue with a side of birthday candles. All in all, it was celebratory, sweet, and as nice as any private time with John always is. Ever wonder if you’ll get sick of someone after six years?
Well, you won’t. John looked gorgeous across the table, the candlelight highlighting the beginnings of white around his temples (not that I would EVER tell him that! At least not today, when he was so sensitive). It was our first date all over again – I could have talked to him and listened to him all night.
(Well. Maybe not ALL night!)
And on that note we headed home.
I kissed him deeply in the elevator, a preview, and we strolled down the hall with our arms locked around each other. Hm. Maybe life DOES begin at forty!
John put the key in the lock and fiddled with it for a moment. It was unlike him; keys, like most everything and everyone else in John’s presence, tended to behave perfectly for him.
“Here, I’ll do it.” I took the key from him and slid it into the lock, then jiggled it a few times so he wouldn’t feel bad. “It stuck a little this morning too,” I lied, so he wouldn’t feel like it was just early-onset arthritis or something like that. Apparently people of John’s advanced age are very sensitive!
I swung the door open and John reached for the light, but I grabbed his hand before he could turn it on.
“No, wait.” In the dim light of the hall, I hugged him. “I had a really good time tonight.”
“Me too, honey, but…”
“And you were right. You were exactly right, this was a perfect thing to do for your birthday. I’m glad we didn’t have a party.”
“Really, I am. I thought it would be fun, but this was much better. I mean, a party would have been annoying. Think of the cleanup. And all those people we would have had to invite…god, you probably would have made me invite Glen, wouldn’t you’ve? When you KNOW I can barely stand him during the workweek. And…”
“Tris, wait…” John reached for the light again and I caught him before he could turn the light on.
“No, it’s okay. We saved ourselves a lot of trouble! Oh, and that awful couple downstairs who I just KNOW you would have made me invite…and my PARENTS. Oy. See, you were totally right. Why spend the night with a bunch of people we don’t really like and some of whom we barely know and just feel obliged to invite when we could spend it just the two of us? You were RIGHT,” I said again, with more confidence this time.
Was it my imagination or did John look sort of pale in the dim light? It must just be hearing me say “you were right” so many times in a row. He’s not used to that.
“John, don’t you…”
“Tris, wait,” he finally managed, pulled his hand from mine and flicked on the light.
For one horrible moment I just stood there and blinked as the light illuminated the festive crowd of people in our apartment, as well as the array of food, piles of presents, and balloons.
I spun to look at John.
“Surprise?” he said, eyebrows raised, a question mark clear in his voice.
“What…why…” I stammered. “I don’t understand.”
“You wanted to have a birthday party so much,” John explained. “And you’re right that we should grab reasons to celebrate. But I really didn’t want a birthday party for me, so…”
Mel stepped out of the crowd and came over to kiss me. “Merry unbirthday,” she said.
“Merry unbirthday,” Dana agreed, waving from the couch, where he sat with Scarlett.
“John?” I asked, starting to catch on. A grin spread across my face.
“Merry unbirthday,” said Glen, who I hoped wouldn’t fire me over this.
“Merry unbirthday,” said Nick and Colin, who run the city desk.
“Merry unbirthday,” agreed Stephanie, who went to college with me, and Jamie, who shared my first apartment.
“Merry unbirthday,” muttered the awful couple from downstairs, making me feel a bit guilty.
“Merry unbirthday,” said Mary Ann, clutching her bat possessively.
“Merry unbirthday,” said Tara and Sutcliffe and Maybel and Bensonhurst.
The choruses continued, the voice of our loved (and…liked) ones echoing around the apartment.
I took in the guests around the apartment. All the people I’d hoped to see for John’s party – and all the people we were stuck inviting. Eating, laughing, and just plain BEING inside our apartment. With us.
John was a genius.
And my unbirthday party was a success, involving a large cake Mel and Simeon had made (“He washed his hands first,” she promised me) chips and salsa for those of us with cast iron stomachs, crudités to nourish Mel’s unborn child, the kind of loud music the neighbors would have complained about had they not already been IN the apartment, and plenty of high spirits. I was so busy schmoozing and appreciating the party that I didn’t get a moment alone with John until much later, when we’d lowered the lights and the remaining partygoers were either chatting on the sofa or, in the case of Dana and Scarlett, dancing by the full-length living room windows.
John tugged me toward the unoccupied corner of the living room, where the small window revealed sparkles of light from the street.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “John, thank you…” He cut me off with a long kiss.
“Merry unbirthday, you mad hatter, you,” he said when we stopped for air.
He tasted like white sugar frosting. Like birthdays. Like John.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” I said, threading my fingers in his hair as I fell, swirling, into another kiss.