April 10, 1998 was a Friday. I put on these tight low-rise baby blue printed jeans I had with a slight flare below the knee. I put on my shiny white low-cut tee. I coiffed my bob and put on some Spice Girls-style platform shoes. I wore Cool Water perfume.
I had convinced my inner circle to go with me to the birthday party of this guy I was friends with in college. We were graduating from our program and loads of my school friends would be there. And it was becoming apparent that I had a total mega-crush on the birthday boy.
He was shy and awkward, but possibly the funniest man I’d ever met. His energy was infectious and when we talked about the music and movies we liked, we had so much in common that I wondered how we could have existed our whole lives liking the same things and not have known each other. One day, I got to my locker to find a VHS copy of Stand By Me in it. We had gone for tea and had an intense conversation about how much we both loved that movie. “Barforama! Hahaha!” The romantic gesture made my stomach flipity-flop as I scanned the halls to catch a glimpse of him so I could thank him.
He was slightly dorky, but muscular and bright, and if I’m being honest, beneath his plaid shirts and baggy jeans I saw the potential for someone great. He just needed a bit of work is all, like he was a pre-war cottage with great bones in an up and coming neighbourhood. Little did I know he was a money pit with archaic zoning laws.
The girl everyone thought he had a crush on was there too. She was wearing a crop top that said EVERLAST, the iron-on letters struggling against her robust rack. I thought for sure he was going to go off with the reigning queen of our program, but instead he sat with me, drinking beers while I downed Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
“So, you’re drunk enough, why don’t you go ask Melissa to dance,” I teased.
“Because… I don’t like her that way… I… I like someone else.”
I’m a bastard and prodded until he spit it out. “I like YOU, OK?!” Then we danced, I can’t remember the song but I’m sure there’s a journal in my possession that has it documented. I put the journals in a box with the wedding photo album. They are decaying in my parents’ garage, because I can’t fucking look at them without crying. They are the history books of this great nation that rose to power and then had its borders attacked. They are the Museum of Czechoslovakia and what was once one country is now two. The artifacts cannot reside in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, so they live in no man’s land.
When we danced he asked me to go out with him the next day, but I had plans to see Radiohead the next day, so I asked for a rain check (priorities!). “I’d kiss you,” he slurred, “But I’m too drunk and I don’t want it to be like this.” It wasn’t our first date, but we always marked our togetherness as April 10, his birthday, because we were inseparable from then on. Until we weren’t.
I didn’t mean to ask to take Theo to dinner tonight. I was actually just trying to get him to make his own plans with the kids and his family, but no one in his family has the sensitivity to think that there son or brother might be alone on his birthday and maybe they should do something for him. I knew that he would not ask his friends to do something. People learn from us. And he has spent a lifetime teaching everyone that he is OK on his own. He’s the subject of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock.”
Except he’s not. I asked him to do the Myers Briggs and he got an E for Extrovert, which surprised me. He pushes everyone away, but like anyone, he wants to be acknowledged and appreciated. So instead of going to see Tinder Nightmares like I REALLY wanted to, I found myself spending $200 and sitting at a table with our kids, the birthday boy and his parents. I even thought to invite Lars (of the peaches) and Zofia to join us.
I got the kids to pick out thoughtful gifts weeks ago. The girl one spent a sick day making a card and decorating wrapping paper that she made herself. I wrote, “Thanks for all you do for me and the kids,” in a card and when he read it this morning he smiled. Somehow the words resonated, which made me sad for all the depressive years when my appreciation could not get through to him.
I know that regardless of how many times I honour him on special days, the sentiment will not be reciprocated. Last year on my birthday, he showed up empty-handed, kids empty-handed, my first birthday with no one. He said, “I wanted to get you something, but I was waiting to get paid.” That’s OK, I said, like I say every year because I expect nothing and yet part of me hopes this is the year he does SOMETHING, a card even. “Yeah, I really wanted to get you a composter.”
Ummmm… why? So every time I take out the garbage, I think of you? How did we get from “Stand By Me in your locker” to “composter”?
When we renovated our first bathroom, back when we were one child in and still so very much in love, we found an antique clawfoot tub. When we flipped it over to paint it, the date embossed on the bottom was April 10, 1940. I’m sure relationships started and ended on that date too. I wonder sometimes about whether couples were happier then, whether expecting less from life was a good thing.
But I’ve only got this life to go on, and I know that we are both happier and more sane. I know that once he got rid of the wife he believed was making him miserable and the job he believed was making him miserable, he could see how much of all this depression was actually on him to own and take care of. He’s starting to do the work and that’s the only gift he can really give me at this point.
My Facebook memories today were mostly painful reminders of me posting birthday greetings to Theo year after year, joking about his disdain for Facebook and praising him as a father, a partner and my best friend. Was I faking it? Did I mean it? Was it real? I’ll never really know.
I spent the dinner feeling like I was in the Twilight Zone. Like everything about it was so familiar. No one in the damn restaurant would imagine we weren’t a couple in a real family doing really family things. We looked so NORMAL and I couldn’t help but think, “What was wrong with this?” I kept looking at my phone for zings from boys, but there was nothing and the kids could sense my discomfort and chastised me for looking at my phone during dinner. So I sat with it, the discomfort, the farce, the “for the good of the children.” I took an Instastory of my prosecco glass and toasted to my character and the high road. My kids were happy. Their dad was happy. And my happiness ebbs and flows, but it’s here goddamit, and I can finally breathe.
To give you a sense of how long a 20-year relationship is or feels like, have a look at this list of other things that will turn 20 in 2018.