A few weeks back, the earth and atmosphere were still locked under a wet, grey February. Dead of winter is just a phrase in our part of the country- there's never anything dead, really, just slower, gloomier, darker, miserable rain and straight up espresso at four in the afternoon to get you through, nothing in comparison to the Midwest's scary gridlock-for-days on the highways or the Northeast's powdery snow and iron earth and tough, battle-scarred birds.
I was sitting in an armchair in Ammen and Steph's living room, my feet tucked under me. It was a Wednesday and we were just finished eating, Annika wrapping scarves around her neck and Jesse and Megan lost in eye contact and Ammen circling the room with his phone to his ear. Every week, mid week, we meet up for yoga at the house and dinner; I'd read in Self magazine that these weekly get togethers are important to "Banish Winter Blues and prepare for Bikini Season" which, so promises each glossy page, is just around the corner.
"So," said Steph as she filled the sink up with hot water. "What would be a perfect birthday for you?"
My birthday falls smack in the middle of March; in Vermont this meant everyone was either depressed, sedated or in Florida. In college everyone was buried under finals exams or had already gone away for spring break, and twice I've lost my birthday entirely to the international date line. I've had 26 years of daydreaming (with a daunting capacity for wishing things were different than they are, I started as an infant) of what would constitute a perfect birthday, in an alternate universe were I had been born a sweet mid-summer baby, instead of a mud season baby in that precarious spot between the lion and the lamb. A five year old couldn't have answered with more speed or certainty:
"I'd have coffee at Zokas, and then go to all my favorite places in the city, and do stuff, and see all my friends, and since my birthday is a Monday there's square dancing at the Tractor Tavern, so we'd probably go to that. "
It wasn't a tall order. It wasn't like I asked for a miniature Russian lap giraffe or anything. But, c'est triste, it's still merely a pipe dream to ask for a whole day of celebrating. People are so busy and spread out along the gridded city that it's hard to plan any sort of event, even just after dinner drinks. Just ask anyone who has ever tried.
Anyway, as soon as I finished the sentence, our friend Eli West came on the radio, and the conversation turned over to him.
Fast forward a month or so. We celebrate my 26th the evening before the actual date. Heavy chandeliers hang over us while outside, heavy mist blankets the cold sand along the Puget Sound. I drink myself silly and melt onto the tiled floor in a state of nearly catatonic (and vodka induced) euphoria. The next morning I wake up with a well deserved hangover. I get out of bed and advance down the hallway to the kitchen sink, topple over, curl up on the floor, right myself, topple over. I am fed water out of a cup and, against all protests, gently scraped off the couch, lumped into my car, and pointed in the direction of Steph's house.
I'm only following instructions. The night before she had handed me a map of Seattle and grasped the sides of my face, speaking slowly, over- annunciating: "Be at my house at 11:30am. I need four hours of your time."
|See how they refuse to make eye contact? They were all in on it....|
"Good morning!" She says brightly as she answers the door, wrapping me in a hug and throwing all sorts of chocolate at me. (After a month on the Grand Canyon with me in biting cold and nonstop hunger, girlfriend knows what kind of chocolate I like.) "It'll just be one sec, our basement flooded again this morning!" She skips off towards her room. She's excited and sneaky. I examine the bag of chocolate she's handed me- there's another map inside, folded up next to the lavender blueberry dark, with a sort of riddle written out. I open it:
Sweet Jesus in the sky, she's put together a scavenger hunt for me.
This indescribable Louisiana girl has done her homework, recording throughout the past few weeks all the places I like to find myself. The first clue leads us to Zoka, and thank God- I'm still dragging and nauseous trying to hide it. But as I walk in to that familiar place with the hardwood floor and sharp smell of roasting coffee, I start to feel a little better. If I can get a cup in me I just might live.
And hey, when I walk in I see my friend Jamen sitting at the first table.
I'm very surprised to see her, and apparently so stupendously dim-witted that I don't put it together yet. "Oh look!" I say. "Oh hey, hi! Steph is taking me on some sort of scavenger hunt!"
"Is she really?" she reaches into her backpack. "Then you might want this?"
Oh. OH. I see. She's in on it.
We spend half an hour at the cafe, enough time for soy lattes, grapefruit juice and rehashing the night before. ("Um, yes, you did tell all of us -again- about the boy who broke your heart last year, and this time you made us 'huddle up' to listen...")
Carrying on, the three of us follow the 2nd clue to a raw foods restaurant in the University district. It's 12 noon and the neighborhood is teeming with undergrads, darting out from the Korean place and into the shoe shop and zipping into the bookstore. It's become perfectly sunny out, and when we walk into the orange-adobe restaurant there's Kristin standing at the counter, grinning. She hands me a menu of their crazy healthy and infamously expensive food. "Anything you want, you got it."
Raw kelp noodles and fresh pressed vegetable juice with that inexplicably satisfying celery froth and I'm back to life, baby. Full force. And then Kristin reaches into her backpack:
Up to Ravenna we go to 3rd Place, our favorite independent bookstore. At this point I'm speechless, wouldn't you be? I walk in circles until Steph pushes me towards the front counter, where Julia has left a gift certificate for me to buy anything I want. (Side story: I buy The Circumference of Home, a book by Kurt Hoelting, a record of the year he spent living a within 100 miles of his Whidbey Island home, never getting in a car. I've been interested in this book and this man for three years now. On our last trip to Whidbey I brought up his name, feeling all righteous that I had heard the story on NPR and had bothered to do a little research on him. Turns out, Kurt Hoelting is Kristin's Dad.)
When I bring the book up to the counter, I'm handed another new clue. And believe it or not, this one has an avalanche receptor on it. They've hidden the clue with the beacon somewhere in the park and I have to go and seek it out.
Which takes me a good while, because they've stashed it up a tree.
This one takes me to Whole Foods. We walk there from the park, and unlike any birthday I've ever had in New England, there are signs of spring everywhere.
Waiting at Whole Foods is this huge bouquet of flowers in a glass bowl:
Bought for me by these people:
I unscramble yet another clue and end up at this frozen yogurt place, and I insist on bringing the flowers with me even though they're so big that I can't see where I'm going, so I don't exactly notice the boy who holds the door open for me. And I get a little lost in the rows of mochi and mango, so for a few moments I still don't notice, and everyone is watching me and laughing. And then I look up:
Greg draws the final clue from out of his Skronglite sweatshirt: Take the rest of the day to sleep it off. Then: Tractor. Square Dancing. 8pm.
******At the end of the day, just like the end of every day, everyone scatters to their own bed, in their own bedrooms, in their own houses, on their own streets but- and this is what makes all the difference- in the same city. The same place.
For a long time now I've been living scrawled out across the map. The North and the South and South America. It was a lifestyle of never ending adventures, that's true, but the hallmark of such a life is that you do it alone. People are drawn together and scatter, time after time. The terrific joy of flying across the continent to see someone you love tremendously is nearly outdone with the sorrow you feel when you leave, and the big swings inside your heart get so tiring.
What I loved about this day is how my friends took such ordinary places, ordinary things, and stitched them together in a way that made me feel like a tourist in my own city, getting a glimpse of this happy life, a life I have wanted very much for my own. And when I finally dragged myself into bed around midnight, exhausted from New Belgium and the Talls Boys and the soporific perfume of flowers, I had to pop open my eyes for one last second as I realized, with unprecedented satisfaction- aha! This is my life. This is mine.
The world is full of expensive things and grand gestures, and people who would claim to die for love and all that. But I think it's better if you stay alive for love instead, and go about your daily lives, and see one another from time to time, and keep in touch.
(Now I ask you, how -how on earth- do I begin to say thank you?)