Ghosts of Birthdays Past

"The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd; the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are."

Fernando Pessoa

"I cannot promise very much.
I give you the images I know.
Lie still with me and watch.
We laugh and we touch.
I promise you love. Time will not take that away."

Anne Sexton from “A Curse Against Elegies”

On this day, ten years ago, I remember what I was wearing. I had on stretch khaki-colored pants. A form-fitting, long-sleeved cream colored shirt with buttons running from the neck to half-way down -- the top two buttons were open just enough for me to expose the clavicle and feel the autumn breeze. A black, zip-up, turtle neck sweater -- a much loved item that belonged to my roommate, Anna. And black boots, with buckles and zippers -- the kind of thing I had the patience for at that time in my life, and on that day, specifically. September 24, 2002. The day I turned twenty-three. 

I had the day off of work at Surdyk’s Cheese Shop, but I stopped in anyway, to pick up a bottle of champagne from the liquor store, and to pick up next week’s schedule from the cheese shop. I went to the store around 3 o’clock, after the lunch rush would've subsided and I’d be able to talk to my coworkers. And as predicted, the store was dead. I lingered around for a few minutes, talking about what should happen that night, how we should celebrate, and where. I decided I wanted to meet at the Leaning Tower, on Lyndale and 23rd. It was my favorite bar and only blocks from my apartment in Uptown Minneapolis. 8 pm, we decided. There was a guy working that day -- a guy who I liked. Andy. He liked me, too. But things, for various reasons, had never worked out. Whenever I'd push for something more, he'd resist, then get angry if I didn't keep pushing, or if I showed affection for someone else. He would get close, but he'd never really let anything start, and so after a while, I’d decided to move on. I still liked him, though. More than that, I cared about him. When I left the cheese shop Andy said, “You look really nice today.” I knew it took a lot for him to say that.

I walked out of the store into the parking lot. The weather was stunning. It was turning crisp, the leaves were drying and falling and filling the air with that wonderful smell of autumn. I was walking to my car when I ran into a friend from high school, a guy who was a couple years older. Matt Johnson. We’d been friendly, but were never actually friends. We attended the same parties back in the day, went to the same shows at First Avenue, and hung out in the backseat of someone’s car en route to a mutual friend’s house -- and so, we had a history, that if nothing else, was shared. We hugged hello and started catching up. “It’s your birthday?” he said. “Let me buy you a drink!” OK, I thought. So we walked across the street to an Irish bar called Keegan’s and took a seat on two bar stools.

The thing that needs mentioning before going any further is I had just started seeing this guy named Charlie. Charlie was older, divorced, an environmental lawyer, musician, writer, father of three -- he was handsome and had a vicious wit, and he was also self-destructive and prone to drinking too much. I’ve written about him on here before. More than once. (It is fair to say I have written an entire book about him. A novel. Which I've since abandoned.) I say we were seeing each other, but I don’t know if that is what you could say we were actually doing. I met him in July of that year. At the cheese shop. His law firm was across the street and he came in for lunch once or twice a week. One day he stayed and talked to me and we ended up talking for an hour. We talked about rock climbing and Kwame Anthony Appiah and Browning's The Ring and the Book. I’d never noticed him until that moment, but after our conversation, I thought back to all those times I’d seen him before. (Had there been something between us I hadn't noticed? Had he noticed me before? Or had I noticed him?) He mentioned a book by Jane Tompkins called “A Life in School.” It’s a great book, he said. You have to read it. I took her class when I was in grad school at Duke. But I don’t think she likes me very much anymore. I did something bad, I think. I went to Colorado the next day and found the book at a Borders bookstore on Pearl Street. I read it straight through, looking for any reference that might bear on this new man. I dug in to each chapter, finding gems of insight, but nothing to the point. And then I found it: it was a chapter about her class. She’d taught a course organized around two texts: Moby Dick and Beloved. At the end of the class she took them all to the island of Ocracoke. The class spent the night making a beach bonfire, playing guitar, passing around a bottle of whiskey, and reliving their memories of water. A student she called William told the class about growing up in California, surfing in the ocean, and the day his sister killed herself. The evening grew late. Memories and feelings were entrusted to the group. The next morning they got up and got in their cars. They took the ferry and drove back to Durham.

At the end of the chapter, Jane explained that when the class graded itself, William insisted the class had been a failure. He said they hadn’t really learned anything and that most of what they had learned hadn’t been true. She got up and left the room in tears. She went straight home and put herself to bed.

When I got back from Colorado, Charlie came into the cheese shop. I told him I read the book. I asked him if he was “William.” He smiled, and said something coy, something like: I’m Harold.

Things happened fast. A few weeks later we were getting drinks together and spending hours talking about books and poems. We were reciting song lyrics. We were laughing about dumb things. We were kissing in doorways. That's what we were doing. We weren’t going to proper dinners. We weren’t holding hands in public squares. We weren’t meeting his kids. The feelings were intense, but like William/Charlie said: I worried they weren’t real. (They felt real. They felt really, really, real.)

So back to that day in September, 2002. It was my birthday and I was having a drink with Matt, the old friend from high school -- the old friend who also happened to work in the neighborhood and who happened to know Charlie (“Oh, Charles? The lawyer? The guy who runs marathons? Do you know he ran a marathon drunk based on a bet he made with some guys? He won, too.”) I asked Matt if I could borrow his cell phone. (I wouldn’t get one until 2005.) I walked into the entryway and called my answering machine. My heart pounded. Charlie had left a message. I called him from Matt’s phone -- I'd memorized his number, not out of use, exactly -- I have a good memory. He didn’t answer, so I left a message. I walked back and as I was handing the phone to Matt it rang. Matt answered: “Hi, hello, oh sure, yes it is, yes we are, yes she is, right here, yes, okay sure, here she is,” and handed me the phone.
“Are you on a date?” Charlie laughed.
“No,” I laughed back. That’s what we did. We laughed at things that weren’t funny. For some reason, talking to him made me feel like everything had hilarious intrinsic value.
“Oh, Abigail -- I know about girls like you. I better come and size up my competition. The last time I talked to Matt I remember him being a little dull, but maybe he’s been reading or something.”
Hahaha, we laughed. Then he said, “I’m coming as quick as I can. I just need to wait until this cello is fixed. Then I’ll be right over.”
I walked back to my bar stool and GLOWED. Matt and I talked about things, but I was in another place. We might’ve talked about high school, or other things, I can’t remember. We might have talked about whether I was going to finish college in five years or five and a half. We might have talked about whether growing up in a suburb was better than growing up in a city. I just don't remember. Then Charlie walked in. He filled the doorway with his presence. He was tall, a little over six feet, and had an adult male body that was the perfect shape. (He could have been a cyclops, frankly, but I wouldn't have noticed. All I saw was: adult man/smart/razor sharp wit.) He had black hair, woven here and there with silver, and blue-blue eyes. He was handsome. Objectively. He was wearing a black sweater and had on slacks and also a scarf. He waved and walked over and said hello to Matt. Then he sat down next to me and put his hand on my leg.

Long story short: we drank all the bottles of Summit Pale Ale they had at Keegan’s and went to a bar called Jitters. It was below street level and there was a bartender who worked there, also named Charlie, also handsome. The two Charlies knew each other and protected each other – that much was obvious. But they also seemed wary of each other, like they each had information on the other, and so the friendship was as motivated by a true affinity as by practical concerns. I liked the bartender immediately, but could tell he didn't know what to make of me. It seemed like he thought I was the ‘flavor of the week.’ We bellied up to the bar and Charlie the bartender made us a birthday shot and after I drank it I said: I feel really old. (I didn’t feel old, in hindsight, but I did feel drunk and world weary.) The two men smiled at each other and said: wouldn’t you like to go back and turn twenty-three? That made me sit up straight. I suddenly tried to look older, less naive.

After another birthday shot and birthday blather, Charlie and I decided to go back to my apartment. It was late, I realized when we walked outside, already dark. When we got to my place, some of the guests were there, with gifts. “Abbi!” they said as we stumbled inside “Where the hell have you been?! Everyone’s at the Leaning Tower!” I opened their gifts and mumbled some half-ass thankyous. I begged Charlie to come to the bar with us, but he declined. He said he had to go home. He said I should go and have fun with my friends. One of my roommates, Linda, waved his remarks away and started taking off his Doc Marten boots. “You can’t go home without your shoes,” she said, running from the room carrying them in her arms. Charlie fell down on my bed in mock exasperation. The ladies from the living room called that we had to go. I begged him again to come, but he was resolute. So I went to the bar.

As soon as I got there, I realized, one: I was too drunk to drink anymore, and, two: I wanted to be with Charlie still. I had nothing to say to anyone else on the planet. Linda recognized this and said: “I’ll drive you home -- maybe he hasn’t found his boots yet.” As we were walking out the door, I saw my friend from work, Andy, sitting at the bar. He was facing straight ahead, drinking a beer. I felt instant guilt, but Linda pulled me through the bar, and out to the street, and I didn't try to stop her. As soon as we got back, I plowed up the apartment building stairs and through the door and found Charlie lying on my bed. He was talking on his cell phone. He opened up an arm and pulled me into him and handed me the phone. It was a friend of his. Charlie mouthed information about his friend as I held the phone to my ear (“His name’s Jim. He just won the MacArthur Fellowship,” he said, “the genius grant.”) I was drunk, and saucy, and Charlie's friend Jim laughed and played along. Then Charlie took the phone and said goodbye. Then he shut the door to my room and turned off the lights.

Things went on in that fashion for a few more weeks. We started spending more time at each other’s places. I didn’t meet his children, but I drove his car, slept in his bed, sat at his kitchen table. We actually went out for a few meals and met at regular times in the evening. Then, as it was written, everything ended. One night we were hanging out at my apartment. My roommates were gone. Charlie and I were on the couch, talking, laughing, drinking. He was leaving for a trip and this was going to be the last time I saw him for a few weeks. He was going to Portugal and Spain. As we lay in bed he told me he was going with a woman, a woman who he’d told me about before, a woman he'd described as a friend. I wanted that to make sense, but it didn’t. I wanted to not care, but I did. I knew that if I said something, I risked losing him, but my dignity demanded it, as did my true feelings. And as predicted he got defensive and angry. Which was fine, I conceded. I had to admit I knew we weren’t going anywhere. Not where I wanted anyway.

The next morning, I drove him to his car. It was snowing. The first snow of the year and it covered everything. After he got out of the car, he stood there. I waved goodbye and pulled away and as I drove I felt a feeling I’d never known before.

Or since.


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