I’ve never handled birthdays well. Except my sixteenth. And that’s only because my parents got The Beat to play at my party. No one can be sad during a live performance of “Tears of a Clown.” Not even an adolescent Chubby Princess in the bell jar.
Most of the birthday parties I’ve had as an adult have resulted in me crying in my closet explaining my existential crisis to my shoes. My 25th was no exception.
After leaving Arkansas, I made a beeline to Brooklyn for the fall. There, I sublet an apartment from a couple of musicians called the Golden Animals. They were chic. The accommodations were shabby. And this is coming from me who once spent a summer as a volunteer at an orphanage in post-Ceauşescu Romania. The apartment was so squalid. I didn’t know what to do. I called my dad. “It looks nothing like the pictures on Craigslist!” I wailed. To which he replied, “You have two options. Be sad in the squalor or go to the local corner shop, buy some products, and clean it.” I went out. I came back. I cleaned. Five hours later the place still looked dirty. But at least it felt clean–er anyway.
I rewarded myself with a Red Stripe and decided to call Pony. I knew he lived in Brooklyn like most of my friends. I just didn’t know where. Coincidentally, the squat I was renting was just off the street where he and his time-share beagle lived. He had a beagle that he and his ex-girlfriend got when they were together. Now that they weren’t, the dog took turns staying with them. He got a week. She got a week. They were just like a divorced family. And just like the child who hates whomever her divorced parent is dating, so did this little dog loathe me. To be honest, I didn’t like her much either. And she wasn’t even that pretty of a beagle which is something he liked to boast.
I hadn’t seen him in a couple weeks and I had no clue about his life in New York. I didn’t know if he was good at any of the sports he liked to play. I didn’t know his middle name. I didn’t know how strict a vegetarian he was. And I certainly didn’t know if he was seeing anyone. Which he was. Which is why he was cagey and why I didn’t understand him leaving town the weekend of my birthday.
To celebrate my quarter of a century, my childhood friend, The Queen of Kentucky, organized a dinner for me as well as a party at the top of The Gansevoort. True to form, I ate too little and drank too much. I got sick. I made a French exit and found myself at 60 Thompson. There, I sought refuge with a photographer friend who was in town for a few days to do a magazine spread with Naomi Watts. I took over his bed. I crawled under the covers and moped. I rang several friends and asked if they wanted to come to my pity party. Like the best friends in the world, they did. They even brought me flowers, Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, a quart of milk and a plastic tiara. Never had I felt so sad and loved.
When the sun rose, so did I. I quietly gathered my birthday treasures and tiptoed over my sleeping friend. I hopped in a cab and went back to Brooklyn where the driver dropped me at the corner of Cappuccino and Cannoli. Fortunato Brothers is not only the best Italian bakery in all of Brooklyn but it’s spitting distance from where I lived. Which also meant spitting distance from Pony. Which means I should have known better.
As I stepped outside, the old men who always loiter there with their snacks, smoking cigarillos and shooting dice, whistled and called to me in Italian. Sure I was still in last night’s silk, halter, Michele-Pfeiffer-in-Scarface-style, party dress but I emanated death, even with a tiara on top. I waved and smiled politely. I felt bad for them if their standards were so low as to harass the likes of me. Just then a small dog started barking at me from across the street. I squinted through my glasses. It was the hateful beagle.
My head throbbed. The roar of the butterflies was getting to me. Now I had to deal with this yapping beast? I knew Pony had spent the weekend with another girl even if he didn’t say so. The last thing I wanted was to now make small talk with him in the street as his dog glared at me. I felt like a fucked up, less glamorous version of Holly Golightly at the beginning of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I don’t remember what we said. I don’t remember my walk home. I just remember checking my email when I got there and seeing everything I felt summed up in a photo for the first time. It was a photo of me. In bed. Last night. Wearing my tiara. Eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Crying. My friend, the Rabbi’s Son, who is wise as an owl, commented. Chagrinnamon Toast. That was exactly it. Sweet and sad just like João Gilberto’s bossa nova. Or even The Beat’s “Tears of a Clown.”
Until that moment, I had never been able to sum up the kind of person I am or the life experiences I’ve had. I’ve also never understood why in times of crisis, I always crave cinnamon toast–the real thing or the kids’ cereal. On the first day of kindergarten which I found extremely stressful, my mother made cinnamon toast for me after school. Cinnamon is and has always been my palliative. Kind of like French toast for Conrad in Ordinary People. When I eat it, I know I’m loved and everything is going to be okay.