I can remember a time before I was 40. It was a time when I was, far and away, the youngest person I knew. It was a time when other people offered to buy me dinner. It was a time when other people invited me over for cocktails and did not expect me ever to offer them a cocktail in return. It was a time when other people were amazed that I had ever even heard of Cole Porter. It was a time when I did not seem to know anyone who was not at least 52.
Of course, I knew even then that, in the world, there were people as young as I was. I had to know there were people even younger than me. I knew they existed, because I remembered that they had been there when I started the first grade. I suspected they were still out there, since I saw them on the dance floor, dancing to Donna Summer and sniffing amyl nitrate up their noses. I even saw them sometimes in broad daylight, usually wearing polo shirts, almost invariably at brunch.
Young to a fault, however, I did not ask these people about their ages, and neither did they ask me about mine. In their company I hummed along with Donna Summer. When I was reminded of a Cole Porter tune in such company, I kept my thoughts to myself.
We were of a set that did not ogle or leer at younger people. We could not, since we had decided by common consentbut without saying anything about it to one anotherthat we were the youngest people the world had ever seen.
It was a world without birthdays, both for the people under 40 and for the people who had already turned 52. In our own lives, birthdays could go unmarkedunless they were marked by checks that arrived in birthday cards from our parents or, perhaps, by dinner in a restaurant, with someone elsesomeone well over 40generously offering to pick up the tab. It was not as if a birthday was worthy of anybody’s serious notice, especially since nobody ever touched ice cream and since nobody could even imagine how to call up a bakery and order a cake.
Meanwhile, the birthdays of the other peoplethe ones who poured the cocktails and underwrote the dinnerswent unmentioned, not for cruelty’s sake but for discretion. It was clear, to anyone with a pair of eyes in his head, that such people were indeed having birthdays. You could tell it because, from year to year, the cut of their trousers seemed to grow more and more curious. You could tell it because one year a strange little sack-like stretchiness would appear around their eyelids, and then the next year that stretchiness would have magically disappeared.
They were not the sort of people who would find much humor in a “Lordy, Lordy, Guess Who’s 40?” billboard. They knew that a surprise birthday partyparticularly in a month when one had forgotten to get one’s colorwas a sure way to obliterate even the closest friendship. They knew that a birthday was not truly honored by the blaze of incriminating acres of candles. They knew that the best way to survive a birthday was in a dark room, with a bottle of gin and lots and lots of fresh ice.
In short, I grew up in a world that wanted no part in the business of birthdays. Like the rest of the world that danced to Donna Summer, I knew not to trust anyone who would dare admit to being a day over 30. Meanwhile, the other worldthe one in the slightly out-of-date trousersknew that, once a person is more than a breath beyond 40, it is hard to trust anything at allnot your tailor, not your doctor, and certainly not anyone who would remember to send you birthday cards.
I do not know what happened to that sort of benignly disinterested world. The year I turned 40, I had hoped to slink into my apartment and turn all the lights off. Instead, there were men there in shorts. They had sneaked in, using a key I had loaned to someone I had thought was a friend. They sang the “Happy Birthday” song and presented me with cards and bottles of liquor. On most of the cards, the jokes were concerned with my lower gastrointestinal tract.
The other night, I went to another person’s 40th birthday party. I went thinking I should be there, if only as an expression of my sympathy and understanding. I went thinking I could be there to show my compassion, should anybody try to start the “Happy Birthday” song.
Instead, people were eating mixed nuts and drinking white wine. There was a yellow cake with chocolate icing, but there were no candles. The birthday person, who had just had her toenails done, was wearing clear plastic sandals. She was standing at the foot of a stairway, waving at people and drinking a beer.
When I walked up to her, she said, “Isn’t this wonderful?”She said, “If I can have a party like this, I think I’ll have a birthday every year.”
At the bar with the white wine, another woman was talking about what it had been like when she turned 30. “I loved it,” she said. “It was as if I was finally beginning my life.
“It was,” she said, “as if I had finally come into full bloom.”
I said, “I can almost remember what it was like when I turned 30.” I said, “At least I can remember part of itthe part where I sat on my bedside and wept.”
The still-not-yet-40 woman was drinking a Coca Cola. She said, “That must have had something to do with the particular angst of your generation.”
I said, “Sort of. I was finishing up a round of antibiotics. I was just getting over a case of the clap.”
In the living room, the party was beginning to break up early. People were having to leave so that they could relieve baby-sitters. It was a Saturday evening. A lot of them had to be up early the next morning for church. People were taking home yellow-cake slices for 4-year-old children to eat.
As I was leaving, a hostess-type woman asked, “Wouldn’t you like some yellow cake to take away with you?” She said, “I could wrap it up in plastic. You could eat it tomorrow. You could have it with a cup of tea.”
I gave her a good-bye kiss on the cheek and said I would have to pass up the yellow cake. I said, “Sometimes when I eat birthday cake, it makes the cut of my trousers begin to feel strange.”
Outside, it was beginning to rain. I could still hear people inside. They were laughing, but I did not hear anyone singing “Happy Birthday” or anything by Cole Porter. Nobody was singing “Last Dance.” Nobody was singing anything that I knew.