The more birthdays I get behind me, the more strange and haunting this day feels each year. Not because I find aging depressing or foreboding. That doesn't really bother me. I think it's because birthdays are generally days you commit to memory, and I can't help but think of previous birthdays and the people I spent them with.
For my 20th birthday, I decided to get another tattoo, so I went down to the tattoo parlor with my four best college friends after they offered to pay for it. We'd all lived in the dorms together our first two years and quickly became a tight group, doing just about everything together, from ice skating to late night Taco Bell runs during finals week to illegally setting off fireworks in the courtyard. If one of us was missing when we walked around campus, people would notice and ask why our group was incomplete.
I remember those friends sitting across from me as the needle buzzed on my back in the tattoo parlor. I remember trying to suppress shakes and laughter so as not to mess up the tattoo artist. And I remember the mass of birthday cards those same friends sent me the next year when I'd moved away and wasn't around to celebrate my 21st birthday with them. The cards had all been written and addressed as though they'd been sent from my favorite celebrities. One was from Hilary Duff, another from Vanessa Hudgens, and I believe one even came from Lindsay Lohan.
Now, we all live in different states (and different countries, in one case), but I'm still thankful for that group of friends. They came into my life during what I'd anticipated being a stressful transitional period and made it memorable and exciting, and they were the first people to really help me break out of my shell after three years of being beaten down in high school.
I turned 21 shortly after moving to Philadelphia. The forecast on my birthday called for snow and bad weather, so going downtown to celebrate was out of the picture. My boyfriend at the time, however, was determined to make it a special night.
On the evening of my 21st, a group of five or six of us--me, my boyfriend, our housemates, and a couple of their friends--walked a few blocks to the nearby sports bars in Northeast Philly for my first legal drinks. It wasn't how I'd pictured my 21st, surrounded by people I barely knew, in a place where I stood out like a rainbow flag at the Republican National Convention. But I was young and shameless and, by the end of the night, was chugging a Long Island Iced Tea, purchased for me by some strangers who found out it was my birthday, while chants of "Drink! Drink! Drink!" filled the tiny room.
Me and my housemates emerged from the final bar in our crawl in the early hours of the morning to find a thin layer of white snow masking the typically grey Northeast Philly landscape. The streets were abandoned, so I ran to the middle of the road and flung myself down to make a snow angel. My new friends tried to drag me away, but soon gave up and joined me.
There's a photo from that night I remember of me and my then-boyfriend. In it, the snowflakes hover like ghostly orbs, illuminated by the flash, and my face is frozen mid-laugh as I turn towards him, skipping along the sidewalk. Were we holding hands? I can't remember that part, and I can't seem to find the photo now. I haven't spoken to those housemates since I moved away from Philly in 2010, but I sometimes wonder what they thought of me. My boyfriend knew me well at the time (of course), but I'd lived in the city with him and our housemates for less than a month. Did they know me well enough to care whether or not my 21st was special? Or did they just enjoy having an excuse to go out drinking on a Tuesday? I'd like to think it was the former, but I'm thankful for them either way.
I had two 22nd birthday parties on two consecutive weekends, one of which was in Atlantic City. I drove to AC from Philly with a friend from fashion school--I'll call him Allen--who had grown up nearby on the Jersey Shore. A few months before, after being dumped and finding myself friendless and alone in Philly, Allen had invited me to the bar to chat about life, which is how we initially bonded. Our nights out together became a regular thing and were always pretty similar. He'd unload some of his problems on me, and I'd do the same to him. I hate to call him a transitional friend because he helped me through those times, but I think a part of me knew the friendship would never progress past venting about our failed love lives.
The night we spent in Atlantic City for my 22nd birthday was relatively uneventful, for me at least. Allen and I met up with another friend from fashion school and her friend and planned to party the night away. But I was drunk and all gambled out by nine, and had thrown up and was in bed by midnight. The others went out to the casino clubs while I slept off my inability to pace myself.
Allen and I faded out of each other's lives a couple months later when he started dating someone and I met a couple people in the city who would later become two of my closest friends. But I still think about him, and I'm thankful he was there and cared enough about me to make sure I had a great 22nd birthday.
The past three or four years, my birthdays have been fairly low-key, which is fine with me. I don't think my actual day of birth was a particularly eventful day (or very surprising, at least), so it really rather suits me. I came into this world on a Wednesday--arguably the most boring of the days--with the whole thing having been planned out weeks beforehand. There was no mad rush to the hospital or awkward water-breaking in a public place. I arrived right on schedule, healthy and normal. 26 years later and I'm taking my car to get serviced in the morning and working from home the rest of the day.
But, while nothing particularly interesting is happening today (other than a nice phone call from my sister that I'm anticipating later), yesterday, I went to the art museum and mall with my best friend of 10+ years and then out for dinner and frozen yoghurt with my parents. I also received a couple cat-themed birthday cards, purchased a pretty awesome cat sweater, and won a cat tote bag on eBay (which will go perfectly with the pair of cat shoes a friend made for me a while back). Honestly, this birthday has felt just as special as some of the crazier ones in previous years.
I'd like to be a bit more thankful in my 26th year, which is maybe why I've written all this. I think it's sometimes difficult to take time for that when things get crummy, but I've had so many great people in my life over the past 26 years who have made me feel special--and not just on my birthdays--from transitional relationships to deep-rooted friends and family to people I've never even met from any number of social networking sites.
Sappiness aside, so far it's been true what I always heard from older people when growing up: You never really feel the age you are. As a wise woman once said, "I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22." And I do feel 22. But in reality I'm a 26-year-old with a lot to be thankful for and some really awesome cat apparel.