I don't remember anything before my seventh. But on my seventh, my parents threw me my first real party. In the backyard. With Jenny and Kelly and Reid and Marianne. With cupcakes and pin-the-tail on the Snoopy.
On my eighth, I got a Cindy doll, with a big plastic breakfront for her dining room. Until that day, I'd never heard of a breakfront, and as I sat in the evening sun on our deck, carefully arranging Cindy's tiny plates and goblets, I thought that the word breakfront -- a word that sounded so clumsy and violent -- couldn't have been more poorly suited to describe Cindy's new piece of furniture.
On my ninth, we had a family party. I unwrapped Sorry! by the fireplace. Some of the people who came are now dead.
My 10th was on a Saturday, and I celebrated at the school carnival. I ate cotton candy, played games with wheels and balls and bottles. I got to take home a baby gerbil, the offspring of our classroom pet. I named her Heidi, because she liked to hide in cardboard tubes. I thought this was very clever.
For my 11th, I got a microscope, with a full box of plant and animal slides. I can still see the red blood cell, round and pink and vaguely fuzzy 'round the edges, like something that could bounce.
Just after my 12th, I had my first slumber party, with Alli and Jenny and Marianne. Someone gave me the Footloose soundtrack, and we listened to it, huddled up in our nighties, as the rain dripped in on the sofabed.
For my 13th, my father and I drove to Boston, via -- to his horror -- the Cross Bronx Expressway. We took his brand-new silver Saab, passing block after block of burnt cars and buildings, as I listened to "Like a Virgin" and stretched out in the backseat. My mother, traveling in the atmosphere above us, was enduring her first trip on a plane. At lunchtime, we stopped at a Burger King in Connecticut. My father parked in the most remote spot on the lot.
There's a picture of me from my 14th birthday, with my enormously permed hair tied back in a tribal bandanna, with my knees like golf balls teed-up on my legs.
My mother and I fought on the morning of my 15th, because, when she discovered that she'd run out of wrapping paper, she wrapped my presents in towels. "I thought you had a sense of humor," she said, stroking my hair in half-apology. I, feeling stupid and pissed for even caring, walked down to the magnolia tree and cried.
There was drinking and messing around on my 16th. The overstuffed, paneled den at Marie's.
On my 17th, I went to the record store; sat, for some reason, in a mall parking lot; smoked a bowl and felt like the loneliest girl in the world.
My 18th was one of my very favorites. Marie and bailed out of school early, drove downtown for lunch and shopping, talked about college and summer and boys. Later, as I drove up Falls Road with my terrible boyfriend, I perceived the red balloon that came floating out of the forest as some kind of important sign.
I don't really remember too much of my 19th, except, of course, that I spent it with Brian, which is undoubtedly why I don't really remember.
On my 20th, I wore black and drank cherry wine coolers. I stood in a hallway, still with Brian.
In love, I thought, with the manager of the record store where I was working, I pulled the day-shift on my 21st. I watched through the window as he took his smoke breaks behind the WE BUY CDs sign, swooned when he gave me a card signed Love, Chris.
I read poetry on my 22nd. You came bearing flowers, clapping enthusiastically, even at the poems that didn't flatter you.
I spent my 23rd at a Throwing Muses concert. You were braving the rain in northern Germany, and I was plotting my return.
I turned 24 while working at the Department of Social Services. The only thing that kept me from openly weeping was knowing how soon I would be quitting, how soon I'd be driving, for the first time, out west.
On my 25th, I was newly married, a California resident without a home. Melanie gave me a big bunch of flowers. We drove to Marin County, threw rocks on the beach.
My 26th was a wonderful California birthday, with avocados and sunshine and sushi and bare feet.
My 27th, peering around the corner, came knocking on the kitchen door of the cottage.
On my 28th, one of my students punched me. She said she loved me, that she did it for my birthday. It hurt like fuck and stayed bruised for weeks.
My boss took me out on my 29th. To a mediocre restaurant, in the middle of the day.
I spent my 30th on the northern coast of Florida. I was five months pregnant, awe-struck by everything, crying with joy over my key lime pie cheesecake.
I turned 31 in Wilmington, North Carolina, with you, with my parents, and with our beautiful baby. I nursed her on a ferry, on a park bench, on the beach, in a restaurant. I wanted, for the first time, to believe in God, because if there were a God, He could protect her forever.
I was pregnant again by my 32nd, already with full face and full belly, in spite of only being two-and-a-half months along. How lovely it was, after those first scary weeks of bleeding, after my mother's near-fatal run-in with Chemo, to be sitting on the patio of the Indian restaurant, to be taking tiny bites of garlic naan, to be celebrating again.
My 33rd birthday was strained sweet potatoes and diapers. It was faded blue pants that didn't quite fit.
Wedged between your heart attack and my mother's death, my 34th may never have even happened. I was a zombie eating a softcrab sandwich; buying a watch, even though the last thing I wanted to be reminded of was time.
I spent my 35th in the old house, recovering from months of post-traumatic stomach aches. There may have been a cake.
My 36th was the first one in the new house. I ate muffins and held my children close.
We walked on the rocks on my 37th. It was hot, sandy; when we stopped for an iced tea at the corner store, I slugged it down in a couple of gulps.
On my 38th, after lemon cake, we rode around the park on a miniature train. It was cold, so we all wore winter parkas.
We fought the morning of my 39th. I looked out the window of the science classroom, feeling old and crooked and unmoored.
I woke up early on the morning of my 40th. Lovingly, you called me an old fart, kissed me before you went up for your shower. The children, whispering as they wrote cards and wrapped presents, called me to the living room. Hours later, as I walked by myself and listened to the wood thrush, I thought about age and bones and the inevitable failings of the body, about how my mind and legs, no matter the significance of this birthday, still felt young and strong. I climbed a steep, sun-baked hill; found a snake, black and coiled. Stepped back. Turned around. Chose a path through the ferns.