Their muffled words dangled in the air—syllables suspended like helium balloons. Happy birthday! It’s more of a taunt than a song. Hooray, you’re one year closer to dying.
I recoiled as the singers each sang in their own key, until the last line where they synced together and sounded shit collectively. I’m conflicted about what’s worse: the fact that it’s sung at the pace of funeral dirge, or that the volume drops right at your name, exposing who only came for the booze. It’s a special kind of torture, like a Kylie Minogue song which keeps revolving in your head long after the music has ended.
Karen the killjoy from accounts ambushed me at the water cooler with a party hat. When I didn’t put it on immediately, she put her hand on her hip and tilted her head. ‘Sorry’ shot out of my mouth without my brain’s permission. I contorted my lips outward for her sake, painfully aware that the elastic string had fully disappeared into the fold of my neck.
Their faces were especially irritating, so I directed my attention towards the flickering reminder of my impending mortality right in front of me.
Fifty years up in smoke and all I have to show for it are dark circles, emotional baggage, an inner child who’s playing with matches, and the distant memory of an orgasm. Aside from perpetual writer’s block, I spend the majority of my time obsessing over the way my upper arms flap like a cape in the wind. My therapist assures me that it’s perfectly normal to feel a little despondent. I don’t know if she was being patronising or if I just have a natural affinity for hating people who wear designer glasses, but the casualness of her comment made me want to set fire to her self-help bookshelf.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflective birthday banner and wondered if it was a distortion or I really did have three chins. Maybe I would get more writing done if I spent less time Googling my symptoms. I’m six weeks out from deadline and would be more likely to fold a fitted sheet than actually finish it. It’s hard to authentically write about romance when there are real issues in the world like geopolitical acrimony, climate change, pandemics and Wi-Fi disruptions. Fifty is probably a good time to confess to my publisher that I’ve been masquerading as a writer. In reality, I’ve been as successful in my own love life as I am at sneezing with my eyes open.
The impulse to dive headfirst out the window surfaced when someone placed a gift bag on the table. I shifted in my chair, knowing exactly what it was before I opened it. The same thing I get every year: psychoanalysis wrapped in glossy paper with a ribbon topper. All eyes ready to evaluate my level of enthusiasm and emotional reaction to every gift. Being the centre of attention is unnatural, like pineapple on pizza. I didn’t have the willpower to conceal my confusion if the gift turned out to be shithouse. These were the kind of people who dotted their i’s with love hearts and gifted you with an engraved pen.
Maybe I should ditch the book, retire early, and celebrate by getting a tattoo. Something spiritual, but not in another language—that’s too risky. What could be more sentimental than the Taiwanese word for boat tattooed above the crack of my arse?
Acknowledging a more professional course of action was needed, I rehearsed an email to my publisher:
In response to your second email this month, my latest work is pure guff. It turns out I am not a real writer—news that will not come as a surprise to my wanky high school careers advisor. I need an extension and it’s entirely your fault. It’s your fault for being stupid enough to publish my work, and stupider still to do it more than once, but here we are. P.S. I hate when you end your emails with kindest regards—it’s not a competition.
My jaw unclenched and shoulders dropped as they gave their all for the crescendo of the last line. I exhaled hard, aware that my credibility as an adult was riding on my ability to execute the moment in one fell swoop, even though that meant forcibly blasting aerosolised germs all over the surface of the buttercream. Payback for those quinoa eating tosspots who cycled to work, did yoga at their desks and went jogging in their lunch breaks.
I was nicer in my forties than I am now. I don’t miss that. I do miss skin elasticity, sneezing without needing to change my undies and a working metabolism though. It’s unlikely I’ll ever become even mildly interested in silent retreats, exchanging bliss ball recipes, and discussing bowel cancer instead of attending Tantra workshops and being shouted a round of shots for taking my top off. Problem is, no one is excited about me whipping out my breasts anymore, except for those savages who perform my annual mammograms.
I momentarily entertained the thought of stabbing the shitty singers and pathetic presents with the cake knife in front of me, but the notion of it made me smile involuntarily. I hoped they didn’t get the deluded impression I was enjoying myself or I would be back in the same sorry situation the following year.
So, I closed my eyes to make a birthday wish. I wanted to wish that I could go back to a time my vagina wasn’t dryer than a crouton or when my belly didn’t swallow the top of my jeans every time I sat down, but my body’s hormonal reconfiguration wouldn’t even let me fantasise. Instead, I wished that if it was at all possible, I could find a way to ceasefire with the fifty-year-old version of myself—maybe even appreciate her newfound capacity for honesty. And if the universe couldn’t grant me that, at least it could help me finish my book.