He arrives on my doorstep wearing a backpack, which he never wears. He’s a notebook-and-pen type of person, everything else that you might carry in a backpack superfluous.
“Happy Birthday, you 20-year-old you,” he comes into my apartment and pulls his backpack off of his back. “Feel any different? Any older?”
Before he got here I was asking myself the same question. I was in my room with a towel around my body, just out of the shower, looking at myself in the mirror. My hair looked like thin black snakes, and I snarled at myself. Do I feel older? I thought back to my earliest birthday memory, of turning 4. I woke up and I had my birthday party dress and my new shiny shoes on the floor, laid out, waiting for a person to fill them up. My mom came into my room and said, “How do you feel? Older?”
I looked at myself in the mirror. Back then, I slept in a giant t-shirt. I took it off and then I shouted, “I’m FOUR!” And then I took off running, and made my Mom chase me.
This morning, I looked in the mirror and thought I definitely felt older than 4, but I didn’t feel much older than 19. I wanted to run naked through the house, raising the eyebrows of my roommates (maybe not really, I run naked around the house quite a bit for a 20-year-old) and shout my age, but I didn’t.
“Yes, I feel older,” I answer him.
He unzips the backpack and takes out some giant headphones made of blue and white plastic, attached to his iPod. Then he takes out a black sleeping mask.
“I have a surprise for your birthday. Can I put this mask on you?”
“Is my surprise S&M and loud music related? Because if so, we need a safe word.”
“No. I just want you surprised, and you won’t be surprised if you can hear what’s going on, or see it.”
I acquiesce. I giggle while he puts on the sleep mask. It’s a soft blackness – I feel him behind me and feel weirdly safe, weird because I know I shouldn’t feel safe when I can’t see.
“Is it completely dark? Can’t see anything?” he asks.
“I can’t see anything.”
“Actually, shoot.” He takes off the sleeping mask. “You should probably go to the bathroom and stuff. We’re going for a drive.”
After he decides I’m ready, he puts the blindfold back on, and then the headphones. Electronic music plays while I walk unsteadily forward and out to his car. He keeps the left headphone off my ear so that he can whisper into it. “One more step. Down your steps we go. Here we are, I love you very much and I’m glad you were born, down the steps and then maybe four more big strides to my car.”
Once he drops my hand so that he can drive, he has given up talking to me. I feel him next to me anyway, I reach for his arm and he guides my hand to his bicep. I laugh a little while he flexes and unflexes it. Then I’m back into my seat and listening to his mix. It’s electronica I’ve never heard of, and then girl group pop from the sixties, which he knows is my favorite. I compare the 808 beats to the sounds of the echo-y drum kits from the past.
When we met I didn’t know anyone at the party. I wandered out to the pool, which glowed in different colors thanks to some fancy lighting trick the host installed. I didn’t even know the host’s name, just my friend, and she had gone to find the boy she had a crush on.
I wandered out into the backyard, and saw a nice-looking boy sitting on a beach chair, looking into the pool and hiding his mouth and chin inside a red plastic cup.
“Are you okay?” I asked, sitting down on another beach chair. Two people jumped into the pool in their underwear, laughing and splashing us accidentally.
“Sorry!” the couple said. Their cotton underwear matched. Blue stripes.
He took the cup out of his mouth and looked at me. “Of course. Here’s a pretty girl to talk to.”
We talked for the rest of the party. He hadn’t known anyone there either. He said he was sitting and looking at the pool because it was mesmerizing. “It’s like something from a movie, a detail to show that the character who lives here is anguished.”
We haven’t spent more than a couple days apart after that.
I feel the vehicle stop, and he takes one of the headphones off my ear. “We’re here! Happy Birthday! Only a little further, you can’t take these off just yet because you’ll know where you are!”
He stands a little bit behind me with his arm guiding my arm and his other hand pushing at my waist. He holds my hand when we stop, and I can hear muddled voices. There are a lot of people here. They brush against me. I wonder how much they stop and stare.
We start up again, and the electronic music gives way to female harmony and a four-four beat. I want to clap along, but he has my hand, so I’m just snapping with one hand down by my side.
He takes off my headphones, then my blindfold, and I’m staring at dark blue and ethereal shapes. Jellyfish. Hundreds of them. It’s a riot of sight after the blackness of the sleeping mask. I can hear kids shouting and people bustling behind me, but I’m right up against the glass now, and I’m crying.
“Isn’t it beautiful? Mesmerizing?”
I nod and wipe tears out of my eyes. I’m 20, my whole life ahead of me, and I don’t know if things can get any better than this.