:: Article

Alone on Your Birthday

By Simon Rogghe.

Your cell phone alarm wakes you up at 7.30am. If only you could strangle it. You reach out your arm and grab your cell phone from your night stand, your eyes still closed, and you press the snooze button on the side. Floating somewhere in that twilight between being vastly asleep and being conscious of the fact that you’re still sleeping, you curse at your alarm because you know its annoying ring will go off in exactly five minutes. And so it does. Time to go to work.

Still half asleep, you make your way to the shower. The warm water feels like a nice, soothing comforter. At least somebody cares for you. At least the shower makes you feel good. You find a spot where the warm water streams along every inch of your body, so that no part would have to be exposed to the cold air outside of the stream. You wrap your arms around yourself and stand as still as you can. You close your eyes, not thinking about anything in particular, like falling asleep again. Minutes go by.

A stimulus from within tells you it’s time to reach for the shampoo. You bask in the warmth of the stream for another minute, reluctant to reach your arm out into the cold air outside of the stream. But then the stimulus stirring your body to act makes you nervous and you can no longer enjoy the bliss of doing nothing.

The feeling of discomfort quickly gets replaced by the softness of the foam. You take delight in the fragrance and the silky feel. Rinsing off brings back the wave of warmth and comfort you lost for just a second. You bask in the warmth again.

Slowly, ideas start surging in your head. Like a pot of slowly pouring drip-through coffee, they gain strength and volume. You think about your qualities. You think about your affability. You think about your wit. You think about your kindness. You wonder why you don’t have any friends. As your eyes fill with the natural light coming in through the window next to you, it becomes clear as daylight: you are alone on your birthday.

Finally, after all these years of being on the verge of being alone – of feeling alone in any case – you now have no-one to celebrate your birthday with. Not a soul. You wonder why all these years Providence just wanted to have you tortured: every year you woke up in agony, thinking about whom you were going to invite to spend your birthday with, whom you were going to buy cake for, whom you were going to take out for drinks. It almost comes as a sense of relief, that now, at last, you don’t have to pay people to spend time with you on your birthday. It’s almost a relief that you don’t have to feel like you are guilt-tripping people into celebrating your birthday when they have other, ‘funner’ things to do. This year is the first year you don’t have to pretend. Fuck it. Don’t tell anybody it’s your birthday! Act like it’s just another day! Don’t even hint at it. And don’t take offense at people when they treat you just the same as they always do – they would in any case.

Your thoughts get disrupted by the shower turning boiling hot. You step aside and reach for the handle, turning the cold water up a notch. The water becomes freezing cold. Great! Even the shower is against you! You step aside once more and turn the cold water down a notch, while casting a sickening glance at the dolphins so happily ornamenting your sea-blue shower curtain. After a few trials, the temperature is where it had been before. You revel in the warm stream. Your thoughts evaporate again.

Gradually, your mind becomes aware of the present. Another stimulus urges you to shut off the water and get out of the shower. The same feeling that ‘something needs to be done’ prohibits you your comfort once more.

You reach for a towel and console yourself with its soft fabric. You use the towel in slow motion. Thoughts start surging again. Why have you no friends to share anything with? Is it because you are too private? Is it because you are too open? Is it because you are only apt to meet the right people? But why haven’t you met those yet? Or why aren’t they here with you? And you rack your brain trying to think of ways to make this day feel at least somewhat special.

As you brush your teeth, you wonder if the fact that you were born really is so special. You could have died of complications at birth. It might not have made a difference. You wonder if it really would have made any difference. You wonder if you affect anyone’s life at this point. This thought strikes you as absurd, since you feel like an invisible blob, only causing aggravation – or in the best case surprise – when it lets itself be heard. You notice a chunk of toothpaste sticking to the sink. Yes, this is exactly what you feel like: a blob of blue toothpaste that refuses to be washed down the drain. You think about an instant in the past, when you really did seem to have an influence on someone’s life – for the better. And then you wonder why that person broke all ties and never spoke to you again. It’s just the same as if that person would have said to you: “I could care less if you died.” At this point you’re convinced you’re just a blob, insignificant to even the most banal of people.

You walk back to your room, checking out the weather on your computer, to determine what you are going to wear. You want to wear something bright and special, because you do feel like today should be a celebration. The bright, peach-colored shirt that fits you so well and feels so comfortable makes you feel better. The fact that your blue pants contrast the color so nicely puts a smile on your face and you let out a sigh. You are resolved to make the best of it.

You walk back to the bathroom, to do your hair. Luckily, you are having a great hair day and this makes you feel good about yourself.

You walk out your door. The sun is greeting you. You take a few skips in delight and let out another sigh, shaking off all symptoms of depression. Today is a wonderful day! Today is the day you were born.

You walk up to the food cart on the street corner and order a cinnamon roll and a small coffee – no, better make it a large one today! – and with a feeling of overwhelming joy you smile at the lady in the cart and blurt out: “Today is my birthday!” She smiles back at you, since she sees you almost every day and she tells you the coffee is free. While cheerfully walking to work, you think about how you could have treated yourself to a nice mocha at Starbucks and you determine to get one after work.

You enter the brownstone building of the small hotel you work at. As you come into the living room, which is also your office, you hear the owner listening to Fox news in the kitchen. You take a look at the schedule, while enjoying your coffee and cinnamon roll. You look up at the sun through the glass ceiling. Your thoughts are traveling far and wide.

You think about what you’re going to do with your day, how you’re going to be kind to yourself. Most of all, you’re trying to come up with activities that will keep you from too much introspection. You’re trying to come up with activities that will keep you from examining your feelings of loneliness, which in turn bring about feelings of inadequacy. And then you wonder why you feel inadequate, and whether you really are inadequate. You start thinking about the present age and the city you live in and whether you are poorly adjusted. Then you start wondering about what it is you really want in life, what kind of people you would like to meet and how you would like to meet them. This always leads to a dead end, so you resolve to go to the museum after work, since the Impressionists always take your mind away from yourself. Nothing like pastel colors and pretty lily ponds to bring you back to the surface and keep you from plunging into your horrendous depths. You decide you’ll walk through the park, to the museum.

The owner of the hotel, hairy and shirtless, comes into the office, wishing you a good morning. You reciprocate and pretend to be busy. He asks you how you are and leaves again before you have time to answer. With a sudden mixture of happiness and relief, you notice your coffee standing on your desk, next to the computer. It tastes comforting and makes you feel cared for, as do the last bites of your cinnamon roll.

You decide to check your email before doing any work. Someone you barely know wished you a happy birthday on Facebook. You hate Facebook. You feel the urge to post “If I got hit by a car tomorrow, I bet none of you would come to my funeral – a great discouragement for suicide!”, so that all your ‘friends’ can see it. But that would actually involve logging onto Facebook, which you would rather not do, seeing that your ex, whose last birthday you tried to make a fun experience, probably has been in two relationships by now, happily propagating the third one. At least your ex should’ve had the decency to break up with you after your birthday. You wonder if it would have been such a pain to only wait three more months.

A sweet email from a long-distance friend. You are touched and happy someone important to you makes you feel appreciated, but you are sad because that friend can’t be with you. And you wonder why you can’t have any friends to celebrate your birthday with.

The phone rings. Duty calls. Someone from Alabama wants to know the price for a double room. You tell her it depends on the date and how many people. She doesn’t know yet. She sounds vexed. You tell her she can email the exact data once she knows. You both hang up and you know you’ll never hear from her again. The phone rings again. It’s Brett from Gaytravel.com, calling for the third time, urging you to take a look at his website. You tell him to call back later this afternoon, when your colleague will be in the office.

You go over the schedule again and notice there are two parties checking in today. One is a party of five tourists from Spain. You shudder because you have the feeling they will be clueless. The second party you remember speaking to on the phone: a middle-aged couple from Connecticut. They should pose no problem.

You set up the keys for both rooms in the small wooden desk in the lobby. A young couple is dragging suitcases down the stairs, hitting the newly painted Super white molding on the Alexandria beige wall. You ask them if they need any help, but they decline, probably because they don’t want to feel like they have to tip you. You ask them if their stay was pleasant. They reply with the obligatory “yes” and you wish them a good trip as you hold open the door for them. Good riddance!

Just as you are about to walk back into the office, a father and his daughter walk in through the front door. You prefabricate a smile, turn around and greet them. Since you don’t want to go back to your office and remain there in isolation with your depressing thoughts, you ask them if they are having a good stay and if you can do anything for them. They would like directions to the World Trade Center. You wonder why on earth they would want to go see two titanic holes in the ground, when they have an existential abyss of epic proportions standing right in front of them. But rather than bringing the gaping pit of your existence to their attention, you take out the subway map and show them three different routes. You tell them to hold on while you get three different colored markers from the office and you mark the three different routes on the map. They are very grateful and also a bit perplexed by the excessive amount of time you spent on their simple request.

You look at your watch and give yourself a pat on the back for making those last fifteen minutes go by faster. Still reluctant to get back into the office, you wonder if some of the vacant rooms need to be inspected for missing items or remaining dust. The antique furniture inspires you to think of your future mansion on the western coast of Italy, where you can spend your days walking on the deserted beach – perhaps even with a charming, dark-haired consort who plays the piano for you on Winter evenings by the fireplace. And then you realize you might never be able to even rent your very own three square feet studio in Manhattan, let alone buy an Italian palazzo, even if only a small one.

You walk up the crooked stairs, to the top floor, four flights up. Out of breath, you decide taking up smoking wasn’t such a great idea. You wonder if it’s too late to quit after a month, but then you hear the phone ringing in the office downstairs, which makes you nervous, and you feel like a cigarette would be really nice right now, just to take the edge off. You remember you only have two cigarettes left, which is the perfect reason not to go buy a new pack. But you know the first thing you’ll do when you get off work is make a stop at the grocery store on the corner and get yourself a new pack, just because you know you’ll want them later.

Everything looks fine in the front room. You reminisce about the time your other ex took you to a nice bed and breakfast for your birthday. Surprisingly, this seems to have been your nicest birthday ever – never mind that you paid for two nights in Paris, as well as for the bulk of the other hotels you stayed at on your trip to Europe, which coincided with that ex’s birthday. And still you remember feeling alone – cared for, but alone.

You wonder why only one or two people ever dug inside your skull, really tried to get to know you. Then you realize those two people were already on the same wave length. Nobody wants to delve into your skull and try to get to know you – too much effort. You wonder why you don’t think it’s a waste of time to see things from different people’s perspectives and why you always cared enough to appreciate somebody’s point of view. You conclude that this form of intellectual integrity makes you weak and susceptible to harm. But since you can’t help it, somehow this feels like a blessing. It’s always nice to put your finger on your inalienable qualities to find out nobody else has them. At least you feel unique. And yet it would be wonderful to share these qualities with like-minded people.

You wonder where to find people that can inspire you. You’re hesitant to go for another musician, even though you know that is where your heart lies. You think about creative visual artists, but you realize your style is completely different: you don’t have dreadlocks or baggy pants, let alone skinny jeans. Plus you actually care about nice furniture in your apartment, as opposed to sleeping on an air mattress, surrounded by stacks of paintings.

You pull open each drawer in the kitchen, counting the cutlery, as if guests would have stolen a spoon. This makes you think of the alarm clock which disappeared from one of the rooms last week, so you rush to the other bedroom in the rear of the suite. The alarm clock is still there, but the housekeeper forgot to turn it up to Summer savings time last month. No wonder those Germans acted so enraged when you charged them for a late check-out last week, claiming they had checked out at 10.30am.

A butter knife is still on the kitchen counter. You are quite relieved you’ve never thought about slashing your own wrists – at least not with a butter knife. But you know you have other ways of slowly, viciously tormenting your inner self, which are just as agonizing – yet more effective –than a butter knife. You notice an egg whisk sticking out of a ceramic pot. Since being in the proximity of all these blunt sharp objects is threatening to become harmful, you quickly walk out of the suite and lock the door.Then you realize you haven’t turned the clock forward an hour, so you cautiously walk back to the rear bedroom. As you put your finger on one of the buttons, you notice there is dust on your finger. You try to get it off, but it only spreads out over all of your fingers. A little bird lands on the window sill, tilting its little head at you. You look outside at the sunshine and at the clock that’s running one hour behind. You sink down on the bed and tears start rolling down your cheek. There’s no way in hell you’re going to turn that clock forward.


Simon Rogghe grew up in Belgium, got his Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and is currently working on his PhD in New York. He has published a few academic articles on Nietzsche and Greek mythology.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 24th, 2009.