My latest birthday (today) has got me thinking of love (or lust) lost. Birthdays, after all, tend to represent memory checkpoints. And being happily paired up does not a Spotless Mind, or Eternal Sunshine, make.
The VHS that’s my brain rewinds back nearly half my life so far, to my 18th birthday. The scene is my family home in a southern Florida suburb. I exploited parental absence (gone abroad) to fool around with my 20-year-old boyfriend and watch Moulin Rouge on repeat in the living room. Maybe we even tried to act out its soundtrack – I’m not sure, but that’s how I’d rather remember it.
I was ecstatic, but painfully insecure. We’d break up, inevitably, within the year.
As I desperately tried to recreate that first love, my next six birthdays featured a slew of serial monogamist ventures, or as a childhood friend likes to call it, “micro relationships.”
Those years marked what I see as my period of sort of being Estella. I had a consumerist compulsion towards relationships that did stem from lovesickness, but also from a voracious sex drive, immaturity, and being raised in a narcissistic environment. I wouldn’t grasp that until my mid-20s, and kept putting myself and others through wild mood swings and volatile behavior.
On my 25th birthday, the thus far unexplained feeling of emptiness remained in my entrails. My stomach kept acting up from all the previous nights’ drinking, so I opted for cola… with rum. I sang karaoke with my then-boyfriend and his friends, in urban southern North Carolina, where I’d moved for a job. We didn’t fight that night (for a change), but it wasn’t the happiest of birthdays, either.
I was not ecstatic, but was still painfully insecure. We’ve break up, inevitably – for the third or fourth time.
Turning 26 was different. The collapse of yet another relationship had led me to seek out therapy, and I began to replace infatuation with another addiction: travel. I spent Christmas and 12 January in Madrid, partying with a friend and hostel buddies – no family or potential boyfriends in sight.
It was the advent of shunning stability, which has its up- and downsides, of course.
Turns out I’d spend my following eight birthdays in Europe, after moving here. In Copenhagen, Wroclaw, Leipzig, Dublin, Berlin, Madrid once again (at the airport, by chance, with a longtime friend also born on 12 January). Meanwhile, boyfriends or love interests increasingly became part of the celebration, rather than the chief reason to celebrate. There were friends and exciting surroundings I also very much treasured.
A partner cannot possibly play every role, and cannot be one’s gauze, drug, or air – I hoped I hadn’t realized that too late to change myself. The ones who didn’t understand came to correspond to the parts of myself I no longer wanted or needed – i.e. anxiety, jealousy, possessiveness, emotional manipulation – and we eventually became strangers. I’m now actually relieved to be celebrating birthdays without them.
On my 30th birthday, my younger boyfriend spelled out our relationship’s doom. We’d flown in from different cities and met up at Dublin airport, for a whirlwind evening hitting Temple Bar. As we’d rested our rucksacks on the ground and sat down amid throbbing club music, he pronounced: “I don’t think I can be with you long-term if you continue traveling the way you do.”
But travel… travel is like oxygen.
I was not at all ecstatic, but was a little less insecure (at least about the “me” I strove for). We’d break up, inevitably, within the year – after my next trip to southern Africa.
On my birthdays since then, there has always been a trip on the horizon.
There has also been the knowledge of innocence lost, regarding both myself and those who’ve composed and shaped my mosaic. But through all the trouble it takes to be authentic, and the lingering freakouts, I’ve now found mutual acceptance with someone. Was starting to think that wouldn’t be possible.
I turned 31 at the first anti-Legida demonstration, which we attended with friends. The following year, he and I woke up very early to hit some massive water slides in Berlin, until it was dark again outside. Giggling like kids again.
I suspect this 12 January will involve quite a bit of silliness. But in a good way.