BIRTHDAYS

by Claire Moshenberg on August 17, 2012

I whisked two eggs into the boxed cake mix, a patina of sweat growing on my forehead as the batter went rich and glossy. Baking in Maryland in August is for the birds, or lunatics with a sweet tooth. Ten people were coming over. A birthday cake needed to be baked, slathered in chocolate frosting, and showered in grated Hershey’s chocolate bar. In two hours, the first guests would need to be picked up at the subway. In seven hours, I would turn 21 years old.

My apartment was scattered with tea candles. Bottles of cheap white wine bobbed in glass bowls full of ice water. Friends came from other states, from other cities, from the apartment upstairs. They sat on the couch and drank wine from plastic cups; they dipped rough hunks of bread in a warm bowl of olive oil. No one knew one another well, but I’d known them all for the better part of a decade. They chatted: Summer was ending. People had been on trips, some abroad. Classes had been taken; new ones would start in a week. Schools and cities were announced; jet lag cures were discussed (a conversation that made me wrinkle my nose and think of Charlie’s dinner party in High Fidelity, where everyone trades similar tips and the night is bathed in a bougie glow — luckily, this wasn’t that kind of evening). When the conversation faltered, when the doorbell stopped ringing, everyone piled into the kitchen and cooked.

Jamie and I breaded and baked chicken breasts, still dripping from a day spent soaking in peppered buttermilk. Ashley boiled and drained the pasta, then everyone threw in handfuls of parmesan, salted butter, and olive oil until it shone like a beacon of artery-clogging joy. A salad was assembled, shaken, and dressed. More wine was poured and Dan mixed makeshift cocktails, each a brilliant Technicolor variation on vodka and juice. The girls set out plates and Christmas-themed platters heaving with golden chicken and oily greens. It was the end of August, but Santa’s rosy face peeked out from under a tangle of pasta. I replaced and lit the waning tea candles. Sam opened a bottle of five-dollar pinot noir.

Boozy and full, everyone gathered around the cake at midnight and the 21 candles were extinguished with breath and wishes. We went to the college bar down the street to make use of my newly viable ID.

It was a weeknight in the summer, and the bar was near empty. Friends paired up and played pool; someone disappeared every half hour for another round of rail cocktails. At the end of the night, half of us trooped back and slept on the floor, and in the morning, we nursed hangovers with scrambled eggs. Someone made a pot of coffee, and we drank it with the same gusto with which we’d drunk wine the night before. The apartment was full of deflated air mattresses, empty wine bottles, crusting-over food, and a few friends pinching the spiky edge of headaches that had settled between their eyes.

Years later, people would try to make me feel bad about that night. Wasn’t I supposed to be out drinking 21 shots? Isn’t 21 a birthday made for ribbon sashes and crowns to be worn at a plethora of questionable bars? And I would question it. I would wonder if I’d missed a milestone. I would wonder if something was wrong with me for never wanting giant birthday gatherings at sweaty clubs with blasting speakers and endless drinks.

Half a decade later, I’m less than a week shy of my birthday and I’m getting ready for a similar celebration. The brow has been raised a smidgen in terms of wine, and I’ll skip the box and sift my own cake flour and sugar. Dinner party classics have transformed into sleek gruyère and asparagus tarts, simple roasted chicken, ripe summer tomatoes swirled with olive oil and topped with soft mozzarella. I haven’t known anyone in San Francisco for the better part of a decade. Almost everyone still seems new when held up to that standard. But we’ll open some wine and then some more, we’ll tramp into the kitchen when the conversation falters, we’ll cook and eat and let our cheeks grow flushed with drink. I hope that, like that night five years ago, at some point I’ll look around the table, at the food and faces and mess, and know that this is exactly where I want to be.

* * * *

Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jen August 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

SF totally has the dinner party part down. The rest will follow. I think for my 21st we made huge bowls of guac and tortillas. Happy birthday, birthday buddy!

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