I still vividly remember my thirtieth birthday. Being born on the 22nd of December, I was a Christmas baby, used to spending my birthdays at home with the family, in an annual binge of Christmas, birthday and New Year celebrations. And so it was that I spent my thirtieth birthday, at my parents’ house in northern Maine. For them, it probably rolled into the general blur of partying and celebration, like every other year; but it was not so for me. For me – single, overworked, underpaid, and on a career trajectory which was lacking any, well, trajectory – it came to represent something of a nadir in life. Although I had grew up in the most wonderful, Christmas-card home in New England, in a beautiful little town in northern Maine, I now found myself only a few rungs from the bottom of what seemed to be an impossibly tall ladder of success in New York. And I was becoming exhausted by my efforts to climb it.
This was true in more ways than one. Property was so damn expensive, that a life of rental appeared the only option for me; at least while I was on my own. I was good at my job, but not a day went by when there wasn’t another rich intern, willing to work for nothing, biting at my heels. Occasionally, biting at my heels whilst viewing apartments their parents were planning to buy for them. I like to think that I was always kind and helpful to those under me, despite their backdoor bragging and complaints about ‘first-world’ problems, which, behind my smile, secretly grated on me. Outwardly, I just couldn’t find any other way to be than nice. It was like an ingrained, default position for me. And however different they were from the person I was when I started, I still imagined the new starters as that young, vulnerable me, taking my first baby steps in the industry, and I tried to give them a hand up wherever I could. But, climbing the ladder of success as an unselfish, benevolent individual, seemed more and more of an impossible combination, the older I got.
Aside from these career and material goals was my suppressed, never-mentioned, top mission in life; to find that perfect guy I knew was out there waiting for me. I don’t know where the feeling came from, or why I had to be so different, but I had always felt that I couldn’t just settle for the men I gradually watched my college friends pair off and settle down with. The accountants with sensible cars. The football guys who wanted you to be no more stimulating than that picture of you on their iPhone they could boast about to their friends at the bar. These guys did nothing for me. Perhaps they did nothing for anyone, but amongst a lot of girls there seemed to be a sense of fishing in an ever-decreasing pool, where you’re grateful for anything you can catch that looks edible. Even the barely edible can be improved, they seemed to persuade themselves, with enough garnish. I recall one of my friends in New York being so excited to meet us for dinner once, because she had met this guy who she was buying a whole new wardrobe for. She had even booked him a slot with an upmarket barber she found online.
“He just has no idea about fashion, or styling, literally none … but he’s happy for me to take over … it’s brilliant,” she said, clapping her hands in an impatient, miniature applause, and clasping them in front of her mouth, as if praying. He was presented in a fun way, as a kind of life-sized Ken doll; but of course the real source of excitement was the idea that other girls had overlooked this diamond in the rough.
I never had these feelings of desperation. Well, perhaps occasionally, but when I did they were fleeting, usually cocktail-fuelled moments of concern. In general I always felt that I wanted, deserved, someone special; someone who was right, as opposed to someone who merely had the capacity to be made ok. This had, of course, over the years led to a barrage of patronising ‘you’re too picky’ and ‘you’re searching for something that doesn’t exist’ comments. This was, I told myself, the others in that ever-decreasing pool, warning me I’d go hungry; perhaps in an attempt to make themselves feel better about what they were eating. I would always respond confidently, “it’s not that,” “don’t worry,” knowing that things would happen for me any time soon and then, I could picture it, everyone would applaud me, however jealously, for my patience in waiting. But on the night of my 30th birthday party, the chances of anything ‘happening’ to me could not have felt further away.
The party was at my mom and dad’s place, which met all the stereotypes of life in Maine; a cosy, two-storey, white, clapboard house on the winding suburbs of Lee Street, in the county town of Lincoln. Being a late December day, the whole area was dusted with snow, just as I remembered every Christmas of my childhood. At this time of year, amongst the white houses and bare winter trees, all that stood out were the US flags, hanging from the front of the houses, and the glowing Christmas trees in every living room window, their lights standing in sharp contrast to the sea of white outside. My favourite memories of childhood were coming back from school around Christmas time, running up the snowy path and into the warmth of the house, and the light of all its festive decorations.
Being my thirtieth, I had already had drinks with my city friends in New York, and I was still reeling from the Amex receipts I found in my coat pocket the next morning; mainly for cocktails with a view at Berry Park in Manhattan. For some reason, when my single NY friends and I went out in town, there always came a point where we developed the desire, the need, to ascend tall buildings. This shared instinct had been the subject of much Mojito-fuelled debate amongst us. The general consensus was that we must have, subconsciously, felt the cost of being there would somehow act as a filter on the quality of men present. Although on reflection, none of us ever met anyone interesting there. Apart from a few married guys on work nights out, trying to make the most of their temporary freedom and prove to their colleagues that, even though they were not in the game anymore, they would win if they were still playing.
Also as a result of it being my thirtieth, my mom had decided to do one of those kindhearted things that all still-single 30 year olds dread, and invited all my old school friends over for a big birthday party.
“It’ll be just like the old days.” She said.
And like the old days, everyone had been invited … if their name was in the yearbook they were on the list, courtesy of my hyper-organised little sister, Laura.
She had gone through my old yearbook and found everyone she could via Facebook and Linkedin. She had set up a Linkedin account just for that very task. Of course, once the invites had gone out and I was informed about my ‘surprise’, it was too late to withdraw them. And so, as I flew back up to Maine from New York, I sat on the flight and imagined what fate awaited me. I wasn’t sure whether it would be worse if they all turned up, or if none of them did. I think as a diversion technique I had thrown myself into work in recent weeks. Even on the day I was due to depart, I had stayed at the office until the very last minute, before getting a cab to the airport.
Before I knew it, I was at Presque Isle Airport in Northern Maine, where it was snowing, as it always seemed to be on my Christmas holidays back home.