Confessions of a Birthday Person
I’m a birthday person, and I am so sorry about it.
Yes, I know. I know. I declare November my birthday month. It started as a Birthday weekend, then became a Birthday week, and now it’s gotten out of hand. I ring in the start of Scorpio season each year. I am almost always conducting a subconscious birthday countdown in my head. I like heartfelt birthday Instagram posts from friends, and I can’t wait to swing open my mailbox in my building’s echoey foyer to see what cards arrived. I’ve never worn a crown or a sash on my birthday, but, honestly? I wouldn’t put it past me.
I invite you to roll your eyes at me. Please. I find myself rolling my eyes at myself when I start planning what I’m going to do for my mid-November birthday in July. It’s embarrassing to be a full-grown adult who loves her birthday, but I cannot stop myself.
I want a day to be special. Or maybe, I want to be special for a day.
At childhood birthdays, I’d plan everything down to the minute. I wanted to know the exact second over the course of the party when my friends would hit the final discordant “to youuuuuuuu” before I blew out my candles.
If you can believe it, that never worked out.
On my eighth birthday, I had firm plans to spend precisely thirty minutes playing improv games. My gaggle of girlfriends had other plans, because A) obviously and B) they decided it would be more fun to squeeze around my family’s rickety foosball table, spinning the tiny players around and around. While they giggled as they sunk the ball into the goal, I fumed. I had planned this birthday for ME. And I didn’t want to play stupid ole foosball. I wanted to play THEATER GAMES.
When my pleas for everyone to get ready for a rousing improvisation exercise failed, my face flushed with hot rage. I stormed into the tiny office in the corner of our finished basement—a room full of framed photos that didn’t have places on the walls upstairs and shelves of skinny picture books we outgrew but couldn’t give up.
I sat down among the McGuire family junk and crossed my arms over my red butterfly t-shirt. With great effort, I squeezed some stoic tears out of the corners of my eyes. I contorted every muscle in my face to press my expression into some combination of mad and sad, so when one of my friends inevitably came looking for me, they would ask, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my birthday and I want to play theater games and no one else wants to!”
It’s my party. And you can bet your ass I’ll cry if I want to.
In middle school, I would drive my friends crazy with my incessant countdown starting in late September or early October. I was addicted to the anticipation of the fixed point of joy up ahead.
“Thirty-five days until my birthday!”
“I know. You told me yesterday when it was thirty-six.”
I was born at 6:26 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, according to my birth certificate, issued by the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services. On my eleventh birthday, I set my alarm for 6:15 a.m. so I could count down the eleven minutes until I officially became eleven. As my mother pointed out later, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that I lived in a different time zone since moving to Maine between my fourth and fifth birthdays. I could have slept another 4 hours to my actual Time of Birth, which was 10:26 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Don’t worry, I never made that mistake again.
I would have been up early anyway, too excited at the prospect of aging. But I’d still want to mark the moment—9:26 a.m. CST/8:26 a.m. MST/7:26 a.m. PST—which marks the very instant, according to Doctors and the State of Alaska, that I came into being. I wanted to celebrate the very moment that I became Meghan Elizabeth McGuire.
And sure, I loved the gifts too. There was the feral joy of ripping back Lizzie McGuire (no relation) wrapping paper to the sound of squealing friends. I loved the cake my mom shaped into Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. and the red dog bowl filled with candy-kibble. Birthdays were easy, uncomplicated, simple.
I came into existence; here’s a cake and some presents to prove it.
Birthdays are different now.
Or I’m different now.
Maybe I’m old enough to know that both can be true.
My eighteenth birthday was the last time I remember feeling normal—my last uncomplicated birthday. If I had a smartphone at the time to post to Instagram, I probably would have used #blessed unironically to describe the photos of that day in which my closest friends from school and theater productions gathered to eat pizza and cake.
I remember thinking, I feel so lucky. I feel so loved.
It was the moment of pause at the top of an amusement park drop tower ride before I went plummeting towards the ground. A moment of calm, bliss.
Somewhere in the winter of my senior year of high school, anxiety and depression closed in around me like a fog. I canceled plans in favor of writing essays, and instead of writing those essays I sat at the computer and wondered how I could possibly write. I lost sleep flipping through mental flashcards of World War I terms and re-reading the same sections of Wuthering Heights and Out of Africa so I couldn’t possibly fail the quiz in third period the next day. The toll the anxiety took on my insides pulled me out of school to see doctors who took my blood and stool and biopsies of my insides just to tell me that the only possible medical diagnosis was that I was kind of a bummer. My anxiety and depression served as the kindling to burn all my bridges, and at graduation I watched from afar as my high school friends cold shouldered me out of conversations and took joyous pictures without me in their caps and gowns.
In my early days at Denison University, when I had those tentative friendships with people on my floor with whom I had nothing in common other than the bathroom, I texted one of my former friends—the one who shared my love of knowing our exact birth times, the one who had attended every one of my birthday parties since the first grade.
“What happened?” I wrote. What I really wanted from her, I think, was a moment, an exact moment, to point to as the end of our friendship. There’s no birth certificate for when our rift came into being; it just was. I cannot grab hold of a date and time and say, “This is the day when everything changed.”
The wounds of the loss were still too fresh; every promising new college friendship was underscored with the dull thrum of I am not deserving of love. I am unlovable.
“Can I call you?” she responded.
I slipped off my too-high dorm bed and thudded onto the floor to scurry outside so as not to disrupt my roommate.
“Okay,” I responded.
And my phone lit up.
We exchanged pleasantries as I paced the parking lot behind my dorm. What classes are you taking? What’s your dorm like? And then:
“So,” she said. I began to zigzag up and down the grassy slope between Curtis East dorm and the science building.
“Yeah,” I responded. “I just need to know what happened.”
How could you? I wanted to say. How could you leave me while I burned my house down? Why weren’t you there to sit among the rubble with me? Why could you only be there when there was cake and pizza? Why couldn’t you be there when I needed you the most?
“You were sick and had all the blood tests and the colonoscopy,” she said. “And every time I asked you how you were. You always said, ‘Tired,’ or ‘busy,’ or ‘stressed,’ or ‘sick.’”
“But I was those things.”
“I know, but … it was a lot.”
“What should I have said when you asked? Should I have just said, ‘fine’ even if it wasn’t true?”
“I didn’t want you to lie, but…”
I settled onto the incline, looking down the hill at the freshman parking lot and fitness center below. I beheaded pieces of grass with my thumbnail. Above me, vines climbed up towards my dorm window.
“I still consider you a friend, though,” she said.
When we hung up, I leaned back in the grass to look up at the evening sky and the buzzards swirling.
Two months later, for my nineteenth birthday, my dorm floor friends surprised me with a trip to a sushi restaurant in Columbus. Of course, I was counting down, but for the first time I hadn’t made plans for my birthday. I was a year and nine-hundred miles removed from the dining room in Maine with pizza, cake, the friends I used to celebrate with, and the normal birthday. I didn’t know what birthdays looked like now.
Of their own accord, my new friends, who had known me for only two and half months, plotted and schemed to make me feel special. Still, I wondered between bites of Unagi, when will the other shoe drop?
This Splenda-sweetened melancholy flavored the birthdays of my young adulthood. My twenty-second birthday—the final of my college years—fell five days after the 2016 election. We blasted “22” by Taylor Swift in a fog of Barefoot Pinot Grigio and Democratic denial. I danced under the “Love Trumps Hate” sign on our apartment wall with a friend I harbored an all-consuming crush on, despite the fact that they were still tucked behind their flannel shirts in the closet. I was too scared to ask, and they weren’t ready to tell, so we danced and scream-sang, and that was enough. The world was ending, and my heart was bursting with feelings I couldn’t express. I guess Taylor was right because I felt “happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.”
My early twenties became my mid-twenties, which, in turn, are becoming my late twenties, and I’m still celebrating. My anxiety followed me around, reminding me that any birthday could be the last one I celebrate before people decide again that I am too much or not enough.
But I decided to look that anxiety in the eye, turn my birthday playlist up to an eleven, and dance anyway. I decided to keep up the annual celebration of (or obsession with) the anniversary of my Becoming just in case the other shoe’s fraying laces finally gave out before the next one. Even as knots tighten in my back and my all-too premature grays stick straight up from my scalp, I want to celebrate the fact that I’m here.
Last year, for my twenty-seventh birthday, I brought a giant carafe of hot chocolate to the park near my apartment in Chicago. I set up chairs for my friends to gather on the finger-tip-chilling Fall day. It was an imperfect party, marred by the dropping temperatures and rising COVID cases. The day numbed my feet and cheeks, but it was something.
Each birthday season, the same voice that wants to count down the days until my birthday also does the math backwards to my eighteenth birthday. Somehow, this year I am about to turn twenty-eight. It has been ten years since I felt normal, I realized the other day. But, that’s not my normal anymore.
Now, I choose to mark my birthday to commemorate the fact that even if things are messy and complicated and difficult and cold and heartbreaking and happy, it’s still my party.
And let’s be honest, I’ll cry if I want to.
Meghan McGuire is an essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her TV pilot The Way Life Should Be was a quarterfinalist for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition (2021), WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Lab (2022), and the Page International Screenwriting Awards (2022). Her plays and monologues have been performed on stages in Illinois, Maine, and Texas. She holds a BA in Theatre from Denison University and has studied at the Second City, The Annoyance Theatre, and the Neo-Futurists. Meghan is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Born in Alaska and raised in Maine, she followed her passion for cold places to Chicago where she lives with her goblin-cat, Pippin. Twitter: @mearghan Website: meghanmcg.com