The Birthday Key, September 3, 2014

On September 10, 2010 I was angrily and purposefully shoved by a stranger in Zara, and when I fell to the floor, cried instantly. On September 10, 2011 I was almost forcibly removed from my favorite bar for throwing up all over the bathroom floor (and possibly one or two patrons).

On September 10, 2012, tornadoes threatened New York City skies, and my rooftop birthday had to be moved indoors. I arrived promptly for the cocktails, but was the first and only guest for a full hour. I ordered myself a champagne, opened up a copy of the New Yorker, and decided to give up on the concept of a good, enjoyable birthday.

But then I heard a voice.

“I heard there was a party here,” it said. I looked up, and my best friend Smith was standing in front of me. It was almost like a miracle -- Smith lived in Baltimore (nearly four hours by car or train), and I had invited him out of courtesy but knew he wouldn’t be able to attend. But there he was, dressed in a nice jacket, and a pair of dress slacks -- the most done-up I’d ever seen him.

“What are you doing here!?” I shrieked. “I thought you told me you couldn’t come!” He laughed, his face now red. He’d pulled off the surprise flawlessly and had managed to save the evening.

We sat and chatted for another hour until, eventually, the rest of the guests arrived. After an hour or two of mingling, a small group of us went to dinner at Jane. Then Smith and I sat on the couch at my apartment talking, until he reached into his backpack and put something in his hands. I couldn’t see what it was.

“I know you have trouble making decisions,” Smith said, which was true. I joke that it takes me ten years to make a decision. I worry about doing the right thing, and I worry about change. Smith knew that I’d spent the past four years on the figurative mountaintop. I’d talked to him in the moments that I needed my feet to touch the ground. When I needed a wise response, he’d been there.

“So my friend got this key,” Smith said, “it belonged to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. My friend used to work at his house, which is now a museum. The man who owned this key was a very decisive man. I hope that whenever you have trouble you think of him, and you remember this. I hope that you can find the answers within yourself.”

Smith then opened his hands, where the gold key was hanging on a silver chain. It was beautiful in the way that all things old are beautiful. I hugged it close to my chest, and tears welled in my eyes. It was the most thoughtful gift I’d ever been given.

“Thank you for allowing me to watch you grow up for the past ten years,” Smith finally said, almost as if he’d been considering it the entire night.

We stayed up talking until the sun rose. Then, looking like Gustave Courbet (with a backpack, and a long, black beard), Smith stood up and took his things and we parted at the door.

“Oh goodness, we’ve been up till sun rise and you didn’t even get to sleep!” I said.

“That’s what buses to Baltimore are for,” he said, tipping his hat.

And that is how, among a wash of bad birthdays, I had the best birthday ever.