A birthday is returning to the launch site after a year away. We come in dusty, surprised to see ourselves in an old place again. We find our cities, our friends and families. In the parks, the trees with white paint ringing the base of their trunks are candles dipped in frosting. Blowing them out, extinguishing the little lives we claim in the midst of a longer one, we reset ourselves for another round.
Each of us carries a pocket watch inside. We tend to stay wound up for 364 days, inviolable. And then, a pause: we recall a spring that must be tightened. My own cycle begins on November 6th. Here I am rewound.
On November 6, 1988, the time is manageable. I’m only a year old — 12 months, 365 days, a nursery refrain. We can add these numbers; they succumb to simple math.
But the human heart beats 72 times per minute. At 100, my heart will have beat 3,681,619,200 times. It will have pumped 27,323,260 gallons of blood. If I am tired then, I will have earned it.
At my fifth birthday party, my heart has already beaten 189,216,000 times. I have three costume changes: a checkered sundress of orange and white squares, a gown with fish swimming toward my collarbone, a silk skirt and blouse. Never before or since have I had so many well-wishers greet me in my own house. We have balloons tied to the stair-posts — blue, swollen globes of air — and a cake too sweet to finish. Weak, slender gifts filter to the top of the stack, and I open photo albums, coloring books, and cards. I never open the police set with toy gun and handcuffs. I change dresses. Sneeze. Dance.
I dance and they are quiet. Someone has given me a plastic windmill, and as my body sews a line through the puzzle of people, its spokes move in the handmade breeze. On the wall the clock turns too, gently, extending itself so the seconds drag a little.
Later I open the deeper presents of the pile, looking to find something good inside. I find a tea set with perfect flowers to match the ones on the cake and dolls with small hemmed dresses.
Then I host a table of food: sliced melon, chicken, spring rolls wrapped up like swaddled babies. My parents’ friends pick up their plates and roost on the stairwell when the chairs fill up.
When my father divides the cake, I get the corner slice. I eat off a Styrofoam plate, bringing each bite up to my mouth with my fingers because no one has given me a spoon.
After cake, I decide to give them a story. I tell it slowly, counting my words. The last line I still remember. It went: We will never lose track of each other. I may have been talking to myself.
I keep on cycling, day after day. Months repeat themselves. I fill my time with everyday occurences: cutting my hair and watching it grow, clipping the crescents off my nails, soaping my hands. I dig for fun in card games and movies, eat small meals at all the right hours. By the time I reach twenty, I will have clocked over ten million minutes.
As we put the years behind us, less and less looms ahead. We wish we had something (a weapon, a shield, a reversible clock) with which to defend ourselves. We have only forgetfulness. And as I get older, the signs of accumulating years begin to wane. No banners are hung, no streamers form a rough paper tent over the room. No one orders small flames to be lit. Birthdays are swallowed, the taste more grave than pleasant. We tuck away our cameras. We used to put cones on our heads, snap elastic bands beneath our chins with a bit of confusion. I’ve reached a grand plateau where the celebration stops.
On my last birthday let’s bring back the ceremony.
If I don’t catch an earthquake and shake myself to pieces, take a sip from the wrong body of water, trip down the stairs and land beneath a falling piano, lose myself in mud or outer space, I will live to be 100. I have 81 years left: that’s enough time to see shuttle crews returning to Earth, to dance with every part of my body warm and feeling it, to eat loaves of bread by scooping out the white insides with my fingers and leaving the crust for anxious birds.
I’ll go by the shoreline and drink from my own glass, not the salt water but maybe something effervescent. Bubbles will rise, only to lose shape once they hit the surface. Crabs will lick the salt off my toes. The white candles planted in the sand will have to be snuffed out by loose waves or a nice little wind. My breath alone won’t be strong enough. I would have to blow too many times. Maybe I will plant windmills next to the candles.
On my last birthday I will host a picnic on the beach. I’ll fan the waves until they join me onshore. I will eat for the ones who have left, and for my parents who will be gracefully dead, and for my friends and lost classmates who fill the yearbooks I will have sold to antique stores. My last gesture will be anything but an apology. I will be fighting for my life, I know, as the gears slow and the hourglass runs out of sand. But all of me will still be ravenous, chewing bites of anything I can taste, and everything will be good to me. I will still be ticking.