Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Persistence of Birthdays

October 21-24, 2005

This weekend was my thirty-first birthday. I think it is a common feeling that as you grow older a person gives less and less importance to birthdays. Not long after you move out of your parent’s house, for a normal person, the odds of getting a remote controlled car or new stereo are effectively reduced to zero. Anymore, I get a phone call at most, there was no grandfathering the removal of gifts, it happened immediately. It makes me think that the only reason my parents bought me stuff for 18 years was because parents are required by law to acknowledge my birthday. But it’s a two-way street, somewhere along the line, I lost the sugar-induced desire to get gifts and have parties with clowns and mimes thrown in my honor. Plus somewhere around the age of thirty, time and age begins to work against you (I say that because I’m thirty and don't know about what happens when a person turns forty). I no longer look at birthdays with the sense of pride of being a year older; I look at it more like one year less. Less time to live, less time to make big decisions about my life, less time to live happily ever after. My body has begun to fall apart, my hair is thinning, my skin looks more and more aged, I am noticing more and more the irreparable effects of gravity and it takes more than a big lunch at Arby’s to get over a hangover.

These sad things said, birthdays will keep coming, with the slow and unstoppable force of a glacier and this year was no different. I wasn't trying to hide my birthday, but I wasn't broadcasting it on the Langfang City Square Jumbo-tron either. Xinlei and Mr. Feng had asked me early in the project when my birthday was, but I hardly expected any of them to remember. I didn't think I told Mattie, but there’s no telling what I may have said in some strange hazy lust of a conversation in bed over the past week. No one in the hotel knew about my birthday because, well, I just didn't think to talk about it to any of them. That’s where the bubble was burst first.

The day before my birthday (Friday), I was downstairs talking to a couple of the girls when one of the hostesses informed me that Saturday was Mu Duo’s birthday. Now, I’ve already got a soft spot in my heart for this beautiful girl and to find out that her birthday is on the same day as mine is just too much not to bring up. However, the communication is so difficult most of the time, they wouldn't understand if I told them that mine was Saturday also, so I had to step up my game a bit. I pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to Mu Duo.

She looked at it confusedly for few seconds and then suddenly let out an ecstatic yelp that echoed throughout the lobby, it kind of sounded like a puppy when you ‘accidentally’ step on its foot. She jumped up and smiled and hugged me and started passed my license around to everyone else (which was about six people by that time). They were convinced that I “did that on purpose”. Despite not being able to converse with any of them, the whole hotel staff that I deal with on a daily basis has full knowledge of my crush on Mu Duo, so it was all extra special to everyone. In fact, I was banking on a hunch that I would develop a crush on a girl I couldn't talk to, and before I left America, I made 184 separate fake drivers licenses, one for every day that I would be here and every day I put a new one in my wallet just waiting to realize that it was her birthday. It’s all about planning ahead.

So it began, the cat was let out of the bag, the bubble was broken, the flood had broken the levy and the best part was that I had something in common with this beauty. Of course, my birthday was to be my 31st, she would be celebrating her 19th, but what’s twelve years between two people who can't speak to each other? A lovely way to put it into perspective, when I was graduating Halstead High School, she was just getting potty trained enough to be accepted to kindergarten at General Mao Grade School (or whatever school people go to when they’re five years old.

Mattie has been totally swamped lately. Her manager has been in town from Holland, so she’s working about 15 hours a day. These people are machines when they need to be. They go from super-lazy, sleeping at their desks to midnight meetings with clients at the drop of the hat. Her manager was supposed to leave by Friday and she knew that Saturday was my birthday (which either meant that I told her or that Xinlei told her). We planned to go to the Beijing Zoo on Saturday and have a gay ol’ time. This was actually my request - I just love zoos (yet I am still able to prefer boobs over men). I had a summer job at a zoo one year and any time I’m in a big city that I’ve got some free time in, I try to hit the zoo. I’ve been trying to get there for two months, but, surprisingly, no one else seems to share my interest. Why the hell would you want to go look at animals that we can't eat? Sometimes you just can't argue with the bulletproof logic of a hungry nation.

Alas, Friday afternoon, her boss decided to stay a couple more days, so we were not going to be able to see each other. She said that she would have to pack that night so she could leave early on Saturday, which totally sucked. In my desperation to see her, I suggested that I could come and help her pack and just sit with her for a while. She agreed and upped the ante; she said that she’d get me a hotel room so that I wouldn't have to come back to Langfang late. She really wanted to see me on my birthday and felt bad that she wouldn't be able to spend the weekend with me. Of course when I reminded her that her manager has been to Beijing over ten times and that he could probably manage for one day, she accused me of trying to get her fired.

I ended up getting to her apartment about 11:30 pm (30 minutes from 31). She was still packing, so I just got comfortable outside and told her I’d wait for her to finish. She said it would be a while, but it would be ok for me to come up to her apartment while she finished.

For real? Hell yeah. Xinlei’s gonna freak!

Her apartment is a little two-bedroom place that is in a very typical Chinese building (partly because it’s in China). The ground floor of the city is almost all businesses – restaurants, bars, salons, shops, and whorehouses. But the following three to twenty floors are apartments. The only apartment that I’d been to so far was Xinlei’s rental. His place is pretty sweet, I’d definitely live there, but it’s also in Langfang where the cost of living is super cheap. Beijing is real city life, which means every aspect of life here is expensive and there’s never much room to go around.

When I said ‘little’ before, I meant little – two bedrooms that were barely large enough to walk around in, a kitchen the size of a hallway, the actual ‘living room’ was more like an entryway. These two girls are packed in there tight. The place was about the size of a small one-bedroom apartment with a couple extra walls thrown up to create a ‘room-like’ atmosphere. Yet another railroad spike driven into my head about how much we have in America. The place was rode hard and put away broken. Everything here is just used to death, torn down and then rebuilt.

I couldn't believe it, but it took her three hours to pack for a two-day trip. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon before with other people, but holy crap, I was about to fall asleep. We had to be extra quiet because she didn't want Sherry to know that I was in her room. We went through makeup, shoes, pants, shirts and every combination of anything in between. Chinese people have about one tenth the amount of clothes and shoes that their American counterparts have, men and women both, which meant that she tried on every combination of her six outfits and four pairs of shoes three times (that’s 144 combinations if you’re checking my math, one outfit equals one pair bottoms plus one top). Even more surprising, Mattie fit everything she needed into a backpack. If I pack for a two-day trip, I’ll need at least a small suitcase because I would pack for at least three days, which means a minimum of four pairs of shoes.

It struck me as a bit odd that she would still make me cover my eyes or look away when she changed clothes, especially after the stuff that we did last week in the sack, but it’s her game and if she’s going to be shy around me, I’m just going to sit back and be entertained.

Eventually, by about 3:00 am, we finished up and we went to the hotel (by this time I was 31 and three hours). The hotel was a nice little local place, none of that crazy international stuff that I get at shitholes like the Celebrity. Mattie gave me a small birthday cake and we stayed up all night where she gave me my real birthday present. It was quite awesome and it was worth the three hour packing and silence exercise I had been put through earlier in the night. We got about 45 minutes of sleep before she had to wake up and leave town for the weekend with her manager. She put me in a taxi and I headed back to Langfang on cloud nine.

You would think that I may have more to write about my birthday present, but I just don't know how to write about sex. In fact, I blush just typing the word. I have no problem doing the locker-room type of talk, but being honest about the whole act in a reflective and mature manner, I just can't do it. You would think that someone who can write a 130,000 word book, each claiming to be about being honesty, the truth, and inner reflection - no matter how embarrassing - would be able to write about something as simple and natural as sex. Think again. I hear tales from my mother who says that she and my sister have regular conversations about it. Are you guys fucking crazy? What the hell is wrong with you? It makes me feel like some 75 year-old Texan or a gentleman out of a Bocaccio novel.

Anyway, what a great birthday.

I slept for most of the remainder of the day, mostly to take full advantage of my spectacular dreams. By early evening, good feelings were beginning to be displaced by feelings of hunger so I headed out the door for dinner. When I walked, birds sang and children smiled, dogs wagged their tails and cats purred. All was good for that moment. After dinner, Jenny, Sky, Ann and Lily called me back up to my room for a ‘surprise’ birthday party. These poor people get so excited about their surprises that they can't keep a secret worth a damn, like a kid who gets his mother a really cool ashtray for Christmas and ends up telling her all about it before the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone. They brought me another birthday cake and a pair of gloves. We hung out for an hour eating cake and looking at pictures and then I went to sleep. I slept like a rock, still on cloud nine from the night before. I was somewhat disturbed that they got into my room to decorate while I was eating dinner, but they maintain my deepest trust.

Sunday, Mr. Feng and his wife, Xinlei, Mr. Li, and some girl I don't know took me to diner where I had a third cake, this one even larger than the others. We ate at the steak house again, and it was still pretty good, I couldn't do it every day, but it’s kind of nice to use a fork and knife every now and then. They all gave me presents, I had my picture taken with some children at the table next to us and it was a fine evening.

I think my problem with birthdays and these types of holidays is that I just don't want an issue made of stuff. No gifts, nothing. Over the course of three days, I had three completely different birthday parties thrown for me with completely different groups of people and it’s just too much. All this time I was thinking how I’m getting all this stuff, when Mu Duo - who’s celebrating the same thing on the same day - is probably not getting anything other than a hug and that familiar buzzing of her alarm clock, because for her, it’s business as usual, just like the day before, just like the day after.

I get in these reflective moods and feel like total shit for what I have and how easy I have it. Then the next day comes and I’m totally pissed off at how hard it is for me and how little I have. It’s times like these where I feel burdened for being able to see things from different points of view. It makes me feel like a hypocrite and I don't like it, but it will continue to be written and described as how I’m seeing it at the time. Today’s happy story is tomorrow’s angry story with the only difference being what side of the street I was standing on when the bus splashed the water onto the sidewalk.

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