Birthday blues

Written by Jessica Liu
Art by Suzy Hazelwood

Today is my birthday: April 6. It is currently 3:02 pm as I am typing this. I am still on campus, sitting in front of the library on an uncomfortably hard plastic chair underneath an umbrella, one of the few places I can find that manages to shield me from the sizzling sun. Southern California is weird. Yesterday it was chilly, about 60 degrees, and today it’s 98. The weather really needs to make up its goddamn mind.

Anyways– I have always felt a sense of melancholy on my birthday. Ever since I could start remembering things, I really don’t think there’s ever been a birthday where I haven’t cried. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I’ve sort of just accepted it.

Nostalgia is an emotion I have pretty often and it tends to hit exceptionally hard on my birthday. It’s a weird thing, to get one year older, to have grown a couple inches taller, a bit smarter (questionable), and a little more mature. I’ve always been someone who likes to look back in time, rather forward. Though it is probably untrue, I always feel like times were better in the past. I miss the days where I was young and ignorant, naively blissful, and innocently optimistic. As I’ve grown older, cynicism has hit me like a bowling ball. I worry that I am going to be that one nihilistic middle-aged lady that people cannot stand to be around because she’ll be a Debbie-downer. 

I have just turned 16, not at all close to becoming remotely middle-aged. But honestly speaking, I do think a pinch of cynicism is good, like cautionary pessimism, to protect my heart from unattainable expectations. Which brings me to my next point.

My expectations are far too high. I am extremely hard on myself, and push myself to overachieve and go above and beyond when it comes to anything, including celebrations and gifts for people that I care about. This in turn translates to also having steep expectations when it comes to others. I recently took a love language test, and surprise surprise, one of my love languages is gift giving. I really don’t want people to drop hundreds of dollars and buy me expensive gifts. What means the most to me is something thoughtful, perhaps something handmade or cooked, that shows that they care about me and have paid attention to what I like.

There still is something nice about your birthday, though. I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection lately. I think birthdays breed introspection. Today I woke up, thought wow, it’s been another year. What a crazy year. Not my best, not my worst, but one of growth. The COVID-19 pandemic took up half of the year, which I took advantage of to up my fashion game and complete my first semester of online university, filled with Zoom connection issues and frantic 11:58pm Canvas assignment submissions. So many people that started the year off with me aren’t around anymore, and I hope they’re doing well.

I met someone this year, for the first time in my life. He sort of fell into my lap because I was not in any way looking for someone. His birthday was late last year, and we celebrated it on a quiet night, smiling at each other in the playground of our local park. The first time we talked, he mentioned that his favorite baked dessert was chocolate lava cake, which I took a mental note of, as well as the fact that he always complained about his lactose intolerance. The night of his birthday, I called him out on a walk, and we had mini chocolate lava cakes in glass ramekins, and I reassured him that I had used dairy substitutes. Time seemed to slip through my fingers like the fine grains in the kiddie sandbox we dragged our feet through, and my mom was worriedly texting me, as it was 12am already. He walked me home, thanked me twice, and gave me a hug. At the time, nothing had ever meant more to me.

He’s graduating in a month. I haven’t talked to him in 16 weeks. And I wish him nothing but the best. Funny to think I used to believe he was the one. Sometimes I still do. And that’s okay. Life just doesn’t work out the way you want it to sometimes. I stared at his green online dot on Messenger this morning, wondering if that happy birthday text would come in. It never did.

I lost a lot of friends this year. I changed schools, which might have played a role of some sort, but I honestly saw it coming. The friends I lost were already drifting away, and this year I realized that I have been spending time with people who make me feel emptier than if I was just alone. So I’m learning to be okay with letting people go. It’s painful, but better than trying to force a connection when it’s not there.

I’m slowly becoming more excited to grow up, and for once I am looking towards the future with anticipation and cautious optimism. Losing people I cared about and depended on emotionally this year has made me realize that I really just have myself. That was scary, because I didn’t believe in myself or my capabilities. 

I threw myself into writing, using blank Google docs and the iPhone Notes app to jot down thoughts and emotions that had become too overwhelming to keep inside of me. The bottled-up words that spilled out prevented those feelings from leaking out of my eyes or in the form of a frustrated outburst.

This year was a journey. Rocky, dreamy, giddy, unpredictable, definitely not perfect, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Happy birthday to me.