It's never quite over is it? Like over-over. After all the sadness, the anger and the healing, after it's all said and done, it can come back in an instant. Set off by a trigger with the unrelenting power to roll back time. For some that trigger is an anniversary. For others, a song. For me it's always been his birthday.
"You're Invited to Seth's Big 30th Birthday Bash," reads the e-mail, three exclamation marks.
I know better than to open it, but I can't help it. An addict falling off the wagon.
I hate myself for being so weak, but mostly I resent him for opening that door again. His birthday was three weeks ago, and surprisingly this year it came and went without a hitch. I thought I was done.
My eyes follow the words on the screen.
Pool party. Swanky hotel. Midtown.
Before I get to the time and date, I come back to my senses, hit delete.
I've learned my lesson a long time ago. Tried the whole "let's be friends" thing back when the wounds were still fresh, but quickly realized I couldn't. Too much anger. It wasn't anything he did in particular that got me so mad. Just a simple resentment towards a man who was able to make the transition from lover to friend with such ease.
And so one day I stopped talking to him. No phone calls, no dinners, no nothing.
I thought it would be hard, I thought I'd miss him too much. But instead I felt happier, healthier. Then I discovered a direct correlation: the less I knew about him, the better I felt. And so I made a conscious effort to not know. Seth was angry at first. Confused by my silence. But for the first time it didn't matter.
Years have gone by and still I choose not to know. Figured no need to wake that sleeping dog.
Then an e-mail. One small gesture, and the anger which seemed to have almost disappeared is now finding its way back from the dead, like a serial killer in bad horror flick.
I tell myself as long as I don't know the date and time I can't obsess.
"Are you going to Seth's birthday party?" Comes the text from Zach.
"Wasn't planning on it, no."
"Yeah, didn't think you would. Pity. I was the one who suggested he invited you, thought we could finally spend some time together, cohort."
I cut the exchange short, before he blurts out the specifics and for the next few days try not to hear about it. But I know. It's only a matter of time.
On Friday I get another e-mail. This time there's no escape.
"Last reminder: Seth's 30th Birthday Party TONIGHT."
No need to open. It's right there in the subject matter.
And then it starts. A rush of thoughts and flashbacks and feelings and moments. Seth at 23, Seth at 24. Birthdays I've celebrated with him, those I did not. I make plans to meet friends. Anything to get my mind off the party. Soho House, drinks, a cute boy's smile, annoying interruptions, bathing suits, Seth's face, his boyfriend's tight body. I try to focus. But all I can think of is the unthinkable. I need something momentous to happen, I need this to be anything but the day I couldn't go to Seth's 30th birthday party. But I realize it's a lost cause.
I'm bored and I'm tired and now, slightly drunk. I finally glance at the exit sign, put down my umpteenth vodka tonic, head towards the coat check.
"Hey what's your name?"
I look up. Blue eyes, buzzed hair, nice smile.
"Hey Ethan, I'm JT."
"Where are you from?"
Awkward pause. I realize he's waiting for me to reciprocate. I just want my coat.
"And you?" I finally ask back.
"I'm stationed in Honolulu."
He smiles. The set up, it worked.
"Stationed? As in the military?"
"Yep." he says with a smirk on his face. He knows he's got my attention.
"I'm being shipped to Iraq in three weeks."
Smile. Dimples. Deal, sealed.
"And how many times have you used that line tonight?"
"You're the first. Is it working?"
"If I say no, that would make me quite unpatriotic."
"Callous? That's a big word for a soldier."
"You had me at Honolulu."
A bright ray of sun coming in from the window wakes me up. My head's pounding, my mouth's dry. I open my eyes slowly trying to reduce the light's unforgiving effect on my pupils. I scan the room. A hotel. Flat screen TV, an empty bottle of Vueve Clicquot, my clothes scattered like breadcrumbs all the way from the door to the bed. I peel the blanket off my chest slowly, a prisoner trying to make his escape. That's when I notice a man's arm around my waist, his legs intertwined with mine. We're cuddling.
"Good morning," he says.
"What time is it?"
"Shit. I have plans to meet someone for brunch at noon," I lie. That line flies out of my mouth almost too quickly. It's convincing. I remind myself to call my therapist the moment I make more money.
"Sorry, I gotta run."
"Do I get your number?"
"Sure," I say as I fish my clothes up from his floor. "Got a pen?"
He pulls out his color Blackberry, new, shiny, bells, whistles. It's the Cadillac of hand-held devices.
"They give that to all soldiers?" I joke. "I'm in the wrong business."
"I'm a doctor. Do you have to go so soon?"
"Yes," I say. "Before you tell me that you're Jewish and single."
I leave his hotel room, look at the date on my watch. Smile. I made it through the night. No more anxious thoughts. At least not for another year.
And then it occurs to me. Last night wasn't the night of Seth's birthday party. It was the night I entertained the troops.