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Twenty-three is the Ugliest Number

Dealing with the birthday blues

By William L. Adams

Twenty-three years ago, dated from Nov. 6, my mother was injected with prostaglandin hormones to induce pregnancy. Apparently I was in no hurry to leave—and can you blame me? With an entire womb to myself, the chance to swim all day and all the food I could eat, pre-natal life was a breeze. But the obstetrician’s vacation schedule and my mother’s impatience meant my life in the womb had to end. I screamed as my own mother evicted me from her cozy uterus.

Given this inauspicious start, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my twenty-third birthday was full of disappointment. On that morning, just last weekend, I stood beneath the clinical lighting of Lamont library checking my e-mail. The first message in my inbox was from a scholarship selection committee, notifying me that I had been denied an interview. Not terribly surprised, I forwarded the message to several friends, joking that my birthday was off to a great start. Sarcasm wasn’t going to get me through the day. By 2 p.m. my silent cell phone had me convinced that my parents had forgotten my birthday. By 3 p.m. I realized that my significant other had too. The evidence was in and the jury reached a disheartening verdict: Twenty-three is the ugliest number.

A friend and I go shopping at Cambridgeside Galleria where I plan to eat my emotions. The Asian food stalls offer me free chicken samples and I indulge, coating my stomach in MSG.Then I shop out my frustration. I float from store to store where I try on tight-fitting jeans and pick up garments I can’t afford. Eventually I make the mistake of going in to Abercrombie. The nearly naked models with their chiseled bodies emasculate me and I can hear my self-esteem falling. The price tags at J. Crew and Banana remind me I still have to buy things on sale. The bumpy ride back to Harvard on the crowded bus gives me a headache.

Back in the dining hall, I eat my birthday dinner: a bean burrito and a bowl of pineapples. The birthday board mounted on the wall stares me down. I’m not alone in aging, but my housemates are turning 19 and 20. In college, which caters to the 18-21 set, I am, at 23, a grandfather.

I can’t help but think about my family aging along with me. My seventy-year-old dad stands less vertically every time I see him and passes his days watching Fox News, eating peanuts and waiting for his retirement checks. My mother’s beauty regimen of Oil of Olay and sunscreen no longer fends off the fine lines and wrinkles. “When I come from Vietnam I young babe,” she said on her birthday last month with a hint of melodrama. “Today I old woman.” My sister, who once seemed old as the 16-year old carting me around in her Pontiac, has already turned 30.

I make myself leave the dorm. At 8 p.m. I arrive at Charlie’s Kitchen, where some friends have gathered. They’ve been around for two hours, celebrating the return of an old friend and her hubby. He’s a marine and has brought some sailors with him. I’ve never sat next to a sailor. I assume he is conservative and, after a Long Island iced tea, I begin making inappropriate jokes. Something to the effect of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The gray matter at that table was already saturated with alcohol before I arrived and after another round of shots I’m serenaded with Happy Birthday. I’m supposed to hate this and turn red, but I alternate between feigning embarrassmentand mouthing along.

People (including one of my academic advisors) begin playing spin the cell phone. Two of the girls at the table start making out while the husband of one watches. Someone pours a packet of sugar in my hair. And a second. My cell phone rings. “William, your mother is on the phone.” What timing. I’m tanked and Ma finally remembers to call. She and my father are singing Happy Birthday. They stop and ask me if I’m at a bar. I tell them no and they go on singing.

By 3 a.m. I am standing naked in my shower. My roommates are asleep and the suite is quiet—so quiet that turning the water on full blast would be offensive. My upturned mouth receives the slow drip of water from the showerhead and I swish it around, mixing it with the residue of Long Island ice tea. I can feel the grainy sugar slide from my scalp, down my sideburns, around my cheek, into my mouth. I’m tired, but I don’t go to sleep. I stand there, naked as the day I was born, laughing at the sweet taste of sugar.

William Lee Adams ’04-’05 is a psychology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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