Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rachel Ratner's June 21, 2018


June 21, 2018—

I am a summer baby, in the truest sense. I came into this world on June 21st, when the
day is long, and the night is short, and airy, chatty Gemini gives way to sentimental Cancer, and spring turns to summer, brimming with possibility, with wonder, with the enchantment of new smells and sounds: a whiff of sunscreen, a symphony of crickets, a blossoming romance. On June 21st, we’ve not yet accounted for the swampy asses, sandy crotches, and oppressive subway platforms ahead, on June 21 we are still on the cusp of magic.
     On this June 21, I wake up in a Courtyard Marriott in Sunnyvale, California. I can feel that I’m not home, even before I open my eyes; sunlight floods my hotel room in a way it never does back home in Portland, OR. I begin this day like all others: disoriented, reaching for the phone, silencing my alarm before it gets loud enough to be annoying, and autopilot-tapping my way onto the Astrology Zone app, where I read both Gemini and Cancer horoscopes.
     As a June 21 baby, I sit on a zodiac cusp—neither and both. Always the end, and always the beginning. I suspect my first identity crisis (there have been a few) was deciding if I was a Gemini Twin or Cancer Crab. Was I ruled by idea or emotion? I couldn’t decide, so usually, I read both horoscopes and accept whichever is the most exciting or most devastating, depending on my mood. At some point, I learned that astrologers refer to this specific in-between as the Cusp of Magic. One astrologer said this cusp, and those of us born on it, are symbolically likened to age 21, when we approach new experiences with a childlike wonder, when the world is our horizon, and we are enamoured with potential.
     I am nothing if not enamoured with the horizon. This is both a fantastic and terrible quality for an event planner (which I am). I approach my work, and each new event with an anything-is-possible mentality. My enthusiasm is infectious to all, until it’s time to put all those ideas in a spreadsheet and execute the damn thing. It’s hard to hold on to all the promise, when you’re 46 emails deep with a caterer who just doesn’t get your vision for the aperitifs.
     This morning I dress in all black (event day uniform) and head downstairs. When I get off the elevator, I see a few of my event team members waiting for me at a table in the lobby. They begin a sluggish version of “Happy Birthday,” but they are uncaffeinated and peter out before the end.
“Who has the van keys?” Kara, the senior event producer asks us. We all pat down our hips, and asses, and backpacks, until the van’s last driver, Lizette claims ownership from across
 the lobby. She hands the keys to Kyle, this event’s Creative Director. When I first met Kyle, I assumed that he was a San Francisco bro. He’s hip, usually hidden behind a MacBook Air, with just a flat-brimmed colorful hat and half-sleeve peeking out around the screen. But soon I know much more. He is from New Orleans by way of Detroit; an artist, a vegetarian, an Aires. His hands are big, rough, not the hands of someone who sits behind a computer all day. They show the markings of someone who knows how to work.
     “Ready?” Kyle says to me, holding the van keys. He is smiling. He is much more functional in the morning than I am. I feel my eyes widening with enthusiastic consent—they are Disney-princess-like as I follow him outside.
     Four days earlier, I rented that van from the Enterprise next door. When I noticed “pick up rental car and put down credit card” listed under my job duties, I panicked. Before I turned 25, I regarded renting a car as a signifier of true adulthood. If I could rent a car, I was adult enough to do anything. But now, car rentals had come to represent my own developmental delay, my adulting failures. Before they let you rent a car, companies like Enterprise place a large credit hold on your card, and even at times perform on-the-spot credit checks. Although I would be reimbursed for any expenses I incurred, my credit cards were usually maxed, and I was faced with the awkward position of asking my mother to help me make a dent on my Visa balance, so I could drive that van off the lot.
     The first day of the event, I pulled the van up to the Courtyard Marriott, and Kyle, who was still a stranger then, hopped in the passenger side. From the driver’s seat, I felt him watch me slowly inch out of the parking lot and merge into the morning commute. “I hate driving,” I said excusing my nervous merge.
     “Well, obviously.”
     “What does that mean?” I feigned outrage. I knew exactly what he meant.
     “You just don’t look that comfortable cemented to the 10 and 2.” He said he would drive from now on. I could DJ.

“Well, 34!” he says, inching out of that same parking lot on June 21. “Don’t remind me.”
     “Why not?”
     “Well, it’s 34—it’s like the last young year.”
     “How do you figure?”
     “At 35 you can run for president. Constitutionally speaking, that’s grown up.”
     “That’s fair, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think ‘presidential’ and adulthood are still synonymous.”
     “I guess I’ve always considered 34 to be a last chance year—your last chance to fuck up and blame it on youthful indiscretion or call it a learning opportunity.” I intentionally avoided specifics like, at 35 you’re too old to ask your mother to pay off your credit card so you can go to Enterprise.
Kyle changes the subject. Earlier that week we commiserate about recent exes, when mid conversation, he cut himself off, embarrassed: “If I tell you the full story I feel like you’ll think badly of me.”
     “What? No. I love talking about this stuff.”
     “You’re such a gossip,” he teased.
     “I am! Tell me on my birthday. We’ll drink tequila and you can gift this gossip to me.” Before the tequila, and before we even hit our first traffic light, he launches into it. I listen with the same care I would take unwrapping a beautifully wrapped gift—pausing to consider after I remove each layer of paper, anxiously anticipating where it’s going, what I’m uncovering.
     He tells me that over the course of their brief relationship—“we’re talking four months max”— this ex went under the knife three times, for three different plastic surgery procedures.
     “You’re kidding me!” I say. I sound like my mother.
     “No!” he laughs. “Her life and her surgeries are completely funded by her parents,” he adds, not hiding his disgust.
     “Wow,” I say, shifting to hide something he cannot see.
     We talk about authenticity, and the lack of it, how we present ourselves on the dating apps, and when, if ever, you actually know someone. I wonder if under other circumstances we’d swipe right on each other.
     Watching Kyle behind the wheel of the minivan reminded me of a recent episode of The Bachelorette, where contestant Garrett, hoping to make an impression on bachelorette Becca, arrives at the mansion driving a souped-out minivan. He takes her hand, and slides open the door to reveal a backseat full of car seats, sports equipment, and diaper bags. He says it represents the future he is driving towards. I thought Becca was too smart for such a hokey stunt, but she loves it, and watching Kyle drive behind the wheel, I can see the appeal. I doubt either of us will ever be in the market for a minivan, but I like playing this version of grown up with him—trying on a life, where together, we endure the morning commute, stop at the adjacent shopping center for iced coffees, discuss what we have in store for the day, me DJing, him driving, indulging my preference for Lite FM: Easy Morning Listening.
     It’s not yet 7am when we arrive at the event center. The catering staff is setting out breakfast when my roommate, Meredith FaceTimes me with birthday wishes. I sneak out of the event production office, and en route to a quiet place to chat, give her a virtual tour of the space. “Look at this pool!” I say, holding the phone to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the an Olympic size swimming pool in the middle of the campus. A few Googlers are swimming laps, some are tanning on surrounding lounge chairs.
     The first day of the event, after I got lost in a maze of on-campus cafes, nap rooms, and cute picnic spaces full of vibrant young people, I stood in front of the same windows and looked out on what felt like another world. Kyle stood next to me, and silently we watched a handful of Googlers breast stoke across the pool. “Where did I go wrong?” I asked him. “Why am I not working here? Why is this not my office view?” I was (mostly) kidding, enduring parallel silence was not? one of my skills.
     “You don’t want this,” he said. “You would be miserable.” He spoke with the authority of someone who knew me—someone who knew that despite the shiny perks (sunny views, massage chairs, snack rooms), such a workplace would suffocate my creativity, my sense of wonder, my enthusiasm for what could be. And though we only just met, I knew Kyle wouldn’t want this either. Kyle was unlike most other ‘event’ people I encounter. I mean, he’s a straight guy—we don’t get a lot of that in these parts—but specifically, there is an openness about him. He is not interested dictating from a clipboard or a creative brief; he is present, he is sharing the experience with you. Kyle is a painter, and when he is not working on an event, he is traveling, learning, creating—animation school in Paris, Spanish classes in Mexico City, buying property in New Orleans, and dreaming of what it can be—always adding more color to his pallet.
     After my birthday FaceTime with Meredith, some of the event team is tasked with jimmy-rigging 50 pieces of scrap cardboard into 25 science fair trifolds. I am the first to volunteer. “I love a craft project!” I say sincerely. A few others join me; we have one hour to finish before the attendees arrive, and we need to go, go, go. It feels like we’re on HGTV. Both Kara and Kyle insist that the birthday girl curate a playlist for the project. I tell them they’ll regret it. The craft supplies are out, the walkie talkies synched up, I am sweating from running trifolds around the event space, and the co-working banter is definitely reality TV-worthy, when Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” plays from my phone.
     “Oh goodie, another Billy Joel song,” someone says. I laugh, and tell them that as a Long Islander, Billy Joel music is the soundtrack of my life. I don’t tell her just how right this song is for this moment, when I don’t feel like I’m at work, or Google HQ, or a country club, but rather I feel like I’m summer camp, which has always been my space. It’s where strangers instantly become friends, life plans are dreamed up, new skills are mastered, and inspiration is always present. And like the song says, I haven’t been here in the longest time.
     My phone rings, and interrupts the Billy. Kyle glances at the screen, “Fran’s calling,” he says. “Again.” It’s very important to my mother, Fran, that she connect with me on my birthday. It was barely 11am, and I sent four of her calls to voicemail. Since we were just about finished, I answer.
“Happy birthday, Ray!” she yells. “How’s my summer baby?” I tell her I am good. I mean it—so much so, that I feel a little buzzed when I say it. “Really?” she says, and then after a thoughtful pause adds: “That makes me so happy!” She is genuinely surprised.
     For as often and enthusiastically as this summer baby falls in love with the horizon, I have a hard time holding onto all that is good, and all that is possible during a setback. It’s challenging to have a summer camp mentality when you’re knee-deep in finals week. The setbacks really do set me back, and during my 33rd year the setbacks hit hard.
     In November, my lifelong best friend died of lung cancer. We knew each other since utero, and were born three days apart. She, the first day, me, the last day of the Cusp of Magic. I spent most of the year collapsed into the couch, not working, usually drugged, void of any enthusiasm, or sense of possibility. I’ve always had a laissez-faire attitude towards adulting, but over the last year, would laundry cover the floor for months, accounts were overdrawn, work nonexistent, sobriety optional, showering not required. It was like being 21 again, in all the worst possible ways. My mother would call to ask ‘how are you?’ and like a parent of a toddler who has just stumbled, she would hold her breath for my answer, suspending her reaction until I’d either jump up to shake it off, or I’d decide I was too hurt to stand. For most of 33, I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t see beyond my own grief.
     My roommate, Meredith would whiteboard my accomplishments, exciting action steps, and all the great things in the works—there was so much to look forward to, she’d say. And I would feel positive for a matter of time, a moment, an afternoon, but then 3, 2, 1, poof! Like the sneeze or orgasm that slips away, the good feeling would disappear. When winter turned spring things started to improve for me, good feeling stayed around for a while, possibility bloomed again, but no one, myself included, thought I’d get through this week unscathed. How could I celebrate my birthday, when hers never came to be?
     “Do they know it’s your birthday?” my mother asks. They did. I slipped it in earlier that week, when we were all sitting in the production office, and someone mentioned the summer solstice. “Which is also my birthday!” I said, like I couldn’t contain it anymore. Kyle looked up from across the board room table, mischief on his face.
     “Ooooh,” he said. “I’m gonna ice you so bad!” I had no idea what he was talking about. “You’re gonna what?” I said.
     “Ice you!”
     “Like, you’re gonna separate me from my parents at the border, or...?”
     “No!” he stifled a politically incorrect giggle. He wouldn’t tell me what it meant, so I made an intern explain. Apparently, I already aged out of viral drinking trends.
     After I hang up the phone with my mother, and the science fair trifolds are set out, and we eat lunch, and white board our loadout plan, I hear rumblings outside the production office, and then, an eruption of “Happy birthday.” Kyle walks in, holding the cake, Lizette behind him with red, green, blue, and yellow balloons—very thematic for a Google birthday party.
     “Make the first cut,” Kyle says placing the cake in front of me. My face is burning red, part embarrassment, part joy. I cut into the cake, but the knife won’t pass through. It hits something hard and glassy. Kyle attentively watches; his eyes are wide, Disney-like.
     “Oh my god!” I say. I realize what it is. “Oh my god, oh my god!” I say again and again, uncovering the blocking object. Kyle films my reaction. I am laughing so hard that I keel over. Off-camera he asks what I found. “Smirnoff Ice,” I say, cutting around the cake to reveal the neck of a bottle sitting between layers of buttercream. This, as I learned from that event intern, is getting iced. It’s a drinking game prank, in which one person hides a warm bottle of Smirnoff Ice (you know, the sugary shit you drank in high school, college if you were a late bloomer) and when the prankee uncovers the bottle, they must take a knee, and chug it all at once. Everyone in the production office returns to their task at hand, but Kyle is still recording me. We both can’t stop laughing.
     That evening, after we clear the event space, and before we leave Google, Kyle hands me the bottle of Smirnoff. “It’s time,” he says. The team gathers round me, Lizette ties the balloons to my wrist, I take a knee, and chug. To be honest, I don’t really understand this prank, but it doesn’t matter. Like the sorority girl I once was, I chug quickly, jump up, and throw my arms into the air. Victory. The team cheers.
     After dinner in downtown Sunnyvale, we return to the lobby of The Courtyard Marriott, beers in tow. We take turns telling life stories, and praising each other for a great event, a great week; we all acknowledge that our team chemistry is magical. We say we felt it from the first night of this project, when our entire team went out for Chinese food, and clicked. That was the first of many meals that Kyle and I would share side-by-side, eating eggplant and tofu off each others plate. I knew then, with that group, the week would be fine. Great, even. I felt excited and inspired for the first time in ages. At the end of that dinner, we cracked open our fortunes, and went round the table reading them aloud. Next to me, Kyle read his: “The one you will love is closer than you think.” I couldn’t believe it. Later that night I texted my friends: “Get ready to hear about an amazing meet-cute!” and fell asleep dreaming about his fortune, and all the promise it held.
     I sit next to Kyle in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott, and I allow myself to wonder what will happen when we say goodnight? What will be when we board our planes the next morning, and return to our respective parts of the country. For the first time all week, I feel a twinge of a sadness. I don’t want him to slip away. I don’t want to lose this feeling.
     It is getting late. We can all feel it. “What time is it?” someone asks.
     “11:58,” Lizette says.
     “Oh! My birthday is almost over.” I convince everyone to stay with me for the next two
minutes— “I want to count it down. New Year’s style!”
     “I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works,” Kara says. “You’re not on the brink of anything this midnight.” But the beers are gone, and they indulge me. We count together: 10, 9, 8, we are yelling, 7, 6, 5, guest reception shoots us a look, 3, 2, 1, as if by magic, gone.

—Rachel Ratner

Rachel Ratner is a nonfiction writer with an MFA from Oregon State University. She has written for the Oregon Stater, Portland Monthly, and participated in live storytelling events like BackFence PDX.

(For more information on the June 21st project, see here; apparently we're still publishing the occasional straggler…)

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