The envelope was bright orange with gold stars lining the back flap. Even if you were Paris Hilton with copious amounts of newly-inspired fan mail you could still easily spot it. It was early December, too early for a Christmas card, but 5 days late for my birthday.
I was about to throw it out when I saw the handwritten return address. The city and state were local. The handwriting, slightly misshapen, was neatly printed. Someone took the time to mail it./
In my one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a converted townhouse there is a floor to ceiling mirror I keep meaning to get rid of. As soon as I walk in the apartment I see the crevices where my makeup gathers in both nasolabial folds, but in the midmorning sunlight I reappear smooth. This is what happens in your thirties. One moment you’re lines and dust and the next it’s as if you’ve never changed.
I sifted through the mail at my kitchen counter. There was a coupon for glass ornaments at Target and another Talbots catalog. The matronly holiday turtleneck catalogs had started coming shortly before my birthday. I had just turned 36.
As a teenager from Northern Virginia, teachers used to tell us white Anthrax powder could be found in any letter. A senior with a bad habit of listening to Marilyn Manson was later arrested for sending one tablespoon of flour to the principal.
Bravely I pulled out the eco-friendly sheet of paper and tried to remember cursive.
I am personally inviting you to a private celebration on Saturday, December 17th, at the Arts Initiative Center on route 23 west. We would be honored to have you.
See you soon!
The card was not signed. The presumption I would even go was absurd.
I know two other girls with birthdays the same date as mine. I was introduced to Rachel and Leah at a farmer’s market by our mutual friend, Christian. He immediately said we looked alike even though they were slimmer and each of us had a different hair color. It could have been the start of a close Sex-and-the-City type friendship, but the effort was too much. The reality of squeezing in new friendships meant leaving the house when it was already dark to talk to people other than my actual friends.
I thought about texting them to see if the event was supposed to be a surprise joint birthday party, but I couldn’t hit send.
On the night of the party The Arts Initiative Center parking lot was jam packed with back to back Subarus. Aside from one lone yellow Wrangler, the entire lot was forest green.
With nobody next to me to whisper snide remarks I was left standing alone on the sidewalk with a goofy smile plastered to my face. It had started to snow on the drive over and I already wanted to leave. There were too many people here for me to possibly know and I cursed myself for coming.
The hair on my arms prickled. I craved my oversized hoodie instead of the formal jacket that was just a half size too small. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text until a woman called my name.
“You must be Jennifer!” I felt a hand on my elbow. “Please, come this way.” A woman with gray hair and a matching dress ushered me inside the auditorium.
The first thing I noticed were several unmarked balloons and a dozen rows of walnut folding chairs. Two rectangular tables spanned almost the entire width of the room. There was an assortment of rice crackers and small, unidentifiable, fish hors d’oeuvre. Two uncorked bottles of wine sat next to them. From the looks of it, this could have been a birthday or holiday party. The streamers were yellow and white.
Near the stage I saw Rachel and Leah suggestively swaying their hips to the tune of “Genie in a Bottle”. Next to them a DJ played hits from the early 2000s on his laptop. One of the girls would know what was happening.
“What is this?” I asked them.
They both turned around at the same time. Rachel was holding a plastic cup full of sparkling white wine.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so happy to see you,” she said. “I barely know anyone here. For a birthday party you’d think they’d at least invite friends.”
“So it is a birthday party?”
“I guess.” Leah shrugged.
“Maybe it’s a party for the three of us.” I suggested.
“Then who are all the other people?”
I looked behind us at the small clusters of men and women still standing in their private circles. Most of them looked to be around our age, but some were much older. I recognized a man wearing a loose toupee as my old optometrist. His shirt said Party Animal on the front.
“You don’t know any of these people personally?” I asked. “Do you know who’s hosting?”
They shook their heads in unison.
We scanned the room for friends who may have invited random people, but we only recognized one.
“Oh, it’s her.” Rachel pointed to the middle of the room. Instantly I knew who she meant. She was the woman from my middle school dance department. I looked harder, slightly flummoxed, or was she?
“Who is she?”
“Oh, you know.”
“No,” I squinted. “I can’t place her.”
“I think I knew her in middle school.”
“Me too,” I said, “but was she a teacher?”
Leah snapped a picture and furiously scrolled through her phone. “I knew it,” she said. “It’s Posh Spice.”
Sure enough, several feet away from us was a real Spice Girl wrapped up in conversation with a guy at least a decade younger than her. Before we had time to truly study the impossibility of her waif-like figure an electronic bell rang from the overhead PA system.
We watched as Posh Spice, real-name-unknown, delicately glided to the front row. I looked around the room. Several other women were staring too.
“I heard she married a ball player,” Leah whispered.
I could see it. How could a strong woman marry anyone other than an athlete? I imagined their powerful social strength intertwined in a luxurious life of opportunity. The last time I saw Posh was on television. She was talking about Girl Power while animated pink daisies floated above her head. She was the quintessential woman who had it all.
I tried to calculate her age, but she seemed to sweep past the boundaries of time. Perhaps feminists grew more attractive with age.
“Do you think she lives around here?” Leah asked.
“No, she can’t. She probably lives in a really trendy city like London or Hong Kong.”
“Who lives in Hong Kong?” Rachel asked, but I didn’t answer. Anything was possible for celebrities.
To my horror, the optometrist seated himself beside her. He had a slight pudge around his mid-section that was made more prominent by his t-shirt. When he crossed his legs he held onto his thighs for support. The optometrist probably didn’t even know who Posh Spice was. It seemed exceedingly unfair that he should be closest to her out of all the people in the room.
We quickly sat behind them.
“What is that?” Rachel pointed her wine cup to a gap between the optometrist’s hair and head. She giggled and some of her drink spilled.
The lights in the auditorium flickered and we watched as the remaining guests took their seats.
“Good evening.” A woman said, “And welcome to this year’s annual crossing of the hill party.” She pointed a small round of applause in our direction. I recognized her as the same woman who ushered me inside.
I turned around. A man with a goatee and a shirt that said “Dead Kennedys” craned his neck forward.
“This year our newly-turned 36-year-olds make up exactly 70% of the audience. As for the other 30%, I welcome your return.”
Thirty percent of the audience was older than 36 and I wanted to know who. A woman wearing hiking gear looked at her watch and I wondered if she had one because it was part of the outfit or if she was a relic from before the digital age. From four rows ahead it was hard to tell if she was a late-30-something or a mid-40-something. A few hippies wearing medicine bags around their neck lined the back wall. Baby boomers.
“The celebration of life continues even as we gracefully transition to our glory years. The perks are just as prominent as the setbacks once you fully accept your new role in life. For women,” our host gave a quick chuckle, “this can be a difficult time (believe me I know). As for the men, you will also find this time to be uniquely challenging. Men, believe me when I tell you, embracing middle age is not a death sentence.”
Our host had a voice that sounded similar to a piano. She spoke with a strong tone and I wondered if she was imitating an old movie star or if she really spoke with a slightly British accent. She was definitely born before World War II. She must have lived through the ‘50s when she was in her twenties.
I stared at the girls beside me and immediately recognized the word “girls” as a misnomer. They may have been wearing lip-gloss, but I could see the lines around their mouths just as clearly as my own.
“Ladies and gentlemen, before detailing The Rules, I would like to truly welcome you to the process of aging.” Again she applauded. The sound echoed throughout the auditorium.
“Why did I get a Return Invitation?” A man’s voice rose from the back. When I turned around I could only see glimpses of a lightly sheened sports jacket.
“As you know,” our host continued, “some of you are returning as seasoned guests to our annual birthday bash. This is not a failure, just a reminder that graceful aging takes time to master. If you haven’t quite “gotten it” yet, this assembly can help you transition like a pro.”
“What is a “professional ager”?” Rachel whispered. I was too stunned to answer.
According to our host, The Rules had been passed down from generation to generation in an attempt to keep our dignity alive and well. “While it is certainly your choice,” she grimaced, “to show affection for the opposite sex in public or use the “F-word” in casual conversation, these actions may now attract unwanted attention.”
“It is not sexy to look disheveled.” She glared at a middle-aged man in a ripped flannel shirt. “Simply because a new trend involves old clothing, using college attire to “fit in” is no longer appropriate. Remember, people can tell if your weight has shifted over the past decade and skinny jeans, spaghetti straps, and unbuttoned collars are not fooling anyone into thinking you’re younger.”
“Why don’t you show us your own spaghetti straps?!” I heard a man yell from behind me. A few giggles trickled throughout the audience, but most of us stared straight ahead.
“Of course clothing is just one part of the equation.” Our host continued. “Refinement is something that becomes even more elegant with age. Learning when to “hold back” is important in all situations. While it may have once seemed cute to have a few too many drinks at the holiday office party, restraint will save you whispers from the interns behind you.”
“Young people can get behind me any day!” Another man shouted. I continued to look for the non-graceful agers.
An older woman with dyed waist-length hair sat next to the hecklers. Despite the unusually dark hair color she didn’t look like she was trying to be young. She wore brown boots and had a pin that said Save the Vegans clipped to her shirt. If she received an annual invite, how exactly was graceful aging judged? From where I sat I only heard the rules according to one elderly lady.
“I’d like to know who else is on the panel for graceful aging.” Posh Spice read my mind. Her unmistakable Essex accent flooded the room.
Our host peered down her nose to examine one sole platform shoe resting against the stage.
Posh did not look very posh. With one foot on the stage and the other planted firmly on the ground, I was sure her underwear was exposed. It was possible she had planned to flash our host all along. I imagined her picking out what she probably referred to as knickers, with careful forethought. Was it crotchless underwear or, maybe even more scandalous, granny panties? Only the host could tell.
Our host immediately looked away. “That, my dear,” she pointed to the space between her knees, “is nobody’s idea of attractive aging.”
And then it began. There was a collective gasp from the women in the audience. Our host had just called the most feminine part of Posh’s body ugly.
Of course our bodies can’t stay young forever, but I thought we had at least gotten over the “age = unattractive” equation. After all the anti-agism and women’s liberation movements, in one short moment our host had obliterated them. If an elderly woman could so casually disregard her own sex, I wondered just how successful Posh was at Girl Power for all.
A cacophony of unsettled voices rose from whispers to creative swearing and then, to my surprise, the men joined in.
“Go suck on a hydrant!” Someone yelled.
Things had gone too far. As if the lady passing out Eddie Bauer sweaters in the hallway wasn’t enough, making fun of an aging woman’s vagina had stirred something in all of us.
The men in the back were first to stand. A line of balding executives sped their Reeboks in unison toward the font of the auditorium. Before I knew it I, too, was standing. We were not stuck in the ‘50s like our host. We had Black Lives Matter and #Metoo and transgender pronouns. Rachel and Leah headed toward the right of the stage and I followed.
From somewhere behind me I felt a sudden whoosh of air as a hacky sack flew onto the stage. Our host took a giant step back.
“Who are You to tell us what to do?!” An angry woman shouted from the crowd.
Our host frantically grabbed the mic. “Please! Please! Aging is beautiful in a new way! We must all try to gain order!”
But there was no order. The optometrist, in a fit of anxiety, picked up an acoustic guitar that belonged to the disheveled man in flannel. He started playing something vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite recognize it. It could have been Hare Krishna, but it might have been Red Hot Chili Peppers. I didn’t have time to ask the girls.
“I merely mean to say that grace is a way of life!” Our host looked as big as a Happy Meal toy. “If there is no grace, there is no peace!”
Her words sounded as if they made sense, but I didn’t bother to pay attention. Grace was grace, but making fun of a woman’s appearance was never okay.
“Nobody believes that!” Someone shouted. “You’re the only one left who does!”
I looked around at all the people in the auditorium and no longer understood which ones were in their thirties and who was over 50. We were together in pandemonium all trying to find our little place in the sun.
“Yeah!” A man directly behind me screamed. On the crook of his arm was Posh Spice trying to regain balance from her towering shoes. “You’re only one person!” He continued and we cheered. “And who are you to tell us what’s beautiful?” His voice was just as passionate as any woman in the art center and it rang for all of us at full volume. “You’re just a washed up old hag!”
One week later I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, once again sorting through the mail. Beside me was a sheet of cream-colored stationary and a ballpoint pen. Even though the riot had passed I couldn’t stop thinking about the chaos. Finally, out of a desperate desire for closure, I wrote our host a letter.
To the host of this year’s annual crossing of the hill party,
I’m not sure what happened after the police arrived because I was well on my way home. I just wanted to let you know that I would never throw a hacky sack or anything else on stage. I am appalled by the violence of my generation.
Although I don’t believe, or at least don’t want to believe, in the expectations of growing older, I fully subscribe to the concept of grace. Now that this year is coming to a close, I’ll have to plan, like always, for my future. Thank you for your kindness and dedication to the betterment of society,
I’ll see you next year.
- — A woman on the hill