The morning before my birthday, I limped to the bathroom mirror and examined the face staring back at me, bleary eyed and tired. Getting older was nothing to be afraid of, I told myself, but my reflection certainly was. I tried to ignore the dark circles pooling under my eyes, and the tiny wrinkles crinkling around them, and focus on the positive. Happiness is a choice, and true beauty comes from within, I reminded myself. A wonderful weekend awaited me. I would welcome this birthday as I had the 51 others, celebrating with friends and family who would confirm that I was only getting better with each passing year.
My thoughts turned to what I would wear. I would need a little something for lunch with friends, certainly a happy hour, or two, and a romantic dinner with Wes.
Wild, wild Wes, who with his velvety voice and rugged charm had lassoed me in, but not quite tied the knot. This could be the year, our year, I dreamed.
I turned to walk away and gasped. Over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of my profile and froze. My heart pounded and I faced the mirror again. Everything seemed to be in order. I turned to the other side this time and my mouth dropped open. I tentatively touched the side of my face and pushed it up an inch, then let go. I touched it again, more firmly, raised it two more inches, then released it. Right, left, right left. I whipped my head from side to side, viewing my face from every angle. My bottom lip trembled as I made the horrifying realization that somehow, in the middle of the night, someone had stolen my chin, and as a result, my face was currently residing on my shoulders.
Crying only made the situation worse. My face was falling, and until someone invented a push-up bra for facial cheeks, the only thing that seemed to prop it up was a huge, albeit fake, smile.
So I smiled. All weekend.
I smiled when I called my best friend who told me she was going out of town for a romantic weekend with her husband, and would not be available for lunch, happy hour, or to hold my face back for me as I threw up too many margaritas and memories. I smiled when my daughter informed me since it was prom weekend, I would need to be available to drive her to a hair appointment, manicure and pedicure, and to meet 30 of her closest friends for photographs, where she would refuse to pose for one picture with me, even a non- profile one.
I smiled when the man I had been dating for five years revealed he had joined a gun club that very morning, and would be busy shooting all day, but would try to find time for a casual dinner late that night.
I smiled when I learned my sister had chosen to celebrate my nephew’s graduation the next day, which unfortunately, was also my birthday, but I was welcome to come. When my own mother could not meet me for shopping because she was washing her hair, I accepted the inevitable. This was one birthday I would have to face alone.
Somehow, I got through the day, put on my fuzziest pajamas, turned off my phone, and smiled myself to sleep.
The next morning was no better. I woke to a pounding on my door.
“Happy Birthday, Peaches!” Wes cried as I cracked open the door, my foot firmly placed behind it. “Why didn’t you answer your phone? I’ve been calling you all night and this morning. I have a big surprise for you!” I was tempted to hold a grudge a little longer. After all, he had stood me up the night before, but his country smile wide grin was hard to resist, and I stood back so he could enter.
“Look at that big smile!” he said as he engulfed me in a huge, one-sided hug. “And I was afraid you were mad at me.”
“I am mad at you,” I said through clenched teeth.
“You know how much I love you” he began, taking my hand. “I’ve been planning this for a long time, but I wanted it to be perfect. I know you like big, shiny things, and I’ve been shopping for just the right one…” He dropped to his knee in the middle of my kitchen, and my heart skipped a beat. “Will you… Look at that! My shoelace is untied again.” He stood back up, ran outside, and with an exaggerated flourish, came back carrying a huge, metal, red and gold, yard rooster, with happy birthday balloons tied around its neck.
I resisted the urge to kick him in the cock-a-doodle.
“I know we’re going to your nephew’s graduation party today,” he continued, “but I want to take you out for your birthday after.”
I looked up at him expectantly.
“Maybe we can grab a burger, or something.”
My face froze into a steely smile. This would be the last birthday I would waste with this man. This may be how they celebrate in Nebraska, but in Texas we party until the metal rooster crows. I don’t care how many things he repaired around my house. He would not be able to fix this, no matter what tool he pulled out of his belt.
Somehow, I made it through the day. I smiled as I congratulated my nephew, ate a piece of non-birthday cake, and agreed when my family suggested we celebrate my birthday real soon, like next year. I smiled until Wes and I were the last ones left at the party, and my cheeks were sore from overexertion.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I have one stop to make before we get something to eat,” said Wes, as we settled into the car. “A customer wants me to give him a bid on a restaurant renovation.” My shoulders drooped, and I relaxed my face, tense from hours of false bravado.
“Chin up”, I said to myself, then remembered I no longer had one. The day could not possibly get any worse.
We pulled in to Uptown Park, and started walking towards a collection of boutiques and restaurants. Wes paused, confusion shadowing his face. “Wait here, baby, while I run in to see if this is the right place.”
I sat on the ledge of a fountain, and clutched my purse as I watched a group of twenty-something punks walk past, eying me, each with one hand on his cell phone, and one holding up the seat of his pants. It would be just my luck to be mugged on my birthday and shoved into the fountain, while Wes ambled aimlessly from shop to shop, I thought. I could see it now on the ten o’clock news. Fifty-something divorcee pulled from depths of Uptown Park fountain, suffering lacerations to the face and a severe concussion. Her maniacal smile led officials to believe drugs are involved.
The hairs on the back of my neck sprang to attention as a late model black Cadillac with darkened windows slowed to a stop by the curb near me and the door sprang open, loud music booming from within. Just when I had convinced myself I was about to be the target of a kidnapping, or worse, I recognized a Bruno Mars song. Suddenly the twenty-somethings broke out into dance, spinning and gyrating in unison to the beat, Marry You blasting in the air. I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted a young girl smiling beside me, and realized there was nothing to fear. I was just witnessing a flash mob. Some rapper’s girlfriend was clearly getting a proposal she could not refuse. At least someone’s day was going better than mine.
I longed for her youth, the anything is possible expression in her eyes, the defiant thrust of her chin. I envied the decades of happily ever after she had ahead of her, the birthdays to be celebrated instead of feared.
I looked up and saw a figure in the distance walking towards me from one of the restaurants. My heart soared. My dear friend said she was out of town, but here she was before me, laughing. Before I had time to think, my daughter emerged from behind her, cutting prom weekend short to be here. Then they all appeared, one by one, grinning from ear to ear at my confusion, and when my parents, my brother and sister, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, and all my close friends had gathered around me, Wes walked through them, holding a huge bouquet of flowers and my heart. He got down on his knee. And this time it was not to tie his shoe.
I nodded yes, pulled him close, and broke out into my first genuine smile of the weekend. The big cock may have been from Buccee’s, but the big rock was not. Suddenly the future was bright.
And I would not have to face it alone.