Birthdays Were the Worst DaysBy Eugenio Volpe
February 01, 2016
There are seventy-nine minutes left in the day. I am clinging to consciousness as I write, half drunk, half sleepy. At least it’s almost over, my birthday that is. I didn’t have an official cake, so let this be the proverbial frosting, the telling of my forty-first birthday. I’ll tell it in one long unedited inhalation, the opposite of blowing out candles, that morbid ritual of extinguishing light with one’s breath, but not before making a final wish, followed by a gasp, and then an emptying of your lungs resulting in darkness. Blowing out birthday candles (tiny flames symbolizing each year of your even tinier existence) is a metaphor for death, right up there with a raven shitting on the Grim Reaper’s hoodie. There’s some luck in that, just as there’s luck in surviving another year. There’s also humor, but mostly the kind that laughs at you, which is fine by me. I have zero delusions of grandeur. I entered the world hysterical and naked, and I intend on dying like that too.
Yes, it’s my birthday. I’m not happy about it, but that’s the entire point of commemorating them. Birthdays are for getting down on yourself, observing failures and defeats, ruminating on everything you’ve yet to accomplish. Toy with the idea of suicide. Perhaps contemplate murder. Get dark as humanly possible. So, so sad to be alive.
My birthday started with having to take a tremendous shit. Being delivered into consciousness via urgent bowels isn’t so bad. Defecating can be one of life’s simplest pleasures. It can be downright glorious. My birthday movement was neither. It was another kind of shit, the messy, arduous kind. I did not eat well last night. My wife and I went out for dinner. I ordered steak. I rarely consume meat, but on the eve of the most depressing day of the year, I chose to devour another mammal. I also ate ice cream and drank close to an entire bottle of Templeton rye, my favorite. Last night’s bottle was a birthday gift from Sara. The evening was tender and sexy. My morning deuce was pasty and distasteful. The dairy, whiskey, and meat bound me. Constipation is by no means a terminal illness; however, when paired with a pre-existing hemorrhoid, it can kill. I labored like Hercules. Four flushes in all. It took half a pack of baby wipes to swab my battle wounds. Blood and excrement: that is how I rang in my forty-first year of being the same old asshole.
I dethroned and returned to the bedroom. My second flush had woken our eleven-month old. Sara had carried Ronan from his crib into our bed. He was now lying on his side nursing. They looked sublime, their beauty putting every last Mary and baby Jesus portrait to shame: Raphael, Duccio, Caravaggio, you name ‘em. My first birthday as a father, the appropriate facial expression might have been that of lottery winner or orgasming angel. Instead, I smirked like George Clooney after pulling a heist in Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, or Thirteen. I find it perfectly acceptable to rob from the rich and powerful, especially from gods of any denomination. Zeus, Jehovah, L. Ron Hubbard, they’re nothing but stingy 1 percenters who neglect their children, emotionally and economically. Sure, they’ll spare the occasional rainbow or sunset, but other than that, there’s no godly inheritance or trust fund. It’d be one thing if gods just fucked off and left their kids alone, but they don’t. They wreak havoc upon us. They conjure famine, floods, and locusts, and when that’s not enough, they torture us, mentally and physically. God riddled Job’s body with genital warts. He slew all the firstborn sons of Egypt. He all but killed my mother, estranged my father, and murdered my best friend. He also shafted me with a meager five and three-quarters inch penis. Godsends my ass! The dude has schlonged my every bid for personal and professional happiness. I finally swashbuckled his cock-blocking two years ago when I met Sara and moved from Boston to Santa Monica. Contrary to popular belief, there is limited happiness in the universe. I stole my share from God, and I’m damn proud of it.
After some family snuggling in bed, I detached Ronan from a still-sleeping Sara and carried him to the living room. There, we rolled around the floor, growling like lions while pretending to eat each other. Ronan loves this. He screams with delight whenever I gnaw at his major arteries, his most tender parts—the neck, the back of the thigh, the abdomen. These are the places a wild animal would most likely devour you, or at least bleed you out. Consequently, these are also our tickle spots. Some anthropologists claim the first bits of human laughter came after narrowly escaping death. A fleet-footed Cro-Magnon averted the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger and then laughed his guts out in relief of not having them devoured. He returned to his seaside cave and told the wife about it. She too laughed, appreciating his brutish looks and gamy farts more than ever. That night, they celebrated his good fortune by inviting the Flintstones over for wild carrots, rabbit tartare, and oysters (Cro-Magnons looked and ate like Portland hipsters). With a series of grunts and gestures, he recounted the story of his fending off the Grim Reaper. His friends erupted into hysterics. How dumb Zog was to be picking wild carrots in such a saber-toothed tiger infested field! Such a lucky duck! The merriment of living another day! So, so happy to be alive!
We Homo sapiens now top the food chain. Aside from the rare Jeffery Dahmer, we needn’t worry about being consumed. We find it gleeful when someone digs their fingers into us, simulating the sensation of fangs penetrating the softest spots of our body. We are still coded to protect those areas, but only for a laugh, for old times’ sake. We jokingly feast upon our children and lovers because we can. We have that luxury. Even the mind of my eleven-month-old understands the gag. Over the past thirty years, only two people in the state of California have been killed by mountain lions. With his looks and charm, Ronan is more likely to be mauled by a Manhattan Beach cougar than the ones inhabiting the Santa Monica Mountains.
For Ronan it’s all evolutionary instinct and postmodern absurdity when I munch on him. For me, it’s overwhelming love. People say babies are gifts from God. That’s nonsense. Babies are stolen goods. I thieved Ronan from God. I earned him by making sacrifices and taking chances. Naturally, I’m madly in love with the boy. Sometimes, in wanting to express my fierce love of Ronan, hugs and kisses aren’t enough. I need to clamp my jaw upon him. The more pressure I apply, the more it warms my soul, like comfort food. In playing lion and wildebeest, I figuratively eat the kid. I roar affection upon him. Ronan goes wild. Goya’s got nothing on us. We trump his portrait of Saturn devouring his son, the Greek god who ate his children for fear of being overthrown by them. I have zero interest in dominating Ronan. I hope he surpasses me as a man—in mind, body, and penis.
After rolling around the floor pretending to devour each other, Ronan and I ate some real food, a banana and Greek yogurt for him, Trader Joe’s Strawberry Yogurt O’s for me. While eating the cereal, I was already thinking of lunch. There was a two-pound bag of jumbo shrimp in the fridge with my name on it. It was my birthday. It was my right to eat whatever and whoever. I would refrain from mammals until next year. Exercising my reign over the food chain had wounded both my superego and butthole. I also had scallops and baby octopus in the fridge. As far as my conscience is concerned, seafood is fair game, crustaceans and shellfish in particular. They’re the lowest form of edible organisms. If I could get my hands on one, I would eat an amoeba no sweat. Otherwise, it’s sushi and ceviche 24/7. If ever sentenced to death, my last meal would consist of raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, stuffed quahogs, swordfish steaks (no worries of mercury minutes from lethal injection), and lobster Newburg for dessert. Birthdays are practice executions. In both cases, we celebrate death with gluttony; therefore, my birthday and last meal menus are always similar. I cut back a bit on birthdays. Not for health reasons. It’s more self-preserving than that. After a birthday meal, I’m the one swabbing my own butthole, not the undertaker.
Ronan and I finished breakfast, and then he wobbled around the living room like a miniature drunk, babbling and wanting to touch every perceptible object in the room. I followed him around playing dad, which entails making sure he doesn’t get himself killed. It’s a tedious job, but relatively easy. My staunchly Italian parents were overbearing and intrusive. I’m taking the hands-off approach to childrearing. I observed its effectiveness growing up in a predominantly Irish neighborhood. It mostly involves ignoring your kid, teaching him to teach himself how not to wander off a cliff or drink Clorox. This parenting method won’t save your kid from becoming a bank robber or serial killer, but will guarantee they not grow up to be an anxious mess. The direct descendant of legendary neurotics, I stay the hell out of Ronan’s way. I let him explore. I let him investigate. I only interfere if he’s endangering himself or acting like a little asshole. He’s a wonderfully happy kid, so I only have to worry about the former. The toughest part of being Ronan’s dad is not gushing over him, concealing the watery joy in my eyes. Maintaining a Clooney face on your first birthday as a father is humanly impossible. Only George Clooney can pull that off because he is not human. George Clooney is an alien sexbot designed by intergalactic demons hell-bent on shaming the human race. As Ronan wobbled and cooed about the room, my face started a slow melt into orgasming angel, an unmanly and ungodly expression.
By 9 a.m. I was completely awake and sober from the night before. Ronan had already fallen for his morning nap. Being mauled with love and affection takes a lot out of a kid. At 9:13, my mother called. She calls every year at the exact time of my birth. She thinks it makes her a good mom. I live in Santa Monica. She lives in Boston, so technically, it was 12:13 her time. I answered the phone anyway. Her front teeth weren’t in and she was already buzzed, but in her defense, it is a Saturday.
“Happy berfday,” she slurred.
“You’re just saying that because you’re the responsible party.”
“Best day of my liiiife.”
“That’s nothing to brag about,” I said.
“Stop breating yurrself up. It’s high time you were happy with yurrself.”
“For what?” I asked.
“You have a brutiful wife and son.”
“You had a brutiful husband and son. Didn’t make you all too happy.”
“That’s because yurfather loved his fucking biceps more than he did meee.”
“You got to admit, those were some pretty terrific biceps.”
“Yeah, too bad he couldn’t divvy some of that muscle to his cock.”
“I remember seeing dad’s penis as a kid. It was a healthy size.”
“That’s cuz you werrr little. Everything looks big then. Trust me. You never saw Al Faccioni’s penis.”
“I love you. I’m putting this in one of my stories. It’s priceless.”
“Those arrr the best kind of berfday presents. Speaking of the devil, has urrr asshole father called you?”
“We haven’t spoken in months. We’re having a Mexican standoff.”
“Good for you. Shoot the motherfucker.”
“Nah, I’ll let him shoot me. That way I win.”
“Did Sarrra get you a cake?”
“No. I don’t like cake. You know that. It’s not worth the calories. Would rather have lobster Newberg for dessert. Anyway, I had ice cream last night. That’s enough fat for a few months. I live in LA now. Here, people don’t trust anyone with a waistline over thirty.”
“Yurrr never moving home, are you?” She took a long, sad puff and exhaled.
“Not likely. Not unless I start eating cake.”
“I love you so much. I’m hanging up now, before I start sobbing without my teeth in.”
“I love you too.”
I hung up and headed for the bathroom. My hemorrhoid was itching like crazy, so I hit it with some Preparation H. I washed my hands and returned to the kitchen. It was 9:27 a.m. I contemplated the bottle of rye atop the fridge, but opened the refrigerator door and reached for the shrimp instead. I boiled them with clove, allspice, and bay leaf. Sara woke while I was straining them. We went into the bedroom and fooled around while Ronan napped and the shrimp chilled. After we were finished, we ate the shrimp and fooled around some more. While doing so, the hemorrhoid and my mother’s berfday anxiously entered my mind twice. Each.
At 11:30, Ronan woke up from his nap. I celebrated with two fingers of rye. Sara ordered herself a pizza for lunch. She asked if I wanted any. I told her no. The pizza arrived forty-five minutes later. I ate four slices (small squares) and crashed on the floor, Ronan’s coos singing me to sleep. Two hours later, I woke up hard, not knowing what was real, blinking and writhing, reaching with my eyes and arms to cling at some semblance of Eugenio Volpe. Witnessing my struggle, Ronan crawled over to me, pressed his nose into my temple, and laughed in my face. He wasn’t laughing with me. He was laughing at me. He understood my predicament. Here he was, my beautiful son, laughing once again at the absurdity of postmodern existence. I was beyond proud of him. The old me, the single, sonless, heavy-drinking Eugenio Volpe of a few years ago would have given up. He would have rolled back to sleep and dreamt of a novel that he might start but never complete. Fatherhood forbids such unproductive selfishness, unless you want to raise a failed writer/artist like yourself. I sprang to life, howling in Ronan’s face like the Big Bad Papa Wolf. It startled him, but only for a split second. The kid is fearless, a quality he inherited from his mother. Ronan loves wolves, second to lions. He thrust his mouth into my neck and fake tore apart my carotid artery. Due to fairy tales and Liam Neeson films, wolves get a bad rap. There are few, if any, historical recordings of North American wolves attacking humans. However, European wolves have been feasting on humans since our days of interbreeding with Neanderthals.
After wolfing down Ronan for a few minutes, I went to the kitchen and ate the octopus salad. While eating the octopus, I sautéed the scallops. While eating the scallops, Sara asked what I wanted to eat later in replace of cake. I told her I wanted Templeton and clam cakes. She liked the idea. She then asked if I wanted to hit the gym before picking up the clam cakes. It sounded like a plan. At the gym, it was “arms” day: barbell curls, triceps extensions, side lateral raises, front dumbbell raises, preacher curls, and dips. After that, I rode the stationary bike while watching the final episode of Boardwalk Empire on my iPhone. It’s extremely disappointing. I hate the way Terence Winter, the show’s creator, kills Nucky Thompson at the end. I hate the way he kills just about anyone on the show. Terence Winter is a murderous 1 percenter. Around mile five on the bike, I further decide that I won’t watch his upcoming show Vinyl despite it starring Sara’s celebrity lookalike Olivia Wilde.
The seafood place is on Wilshire. I picked up my clam cakes and headed home feeling pretty great about everything, except myself, which was terrific. Ontologically, that’s exactly where I should have been on my birthday. Driving home, I approached the light at the corner of 26th and Wilshire. There’s a Starbucks on one side of the street and pub on the other. The pub is frequented by Boston expats so I’ve very much stayed away from it since immigrating to Santa Monica. I am fundamentally opposed to the custom of moving to a new country or state, only to surround oneself with mementos of the motherland. A journey of relocation should be one of existential self-sacrifice. Leave yourself behind, your physical and metaphysical shit. Buy all new stuff. Forge an all new self. As a resident of California, I haven’t drunk hard alcohol for more than two consecutive nights, punched anyone in the face, or openly ridiculed another’s cooking. I kicked those quirks upon leaving Boston. Watching Celtics highlights online and tolerating the occasional, mildly racist joke is now the nearest I’ll ever go to the city.
While waiting for the light at 26th and Wilshire, a hulking young man came stomping out of the pub, a frantic girlfriend pulling at the back of his Red Sox shirt. As the Bostonian raged across the intersection, a homeless man made the near fatal mistake of asking him for change. I’d seen the homeless man around. He looked like a scrawny Telly Savalas, but the belligerent Bostonian wasn’t star-struck. He KO’d the homeless dude with a wild right hook. The man’s crumpled, lifeless body was a horrific sight, but it must have looked appetizing to the belligerent Bostonian. He pounced upon it, hammering at the man’s sleeping head with a windmill of short hooks. It was appalling, utterly disgusting. Two cars back, I opened my car door to intervene, to get a little Boston out of my own system, but the people in the crosswalk beat me to it. Men and women clawed and spit at the deranged predator, tearing him from his victim. Outnumbered, the Red Sox fanatic fled towards the Starbucks, strangers chasing after him with their cellphones, snapping pictures, recording video, throwing objects. It was a heavenly sight. I couldn’t remember being more proud of the human race. George Clooney, eat your heart out.
As the Bostonian approached the Starbucks, an even bigger dude came charging out the door towards him. I prayed that he demolish the kid, but he did something nobler. This bigger dude didn’t give the Bostonian a thought. Didn’t give him a threatening glance. He ran straight for the homeless man, who was having considerable trouble getting to his feet. While others kept a polite distance in trying to stabilize him, this alpha dude wrapped the homeless man in a loving bear hug and carried him to the corner. There, the homeless man cried in his arms while the alpha dude rocked him in a consoling manner. The guy’s heroism gave me a bit of a chubby. I found myself birthday-wishing that some predator would come along and brutalize me just so I could be consoled in his embrace.
A ways down the sidewalk, a wimpy hipster had the Bostonian pinned against a Bank of America with his iPhone. The hipster was videoing him. The Bostonian wanted to smash his phone and face. The girlfriend was holding him back, trying to talk him down, but that wasn’t the force keeping him at bay. It was the iPhone. The camera was more powerful than his love for the woman. It punched through his drunken id and intimidated his superego. The Bostonian wanted to maim the hipster. I could see it in his eyes, the way he lunged towards him. The camera prevented him from doing so. He would be shamed on the internet, for ever and ever. His children and children’s children would watch footage of him acting like a psychopathic beast. Most likely, he was already being uploaded. Democratic justice at its core. A flock of sheep devouring a wolf.
The light turned green and I returned home, a true-blue Californian with a bag of environmentally sustainable clam cakes. I spent the remainder of the evening appreciating my family. Around dinner time, Sara inserted candles into my clam cakes and poured me a glass of Templeton. I sat there basking in the darkness of the day, reading the bottle’s fine print. On the back label, it stated that Templeton was the preferred drink of Al Capone. I reflected on one of my favorite Boardwalk Empire scenes, Al Capone playing mandolin for his deaf son, the boy’s hand on his throat as he sings “Blue Bell Boy.” It’s a terribly moving scene. A homicidal beast ensnared in the tender trap of fatherhood. I know it all too well. My own father has killed and maimed, mostly before I was born. I love him for his violent past. I can’t explain why. I don’t want to explain it, not here, not yet. Growing up, he never raised a hand to me. A child has the right to be selfish that way.
Sara lit the candles and sang “Happy Birthday.” Ronan watched in wonder from my lap. He’s obsessed with lights. He loves flicking the switches of our apartment, pointing at the flashing magic above, like the first Cro Magnon to contemplate lightening. My birthday candles were Ronan’s first flames. He reached for them. Saving him from harm, I wished that my novel would get published and blew the candles out, even though doing so symbolically killed me. I would sacrifice myself for Ronan in any way, shape, or form. Fathers must be unselfish in every way. It sounds noble, but it’s not. Ronan is better than me. He is much more important than I. Nothing is truer; therefore, offing myself on behalf of his safety would be a no-brainer. Zero props should be given to fathers in this regard. We’re not heroes. We’re not gods. We’re fanatical worshipers of our children.
Before sprawling on the floor to write this stream of consciousness birthday elegy, I checked Facebook to read my well-wishes. While doing so, I came upon a status update written by a surfer friend back home announcing that another surfer friend of ours had been attacked by a shark. His entire leg had been eaten. It was startling news. This young man was a good surfer and quality human being. He’s also a Christian. He moved to Hawaii to pursue his dream of shaping surfboards. He’d landed a job with a famous shaper and notable Christian. I could imagine how a Christian might deal with such a Job-like tribulation. You accept it with respect and appreciation. You prove yourself to him. I was never cut out for that. I was never a good Catholic, nobody in my family is. We are drunks and sex fiends. We are magnificent neurotics. Thanks to my friend, the chances of Eugenio Volpe getting eaten by a shark had been significantly reduced. That’s how I first read the news. Judge away. I surf the South Bay area all the time. There have been shark sightings at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Say what you will, but I could use that reduction of odds.
I can’t write anymore. I’m too tired. It’s 11:47 PST. I’m on the floor, typing on my belly. Sara is at the table breast-pumping. She looks like Aphrodite churning ice cream. I contemplate drinking some. I’ve tried her mother’s milk before. It’s sweet, but doing so would be the wrong kind of ritualistic, too oedipally obvious. I contemplate another glass of rye, but refrain. The surf forecast for tomorrow looks good. I want to be on top of my game. LA surf spots are crowded, competitive. The fittest surfer typically catches the most waves by paddling around non-stop, sharking the lineup, which reminds me of a childhood game my sister and I would play. We’d pretend the living room couch was a boat. One of us would sit on it while the other swam around it pretending to be a shark, humming the theme song to Jaws. The shark would try chomping the boater without using their arms for lift. It was a challenging game, mostly for the shark. I’ll try playing it with Ronan tomorrow. Naturally, I’ll have to play the shark, but I can do that. I’m safe from that danger now. I have the luxury.
Love Eugenio’s writing. Authentic, raw, refreshing. Give me more!