Thirty’s a big year. It’s a birthday you’re supposed to dread, an age you’re not supposed to say out loud. Especially for women. I was so o.k. with it – really, truly, entirely. I had a plan and a life. And then COVID came.
Six years ago I made a pact with three of my best friends at the time. We would all meet for our thirtieth birthdays somewhere in the world. Each birthday would be somewhere new, the birthday girl would suggest three destinations and we would decide on one together. Significant others were not welcome. The oldest of the four of us was 27 at the time, the next oldest was 26, I was next in line at 24, and the youngest was 23. I was in my final months in Vietnam, where we all lived at the time, and on top of the birthday pact we agreed that the following New Year, just over a year from that moment, we would meet in Tokyo. This would stagger meetings appropriately over the coming years so we’d get together every year or two. Once the final one of us had turned thirty we would make new arrangements.
A few minutes after New Year’s Day 2016 arrived I found myself sitting on a curb in Tokyo with a beer in hand watching the police systematically clear the streets of people so that street sweepers could come in behind them and clear the celebration debris. They wasted no time. On my left and right were two of the women who I had made the birthday pact with. Just over a year gone and we were one woman down.
About 13 months later, while I was living in Prague, I flew to spend a week in Bali for the first thirtieth celebration. It was about a 24-hour trip with a super long layover in the Dubai airport for which I stole a blanket off my Emirates flight and then abandoned on those luxurious reclined seats the airport has. For that theft and abandonment, I am sorry. I am not sorry, however, that I made that trip. For seven days we sat in pools and seas and talked about books and the stupid boys in our lives. I was the only one of the three of us who made the trip. We were two women down.
In January of this year I’d been researching Albania or Croatia. Spots on beaches far away from other humans. In early March when thing were looking bleak I was researching Spain – a coast I know and love. By late March I was hoping I might be able to leave my back garden. Taylor Swift, who I was supposed to see live in Hyde Park a few days before my birthday, had already been cancelled. I sent an email out inviting a few friends to spend the weekend somewhere in England (where I was living at the time) – they all agreed. Helen, my lone woman standing, amongst them. I kept looking at big beautiful English properties with lush gardens and long dining room tables, but I never booked anything as the pause we were all told to take kept being pushed longer, and longer, and longer.
In late April I dropped out of the M.A. program on which I was enrolled – The University of East Anglia was continuing to take full-tuition and giving none of the course offerings (of a one-year program) that were promised (and sold). Dropping out meant I would lose my visa which meant I needed to pack up my life, say goodbye to my friends who I still couldn’t sit next to, and leave the country. On June 15th I flew back to The U.S.A. masked and socially distanced, I landed in Boston around 8 P.M. local time, and drove the three and a half hours north to my hometown of Vermont. I quarantined in a big studio overlooking the covered bridge from which all the local kids spend the summer jumping off into the river below that runs through our valley. And on June 29th my mom came to pick me up and drove me back to the house which I grew up in.
On my thirtieth birthday I did not wake up in Albania or Croatia or Spain or England. I woke up in my childhood bedroom to the smell of blueberry muffins which my mom was baking. Later that night a friend who I grew up with came over for socially distanced cocktails with her husband and baby son. After, my parents and I had lobster and steamers and rosé and corn on the cob. I am grateful for all of this, for the safety that is the Green Mountain State, the hammock in the backyard from which I am writing now, and a world that ships live lobsters across state lines in a matter of hours.
I am lucky and blessed with lobster and wine aplenty. But it sucks. I made plans years ago and I had intended to keep them. A pact with the one woman standing. She though, after quietly singing me Happy Birthday via a Facebook message (almost honoring my request to ignore the whole thing entirely) and then again the next day via a call, has whole heartedly agreed that next year we will celebrate Caitlin’s thirtieth part two. So that is one more thing I have to be thankful for. And one thing I finally have to look forward to.
And plus – I have this whole new decade ahead of me.