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"My Ninth Birthday" by Ben Shahon

I remember my ninth birthday like it was yesterday, because I woke up that morning, and I started to wonder when my mom and dad would come in with a huge breakfast in tow, the kind of breakfast that could easily feed two or three of my brothers and sisters, but for some reason they expected me to eat all by myself that morning, even if I’d rather stuck to a cup of juice and eat more cake later when it’s time, and as soon as the sleep started to drain from my eyes I noticed the corner of my door creak open, and my thirteen year old sister Leyla walked in, camping herself at the foot of my bed, and slapped me right on my left calf, left out from under the blanket, which I had pulled up high toward my face in the night, and as I cried out, Leyla said, “Shh. It isn’t like you want everyone to know you’re awake yet. I just wanted to come in and wish you a happy birthday, dude. I remember turning nine like it was yesterday. It’s a big deal. You’re big now,” before stopping at the sound of Mom and Dad singing a birthday song I didn’t recognize, and when I tried to tell her not to slap me so hard next time, my thirteen year old sister just shushed me again, before finding a way to sneak back out of the bedroom, leaving my door open wide enough to see her play off to Mom and Dad being on this side of the house as just coming back from using the bathroom, which would have been a good enough story if anyone had heard a flush, but Mom and Dad were too distracted to question her further about it, being single-minded in their attempts to make me have what they saw as a good birthday, and as they entered my room I quickly scanned the tray Dad was carrying, seeing the expected omelet, pile of bacon, toast, fruit, and a glass of orange juice, but there was also something I wouldn’t have expected, a steaming mug, unusual since Mom and Dad never let any of us have any cocoa or anything of the like during the summertime, but all the same, Mom pulled the legs down on the bedtop tray as Dad unfolded the napkin, and they started singing, “Happy Birthday to You…Happy Birthday to You…” and when they were done, Dad asked me, “so, Justin, how does it feel to be nine? Last year of single digits!” and turned to Mom, and then the two just looked at each other and started giggling, but they didn’t tell me what the joke was, and I bet if I had asked they wouldn’t have told me anyways, because they probably just would have kept chuckling and said I’ll understand in a few years, but when I finally worked up the courage to ask, “What’s with the mug?” they managed to pull themselves out of it long enough for Dad to tell me, “Well, Justin, since you’re getting a little older, we figure today is as good of a day as any to give you a chance to try a real, grown up kind of drink,” and I asked, “So why is the beer steaming?” which just caused Mom and Dad to start howling in laughter all over again, until Mom managed to catch herself, and say, “Now, come on Justin. What kind of parents do you think we are? We’re not giving you alcohol. For Pete’s sake, you’re nine. This is just a little coffee. You always seemed so jealous when your older siblings join us for coffee on Sunday mornings, and your father and I decided you and your sister are old enough to give it a try. But whether or not you like it, you’ll be free to come sit with us during the coffee hour,” which got me wondering whether or not Jessica enjoyed the coffee, and whether or not Mom and Dad had even gone to visit her in her room yet, so I asked them, and Mom said, “Well, sweetie, your sister actually did like it quite a bit. Your dad and I are a little worried about how much she liked it—she was already asking for more before we left the room—but I think she’s going to be fine with what we’ve already given her, right honey? Right honey?” but Dad was distracted, looking at something on his phone before answering with a “Hoowha?” and apologizing for checking his fantasy baseball lineup while talking to me about my birthday, at which Mom looked kind of upset, but in that way where she was clearly trying to hide it from me, because I’m her kid, and if I’m not completely happy on my birthday she thinks my head is going to explode, whether or not it actually would, and as I tell them thank you for breakfast, I casually mention that I have not yet had the chance to get out of bed and use the restroom or brush my teeth or wash my face, to which Mom and Dad thankfully got the message and left me be to go bother Jessica some more, or else get my other siblings in line, or worse yet, start getting ready for the massive birthday blowout they were throwing for us later that day, a party where basically everyone we know was invited, which is not something I’ve ever asked for, or particularly enjoyed, but had put up a brave face about for the last few years, because I knew it was something Mom and Dad really liked, and in that moment I wondered what Jessica thought of the massive parties, whether or not all the effort that Mom and Dad went through for what essentially amounts to an afternoon of talking to people we didn’t know super well and eating a bunch of cheap catered food and waiting for people to go home bugged her, so I decided now was as good as anytime to go ask her, and on the way back from the bathroom, I decided to knock on her door, but she just yelled she was busy and she couldn’t talk to me right now and to go away, so I went back to my room to get some of the giant meal Mom and/or Dad cooked for me (since you could never quite tell which one of them did the cooking, unless you asked, and I didn’t really want to try that morning) and bring it downstairs to the kitchen, but as I crunched down on the toast, my older brothers Jimmy and Timmy came in, Jimmy the Junior Varsity QB, and Timmy his number crunching hype man, even though Timmy was the older of the two and would be going off to college next year, and while I was chewing, Jimmy started, “Hey bud. Happy Birthday. You know, I remember the day I turned nine like it was yesterday. Did I ever tell you about the way…”but as he dug into the story of how he scared off the neighbor’s dog for the umpteenth time, which is the kind of thing that only Jimmy finds impressive or funny or whatever it is that compels him to tell that story all the time, Timmy caught a look of how bored I was getting, and said, “Hey Jim. Why don’t you and I split this bacon and let Justin here sit in peace a while before the relatives start showing up in numbers?” all while handing him my bacon, the best part of the breakfast, and maybe the only part I actually wanted to eat besides the toast, so instead I just decided to down the orange juice and go to the living room to play some video games while I could still have free reign on the TV for a little bit, since I got Ultra Mega Shootastic Mania XIV as an early birthday present from Grandpa, which I convinced him was ok because the game was set in the Vietnam War, and hey, weren’t you in that war Grandpa, because I haven’t learned anything about it yet at school and I need something to start teaching me about it sooner or later, or else how are we going to be able to relate to one another, after all, and Grandpa was so angry at what those damn commies are teaching me in school nowadays anyways that he bought me the game right there on the spot, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until my actual birthday, which, was close enough to today, since today was the birthday party after all, or at least I thought it was ok until Grandpa came downstairs and saw me playing before launching into a speech about the lack of respect people my age have for our elders and the way it’s sending our country down the tube and that sooner or later we’ll be a bunch of words I’m not allowed to say, even just around Grandpa by himself, but as he was really getting blue in the face, Mom and Dad came downstairs, and I thought they were going to rescue me, but before long I was being sent back upstairs to put on proper clothes and wait quietly in my room until the party started, because I was grounded, even if that meant I still had to go to the party and see everyone, because after all, they were here to see me, and I needed to be a good host, even though, as I remind you, I was not the host of this party, because my parents were, and I was really not much more than a prop to show off how Mom and Dad really are the perfect model parents after all, and that things never went wrong here at the Collinson house, oh no, not even once, not even when I noticed my twin sister Jessica sneaking up the stairs with a big bundle of cotton candy in her hand, and another in her mouth, trying to act like it was no big deal and that she would be able to escape up the stairs unnoticed, even though half the bedroom doors were open and she would have to cross all of them to make it back to her bedroom unscathed, and just as I started to wonder how she was going to get away with this, she threw one of the bundles up over the banister and into my room, right where I had to dive onto the bean bag chair in order to catch it, but as I landed I made a big crash on the floor, which was right above the ceiling in the living room, in the same spot where I just got busted for playing Ultra Mega Shootastic Mania XIV a few minutes ago, which made my mom so angry she came to the staircase and shouted up to my room, “Now listen here, BUSTER, I won’t be putting up with any kind of attitude from here on out, because even though it is your birthday and your party, I’m putting in all this work, and so is your father (I guess), and our nice friends and relatives are taking precious time out of their Saturdays to come and see you. So, you know what? You’re going to behave yourself, or you’ll be grounded from now until you’re next birthday. How do you like that?” but before I could even shout down to apologize/make up some kind of excuse for the noise, I heard one of my mom’s friends ask, “Maura, do you really talk to your boy that way?” and my mom started to try to play it off like we were running lines for the school play I was being forced by her into trying out for (even though I’ve never had a dramatic bone in my body, and had never yet showed any interest in the theatre), but before I knew it I was being called downstairs by my mother to talk to some lady whose name I’d forgotten half a dozen times by then about a school play that didn’t exist while my mom ran back to the kitchen to fetch the trays of unpacked Lunchables, which my dad told me not to call unpacked Lunchables, even though, yes, that’s basically what they are, because grown-ups like to pretend they’re fancy even when they’re not, and that by calling attention to the fact they were Lunchables, I would be shattering the illusion for them, which would make them really sad at my birthday party, and that isn’t something I wanted to have happen, now was it, and I found myself having a hard time arguing with him, but this lady friend of my mom’s was so boring and I really just wanted to get back to my video game, but just as I managed to slip away to go back to the TV, I noticed Jimmy and Timmy wrapping up the wires on the controllers, and I shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?” which kind of startled Jimmy, who dropped my favorite controller, chipping the plastic on the corner where the heel of your left hand goes, while Timmy came and took me to the side, and started telling me, “Hey, I get it Justin. These parties kinda suck. But you gotta just put in the time to deal with Mom and Dad’s friends long enough for them to get kind of drunk in the backyard, and eventually, someone will fall in the pool—” “—and that’ll be super funny—” “—Hell yeah, it will. But anyways, you gotta just wait until one of them falls in the pool, because at that point, the grown ups are going to get really sad about being so drunk at a kid’s birthday party that they’ll all want to leave. And then you’ll have the house, and more importantly the TV, all to yourself,” he said, and when I asked him how he knew all that was going to happen, he told me that he remembers his ninth birthday like it was yesterday, and as soon as I started to gag at hearing that line again, he said, “I know. I know. Everyone’s telling you that today. It’s like there’s something in the air or whatever. But the point still stands. I’ve been to enough of these birthday parties for all of us now to know how they work. It’s time you knew, too,” and just then he stopped in front of me, and patted his hand on my chest three times, three little pats that let me know everything was going to be ok, the same way he used to pat me when I was little and stayed up too late watching a scary movie with Mom and Dad, and then I started to cry a little, so Timmy started to hug me and laugh a little, telling me, “it’s alright buddy. There, there. This is a party after all, not a funeral. There’s going to be cake later. Although, I guess we did have cake at Uncle Mort’s funeral three years ago…” but as he trailed off I centered myself, trying to march back upstairs to Jessica’s room to ask her what’s taking so long and when she was going to come downstairs and save me from all of these boring grown-ups, but when I knocked on the door, out came Leyla instead, which was weird, because Leyla and Jessica never got along, mostly on account of how Leyla always liked to pull on Jessica’s pigtails and Jessica always would make fun of Leyla for not having a boyfriend even though she’s a teenager and every teenager Jessica knew (which, at that time, was admittedly not many) had boyfriends, even the boy ones, but when Leyla came out of Jessica’s room, she looked kind of serious and confused as to why I would even be coming up to Jessica’s room to try to talk to her, like I was some kind of otherworldly species, but when I tried to tell her that I always come to Jessica’s room and talk to her, Leyla just told me, “Nope. Not today you don’t. Today, you go back downstairs and you be a good little host puppy for Mom and Dad [who, at that time, were showing off Jimmy’s latest football trophy to the friends of theirs who thought that kind of thing was cool]. Now, run along. Scram!” and as I confusedly walked back to the staircase caught a glimpse of the inside of Jessica’s room out of the corner of my eye, with Leyla walking in and closing the door softly behind her, but just beyond my field of view I saw a pair of hands, too small to be anyone but Jessica’s, cradling her favorite denim skirt, which had a big dark spot on it that I couldn’t remember having ever seen before, but just as Leyla finished closing the door I heard my Dad downstairs calling for me, “Justin! Justin? Where are you bud? Come say hi to Mr. Igmonius Wolfbane!” and just as I wondered what kind of name was Igmonius Wolfbane I saw my cousin Art dressed in what was clearly a rented clown’s outfit and a cheap-looking werewolf Halloween mask, but before I could even ask my Dad what was going on, Art chimed in, “Look, Peter, I’m sorry, but look at the kid. He doesn’t like this. I don’t know why I thought anyone would like this on their birthday. Hey, Justin, bud, I’m sorry I don’t have a better gift for you, I lost my job at the restaurant, and this was all I could put together for some birthday entertainment for you last minute. I was really hoping it would be more fun, and that you and your sis would actually like it,” to which, of course, I told him that I did, even though I’ve never been more acutely scared for my life than I was in that moment, and as he went to the bathroom in back of the house to get changed and go in the pool, he turned back around to tell me, “you know, I was just thinking that I ought to tell you about my ninth birthday, because it sure wasn’t as nice as this. You know, I remember my ninth birthday like it was yesterday…” and as he started to get into the story, my mom’s friend from earlier tapped cousin Art on the shoulder, which made him spin completely around suddenly, causing the werewolf mask to fall back on over his face, startling the woman, and making her creep backwards toward the pool, slowly at first, then faster as Art moved toward her to try to guide her away from crashing in the pool, until eventually Art bumped her in the chin trying to raise up his hands and help her, and she fell backlong in, making maybe the biggest splash I’ve ever seen a grown-up in the pool make in one fell swoop like that, causing a Jimmy and Timmy who were now doing their best to hide on the balcony overlooking the pool, to simultaneously yell, “BOOM, headshot!” and start howling with laughter, only to be caught in that moment by Dad, who shouted, “What the hell are you two doing up there anyways?” to which Jimmy and Timmy tried really hard to pretend like it was nothing, even as wisps of smoke left their hands and little bits of ash started to fall down on Art’s wolf mask and catching it on fire just a little causing him to misjudge the distance between the pool and fall in as well, all of which was especially weird because the burning mask smelled just awful, like a skunk had gotten loose in the backyard or something, and I guess Dad must have noticed because in an instant he was shouting about how Jimmy and Timmy were going to wish that they were doing nothing, because they would have plenty to do for him for a long time, every Saturday from now until the end of time, and as Art was putting out his wolf mask, Mom came out to the backyard carrying a tray of not-Lunchables, and asked, “What is going on here?” but instead of trying to explain it all to her, I just looked up and asked her if it would be alright if I could have some of her grown-up Lunchables, but she dropped the tray on the ground and all the good stuff got wet from the poolwater. All in all, a fun birthday, I guess!

Ben Shahon is a writer whose work can be found across the web, the Simpsons columnist for The Daily Drunk, and EIC of JAKE. He learned to write at ASU, and holds an MFA from Emerson College. Ben lives and teaches in the Boston area.


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