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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

FICTION: Birthday

I woke up around nine and picked up my phone. I had a message from my mother.

Happy birthday treasure. 30 today. I remember holding your hand on your first day of school. Where did the time go? We’re very proud of you. We’ve put $200 into your account. Go and celebrate. Will try and call later. Love, M & D.

I put the device down on the pillow next to me, rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. It was true. It was my birthday. I’d planned to ignore it. But it’s something you can’t pretend isn’t happening. You’ve done the full revolution. Charted the entire circumference of the sun. It’s the only human observance not to be based on lies.

How would I fill the day? I could go to the Louvre. One year in Paris and I still hadn’t been there. The royal palace turned gallery for all mankind. One for the Utopians. In Australia we still had photos of a queen on our banknotes.

I hoisted myself out of bed, took a shower, put on my warmest clothes and went out.

In the metro the smell of shit, piss, body odour.

This one junky I always crossed paths with. He was the permanent passenger on an eternal commute. Forever going between two points. Where he scored and where he panhandled, I guessed.

His clothes hung off his bony frame. His hair hung down in thin wisps like vines on a cliff face. The exposed parts of his skin was a sprawling abscess. Blood and puss and partially dried scab.

I felt bad when I saw him. But not out of sympathy. I felt bad about not feeling bad for him at all. As he sat there, snivelling and junk sick, I didn’t see a human being. I saw foul smelling particles assembled in human form. I saw a turd, stinking his way through the bowels of the city, making everyone around him feel a little shitty too.

At the Louvre metro station I walked through the labyrinth of tunnels to the waiting area for tickets. Dozens of people were banked up beyond the 90 minutes sign. It would take hours to make it inside. There was no point trying. I followed the exit signs to the stairs and walked up them towards the street.

Outside the rain came down in a soft but determined way.

I typed museum paris into my phone. All of them were closed except for a few of the contemporary ones.

I ran my fingers through my hair. I’d been meaning to get it cut. But when you’re too afraid to check your bank account you start to forego luxuries like a short back and sides. Convince yourself it’s time for a new, unkempt look.

There was this Vietnamese place in the 13th where you could get a good cut for 10 euros. I decided to go there instead.

I took a metro to the Place d’Italie and walked to the rue de Choissy.

They always asked me why I let it get so messy. It didn’t bother me. Their reprimands were motherly somehow. Maybe that’s why I always went back.

Inside it smelled of acetone. I looked at the prostrate old French ladies having their toe and finger nails done, feeling like an intruder on their elaborate and futile beauty regimens.

One of the Vietnamese ladies beckoned me towards the basin. They always seemed to be running just shy of capacity. It was the opposite of the rest of the city, a modest island of thrift in a vast sea of inertia.

After the wash she led me to the chair and asked me how I wanted it cut. No mention of how long and messy it was. I told her what I wanted and she started with the scissors.

A few minutes later she disappeared into a back room.

Now alone, there was nothing to distract me from my own face.

30 years old. Look at you sitting there, you 30 year old man you. You fugitive from student debt. You with no possessions and nobody to love you. 30 years old. Where are you in life? What have you achieved in your three full decades on this planet? A handful of book sales, mostly from sympathetic relatives. You with your stylo lunch and your keyboard dinner. No friends, no lovers. Not even enough money to get your own hair cut. Look at the lines on your face. Was that a grey hair she pulled out? Your twenties were a test. And you charted new depths in failure, your presence here the incontrovertible proof.

I felt all of these things. I saw the naked reality of my own life. And yet it stirred little within me. The flame was embattled. But it still flickered, a dwindling conflagration in a midwinter storm.

I had no promises to keep. No one to provide for. No one to answer to except this raspy Vietnamese lady who's pushing my head from side to side. I was a free man. I could go anywhere and do anything and no one could tell me otherwise.

And who knows, I thought. Maybe I’ll sell a book some day. One with a hard cover and quotations from the leading papers. One that people would plead with me to sign and covet like it were scripture.

As she snipped the locks my face began to return to its old dimensions. My eyes became less tired. My cheekbones more prominent. I wasn’t bad looking. In fact I was almost handsome. I even caught one of the old ladies peering at me with what looked like real lust in her eyes.

Not all was lost. Maybe my 30s would be years of plenty.

When it was over I paid and said thank you.

Feeling renewed, I walked back out into the rain, crossed the street and entered a restaurant a few blocks down the road.

I ordered a spicy soup and a beer. I’ll be gassy later, I thought as I sat in the corner running my fingers over the spikes on the back of my head. Good thing I don’t have a girlfriend.


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