July 2006, Heidelberg, Germany
I wake up alone in the apartment. My German flatmate is gone. She doesn’t know today is my birthday.
We get along, but she rarely lingers to chat over coffee or engage in a heart-to-heart while doing dishes. Every night I hear her, alone in her room, watching the Simpsons. Later that evening as the castle stones change color with the sun, I confess my amusement at her television choice, telling my friends that if my flatmate wants to see a dysfunctional American, she should just come out into the kitchen.
Our discarded bikes form a ring around us as we pick at bits of grass on the bank of the Neckar, fretting over papers and exams. During the summer, the pockets of shade along the river draw us out of the stifling heat of our miniscule student apartments and their windowless kitchens.
Hannah flips the Bratwürste on the grill, I pull out the Brötchen from a paper bag. A soccer ball bounces into our circle, upsetting a beer. We throw it back to an apologetic student, waving off his Entschuldigung.
All along this section of the Neckar, students congregate in semicircles around portable grills. Lazily chatting, peeling labels off beer bottles, we press our toes into the grass and watch it spring back. As I try to open a beer with a lighter, a plump bag of “Rocky Mountain Campfire Marshmallows” lands at my feet, followed by bars of Milka chocolate and yellow packages of Leibniz cookies.
A few weeks earlier, during an evening identical to this one, Axel asked what I missed from home. I poked at the embers of the fire with a stick and started rambling about s’mores. They remembered. Hannah found the marshmallows, somebody says. It was her idea. Then everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday” in English so that their German accents slur the “th” and I’m embarrassed at the attention but smiling at the “birs-day” wishes.
I didn’t think anyone would remember.
July 2009, Tel Aviv, Israel
“Tomorrow is your birthday?!” Wafa screeches over her computer. Short hair, a tight red dress, and an inability to show up to anything on time, she’s just received a permit to travel into Israel. She commandeers my birthday.
“We’ll go into Tel Aviv. We’ll go to the beach. I’m supposed to be back at the checkpoint before 6…or maybe 9…or 6. I don’t know.”
Still chattering, she gets up to make coffee because the Internet isn’t working and there isn’t anything else to do. Outside the office window, a little girl walks down a demolished road holding her mother’s hand. Wafa sticks her head back in, “Do you want sugar?”
Carolyn, my French coworker, throws me a sympathetic smile. I resolve to have a good time in spite of Wafa’s spinning madness and her spaced-out German boyfriend.
The morning of my birthday, we stand on a corner in Beit Sahour waiting for Wafa. It’s already 11. We won’t get to Tel Aviv before 1 PM. Carolyn’s phone buzzes, signaling a text. It’s Wafa. She says she’s running late. Carolyn sighs. An hour later Wafa appears, smiling and beautiful. Her excuses, blatant lies, are exhausting to unravel.
When we get to Tel Aviv, we search for a seafood restaurant. In Jaffa, near the port, we order the most expensive and decadent platter. Fried squid, shrimp, fish, and crab are stacked between lemons on a silver tray. I pick at the bed of lettuce, stare out at the sea.
The water is uncomfortably warm. Lifeguards shout at the drifts of tourists bobbing in the waves. Nervous about getting back to the checkpoint on time, we leave almost as soon as we arrive.
Back in Bethlehem, Wafa tells the driver to take us to a club. He knows a place, he says, and drives us to an unfamiliar part of town. Carolyn has already bailed. I wish I had too. The place is all low benches and dark corners. A disco ball spins from the ceiling. We order narghile. Someone brings food I didn’t order followed by a cake.
Wafa, in a short pleated skirt, dances with her boyfriend. I sit in the corner, trying not to make eye contact with our driver, who has transformed from nice, unassuming guy to lecherous, leering prick. At the end of the night, four men pick me up on a chair and dance around the room to a techno mix of “Happy Birthday.” There’s nothing to hold onto and I’m unable to stop my maniacal peals of laughter.
When they put me down, Wafa hugs me, “Happy Birthday!” Then she hands me the bill for the cake.
July 2010, French Alps
Paige pulls up below my apartment. When I see the little red car from my window, I grab my bag and slam the door behind me. Within minutes we’re fleeing Geneva, waiting for Grenoble to come into view. We stop at a gas station along the way, nodding each other’s attention to the bins of crinkly walnuts, a sure sign we’re getting close.
I finally work up the nerve to tell the girls it’s my birthday. I’m aching to tell someone. He forgot. I waited for him to remember, but he didn’t. Paige slaps her hands on the steering wheel and looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Happy Birthday, Nikki!”
When we see the Bastille rising up from the banks of the Isère, we take a left. We drive through Vizille where French flags are strung between apartment buildings, hanging limply over narrow streets. In Bourg d’Oisans, at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, throngs of cycling tourists wobble unevenly through the streets as we search for a grocery store. And then, suddenly, we’re above it all, looking down from Mizoën, where we park the car and begin hiking toward Refuge des Clots, a small alpine hut adorned with Tibetan prayer flags.
At dinner that night, we share a carafe of wine with a man and his teenage son. They’re from Paris. They plan to hike for the entire summer, stopping at mountain huts like this one along the way. We’re only staying the night. After dinner we’ll sleep on thin mattresses, kicking off wool blankets as pale fingers of moonlight reach through the cracks in the shutters.
In the morning we’ll push deeper into the mountains, jump into an alpine lake, eat chèvre and bread at the storm-weathered table of a goat herder’s hut. As the marmots whistle, we’ll sit in silence, listening to the mountains.
But tonight, the hut caretaker steps into the room with a simple chocolate cake. Candle flames wave back and forth as she walks toward the table. I try to blow them out, but they’re trick candles. Paige found them at the grocery store in Bourg d’Oisans when we stopped to get supplies. She laughs and then we lick our fingers and snuff out the candles one by one.
July 2011, Bethlehem, West Bank
The Internet isn’t working. I move from my bed to the chair and then back again, alternating between the damp mattress and a pool of sweat on a plastic seat.
It’s too hot to walk to Cafe Sima’s for a chocolate cupcake. I could take a taxi. Sit in the back seat with hot air blowing in my face, watching Bethlehem flicker past like a flipbook. Staccato images of teenage boys in tight jeans, men sitting outside their shops in plastic chairs, the red pointed roofs of the nearby settlements, goat carcasses swaying from meat hooks. But I don’t feel like bartering with the taxi driver, battling between the 20 shekel he wants and the 10 I’ll give.
Yesterday, I helped clear rubble from a demolished home. My shoulders ache, my hands are sunburnt. It hurts to move. Today, I’m 28. Restless, at odds with this room on the roof, spinning circles past the hot plate, the cracked chair, a suitcase on its side.
The heat is too much, rippling the air above the hills. Everything seems out of focus. I feel dizzy and short of breath, wanting someone to burst into the room, pull my hand, drag me out the door. “It’s your birthday, put some clothes on, let’s go.”
The call to prayer bounces into the room, tugging at the seams of my self-pity. A keffiyeh hangs from one of two coat hooks. I grab the pink scarf next to it, throw it over my shoulders. In the evening, families sit on patios facing the street. The perfumed smoke of a narghile settles into the breeze. The market across the street just opened last week. Someone won a car at the grand opening. Metal shopping carts are clustered near the automatic doors. The shelves are stocked with Arizona iced tea and Betty Crocker cake mix.
A car pulls up behind me. The parents of a friend. They want to know why I’m walking and if they can give me a ride. I try to explain I’m just out to get some fresh air, but they insist on driving me home. As their taillights vanish into the dark, a roach clicks its way across the broken pavement in front of my apartment building.
The Internet is still down and the only thing in my fridge is labneh and beer. I head out onto the roof, letting the heavy door slam behind me. The “kitchen” came equipped with only two spoons, a plate, and a knife, so I use a lighter to open a bottle of Taybeh amber ale. It reminds me of Germany and those nights on the Neckar. “Happy Birs-day,” I tell myself, toasting the desert sky with a lukewarm beer.
God, this place is beautiful. It feels like coming home.