Monday, June 29, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

I spent my eighteenth birthday at Heathrow Airport. I was working as a counselor at a summer school outside of London, and it was my job that day to collect the students flying in from some forty different countries and direct them to the school van circling outside. We had names and flight numbers, of course, and there I was, that person holding that sign when you exit customs.

In between flights, I was on my own at the airport, which wasn't an unfamiliar place at all for an airline brat like me. I browsed the bookshops and kiosks, and made myself comfortable in hard orange plastic chairs nibbling chocolate and reading magazines. The weirdest thing about the day was that no one but me knew it was my birthday. I wasn't sure what to do with the information: I hadn't known anyone I was working with for longer than a couple of days, and it didn't seem like it was relevant, so as I wandered the airport shepherding nervous kids, every now and then I'd startle myself with the reminder that this day was my birthday-- I was 18. It was like wiggling a loose tooth-- I would forget all about it when I was occupied with something else, but once I remembered it, I couldn't leave it be. Alone, doing my job in the middle of thousands of strangers from all over the world, I wondered if this was what it was like to be an adult.

That night after all the new students were checked in with lights out, I sat in one of the other counselor's room playing cards and drinking warm ale that someone had fetched from the pub down the road and feeling pretty grown up having made it through my first solo bithday. There came a merry knock at the Tudor diamond glass window we had pushed open to the cool night air, and there was my mom and dad and brother and sister! They had re-routed their flight home from vacation in Portugal to stop overnight in London and surprise me. We spent a happy ninety minutes celebrating with my new colleagues-- "Why didn't you tell us it was your birthday?" they scolded me-- and then at midnight, my family left to get a few hours of sleep at the hotel before their flight, and I went off to bed, too, still feeling pretty grown up, but also really glad that I hadn't been alone on my birthday.

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