A fictional account of a fictional person’s fictional birthday, based on real places in our very real city.
Ten likes in 10 minutes. If I don’t hit that number, I delete the post. A post just sitting there without likes is as mortifying as those dreams where you’re waiting tables at that college job you had, and you’re killing it, and then you look down and realize you’re not wearing pants. But you are wearing socks.
I’m scrolling through Instagram now, waiting for those endorphin-inducing bubbles to appear on the screen. This is what I should be doing instead:
Preparing my keynote for tomorrow.
Washing my hair, which might be in a worse state than my keynote.
Returning that Facetime call from my son and husband.
Answering Annoying Maggie’s email from this morning.
One like in three minutes. Not promising. I toss my phone aside and stretch across the hotel bed. Stare at the ceiling. Sandy Springs, Georgia, is not where I pictured spending my 33rd birthday. But hey, at least I don’t have to suffer through another poorly planned surprise party that my well-intentioned husband who loves me very much would have inevitably planned otherwise.
The TV casts flickering shadows across the ceiling and I watch them until my eyelids slowly flicker too. Maybe I’ll just go to bed now… shower in the morning...
Then the phone rings. I startle awake and fumble for my iPhone before realizing it’s the phone on the nightstand next to me. The hotel phone. The one that people once, in a different time, might have used to request a wake-up call but not room service. Who can afford room service?
Yes, hello, I say into the phone.
There’s commotion on the other end. A song too loud, then quickly turned down. “Come down!” Someone finally shouts. “We’re waiting outside!
You have the wrong number, I reply, already moving the phone back to its receiver. “Wait,” they scream over the line. I pause, bring the phone back to my ear. “Wait,” they repeat, “Isn’t this Sasha?”
Yes, this is Sasha.
“Sasha! It’s me, Daniel. From the trade show today. And Lindsey’s here, too. Come downstairs. You’re not flaking on us.”
Doesn’t everyone know that plans made at trade shows are not real plans? Nobody actually hangs out with the people they meet at a trade show.
Yet somehow here I am now, sweatshirt thrown on and hair thrown up, sitting in the back seat of Daniel’s car with Graham. And Robby. Lindsey’s in the front seat. Pleased to meet you, everyone.
I yell over the music: Where exactly are we going?
“To Middle Earth,” Robby responds with enthusiasm.
That means nothing to me, I shout. Nobody hears me over Outkast. I check my phone: six likes in eight minutes. Another missed call from my husband. We arrive at a strip mall and we park underneath a glowing red sign that reads: “BATTLE & BREW.” Middle Earth?
Hey, I say from my Robby/Graham sandwich in the back seat. I think I’m just going to get an Uber back to the hotel. I have a keynote to finish and something or other about my son and husband, blah blah. Daniel asks when the last time was I let myself live a little. I honestly don’t know.
Turns out Middle Earth is a place in the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, and “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” is a PS4 game, one of the hundreds of video games you can play at Battle & Brew, which is a place where people go to drink and play video games in Sandy Springs. This according to Daniel, who just ordered a round of “Danger Zone” cocktails for the table. I take one sip and immediately.
Three Danger Zones later and I’m dancing with Lindsey and Robby, all of us completely out of sync with the impossibly coordinated, neon-haired “Just Dance” instructor on the screen.
Now I’m racing Yoshi, neck-in-neck, in Bowser’s castle.
Now I’m sharing a plate of Dragon Talons, which are really just chicken tenders, with Lindsey, while Robby slays some creature on “Assassins Creed III.”
Now I’m staring at my face in the Battle & Brew bathroom mirror, which happens to be an exact replica of the TARDIS, as I wash my hands. My cheeks have a nice flush to them. It’s my birthday today.
Daniel wanted Mexican food, so Graham’s driving us to Rock n’ Taco. Graham is a teetolar. Lucky for us because he’s driving us to Rock n’ Taco; unlucky for us because we have to listen to Graham the whole drive there as he recounts the bedwetting incident that led him to an alcohol-free life.
We get our organic shrimp tacos just as a band takes the stage at the front of the restaurant. It’s an 80s cover band and the lead singer is not a 33-year-old mother dressed in jeans and a free Yarn Barn t-shirt she got at a trade show. She’s not wearing much at all, actually. But our hair is in similar states.
It’s my birthday today, I shout over a decent rendition of “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. Robby hears me then slaps me on the back with enthusiasm. Fried plantains for the table! He says. A Choco Taco for this one! It’s her birthday!
I laugh and sip my glass of water, look around at my new friends as they bob their heads to Not Stevie Nicks. Our waitress eventually appears with the Choco Taco. There’s even a candle shoved in it. Not Stevie Nicks gets wind of this and immediately launches into a raspy “Happy Birthday” from the stage. Everyone else in the restaurant chimes in, too. I feel heat in my face as I blow out the candle.
Now it’s 2 a.m., and we’re bowling at Stars and Strikes Family Center. The room glows. Lindsey does this cute thing where she launches the bowling ball down the lane with two hands, positioned between her feet. I watch Daniel’s face and I can tell he thinks it’s cute too.
I love watching people bowl. People are so predictably human when they bowl. They know that all their friends’ eyes are on them. They imagine the whole alley’s eyes are on them. So they do a self-aware, silly strut as they fetch their ball. They wiggle a little as they line it up to their nose, extend their arm, release. They let the ball go and their eyes stay on the ball and they watch the ball as it hits the glossy lane and rolls toward the pins. Now, forgetting their audience, they lean slightly in the direction they wish their ball to go and their mouth parts and their chin lifts. They watch the ball and their body tenses and they lean as if that might actually influence the ball’s course. The ball hits the pins whichever way it pleases and in that moment, self-awareness returns. The performer jumps, or wilts, or spins to face their audience and acknowledge what the ball did and what the pins did and then they return to their seat. End scene.
I’m returning to our table with a sweaty pitcher of Bud Lite. Robby, Lindsey, Graham and Daniel are bent over their phones. Disco lights move slowly across their backs and their screens make their faces glow. I miss my husband. The feeling hits me fast and I am suddenly overwhelmed with it. I set the pitcher down and I reach for my pocket. But my phone’s not there. I scan the table, I look under the table, I pat myself down. And then, like a trailer for some horror movie, the night replays in my mind: Hotel. Phone call. Middle Earth. Danger Zones. Just Dance. The TARDIS. The TARDIS. I set my phone down by the sink in the TARDIS – got a lot of flak from Graham for bringing it with me to the bathroom.
I call Battle & Brew with Daniel’s phone, but it’s closed. I hear the panic in my voice as I leave a message. It’s going to be fine, my new friends reassure me. Just go back first thing in the morning, as soon as it opens, they suggest. But my presentation is first thing in the morning, and my keynote’s not finished, and what if my husband thinks I’m dead? What if my son needs me? How will I even wake up without my alarm and how will I know how to get to the convention center?
It’s 3:00 a.m. when my new friends drop me off. They wish me good luck and they drive away. I pace my hotel room. I finish my keynote. I use the hotel phone to request a wake-up call. I call my husband and I explain everything in three rambling, panicked voice messages. I go to bed.
The next morning I’m giving my presentation and the keynote’s really not too shabby. The hotel concierge printed directions for me and I followed the directions to get here. I got here. I’m pretty proud of that, actually. I flip to the final slide and the audience claps and I’m about to exit the stage when I see someone I recognize at the back of the room. It’s my husband. My husband is here, and he’s sitting next to more faces I recognize: Robby and Graham and Lindsey and Daniel. They are sitting together, and they are wearing birthday hats. My son is here. He’s sitting on Lindsey’s lap and he’s wearing a hat, too. The lack of sleep’s gotten to me, maybe. This is not real.
“Surprise!” my son says when I meet them at the back of the room. “Surprise!” my new friends say in unison. “Surprise,” says my husband who loves me very much. He got my voicemail this morning, he explains. But he was already here, sleeping two floors below me in the same hotel. He couldn’t bear to leave me alone on my birthday, he says. So he packed a bag for himself and my son and they took the first flight out and they came here.
We decide to go to Battle & Brew for lunch, all of us, to celebrate. I find my phone in the TARDIS, right where I left it. I see the missed calls, the text messages, and the follow-up email from Annoying Maggie. I check Instagram and there’s my post, right where I left it, with six likes.
Six likes. I stand outside the TARDIS with my finger poised over the delete button. But then I look up and see Lindsey passing a plate of Triforce Nachos to Daniel. They meet eyes and smile. I hear Robby talking to my son, with enthusiasm, about Super Mario Galaxy 2. I hear Graham say something to my husband about being five years sober. I’m so tired, I think. I’m so happy, I know. I look back down to my screen and I decide to let the post be. Six likes floating in an empty vacuum. I exit Instagram. I shut down my phone and stay in this dream.