The Elusive 26th Birthday / nakia pearson

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Last year, I told my Japanese students it would be the last time to celebrate my birthday. Next year would be 24 instead of 26. I would start to go in reverse. 25 was the oldest I wanted to be.

I’ve never felt so old in my life as right now. I feel my muscles as they move me through the mountains of central China. I am slow. And my teammates must wait on me, and ride back if I have a flat.

Yesterday or tomorrow, I am exhausted when we stop and do not have the energy to smile or talk to the gathering locals. I just feel. The pulsating muscles beat against my veins like a bell tolling on the hour.

Today the sky leaked its white blood again. It seeped down the mountains like a wound, sluggishly hugging the primary colored store signs and the putrid florescent trash that lay on moist asphalt like corpses not yet cleared away. It crept in, fingering my bones like the moonlight falling on faces when there is no other light. It wrapped the world in white gauze, healing it. I stood on the balcony of our inn, perception clogged by white, and waited.

It is Monday as well as Sunday or October 23rd or 25th. I have been losing track of the days. I write Day ? in my diary and it makes me feel swept away like the fog that withdraws midday. A day reversing its steps. Like a stream of consciousness.

I think it was 4 nights ago when it rained in the middle of the night, when everyone woke up clacking their heels on the wooden porch that was our shelter, covering things with plastic, shimmying shoes beneath bags, zipping rain covers over tents to stymie the bursting sky.  I don’t know. It was night and I was daydreaming. I hid inside the tent hoping to go back to sleep and dream the rain away. I’d zip the sun open like a winter coat after a long day. I’d let the sun come in and hold me naked with its rays. But my dreams always bring about the opposite.  Today is October 24th in my dream. And the boys believe it. I wake up to white fog covering the grimy city like a wedding veil. I’m careful with my routine: 1. Make coffee (I cheat and carry around a small bottle of instant Nescafe), 2. Put on biking shorts and T-shirt, 3. Pack, 4. Read a few pages from book on religions, 5. Check on boys. They sleep. They have made plans to let me sleep in and surprise me with Birthday cake. Only they didn’t let me know. And I have no idea what day it is.

Four nights ago, I danced as the boys played guitar and erhu beneath the moon on top of the hill where we slept. Kay called it a rain dance. The rain was my fault. A Chinese friend of mine said that the rain is female and the sun is male, so I replied to Kay, “Well, I am the yang.” My knees hurt when it rains. I must be getting older soon.

Today, the sun is dripping again. As if still wet from the rain dance 4 nights ago. As if doused with holy water. My grandmother used to call me the devil in hell. She must be looking down now and pouring slowly.

We had birthday cake and chocolate milk and Chinese mooncakes and dumplings and dumpling soup and fruit for breakfast. I blew out 5 candles trying not to spit on my name and the Chinese message written in red icing. I felt so honored. I felt young. I felt like riding.

So we rode 40 km to a mountain town with smiling humble mountain folk and feasted on the best Chinese meal we’ve had since we started. At least that’s what everyone agreed on. We’re always up for food comparisons. Pat even notices the different tastes of the rice. Though sometimes, if he’s feeling ravenous, he mixes all the dishes together and eats with a spoon instead of chopsticks. The laban (boss) of the restaurant lapped us up a heaping bowl of ripe orange winter squash steamed. It is our favorite kind, in its natural state. We’ve made no mistake this time. This is not orange pumpkin sliced and boiled in a tasteless soup, nor is it pureed and sugared and corn starched. It is just a pile of steaming winter squash. We eat in confidence over our decisionless decisions.  This is fate.  Great restaurant, great people, great food, great mood, great weather (the sun came out), great Birthday. Everything has gone smoothly and we want to seal it with a date.

But curiosity must kill this cat, because the laban, our beloved laban, tells us that it is October 23rd. My Birthday is October 24th.

I am still 25. Cheers. This is still as old as I wanted to be a year ago. Maybe if we stay in this town long enough, the days will begin to peel back like old skin, our memories purified by the cloudy mountain sanctuary and the peaceful mountain folk and we will be back to our original selves, naked and raw.

25 still am I. The world in reverse. Like a stream of consciousness. How did I end up here riding a bike in a mountain when last year, I was dancing like a cat on a friend’s bar table in Japan, wooing a man to “Satisfaction” by Otis Redding?

Tomorrow, I am running through cornfields with a white dress on. I am 20 and virginal. I write poetry on a swing next to a lake as a beautiful boy with sunshine in his eyes watches from afar. It is sunny, which is good, because I like men.

This is a dream. Tomorrow it is my birthday. Tomorrow, I think, maybe, it could be, I don’t know, according to the laban, whom we respect because she knows how to cook a pumpkin, it is October 24th.

And I am actually 26. Older than I wanted to be. Tomorrow we camp outside on a rice paddy to celebrate because I want to be rebirthed in the Earth on my birthday.  The red sun transitions impalpably into the red moon, and I am confused whether it the sun itself or if it is its reflection that brightens the faces around me. I need my sunglasses to decipher the colors.

This is Eden and the sky is leaking its white blood on my brown skin again, wrapping everything in a wedding veil. Everything is about to be consummated.  Everything is about to become real. Everything is moist. Suddenly, I am very aware that I am grown. Happy Birthday to me.

•••

Having worked as a freelance journalist for Nassau papers, Nakia Pearson’s taken her writing abroad, producing articles for expat magazines in Japan and China. She writes poetry, nonfiction, essays, and short stories. This story originally appeared on Fueled by Rice, her blog about her bike ride from Beijing to Paris.

One comment

  1. Reply

    How poemy this story is. A wonderful outpouring – a wonderful poetic tell. I love it. And the uncertainty about time and about age is like dreaming – is life dreaming.

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