Today is my 31st birthday. Here’s a look back at some memorable birthdays from my younger years.
1992 (Age 7): I had an Easter-themed birthday party at my house. This was the only grade-school birthday party I ever had because I was a hated shitsop of a child. The worst of that would start a few months later, though a hawk-eyed little bitchlet named Jessica W. had already randomly threatened to kill me at recess back in September if I dared come to school the next day. Never underestimate the unflinching ruthlessness of a preadolescent girl-child when the beaming mommies are out of range.
I never had any particular tie to Easter beyond enjoying the candy and egg hunts, but it was generally so close to my springtime birthday that the two often coincided. Classroom decorations for the month of my birth were either Easter-themed or, if they were trying to stay secular, featured raindrops and umbrellas indicating “April showers.” Likewise, my religious upbringing was essentially limited to assuming I was Christian just because my parents were, plus some solitary reading of the Precious Moments-brand Bible I was given by my Southern Baptist grandmother—so celebrating the resurrection of Christ didn’t factor into it, either.
With all its pastel trappings, I guess Easter seemed like an appropriate party theme for a seven-year-old girl. Plastic eggs, lace-trimmed floral-print dresses, moist-eyed cartoon images of docile baby animals. Gentle child politesse. A few months prior I’d also been made to take regular ballet lessons at a dance studio in a local strip mall: my pediatrician thought it would be a good way for a little girl to get exercise. After school, a choreographed routine scored to that bit of raspy treacle from Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, anxiously going through the motions until ballet class was over. I distinctly remember being relieved that the ballet uniform was a simple black leotard and didn’t involve a frilly pink tutu. Even if I’d enjoyed it, I wasn’t born into the petite, compact, perpetually childlike frame of a dancer or gymnast or Olympic skater. I never had much interest in explicitly and distinctly Being A Girl.
I can only recall a handful of guests at this party. There was a girl from my cul-de-sac who was one year younger, which seemed like a vast chasm of time and experience back then. There was Heidi J., who was vaguely exotic because her mother was from Germany. There was Jennifer C., whose father had once yelled at me while his hands shook with rage around the edges of the newspaper obscuring his face after I had innocently suggested that two of her little sister’s Ken dolls were a gay couple. And there was Lauren B., who, in contemporary parlance, would be called a frenemy: a manipulative little spoiled bitch who would constantly mock my social inadequacy and lack of pop culture knowledge under the guise of “friendship,” which helped fuck up my ideas of healthy, legitimate human bonding for years to come.
We made bunny ears out of paper bags. Only Lauren went out of the way to make hers a noticeably different color. Special, special.
1993 (Age 8): My mother made the cheery observation that I had a couple of new freckles. This did not have the desired effect. I always hated having any freckles or birthmarks: they were essentially permanent stains on my skin. I was marked and flawed in a way I had no control over.
It certainly didn’t help that my mental health was not in the best shape due to shit going on at school. Ugly. Loser. Fight it and you prove it.
At dinner, I sullenly poked and prodded at the spaghetti that had been made for me as a birthday dinner. My mother finally asked what was wrong: I grudgingly admitted that I hated freckles. Her only response was to casually remark that they fade when you get older.
Not good enough. From then on I made a concerted effort to stay out of the sun: probably for the best, since at least three of my blood relatives have had skin cancers removed. The lack of sun damage also means I now look substantially younger and more unlined than my former high school classmates who indulged in that godawful early-aughts trend of tanning oneself a painful shade of orange.
Around the same time, I started using my fingernails to pick at the skin over any visible new freckles on my body. The idea was to create scar tissue in the outer layer of skin, which would blend with my natural pallor and obscure any hint of the dark spot that used to be there. This was generally successful. I said nothing to anyone about what I was doing, certainly not any adults. Never.
However, a few months after my eighth birthday, my mother had started to notice the nicked- and gouged-out blotches of flesh on my skinny child-limbs and took me to the pediatrician, suspecting I had some sort of skin condition. I don’t know what he told her, but it was never brought up again after that. And I learned to be more discreet.
1998 (Age 13): Oh, god. I think I went to Applebee’s.
This was the default restaurant where my parents would take me every Friday for the weekly Family Dinner Out when I was in 7th grade: their minor fiscal luxury and attempt at family bonding. It was the nicest restaurant in town, the lower-middle-class suburban town in the Midwest that they’d been planning on leaving (for a different, more affluent Midwestern suburb) since I was a fetus.
My parents’ main currency of affection was food and meals. They also both developed Type II diabetes during my childhood.
I was a picky eater and would only ever order the same thing at Applebee’s, which was a dish called Sizzling Stir-Fry that arrived steaming on a cast-iron skillet. I would sift out the vegetables and eat nothing but the charred chicken strips and white rice alongside a glass of Diet Sprite. For dessert, an Oreo milkshake, which my father would frequently complain was too runny when he ordered one for himself.
My parents often complained in restaurants. My mother once casually boasted of having sent back filet mignon twice in one sitting for not being rare enough. My father once snapped at a Cheesecake Factory waitress when the main course arrived while he and my mother were still eating their salads. The tail end of every dinner out would involve a detailed discussion between my parents about whether to tip 15 or 20% based on the food and service.
Most of my birthday money that year would’ve been spent on Star Trek books.
2000 (Age 15): A close friend wrote a poem for me.
I remember absolutely nothing else about this birthday because it was completely overshadowed by the legal ordeal I was dragged into just nine days later. My memories of being barely 15 are of sitting in enclosed boardrooms while portly middle-aged bearded men sifted through my life and tried to pluck out and reframe whichever details would make me seem the most monstrous. Having to sit there quietly with a dense miasma of Impending Doom hovering over me and extending its taut wires through my nervous system as my poorly-chosen mood ring turned black from the cold tension in my hands. Age 15.
2003 (Age 18): In honor of my becoming a legal adult, each of my parents had written me a brief essay on the subject. I hadn’t asked them to do this, nor had I expected it, and I found myself sitting there in one of the stiff-backed dining room chairs I’d always found so uncomfortable, unfolding the printed sheets of paper and reading in silence while my mother and father sat on either side. It formed a strained, impromptu ceremony I had to endure before going out to dinner.
The main thing I remember about each of their essays was their resigned and disappointed addressing of the well-known fact that I was planning on legally changing my name as soon as possible once I had reached adulthood. The reasons for this had nothing to do with them. The name had no power left. Which, in itself, defeats the purpose of a name, what a name should be. My full, legal name, at that point, began with a hard downward inflection as if I were being scolded or mocked, stumbled through some pinched consonants, and then petered out at the end as if squeezed through a broken bellows. It was an awkward name even if I didn’t associate it with years of being stripped apart and reassembled into a weapon against me by the gleeful little shitlords in my class.
I had already been using a different first name since 7th grade, though well into adulthood I would overhear my parents periodically slipping up and using the name they’d given me at birth. Perhaps clinging to the hopes they’d had for a baby girl with that name. As if one day I would Snap Out Of It or Grow Out Of That Phase and reveal myself as that safe, suburban daughter ideal, toothy smiles and friendly phone chats and muted Protestant makeup schemes and blushing introductions to nice young men who’d neither attempt to court me by discussing their true crime knowledge nor get admittedly aroused by my detailed fictional passages about necrophilia.
It was the last name that really bothered them, though. Especially my father, since he had no brothers and I had no siblings and thus I was the last of the line—though, confusingly enough, they also assumed I would take on my husband’s name “when” I got married anyway. I would learn years later that this family name, derived from a town in Schleswig-Holstein, had become increasingly bastardized over a few centuries in America, misspelled and mispronounced until it became essentially a nonsense word with a prefix attached. The pseudonym I now use for all my questionable art shit—von Hessen—is actually a better reflection of my ancestry than my birth name was.
As I grew up, I would quietly accept the gifts and experiences my parents thought I should have and would nod at their questions to prevent them from prying into my closely-guarded private life. Just keep your head down, don’t draw attention to yourself, go through the motions, and you’ll be left alone until you can finally go free. Remain blank and enclosed. The prison mentality. I did that now. But my change of name was an unquestionable assertion. A bizarre deviation from the script.
I filed the court papers that summer with birthday money sent by an uncle. My name change was finalized just a couple of days before I went off to college in August.
2004 (Age 19): A birthday card in the mail. From my mother. She had designed and printed it herself on her home computer using special greeting-card paper. She was probably smugly proud of her work. The inside text: Our gift to you this year is $X00 off the debt you owe us.
My mother’s debt was imaginary and stemmed solely from fiscal resentment. The source: my college made the very stupid decision to shut down the dorms for any holiday break lasting longer than a day. A massive inconvenience for anyone, like me, who lived halfway across the country and couldn’t just take the train out to their parents’ house on Long Island and spend spring break smoking cheap weed with their shithead high school ex-bandmates. I was too afraid to ask anyone local if I could stay with them during that week, too afraid of being seen as a leech or other nuisance, too afraid I would break some unspoken social law of which I had never been made aware and be subsequently blackballed forever. So I had to request plane tickets back to the Midwest only a week or so in advance, making them more expensive than they would’ve been otherwise. This was an absolute last resort or else I would have been out on the street.
My mother did not understand how clinical anxiety works in practice. My mother did not understand that I wasn’t just an irresponsible dawdler, flaky slacker bitch, trying to inconvenience her on purpose out of thoughtless adolescent pique. My mother, a preschool teacher, thought I hadn’t learned anything about Real Life unless she had explained it to me in slow, overly-enunciated tones, or until she had devised a lesson plan of sorts. A Learning Experience. This was generally an arbitrary punishment of household labor or financial withholding.
My mother assumed that her abrupt imposition of debt on an unemployed trust-fund-free college student was a sound and rational decision. That she was not acting from resentment or embarrassment or the lingering psychological remnants of her own controlling, penny-pinching mother, her relative youth racking up her own debts that were only paid off during her late marriage, her possible subconscious indignation that her twilight years’ comfortable middle-class earnings were being slowly pissed away on her sole, unexpected child of middle age, pinching pennies for the upkeep of this baffling and insufficiently daughterish daughter instead of cruise trips and gourmet steaks and safety. My mother assumed her punishment was correct and just, solely because she was the seasoned adult here. As a seasoned adult myself now, I still know that she was wrong.
This cut so deeply that I never wanted to celebrate another birthday again. Because I was 19 and the years seemed so much longer and the acute emotions, the sharp pains, so permanent.
2005 (Age 20): I went to see Death In June at the Pyramid Club. They had been among my all-time favorite bands since my freshman year, introduced through a sporadic series of mp3s sent by my friend Dave S. through Instant Messenger. So this was especially good timing.
The show took place during a couple of back-to-back time slots in the mid-afternoon: I was at the later show, which began at 4:30. The location was only announced about a week in advance due to fear of protests or sabotage. Remember that this was some years before Death In June’s unexpected adoption by Brooklyn hipster-goths who had gotten bored with witch haus, before one could stumble across Tumblr reposts of studiously bored lavender-haired models wearing oversized bootleg t-shirts of the DIJ whip-hand logo nonsensically paired with unicursal hexagrams.
I wore an army overcoat with a blue crushed-velvet skirt, black lace-up bodice, and slant-brimmed women’s fedora, resembling a sort of militant Alpine girl. As I followed Dave S. and Meghan M. through the East Village to reach the venue, I saw what appeared to be a random statue of Lenin on a nearby rooftop. We knew we were at the right place upon reaching a line of obvious daytime goths queued up on the sidewalk. While standing in this line, I first met future close friend Andrew K., who would go on to introduce me to several longtime friends and a few notable lovers, as well as booking my debut performance as Madame Deficit.
During the show, I stood by the wall of the packed venue taking video clips of some favored songs with my digital camera, which have thus far never been shown to anyone. Pessimistic internet discussions at the time led me to believe I would never get to see Death In June in New York City again, though I’ve since been proven wrong repeatedly.
At some point, Dave got the chance to shake Douglas Pearce’s hand. Back then, this was impressive. Back before you move to a major city and get increasingly enmeshed in a small, incestuous music scene in which you’re hard-pressed to turn up acquaintances who haven’t at least dabbled in making music themselves. Before you actually meet several of the people whose work first captured your imagination on the genre-specific compilation CDs you’d be lucky to find at the mall or out-of-print albums you might scrape up on eBay. Before you befriend them, drink with them, get hit on by them, become all too acquainted with their various personal flaws. And then you turn around and realize you’ve accrued some sort of ~scene credibility~ just by being a person who liked a thing and was able to see that thing several years before many other people also started liking that thing. Teenagers across the country or world sharing YouTube videos and Bandcamp links of your friends’ music from afar, who would consider you an insider when this is just your social circle. You just know people who know people. And you’re glad for your friends’ success, but it’s also kind of weird.
At any rate. Through Dave and Meghan, I also hung out with a shy basement-dwelling noise dude with whom I would have a long-distance and painfully-mismatched relationship that summer. The four of us passed a weed pipe camouflaged as a cigarette in a nearby park and ate large, floppy slices of cheap New York pizza before heading back to the train.
2007 (Age 22): After picking up a couple of 1910s-era periodical archives from a school library sale, I went on a date with Joseph K.
I’d met him in a German art history class the previous semester: he was one of those pretentious, self-loathing intellectuals I had such a pathetic weakness for in college. He was doing his thesis on Kafka, was into relatively niche artists like David Lynch, Swans, and Throbbing Gristle, and was good-looking enough and single. That combination was extremely rare to encounter at that time—given that I was living on a small, isolated campus with no real college town to speak of and an hour-long bus-and-train-ride to New York City which left me in constant fear of getting stranded—and so I got too attached too quickly because I assumed, once more, that I would never ever find anyone else who shared those traits again. Yet another tall tale I wove to myself about a near-stranger based on a cluster of attributes and convinced myself was a real connection: the story of much of my late teens and twenties. Bad hothouse fiction for the Victorian spinster or Great War widow I somehow believed myself to be.
Joe downed five gin martinis in one sitting at the local old-man bar he took me to in the mid-afternoon. This was after the sake he’d ordered with our lunch. While he was in the restroom, a bald man at the bar whom he’d been talking to about jazz advised me to “tell my friend to slow down.” We then went to another bar because that’s all he could think of to do.
On the sidewalk, he smoked tobacco from a carved wooden pipe given to him as a gift by the 17-year-old Borders co-worker he was probably fucking and occasionally spat on the ground. At the next bar, he randomly slipped our table’s bottle of hot sauce into a concealed pocket of his suit jacket before we had to part ways prior to my birthday dinner. He made no attempt to kiss me and shook my hand goodbye. He was visibly, slurring drunk.
At the Indian restaurant where I met friends for dinner, tipsy myself, I gushed that this was the best date I’d ever been on. I had been on exceedingly few dates. Revisionist history. Actually, my lack of dating experience meant I was so giddily anxious that it emerged through involuntary nervous tics. Timid, uncharacteristically girlish giggles. “Playfully” slapping him on the shoulder after his vaguely-negging bon mots. I’m sure it was not endearing at all.
There was no second date. Not by my choice, at least. And this was at an age of virginal neuroticism when I preferred to send rambling missives interrogating his vague claims of being “busy,” laced with veiled accusations of secretly harboring ill will towards me, rather than asking simply and directly whether he was interested in me. As if that somehow entailed less risk for me, and made me seem less clingy and weird, than making any overt reference dating or romance at all. Perhaps this was related to the same distorted trait my youthful psyche that made his drunken snobbery seem like an intriguing character trait instead of just sad.
The last I saw of Joe was at a noise festival a couple of years later. Outside smoking a cigarette. I recognized him by his fussy wardrobe and dandyish stance. He’d gotten noticeably fatter.
2009 (Age 24): I went back to my college campus expecting to hook up with Josh B., a tall, skinny goth prettyboy who claimed to be an occasional model. Bipolar cokehead. Second-generation schizo. Glib charm. Neither the first nor last manipulative wreck or wannabe supervillain I’d get entangled with.
He’d eagerly agreed to hang out with me just a couple of days before. A one-time drunken makeout session during a visit to underclassmen friends had been prodded and spun into a surprising romantic interest through his repeated late-night Facebook-chat flattery, which had also led to a couple of subsequent campus dalliances.
On my birthday, he didn’t answer his phone or respond to my texts. I killed time at dusk wandering alone through the school’s Brutalist architecture, an oppressive landscape of dreary slabs that I’d used to represent a convoluted totalitarian bureaucracy in the video I’d made as a thesis project.
That night, I ran into Josh by chance as he stood and later sat by the railing of a campus apartment while some party was going on. He didn’t acknowledge having ignored me earlier and something in me felt too cowed and tense to bring it up. I had a very bad feeling. A looming dread. He conversed with friendly ease as if nothing was wrong. A girl who looked to be my exact opposite—short and stocky frame, cutoff shorts, bleach-blonde and lightly tan—stumbled out of the apartment and plopped into his lap. Shortly thereafter they started making out in front of me.
I said fuck you and flipped him off while stalking away. He looked up from the girl with a manic grin and said nothing.
I spent the night of that birthday crying while drinking honey liqueur out of a flask and watching Pink Flamingos on my friend Eric M.’s couch as his roommate’s halitosis-stricken cat curled up with me.
The next day, dried-up and drained, I did some silent acting as a featured extra in a friend’s senior film for a party scene that was ultimately cut. She praised the debauched despair in my face without knowing it was authentic.
A week later, after a couple of flatly ignored messages in which I pathetically, earnestly attempted to talk to him like a respectful and reasonable adult, Josh was listed on Facebook as “in a relationship” with yet another girl I’d known nothing about. I was visiting campus again for a music festival and he physically ran when he saw me. A troubled night: vodka and coke and mild violence. Through with you.
About six months after that, Josh made a prank phone call to me in front of his friends. Pretending to be someone else, asking about himself. I didn’t learn it was him until later that night. I assume he was trying to make me look bad, but he only served to loosen my tongue on some unflattering dirt about him and his sad cocaine slut habits. Recounted over the phone while his friends listened in probable awkwardness.
Considering Josh, Joe, and various other unrequited youthful mistakes who aren’t recounted here because they don’t have any birthday-related memories attached, I wish I could tell my younger self to get the fuck off campus. Jesus Christ. Stop it. Learn to fuck and run. Be the one who leaves. Goodbye to all that. It’s just as easy to chase dick that isn’t attached to sad boys and narcissists. Fucking hell. Life just isn’t that long.
2010 (Age 25): I traveled back to my old campus yet again to see a free show Andrew K. had booked featuring Zola Jesus and Cult of Youth.
I’d eaten a platter of German sausages the night before and sashimi for dinner that day, so I became determined to sample food from every Axis Power that weekend. Andrew would make that happen the next day by spearing me a couple of home-cooked raviolis.
While hanging out at the Student Center between sets, a friend gave me a book of Nancy Drew sleuthing techniques and an illustrated guide to how various animals have sex. I cracked open and slowly drank the entirety of the bottle of Riesling I’d bought on my 21st birthday and preserved through graduation, a few months of homeless couch-hopping, and a move to Brooklyn: to this day it’s the best Riesling I’ve ever had. Some friends and I passed a bowl of strong weed at the entrance to the untended cemetery by the parking lot, a familiar undergrad sight full of broken, moss-encrusted headstones, tall trees with roots nourished on 19th-century corpses, and a looming obelisk monument for the Revolutionary War-era owner of the plantation that once existed where the university now stood.
As a result, I can tell you I had a lot of fun at this show, but I can’t remember any specific details about the performances.
It turned out Nika Danilova’s birthday—her 21st—was the day after mine and her tour rider stipulated chocolate cake. Andrew’s roommate Adam K. felt sorry that my birthday had been inadvertently hijacked and made sure I got my own slice after the show. We were all hanging out at their apartment as her bandmates played mediocre acid house on the stereo system. Andrew and Nika talked about Peter Sotos while I sat curled up with my notebook in typical stoned asociality.
I slept on Andrew’s couch that night. I woke up unexpectedly early and started killing time by reading Andrew’s dog-eared copy of Michael Gira’s The Consumer. This somehow rekindled my long-dormant interest in true crime and serial murder, which ultimately led to the initial publication of Mass Culture a year later.
2012 (Age 27): I’d planned my birthday party to coincide with the debut of Mass Culture Vol. 4. To that end, I gave a reading at Sophia B.’s apartment.
I’d basically stayed up all night getting copies printed and assembled, arriving well-past-fashionably late to my own party in the process, and then forgot to display or sell any of them. During my rather lengthy reading, I drank a can of caffeinated pre-ban Four Loko in order to stay awake and lucid. This could lead to some amusing asides.
A thematically-appropriate silent screening of Fritz Lang’s M was projected behind me. This was the idea of Eric M. This was one of the last few times I would see him alive, although none of us had any clue at the time.
When I’d run out of shit to read, I sat down at the kitchen table and snorted the powder of a crushed ecstasy pill I’d brought with me as a birthday reward. With the typical magic that accompanies MDMA derivatives in my experience, I found myself simultaneously making out with two female friends and a male acquaintance. I ended up going home with the latter, who paid for the rare luxury of a cab ride.
No further details on that front: I’m inclined to believe spreading public gossip about the sexual prowess and proclivities of former lovers, especially those with whom you’re still on good terms, is a great way to ensure you’ll have far less to gossip about in the future. But I will say that he had probably the cleanest, tidiest apartment I’ve ever encountered from a single adult man living alone, save only for a cluster of puppy pads in the corner for the benefit of his small, adorable, very curious dog.
Before I left in the morning, I recommended he listen to Whitehouse.
2014 (Age 29): I was taken out to dinner at a subdued upscale New York restaurant by the 22-year-old radical-traditionalist computer engineer I was sleeping with at the time, someone I had nicknamed “Lovecraft in Manhattan” for reasons one might expect. Most of our mealtime conversations have blurred together in my memory, but I’m sure this one followed the standard template of mutual grousing about the modern world, Tim and Eric in-jokes, intellectual discussions of books and history, dancing around his repressed bisexuality, him talking at me about philosophers I hadn’t read and didn’t really give a shit about, and a slew of redundant dick and boob jokes cribbed from a snickering 12-year-old who has newly stumbled across 4chan.
At one point we were glared at by an older couple across the room after he briefly groped me under the table.
To continue my celebrations the following evening, I had a few friends over at my cramped apartment in South Brooklyn. That night, I learned that my name and picture had been posted on the NYC Antifa site in a list of suspected cryptofascists. This was largely due to my associations with that same guy.
2015 (Age 30): As I’d done on a couple of previous birthdays, I tried to combine this one with the release of a new self-published work. In this case it was Victimizer, my first-person novella about a would-be lust-killer and the lengthiest piece of writing I’d published to date.
I held the reading at Catland Books. Only half a dozen people showed up, including one whom I’ve since ceased contact with because he fell into some noxious spiral of MRA bullshit. None of my best friends arrived, either, which was especially hurtful on a simultaneous landmark birthday and important writing release. Didn’t help that my supply of Lexapro was on its last legs due to my Medicaid lapsing thanks to a typical bureaucratic oversight.
I duly stood there reading and answering questions and attempting to stave off the sense that I fell somewhere between amateur and fraud. Nerves tightly screwed, telling me I’d failed.
Afterwards, contrary to the typical policy of the venue taking a cut, my friend on duty at the register gave me the entirety of the door proceeds as a birthday gift. But I think he just felt sorry for me due to the low turnout.
I had expected to end the evening hanging out with friends at the bar a couple of doors down, but instead I went straight home alone.
On the N train, some insane middle-aged man started making loud homophobic remarks about a couple of young unremarkable businessmen standing by the door. “All they wanna do is suck dick,” he said. “They’ll suck my dick right now!” Doubt it, bro.
The same guy started complimenting my appearance from a few seats away while I studiously ignored him and refrained from even looking in his direction. “Most beautiful girl on this train and you’re still going home with fifty guys,” he lamented. Strongly implying that this subway car full of men would be unable to restrain themselves from gang-raping me during the commute. This obviously did not happen.