It wasn’t just my birthday when I caught on fire. It was damn near the exact moment of my birth.
Every year, my friend Joey – that’s short for Joanna, to clear up any possible gender confusion – hosts a White Elephant party just before the New Year rings in. You’ve done the White Elephant thing, right? They’re those awful parties where you bring a cheap piece of crap from your house and then spend three hours hoping you don’t get stuck with a worse piece of crap than the one you brought. It’s like a Yankee Swap, or Hell. If it wasn’t run by one of my best friends, I’d chop off a finger to get out of it.
It was December 30th, and it was the first year the party was hosted at Joey’s Dormont apartment. The place was huge for a place paid for by two girls – one in college, one an actress – with two part-time jobs between them. The entire party could fit into the living room for the Time of Torture (i.e. the White Elephant swap) without anyone needing to sit on anyone’s lap. That didn’t stop people from sitting on each other’s laps (have you been to a party filled mostly with actors?), but it was purely optional. Past the living room was the kitchen, where the truly antisocial and out of place could hide. Beyond that, Margaret’s bedroom (closed off save for coat storage), the bathroom, and Joey’s bedroom. Joey’s bedroom was the most important room in the party. It was the one with the booze in.
Joey had pushed all the furniture against the walls save for plastic cubes that I assume came from Ikea. They were different colors and of varying heights, and each was topped with a mix of bottles of alcohol and candles. That year was the biggest White Elephant party I remember, so every room was full of people. If you were smart, you’d already snagged a seat on the bed so that you didn’t have to bother with all that walking crap when you needed another drink. If you were lucky, the seat you snagged wasn’t surrounded by people you needed to be drunk just to tolerate.
After the Dreaded Swap, people filtered back to their rooms of choice. It was getting late, but no one wants to end their night as the proud owner of a block of grout. More drinks were needed. I spend most parties moving from room to room. I’m the type who likes a lot of people, but only in small increments. Multi-room parties are a godsend for the quirkily antisocial, allowing painless transition from one tedious conversation to another. In the middle of one of my moves (this time from the kitchen to the bar…er, bedroom), I looked at my cell phone and saw that it was no longer December 30th. It was a minute past midnight. It was New Years Eve. It was my birthday.
I was born 12:02 a.m., December 31st, 1978. I’d tell you how old I’d just turned, but I honestly can’t remember on what year this particular party fell. Mid-twenties. Something like that.
I was a little buzzed, enough to let narcissism overcome shyness.
“It’s my birthday,” I said. I said it to everyone. To every single person I passed on my way to the bedroom.
One of them, Erika – a sweet, pixieish actress with whom I’d just worked – gave one of her giant, enthusiastic smiles.
And started singing.
“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”
I’d made it into the bedroom when it started. It was already crowded before the singing started. It was late in the party and the drinking had become an imperative. Everyone turned. No one can resist the birthday song, and no one can resist going along with whatever Erika is doing. They joined the song. I was surrounded by people, and they were all looking at me. Singing at me. All of them. At once. I was the center of attention.
I backed up. There wasn’t anywhere to go – I was in the center of the room, and I was surrounded – but I had to go somewhere. The only place to go was toward the center of the room, and the plastic blocks, and the alcohol. People in the hallway, in the living room, and in the kitchen heard the song and made their way into the bedroom. Singing. The whole party was singing at me. I backed up again.
As the song came to an end, a thought pushed through the surging anxious fear of being the center of attention: My back…feels kind of warm.
The song hit its final line.
“Haaaaappppy biiiiirthdaaaay toooo….FIRE! FIRE!”
In my desperation to flee attention, I’d backed myself over the only safe thing in the room. The plastic blocks covered in bottles of booze. Only I’d forgotten all the lit candles on those same plastic blocks.
There were hands slapping at my back. The room went dead silent. At least, I think it went silent. To be honest, beyond the horrifying, intensifying heat on my back and the slap slap slap of someone trying to put me out, the rest of the room wasn’t much of a priority. The thing I remember most was being confused. “Fire?” I thought. “There’s fire? And my back is warm? Am I on fire? Am I really burning?”
I don’t know how those slapping hands did it, but they managed to extinguish me before I’d figured out what being on fire should really, seriously terrify me. Those magic hands belonged to a kind, attractive and quick thinking actor named Enrique.
I never noticed it – not until I typed his name – but that’s funny, isn’t it? Eric caught on fire after Erika started singing Happy Birthday, but was saved by Enrique.
I’d escaped without so much as a first degree burn. I pulled the back of my new linen shirt around and into sight (thank God I’d worn cotton and not something that would have melted to me), saw the five inch hole the fire had taken out of it, and sighed.
“I really liked this shirt,” I said.