How to Celebrate a Birthday During a Pandemic

By Tom Nussbaum

 happy birthday old man

Having a birthday during a pandemic is like not having a birthday at all, especially when you are of a certain age and are single. The isolation, obviously, limits the celebration. But that isn’t such a bad thing if your birth certificate was written on papyrus in hieroglyphics, as was mine.

The day begins like any other. You wake up, check your pulse to see if you have one, ache out of bed, stumble around in a post-sleep haze searching for your kitchen, prep the coffee maker, and try to remember what day it is. Was “The Ed Sullivan Show” on last night? you ask yourself. Is this Monday? You shake your head. Was the gardener or maid here yesterday? They come on— Oh, what are their names? Conchita? Consuela? Pedro? Pablo? You look at the gurgling coffee maker with irritation. “Would you shut up?” you yell. “Could you make more noise? Can’t you see I’m trying to think?”

You look around. Think? What was I thinking about? You see your computer. You are distracted. You meander to it, sit, and study the notes explaining how to operate it that were left by a techie genius named . . . well, it doesn’t really matter what his name is. Her name is? You look at email. There’s one from the bank telling you how to check your credit score. Why? you think. I don’t need to worry about credits; I’ve been out of college for decades. There’s another. It is from some prince in Nigeria asking for money. You laugh. That’s a scam, you tell yourself. There’s no country called Nigeria. It’s named Somalia now. You delete it.

You go to Facebook to see if Carolyn sent another funny comic. She sends the best comics. Sometimes you type “LOL,” like so many people do, even though you haven’t a clue what that means. You also haven’t a clue who Carolyn is. But, alas, she hasn’t sent anything. As you look down with disappointment, you notice the date in the corner of the screen.

“Oh,” you say with surprise, “it’s my birthday. Well, I should celebrate with a nice hot cup of coffee. It would be so nice if someone would make me one.” You get up, go to the coffee maker, and discover your coffee has been made. You pour a cup, using the mug you won at church Bingo Night in 1997, and return to your computer.

Seven birthday greetings welcome you. How did they all know it was my birthday? you ask with surprise. Did one of those nice Facebook people tell them? The one named Carolyn? Or was it that Mark Zuckerstein?

You look out the window. I should do something to celebrate my birthday, you tell yourself. So, after you prepare yourself for the day, you head off to Walmart to buy yourself a small cake. But as you reach for the doorknob, you notice the pink and yellow floral-patterned mask hanging on it. Oh, yes, you think, COVID-19. Hand sanitizer. Social distancing. Masks.

You repeat that mantra the entire ten-minute drive. When you arrive at Walmart, you have your temperature checked, your hands sanitized, and you rush to the bakery. There are no small cakes, just large ones. You do see slices of cake packaged in plastic. They look older than you. Then you see the chocolate cupcakes, Hostess cupcake-like, but called pinguinos here because they resemble penguins. “Aah,” you exhale aloud. And there’s two to a pack. One for after lunch, one for after dinner. The packages are crammed together on a small shelf. But one is socially distanced, sitting by itself on an empty shelf once housing bundled tortillas. For health and safety reasons, you take that pair of pinguinos.

At the checkout counter, the young clerk greets you. Because of his mask, you can’t tell if he smiles. “Ah, pinguinos,” he says.

“It’s my birthday,” you explain.

“Feliz cumpleaños.” In awkward English, he asks, “How many years—” He stops himself, realizing his rudeness.

Proudly, you say, “I am … I am …” That’s when confusion sets in. “I was born in 19—”

“Ah, nineteen,” he says. “COVID-19. Is your COVID-19 birthday. You have nineteen.”

You laugh. “Yes. I guess we all are nineteen this year.”

When you get home, you lay the sweet treats on the kitchen counter. For lunch and dinner, you remind yourself. Then, before you have removed your mask, you reach into a drawer and pull out a box of birthday candles and decorate each pinguino with a small red candle. You pull a lighter from the same drawer and light the candles. You lean forward and try to blow them out through your mask. You singe the mask. You remove it, blow out the candles, and scarf down both cupcakes as you stand at the counter.

Chocolate crumbs dance down the front of your Lucky Dog T-shirt as you walk to your computer. Seventy-two birthday messages greet you. One is from Carolyn who says, “Happy Birthday, old friend!” Now you remember her. You went to high school together. But you weren’t friends then. There’s a greeting from your cousin David and one from your niece, Jessica. A former neighbor has remembered you, as has a co-worker from a previous life. There’s a greeting in Spanish from Paco. “My gardener’s name is Paco!” you yell.

The phone rings. The Caller-ID says “Carolyn.” You stare at it. Now, who the hell is Carolyn?  

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