Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever. Paola flies in from New Haven to surprise me at my 50th party at the Landmark in Fresno.
Warning, adventurers: This is a looooong read. One that you might want to pick up, lay down and pick up again. Kinda like a book. And this is just the first part. And as I got into writing this in mid-June – and realized I was at a point where I couldn’t get out – I envisioned this being the framework to the last chapters of my eventual book, which I hope you’ll still want to read someday. It’s seven months’ worth of crap in one distended, distorted, festering nutshell. But one way or another, good or bad, I’m still looking for that final chapter – and soon:
Saturday night, June 4. The Landmark, my bar/restaurant of choice in Fresno’s Tower District. My 50th birthday party. One of my friends, Eny, had baked me a sheet cake, and about 50 people sat in the backroom and watched the birthday girl blow out all the candles in one short burst — something that surprised and delighted me, since I’ve gotten so fat and out of shape again lately. (Someone should’ve bought me a lap band …)
It wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night, though. Hardly. A little after 9, I was talking with someone and looked up and there was Paola, one of my dearest friends. We’ve known each other since the mid-’80s, and she was my girlfriend for four years in the late ’80s-early ’90s. And she’s been in my fan club all along, even those long stretches when I renounced my membership. She was also one of the first people I came out to, when I was home for three weeks in August 2008.
And she was standing there. From New Haven. In Fresno. Carrying a box from Pepe’s, one of New Haven’s world-renowned pizza places. Except she wasn’t bringing me a pie — inside were several copies of the New Haven Register from two days before, with my commentary on gender identity on the front page. It was a gift from Uncle Ricky, the Register’s features editor and my boss when I was the paper’s entertainment editor/music writer.
(My Spider-senses were telling me earlier in the day that someone was gonna surprise me, but I didn’t think Paola. But I should’ve known better — she threw me a surprise party for my 30th.)
Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever.
It had already been one of my best birthdays ever. I had walked in Fresno’s Pride Parade that morning (in a rare June Fresno rain) and received many whoops and cheers from the friends drinking on the Landmark patio; had talked to my mom and my brother Ken; had spent a good chunk of my free time sending quick thank-yous to the hundreds of friends who had sent their best wishes to my Facebook wall; and my friend Amy the Redhead, a force of nature who’s been extremely encouraging and supportive of me, not only drove me to the Landmark so I could drink that night, but also helped me set up, ducked out to the Dollar Tree to get even more decorations, and gave me a wonderful gift.
And there were plenty of gifts both the night of the party and leading into it. To name a few, Mom sent me much-needed cash. Tuesday afternoon, I got packages from two close friends at home. Drew bought me my very first Barbie — the new Debbie Harry model — and Colleen sent me a beautiful glazed blue glass-bead necklace and a pair of silver hoops; I immediately put on all the jewelry, took a photo sitting at Revue a short while later, and it turned out to be the shot that ran on the cover of the Register. Before I left the house for the party, there was a box of 50 mini-roses from Marice, another New Haven friend. And Drew sent a mixed bouquet and vase that were waiting for me at the Landmark.
But Paola was the clincher. After my initial screams of shock and joy (“Fran, you’re embarrassing me”), and after introducing her to my Fresno friends — to see her standing in front of me side-by-side with Heather, my closest friend in Fresno, was priceless — it was time to do the cake. And in between the candles and the first cut, I stood there and recited a speech I had written just milliseconds before.
“I’m humbled,” I said. “Six weeks ago, I didn’t think I was gonna even be here right now. I’ve just been astounded at how much support I’ve gotten from all of you. I mean, Paola has been there the past 25 years, and God knows Heather’s been through most of my bullshit the last few years. I just can’t believe I even got to 50. I just can’t thank you all enough.”
And this is where I should’ve broken down in a pile of tears. Instead: “All I can say is ‘WHOOO!'” And I brought my fist down like a golfer who just hit the 60-foot putt of his life to win the Masters.
Well, despite still being jobless, I decided to celebrate just getting to this point. And found that maybe I’m not as useless as the job world seems to think. Maybe. Besides, I truly didn’t think I was gonna be here for my birthday. Or anywhere. I wasn’t planning on it, anyway.