I have two stacks of vocabulary tests in my hands, standing at the front of the room, and one of my bolder students says, to delay things, “So, what’re you doin’ this weekend, Ms Schurman?”
“Well,” I say, “One of my friends is turning eighty today, and I’m going to his party.” I try to generally portray myself as a dork at school. There’s nothing worse than a cool teacher.
“You have friends who are eighty? And they have parties?” he says incredulously.
“We have our coffee together,” I explain, as if this explains something.
My student shakes his bald head. “That’s crazy,” he says.
“Everything inside your desk,” I say, and everyone groans.
Actually, Charles’ party looks like more fun than plenty of others I’ve been to. I open a door in a boring strip center to see a mass of mostly white-haired guests. Weaving through them to the buffet table, I notice that although their average age must be 70, they are laughing and downing white wine and beer like college kids. Some people are wearing big buttons with photos of Charles at every age: baby, teenager, adult. One of the photos, I notice, was taken at my birthday party, when Charles posed with a belly dancer. He was only seventy-eight that year.
I had been invited by a mutual friend of Charles’ and mine—who is much closer to 30 than 80. I find him by the buffet table. Pete is tall, built like Superman, with big mitts of hands. He climbs mountains. He sells stocks. Along with Charles, we’ve been idly chatting for about seven years over coffee. I fill a plate, order a drink, and tell him that one of my coworkers just asked me out. He advises me to meet the guy at a downtown bar wearing a miniskirt and red stilettos. I thank him for this sage advice.
I find a table seated across from one of the octogenarians. During the war, he and his friends used to steal shoes from downtown shops. Used to take the streetcars that went over into Kansas City, Kansas, across a bridge without sides that scared the crap out of them, and they liked it.
Charles’s daughter comes over to meet me. She has her father’s gregarious nature, and her mother’s dark hair. I agree to encourage Charles to spend part of the winter in Florida. The daughter is afraid that he will fall on the ice, alone. I have worried about this, too.
People keep coming up to meet me and assuming I am Pete’s fiancé. I ask him where his fiancé is, and he says, “Ah, we had a little falling out.” I’m sorry I asked. The charm of acquaintances is that you don’t have to go into your deeper miseries.
A wrinkly woman stands up to give a toast, clinks her glass with a fork. “I just want to tell Charles happy birthday, from the only woman here he hasn’t dated!” Everyone laughs. Another person greets me as Pete’s fiancé.
I go to say goodbye to Charles. He tells me I am the prettiest girl in the room. Wearing red lipstick always has this effect on him. I told him I hoped to have an 80th birthday as great as his.
“I hope you have two!” he says, beaming.
Charles is on dialysis twice a week, and I’m going home alone, tipsy. But eighty might be a good goal, after all.