“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
As I stood on the top balcony of the Eiffel Tower, staring out on the world’s most romantic city, I thought about Carl.
Five months had passed since we broke up for the third and final time. What a way to start the new year. It was a Sunday afternoon when I sat alone on the bed we had shared for so many nights in the past two years, listening to his distant voice on my cell phone and knowing it was over for good. I sat there and let that sink in.
He left me alone in the year of my 40th birthday, I thought.
I wasn’t afraid to be single, I told myself. I was fine on my own. I liked my life, and life liked me. I just couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been able to find (or keep) true love, when love was the one thing I had wanted more than anything else in this world.
I think that’s why I kept finding myself clinging for months after it ended. “Well, maybe if things turn around for him… maybe we’d have another chance!” I don’t know if that’s the eternal optimist in me or some sort of eternal head-up-my-assness, but there it was.
I’d done everything I could not to be morose. I kept my social calendar full. I went out to dinners five nights a week. I poured myself into my work. I didn’t date. Didn’t even flirt with dating. Yet I flirted with happiness all the time.
I remember just six days after the breakup my friends Tiffany and Dave took me to Pat’s Peak, a family-owned ski area just a short ride from Manchester. To call Tiff and Dave “friends” is a disservice, actually. They’re more than that. They’re part of my Framily — the inner circle of friends so close they’re like family to me. Tiff was chaperoning a group of college kids on a nighttime ski and tubing trip, and after the kids got their equipment the three of us went off snowshoeing. There was a big moon that night, and the night-skiing spotlights bounced off the buildings as a little storm rolled in. Just as the kids loaded back onto the bus, I looked up in my post-breakup emotional hangover and saw something I’d never seen before. It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t snowing exactly, either. It was sparkling.
“Tiff,” I said, grabbing her arm. “Look up.”
We both stood there staring at these misty sparkly sprinkles of light swirling around in the air. It was so beautiful. Like standing inside of a snowglobe.
I pulled out my phone and sent myself an email: “Don’t forget: Tonight it rained sparkles. Magic does exist.”
I would try to keep reminding myself of that in the coming weeks and months. I knew that missing Carl, feeling sad, and focusing on the negative wasn’t me. After all, I had plenty to look forward to: Tiff and Dave and I had tickets to Paris! We bought them just before Christmas as an early present for my 40th. My parents decided to join us, which inspired Dave to ask his mom to come along, and it quickly turned into this amazing multigenerational group of people all anticipating the trip of a lifetime. I would be traveling to the city of my dreams surrounded by nothing but love. I mean, really, who could ask for more than that in life, right?
I’ll tell you who. Me. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that “enough” is never enough. I’m a “more” kind of girl. A Parisian adventure to mark such a momentous birthday? In the springtime, when my actual birthday wasn’t ’til August? Of course there would be more. And it was sure to be something much more… outlandish.
I assure you this wasn’t some sort of birthday backlash or “over-the-hill” compensation. I wasn’t dreading turning 40 at all. I’ve never been someone who worried about age. All my birthday ever meant to me was an excuse to go celebrate, and not just for that “one special day” or even a “birthday weekend.” For as long as I can remember I’ve used my birthday as a reason to spend a whole month grabbing friends and colleagues for a “Let’s grab dinner!” excuse. I liked birthdays. Even this one, I thought.
Still, 40 is 40. It’s supposed to be depressing. Isn’t that what we’ve been told our entire lives? “Making it to 40 sure beats the alternative,” I kept telling anyone who asked how I felt about it. Still, it felt different.
Of course, once people know you’re headed “over the hill” they think you should throw a big party, but I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of throwing a birthday party for myself. Especially in my post-Carl funk. Sure I threw myself a blowout party when I turned 25. It was cute and sassy and fun way back then. But now? The planning, the logistics, the whole thing seemed a bit self-indulgent and sad, really. I’d much rather wait until I had a man on my arm who would throw an amazing surprise party for me, I thought. (The hopeless romantic in me would not die!) For a moment, though, the thought of figuring out the ultimate guest list seemed fun: Friends from my past and present, distant relatives, maybe an old boyfriend or two, girlfriends I hadn’t seen since high school — that is, until the thought of putting all kinds of long-lost friends in a room to celebrate “me” made it seem like the wedding reception I never had, and that just sounded pitiful. Plus, we all know what wedding receptions are like: The bride gets thirty seconds to talk with anyone before she’s pulled away to cut the cake or toss her garter and by the end of the night she can’t even remember what she said to that girlfriend she hadn’t seen since high school and wanted to catch up with so badly.
No thank you. If this milestone birthday could be an excuse to reconnect with old friends, I would do it my way. I’d make sure we had time to sit down for a drink or two and indulge in a few laughs along memory lane.
One fine spring-like day I casually mentioned these thoughts to my friend Sarah-Marie, whom I affectionately call “the idea amplifier.” As usual, she stuck it in that brain of hers and turned the volume up to 11: “We should do 40 drinks in 40 hours!” she blurted. In three seconds she had planned our first drink for Friday at noon to kick off a heart-pounding heel-breaking weekend of single-girl debauchery. I felt a hangover coming on before she finished speaking.
“I don’t think so,” I said. To which she replied, “Well, maybe you could do 40 drinks in 40 days, then?”
Now that was an idea I liked. That had a nice ring to it. I went back to the forlorn wedding-reception idea and began to imagine the old pals and long-lost lovers whom I would invite to drinks on a birthday-month-plus-ten — but even that felt rushed. We all know how hard it is to make plans with people you don’t see every day or every week or every year.
That’s when it hit me. There didn’t need to be a limited time frame on this. I could plan forty drinks over whatever time period I wanted: I could do it in forty days, or by Labor Day, or by the end of the year, or even spread this out over the course of my entire fortieth year. It would be more fun if I could enjoy it for as long as possible, right? So why not? After all, it’s the reconnecting with old friends part of the notion that was exciting to me.
Forty Drinks with Forty Friends. I liked it. And the idea kept evolving. Maybe we could do those drinks in forty different places, I thought. Maybe it would be forty different drinks. Oh! And each drink could have some special significance — something about the name or the recipe of the concoction itself that’s very “us.” That was it! I loved it. In my mind I dubbed it “The 40 Drinks Project” and my crazy fortieth birthday plan was fully hatched.
The first person I shared it with was my mother — my 5-foot-2 mother who had me at 20, which means she basically grew up alongside me and lived vicariously through my long legs, dressing me all through school in short skirts that she never could have pulled off in the mini version of me that she is. “Oh, Stephanie,” she said when I told her. I was used to that response. Everyone who knows me tends to chuckle at my crazy ideas. “Jesus, Stephanie.” “Stephanie! What are you thinking?”
The minimizing responses merely spur me on.
People think I’m ridiculous. I am ridiculous. I’ve been trying to put a lid on that ridiculousness most of my life and the lid just never seems to fit — because I sort of like being ridiculous. So after enduring a few more chuckles from colleagues, family and even my Framily, I made up my mind to just do it.
We’ve all dreamed about it, haven’t we? Getting beyond the “friending” stage and actually reconnecting with old friends and boyfriends and even not-so-friends from our past, face-to-face, just to see how they look, what they’re up to, maybe reminisce a bit and laugh at the ridiculous crap you all did way back when? To me it sounded like fun. It sounded like an adventure. And I’m always up for an adventure.
I also loved the fact that this wasn’t part of some mid-life crisis. What crisis? I thought. Except for the breakup with Carl, I was loving life! My self-made career was on fire. I had great friends. There was none of this soul-searching “Who am I?” stuff going on with me. None of that “holy shit, I need to learn stuff about myself that’s going to surprise me and change me and shake up my whole world!” kind of stuff that other women my age seemed to be going through everywhere I looked. My whole generation seems to be knee-deep in mid-life crises that outweigh any of that stuff men went through in the ’80s, with their Porsches and hot blonde girlfriends. Everywhere I look I see women my age struggling deeply with their marriages, their careers, their kids, their divorces and their inevitable Cougarness.
For me, there was none of that dread or unraveling going into this project at all. It was just forty drinks with forty friends. Just for fun. Really.
The only thing holding me back from planning it all was this lingering mourning for yet another lost love. No matter how hard I fought it, no matter how busy I kept, no matter how much I dreamed about Paris or how many plans I made for the future, the fact that I didn’t have my love of the last two years to snuggle on the sofa kept bringing me down. Over and over. I wasn’t myself. Something was off.
On April 25th, I fell down a flight of stairs—the steep black railingless stairs that descend from the home-office loft space over my living room. I tried hopelessly to grab the brick wall through the crushing collision of wood and bone until the hard floor at the bottom finally stopped my fall.
The searing pain in both ankles came screaming all the way up into my ears. I was alone, and I realized my cell phone was still on my desk — in the loft.
I managed to stop crying. I took a deep breath. I crawled like a little plastic Army soldier on forearms and knees to the top of the stairway. I called my mom. I thanked God that I apparently hadn’t broken anything, but when I found myself laid up on my sofa for days on end with ice packs strapped to my two sprained ankles, I just kept asking myself, Why?! Why did I fall? My pantleg didn’t catch — I was wearing Capris. My shoes were sensible — they usually are when I’m at home. I walk up and down those stairs all the time. There was no good reason for me to fall. But I did. And as I lay there worried to death that I wouldn’t be able to walk around Paris the following month, I couldn’t help but think that the only reason I fell was that the universe was trying to knock me out of my rut. “Stop walking through your life in a daze, Stephanie!” “Wake up!” “It’s time to shake it off!” “Out with the old, in with the new!”
There had to be some message there about falling down, getting up, dusting myself off and moving forward, didn’t there? (I can’t be the only person who’s always looking for meaning in everything that happens, right?)
I was flat out on that sofa when I spotted that quote on Facebook: “There will come a time when you think everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” I’m not sure why it jumped out at me from the hundreds of bland self-help quotes on postcard backgrounds that get posted on Facebook every day. I had no idea who wrote it. I didn’t even think it applied to my situation. But I liked it. I made note of it. I tucked it deep into the flip-file of my brain.
A month later, I was on a plane to Paris. I firmly believe that sometimes you’ve got to get out of Dodge and take an adventure to clear the mind, clear the heart and clear the soul. Paris did that. It did all of those things. Five days in the city, with the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral and the food and the wine; two days in the country at an old chateau and a turn-of-the-century distillery where we watched the staff rake wormwood by hand to distill into absinthe. It was like Willy Wonka’s factory for grown-ups. And the whole time I had this magical group of Framily and family around me, like bumpers on my boat, protecting me as I pulled into shore so my sense of adventure could overtake everything that had been dragging me down.
Finally, as I stood on top of the world at the Eiffel Tower, staring out over that romantic city, I thought about Carl — and about all the ways he would have ruined this. The stairs would have been too steep for him. The French people would have been too rude (when in fact I thought they were lovely). He would have found some annoying little imperfection in everything we did and everywhere we went when in fact this trip was… perfect.
I admitted to myself that Carl simply wasn’t “the one” for me.
It took me five months, but I can honestly say that the mourning for Carl felt just about finished. And you know what they say when “everything is finished.” The flip-file in my brain spun right on over to that quote I’d found on Facebook. What I couldn’t figure out at the time is what I was beginning. Still, I could feel something bubbling under my skin. Like something was happening. Like something was about to change.