Tonight is the eve of my birthday, and the evening is pregnant with possibilities. I have always loved my birthday, more so than anyone else’s. I am aware that no one enjoys this occasion as much as I do, and perhaps my enthusiasm would be returned if I celebrated another’s equally. Whether those around me are as excited as I am or rolling their eyes at my childish fervour, I always give this week to myself to do as I please, and tonight I’m feeling acutely excited with a hint of trepidation. I want to tackle this birthday thing with all of my energy, spirit and money, but I can’t ignore an agitated fluttering inside my chest. I’m factoring in the circumstance that I’m interstate this year, which always leaves me feeling a little unanchored. Like I’m far from the harbour of my personality, or whatever excuse people give themselves for acting out of character. It’s an electric emotion tinged with a shadow of Stoicism; a healthy dose of pessimism just to keep my mind in balance. I am a girl who just wants to have fun, but I shouldn’t really be making such a big deal of something which everyone experiences each year.
Despite the fact that Dark Mofo is on the lips of every artistically inclined person I know, I don’t see anyone I recognise. It’s a fact I quietly take comfort in, because there’s nothing that sets off social anxiety more so than the prospect of idle talk with vague acquaintances. I would rather make out with a stranger than attempt to remember the name of someone I might have met at my boyfriend’s sister’s Christmas party, who I really hit it off with that one time over a plate of pistachio-crusted pumpkin puree. I used to be a lot more fun, I think to myself. I never had any problem talking someone into buying me a drink, or pretending they were my boyfriend to get some other creep to back the hell off my sacrum. I used to make friends more easily; today I can barely talk to my barista without my stomach falling through the floor. That libertarian approach I had to socialising is a quality I lost when I started thinking about my Career with a capital C, and when the 9-5 became the 9-6, which then became the 9-6 and occasionally on weekends. My brazen ambition had effectively snuffed out any fire I had for making friends, and here I stand today without a clue how to start a conversation.
I see groups of girls in tank tops and skirts, and I feel less geographically challenged for wearing my leather jacket rather than the hotel bedspread. Alex had teased me about my feminine indecision – what on earth shall I wear?! – and I’d rushed out not wanting to waste time with anymore sartorial hesitation. I had already spent ten minutes in front of the mirror scrutinising my middle part. I could have walked out of there just like Charles Leandre’s painting; a modern-day transvestite Madame Bovary mixed with Shane McCutcheon.
By now, my quarter of a bottle of Merlot is beginning to wear off and I’ve lost my buzz, so I’m on a mission for an espresso martini, and, preferably, the kind of cashed-up tourist who has the poor sense to buy one for me. (un)fortunately for me, modern-day equality wins, and no potential suitor makes themselves evident, despite my appallingly empty hands and stone-cold sober expression. Someone mentions amphetamines, and I could, but I don’t. I’m petrified of drugs. I reluctantly hand over $16 for a pre-made cocktail in a jar and feel robbed. I’d spent an extra $100 on a hotel room, choosing luxury over a potential hangover. I feel proud for being A Good Adult, but simultaneously boring for having the common sense to priortise accommodation over inebriation.
I’ve always looked at adults – those older, wiser and richer than me – with a mixture of admiration, jealousy and revolt. There’s a special kind of condescension reserved for young girls, the kind that feels like a dull bruise. It hurts when poked, but you probably wouldn’t complain to anyone about it. It comes in the form of remarks about your “cute” mannerisms, or an assumption that you won’t be paying for this bill, even though you asked your waiter for it. Sometimes it’s a casual tone in an email, the one that lets you know they’ll likely cancel your meeting, or pay your invoice late, or just generally not take your advice at all. If I were older, I’d always thought, how easy it would be to transcend the transgressions of youth. As if more birthdays would mean more respect, more money, more self-asuredness, and less stress, less insecurity and less financial trouble. At the same time, ageing is a process that frightens me. Being young is the perfect excuse for not taking that job, for always being broke, and for forgetting your father’s birthday. And I’d always thought adulthood was a destination, not a state of being. As if I’d somehow arrive, and be exempt from all the necessary u-turns, left-hooks and car maintenance it took to get there. I wanted all the power and glory, but none of the sacrifice.
So until that magical day comes – the one where I am promoted to a new maturity bracket – there should be nights like this, I ascertain to no one.
Blacklist is a truly hedonistic affair. I don’t mean this because people are getting drunk and kissing strangers all around them; there are literally naked people everywhere, some of them gyrating in fish net stockings against confused punters. Some of them are up on the stage covered in glitter, dancing as their private parts flap and wiggle for all to see. They dive into the audience, the confused crowd uncertain about where to grasp. There are male pole dancers with enviable legs and flexibility sashaying around, delivering lap dances in sky-high hooker heels. Did I mention they have masks on? They look like robotic mechanical bulls.
There is a giant, spinning installation made of unicorns, or maybe it’s chairs? I can’t tell.
Amongst the debauchery and mystery of this extravagant carnival, I find a concept so quaint in its historical references. A kissing booth, that cringe-worthy yet endearingly innocent attraction with a legacy that stretches back to early 20th century carnivals, sits nestled between the stairs at the back of the venue, directly underneath a neon sign that reads ‘Vacancy’.
Admission: I have a boyfriend. Maybe it’s because it’s almost my birthday, or perhaps it’s the espresso martini, but I feel like kissing a stranger sounds like a good idea. I decide that this is just the level of spontaneity that I need on my birthday. Besides, I might not even get kidnapped, anyway. I would at least like an anecdote to tell back home about my leaving a lipstick imprint on a stranger’s cupid’s bow.
Sam, who is single, doesn’t need convincing to line up. Alex opts out, saying something about not needing a kissing booth to win the affection of the opposite sex. I retaliate by telling him it’s about the social experiment of intimacy with a stranger. My stomach starts to turn. What if I get groped by a seedy guy who’s failed at Tinder, and has chosen me as the subject of his sexual frustration? Will my boyfriend get angry at me for rubbing cheeks with the drunken attendees of Dark Mofo? Will I live with a shadow of regret on all of my birthdays for the rest of time?
This Kissing Booth, I’m told by someone who hands me a waiver to sign, is completely anonymous. How it works is like this: there are two lines placed side-by-side, and you are to pick one to join. While waiting your turn, you’re handed a number by a volunteer, who will eventually usher you into a waiting room. There is a giant LED display in the waiting room, and this room is perhaps no darker or lighter than the main area outside. There are three chairs in this waiting room, and you’re to wait until your number appears on the LED screen to go into the next room, where your partner in passion is waiting to lock lips with you. Two strangers enter a room, and through a hole in the wall, they find each other’s faces and do as they will with their mouths in the dark.
I’m assured that I won’t be aware of my match’s identify. Except, this is a lie, and a gigantic logistical failing on the event organiser’s part. I try not to glance at the other line, but I end up surveying my prospectives with intense scrutiny. There are mostly females clad in a uniform of black-on-black, standing with their back to me, whispering to their girlfriends. It’s a scene that feels awfully similar to a high school dance. I can’t tell if they’re younger than me or not. I can’t tell if I’ll leave that room having sucked the youth out of a poor and willing victim. But mostly, I can’t tell if these people will pike on me. It’s a niggling thought that travels from my storage bank of high school memories to join me in 2015. I hold its hand like a frightened child, and we walk through to the waiting room together.
I’m sitting on a stool in an empty room, and I feel like I’m in an episode of ‘Dating in the Dark’. I hate that show. I am number 63, and the number 62 is lit up on a wall across from me. I feel less lonely, but more awkward when two strangers walk in after me: a couple. I’m unsure whether they’re supposed to go after me, making them #64 and #65, or if I’ll be paired with one of them. They proceed to make out franticly, allegedly so aroused by the self-indulgence of extra-marital affairs, and I wince at the thought of having to touch his caveman beard. They make the remark that bright red lipstick was not a good idea for me tonight. They are right. I don’t want to be here anymore, I don’t want to kiss anybody, and I don’t want to leave this place looking like the joker. I saw the line for the bathroom upstairs earlier, and the thought of balancing in this heels AND reapplying lipstick seems like such a herculean effort. It’s all starting to feel too weird and too exhausting for me, and I start to miss my boyfriend back home. And then it’s my turn. Number 63, pucker up.
I go through the door underneath the LED sign, and the room is pitch black. Donna Summer’s ‘Love to love you baby’ is playing, and I burst out in a nervous cackle, throwing my head back laughing at how camp this all really is. I can’t see anyone, and someone calls out a nervous ‘hello?’ into the void. I don’t answer, because I don’t know what to say. I make out a blonde girl exiting behind a curtain, stopping once to glance back at me. Is she being serious? Is she actually rejecting me? I’m certain I’d made sure I was a perfect 10 before I’d left the hotel. How dare she! I follow her, indignant that she would enter a kissing booth and then pike at the last minute. And then I remember that there was a second line: I was meant to stay in that room, because there’s someone on the other side. Blondie was the girl before me finishing up her pash session, and I’d just stood someone up. Oops. I feel vaguely guilty for a second, and slightly embarrassed lining up for a second go. I get looks from the ushers, and I want to explain to them what happened, but do I really need to justify tonight’s behaviour? I think not. It’s my birthday, and I’ll be weird if I want to.
I enter the waiting room again, and wait for my number to appear on the LED display. No one else joins me in the waiting room. Once the digital harbinger of fate ushers me through the next door, I find myself inside a dimly lit room. It is dark, but nightclub dark, not murder-in-the-dark-dark. I turn to my left, and there’s a hole in the wall where a window could be. There is a youngish guy looking at me, potentially in the 18-21-year-old age bracket. He is hunched over and peering through the window-hole. He looks guilty, like he just ate the last of someone’s advent calendar chocolate.
We stare at each other.
“Isn’t this meant to be anonymous?” I ask to nobody, catching a whiff of his beer-tinged breath.
He looks nervous. I am nervous. He reminds me of the first boy I ever kissed: Luke something-or-other in 7th grade. Our friends forced us to French kiss in a cemetery. It was awkward and we never spoke again after that macabre episode.
His face, like Luke’s, is smattered with freckles. He is slightly shorter than me, but probably because he’s hunched over. I’m not sure why he wants to stand like that. My stomach drops through the floor, and I wonder if I run out now, if he’ll recognise me later. I feel like I’m 12 again, and I can vaguely hear my best friend’s accusing tone inside my head. She always wanted to referee my first hook-up, an exercise in friendship that I never quite understood the purpose of. I’m not sure what it was like at other schools, but if you went my school and were to kiss a boy or girl from class, the only way to do it was to get your best friend to organise the ordeal, draw a crowd, and then meet on the soccer oval at 3pm. I am so glad mobile phones were not the norm back then. Regardless, kissing was a terrifying prospect for me. Because of this, I found myself never wanting to hang out with boys, a fact that has left me socially handicapped when it comes to the opposite sex.
It’s easy to remind myself that I’m 28 now, and I don’t have to do things with boys that I don’t want to anymore. There are no mean girls around to taunt me or pressure me into fulfilling the Year 7 rite of passage which is making out with someone while a whole crowd watches. But their high school jabs still stick me in the ribs,. ‘Just do iiiit’, they whine.
“Oh well…” I sigh, and place a quick peck somewhere that’s not quite his cheek and not quite his mouth. The exact spot where you’re likely to acquire a cold sore, I think to myself afterwards. I am proud of myself for being able to run out of that room in high heels, using the adrenaline to propel me underneath a thick, black curtain that marks the exit of the kissing booth. I follow a path back to the main room of Blacklist , and eye the room for Sam. After a few minutes, I see freckles emerge from his side of the booth. I can see the poor guy standing with his friends, his eyes darting away rapidly when I catch him looking at me.
I feel secure and conservative snaking my way back into the crowd of sparkly naked people. I’m a bit disappointed that I declined my chance to make out with a stranger, but it’s a feeling that’s balanced out by relief that the whole ordeal is over. There’s something that attracts me to the thought of making out with someone other than my boyfriend, but it’s chased away by sobering thoughts of de-factor stability: cooking dinner together, stealing one-another’s laptop charger, arguing over who will pay for the next Uber, and the way my pillows always smell of him. I have grown to be reliant on this routine. Could it be possible that one day I might even like it? Getting older is inevitable, enjoyable even. But I’ve come to associate it with a tepid domestic arrangement, despite its perks. After the intoxicating rush of the honey moon period makes way for monotony, you move in together, buy a cat, and argue over the cable bill. This is your life. This is my life, and I am getting older, and with it, my relationships are maturing too. I like the coziness of waking up next to the same sleepy face, but I find it hard to marry with the hook-up focused mindset of my generation. Is everyone having fun without me?
It’s a thought that I let marinade as I spend the rest of the night dancing amongst the crowd.
The next morning, I wake up with a headache that feels like knives in my temples, and a throat that feels full of baseballs. My nose is blocked and my whole body feels like I slept under a bridge. I have the flu. Happy birthday to me.
Once I’m dressed, I make my way out to a favourite café of mine. It’s a quiet, predictable breakfast for me: banana and tahini served on gluten-free bread, with a latte and side of Tasmanian news. I sit in exactly the same spot – directly across from the register at a communal table, with a good view of the dessert fridge. The place is cozy and fits around about ten people at full capacity, but this morning it is quieter than usual. And by usual, I mean quieter than the grand total of four times that I’ve been there.
After I’ve finished my breakfast, I order a slice of chocolate cake for me to enjoy later. It is while fantasising about my private birthday cake that he walks in and sits down beside me. Freckles orders a flat white, along with a serving of eggs and bacon on toast. We sit in silence as I finish reading the paper, and he gets stuck into whatever book he’s reading.
I don’t look at him as I leave. I just want to eat my birthday cake back at my hotel room in peace.