This is one of a series of vignettes I am publishing as part of “The Boundary Project”: the process I am undergoing in which I develop personal boundaries. This is the incident where in writing about it many years after it occurred, I finally at long last connected the dots on why this — and a lot of other shit — happened…and more odd bits of recovered personal history.
Listen while you read to a performance of the Panache piece “Happy Birthday” from a house concert in March 2011.
December 17, 2000
The Italian restaurant where we had celebrated my birthday the previous year, while a bit pricey, had a warm, friendly, lively ambiance, and my friend from my day job’s husband who worked there had come out from the kitchen to talk with us for a bit while we were eating, and then when we finished dinner I was most delightfully surprised when instead of bringing out the dessert menu, a sizeable contingent of the kitchen staff came out and presented me with a beautiful personalized chocolate bûche de Noël and sang “Happy Birthday” to me in Italian. It turned out that he was working at a different restaurant this year, so we made plans to go there.
We’d been out all afternoon shopping for my birthday present which that year was a beautiful, knee-length black lambskin skirt, and then went back to my place. As I began getting ready to go to dinner, Chi’s phone rang and after answering, he passed it to me. It was (name withheld for privacy), a friend of his who had helped him remodel the space for the new bar he had just opened, asking if he and a date could join us for my birthday dinner. I have no idea how he had found out about Chi and my plans for that evening and was flabbergasted that anyone would have the brass to ask me point blank if they could crash my intimate birthday dinner date with my boyfriend, let alone bring along someone I don’t even know. Since I have never handled being put on the spot well, I just stammered something like, “Uh…um…ok…yeah…whatever…” and handed the phone back to Chi, trusting that he would nip this impending fiasco in the bud in some deft Japanese fashion and save the day. He didn’t.
I listened with increasing horror and dismay as he explained the location of the restaurant to ___, cautioning him that “this is not a cheap place we’re going to”, and then my stomach sank like a stone when I heard them agree on a time and place to meet, sealing the doom of my evening. Chi then started rushing and hustling me along in getting ready (something I hate intensely), as god forbid they should have to stand outside freezing waiting for us. That absolutely incensed me, as if having my birthday date hijacked were not enough — now I am having to jump through circus hoops because of these people! As we hurried down the street to the train station, my annoyance increased further as my feet began to ache from the new-ish pair of stiletto-heeled boots I was wearing that weren’t fully broken in yet.
I was positively fuming by the time we rushed the considerable distance between the metro stop and the restaurant, making my feet REALLY hurt and quite possibly drawing blood by that point, and made it just at the appointed time only to find that they were not there yet, so WE ended up standing around freezing our asses off for at least 30 minutes, and finally had to just go in and get seated so we wouldn’t lose our reservation! This place was very different from the restaurant we’d gone to last year. It had a cold, aseptic, “money-money-money” atmosphere, and my friend’s husband was only able to make a furtive dash out to our table to say hello and then scurry back to the kitchen.
When the bottle of white wine and plate of appetizers we’d ordered was brought out to our table, the other two finally showed up and handed me a gift bag with a felt hat inside. ___ is a few years older than Chi, who was in his early ‘40’s at that time, and the girl couldn’t have been more than early to mid-20’s — inappropriately young in my view. I immediately concluded that this hijacking of my birthday date was a ploy to impress the cute young girl with his proximity to this hot-shot bar owner with the trophy white chick girlfriend which, needless to say, soured my mood even further as ____ selected a few more appetizers to add to what we had already ordered.
I was additionally irked at having to be in show pony mode and entertain the girl while ___ and Chi talked shop. In fact, I had been thinking to myself that if they just sat there the whole time talking about that fucking bar they’d just opened, I would get up and leave and go to my office and do work since that would be slightly less shitty than having to suffer through that. I didn’t follow through, and they just carried on ordering more food and wine. Eventually we finished eating and I was not entirely surprised when ___ took out three ¥1,000 notes (approx. US equivalent $30) and handed them over as his contribution to the astronomical bill when it was presented to Chi. I was gob-smacked though when Chi agreed to ___’s emphatic hint that we *must* go to another place for a nightcap, as after all, “it’s her birthday!”. We may have even gone someplace else after that too, but I was too drunk and sleepy to track the details by that point.
When Chi and I at long bloody last got back to my place via yet another expensive after-hours cab ride, the final insult to injury occurred as we trudged up the stairs to my flat stumbling drunk ca. 0430-h with my feet feeling like classified documents going through the shredder and we both had to work the next day: Chi laid into me hard about how I’d embarrassed him by disclosing that I had worked as a hostess, which (allegedly) severely devalues me to Japanese people due to the association of that line of work with prostitution. I had never thought anything of it since that job for me and the other white girls entailed nothing more than getting paid about 3,000 yen per hour (+or- $30/hr) to show up at an exclusive members-only nightclub and sit around with a few other girls politely lighting cigarettes of businessmen and politicians while they got sozzled, yelling nonsense in our faces and spitting on our legs. It was at worst only mildly disgusting and sometimes was actually quite entertaining depending on the clientele, with the worst thing about it having to smell their often horrifying breath while breathing the equivalent of several packs a day worth of second-hand smoke.
At any rate, Chi kept on yelling at me, raking me over the coals about what a collective donkey’s ass I’d made of both of us, yada-yada-yada, and when I made it known that I did not particularly appreciate having my birthday date hijacked, he said, “But they gave you a hat!”. He was totally serious. I was stunned and stood there speechless for a few moments on my desperately aching feet trying to mentally process what he had just said. That thing probably didn’t even cost a whole 1,000 yen (≤$10), and the only reason why I even bring up the cost is because it presents such an obvious and readily comprehensible illustration of the manner in which Chi relies on grotesque false equivalences to rationalise the ridiculous!
Let’s break it down: even if it had been a €1,000+ Ascot number (and it’s worth noting that I did not even so much as have space to store such a thing, never mind an occasion to actually wear one!), it still would not have made me whole after totally destroying my birthday — THE ONE FUCKING DAY ON THE WHOLE GOD-DAMNED CALENDAR on which I am supposed to be able to get what *I* want, rather than whatever any random Tom, Dick or Harry wants *of* me instead(!) — subjecting me to a really uncomfortable, unenjoyable hassle that at the same time put Chi in the highly distressing situation of now having to scramble funds together to pay off the US equivalent of a fucking thousand dollars that he had not expected to have to shell out that night when he was already strapped from opening a new business a couple months earlier…because of them!
It was the icing on the cake of a spectacularly fucked-up night, and it being the year following what was one of, if not THE most enjoyable birthdays I’d ever had, made this debâcle all that much more painfully disappointing. I was not in any way whatsoever obligated to let those people turn MY intimate birthday dinner into a free-for-all at our expense (yes, *our* expense because while Chi got stuck with having to pay for it all, I got the blowback both emotionally when he took it out on me, as well as financially when he couldn’t pay his way for anything else because of the financial mess that put him in). At any rate, since I didn’t learn the lesson that year, this ludicrous situation played out again the following year but in a different context:
A regular patron of his bar that had become a close personal friend suggested that we do a birthday party for me at the bar. I was not at all keen on that idea and in fact by that point was pretty much at the end of my rope with having to spend so many of my free evenings suffering in that dirty, loud, uncomfortable, smoke-filled dungeon where I would almost always just sit there all evening bored and unhappy, guzzling down cheap wine and rum whenever I wasn’t performing, waiting for it to be last-train-time so I could go home and get some relief for my tortured respiratory system. I don’t think I even said anything to that very unappealing suggestion, or perhaps once again just gave some half-hearted response that could easily be interpreted as agreement. Chi seemed to think that was a fine idea, most likely to hedge his exposure to another episode of financial ruin like the previous year.
While in this case he framed the “suggestion” to me as more of an obligation than a question or suggestion (or at least that’s how I had interpreted it), that is still a weak excuse for once again refusing to articulate my boundaries even though my brain was screaming, “OMG, NOOOOOOO!! ANYTHING BUT THAT!!”, and once again letting myself get railroaded into “celebrating” my birthday, this time by having to *work* a party for a bunch of people, most of whom I barely knew if at all, at the very last place in the world that I wanted to be!
Anyway, on my birthday evening, after sitting around pouting for a while and then letting myself be prodded into getting up and serving warmed up leftover food from another recent event at the bar to the guests, I eventually just left and went home by myself since I was so fed up and dejected at having yet another birthday ruined. I learned much later that that really hurt Chi, who had no idea that I was unhappy about it or why, and how could he, since I had never actually told him what I wanted and just left it to him to try and figure it out or somehow just automatically know.
For the bonus point, I spent Christmas of that year (one week after my birthday) sitting alone in my tiny little flat eating tortilla chips and salsa for dinner and then spent the balance of the evening after the day job learning the viola parts to a string quartet reduction of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for an upcoming gig rather than get stuck spending yet another miserable night at that fucking bar on what is supposed to be (at least for me) a special occasion!
As I wrote this story, I had one of those life-altering epiphany moments. Rewinding back to when that guy called to hijack my birthday date, while I absolutely had the feeling that a major boundary was being breached, I did not mentally connect the dots and act upon it. For whatever reason, I did not see it as being *my* responsibility to stand up for myself and say “No fucking way!”, and instead left it up to someone else to read my mind and automatically understand what I wanted and defend that boundary for me. While it could be debated whether Chi was in the right to leave me to fend for myself against a long-term acquaintance of his that I barely knew making an outrageous request of me, it was still entirely my responsibility to hold the line.
In both cases described above and innumerable previous and subsequent ones, I was just following my default M.O. of going along with it, believing I had no control over the situation and was just stuck on a runaway train careening along with nothing to do but hang on for dear life and pay whatever consequences were due at the end when it finally either derailed and crashed to a stop or ran out of steam. I now realised my own complicity in these recurring disasters: that by not setting clear boundaries and making my needs and preferences known, it’s no wonder that they are never observed! Chi was apparently (and not at all unreasonably) expecting me to steer the whole thing, when in fact I had abdicated control at the very beginning and (unrealistically and unreasonably) expected him to automatically know what I wanted and preempt the hijack attempt and co-optation.
I feel really fucking stupid only now figuring this out after all the totally ridiculous shit I have let happen to me for all these years because it never occurred to me that I had not only the option and right, but it absolutely is MY responsibility to stand up for myself! Better late than never, though, so onward and upward, I guess….
NOTE TO SELF: when you get that “OMG, NOOOOOOOO!!” panicked feeling, that is your intuition giving you a *red alert*, which absolutely and unequivocally means “STOP! NO! and DON’T! ” Similarly, when I get that icky-sicky creeped-out feeling from an interaction with another person, that’s a warning from my gut that all is not well, and I need to figure out what it is and put it right pronto, whether that means calling the other person out on what they’re saying/doing that’s bothering me (or apologize if I am the one in the wrong), or just politely excusing myself and getting out of it altogether.