Once per year, you’ve attended a private party consisting of your past and future selves. This year you’re the oldest attending. As per tradition, you must give a toast.
“28, yes, this year that’s you, could you take care of 1 please? You can use the practice! Thanks.”
“Get on with the toast!”
“36, take it slow with the gin, okay? Remember you have to watch 8.”
“Oh, come on, 35 can handle it.”
36 took another swig.
“Dammit 36, you know the rules. Watch him.”
“Fine, 49, play the rules then. Get on with the toast.”
“I will, once you get 8 away from the cake, alright?”
8 quickly shuffled behind the cake, as if that would make us forget he was there. 9 and 11 too were eyeing their chances. 36 pushed himself off the chair, walked over to 8 and, with the trained grip of a father, pulled 8 back to the table. 11 turned back to me, but it took 9 another three or four seconds before he noticed my stare.
“Sorry,” 9 said. Then he sat down too.
Somewhere in the background 2 and 5 were laughing. Those young days. How the hell did they just pass by without a trace in my memory?
“Guys, can I start?”
“Sure!” 17 shouted, like I had done back when I was his age.
I sucked the air deep inside my chest. It had always looked so easy from the other side, but now, with all those faces staring at me, it felt very differently.
“Okay guys. Guys!”
The room settled and even the laughter in the back stopped. I smiled. Another breath.
“I know most of you heard this speech quite a few times before. But I know that, if you listen, you too will discover again something for yourself; something that reflects on your coming year.”
“Oh, get on with it!” shouted 36.
He was even more visibly drunk. 8 was back there again, like every year. Until 36 noticed the empty chair and turned and cursed until the cream-covered fingers froze and slowly pulled away from the cake.
36 should have known. But somehow we never learn it. Somehow we always just watch ourselves and the others just don’t quite feel real. Especially not 49, not the old one, not the one standing up there, speaking, because he will never return.
“If it has all worked right this year you have learned some lessons. And in a few minutes we will have some time to share those lessons, each one of us with the younger ones. And with all the questions that no one else wants to answer – well, come to me.”
A step forward.
“This life, our life, it has been wonderful. Every one of you, I am jealous of every one of you. Even you, 36.”
36 spoke and the younger ones did not hear, but the older ones, we all knew that he called me a “fuckwit.” We all had done it once.
“You know there are certain rules we have to follow. We have to pass the numbers on, each year to the previous one, don’t forget that, okay? Else one of us might actually have to work as a cleaner or something, alright?”
They laughed, like every year. But no one would forget. No one ever forgot.
“18, this year is your lucky year! You’ll get your first win and they’ll print an article about you in the local press. But keep it modest, okay? Don’t show off. And don’t say a word about this. I know most of you know that already, but if we were to break the silence this all would break, okay? Don’t tell a soul about this day.” I looked at 18. “Not even Angelika from the front row once she starts noticing you, okay?”
A nice tease, like every year. 18 – too cocky. She will only notice 19, when he has embarrassed himself and learned to behave. Right now 19 still feels betrayed, lied to, but he is happy at the chance to pass the joke on. He thinks it’s funny to play it on 18 since we all played it on him. She ignored him all year, even as we all told him she would swoon straight into his lap when the millions come. 19 glared at me.
“Sometimes pain is good. That is why there is no blame here. If we withheld something from you; some vital piece of information – believe me, believe the doomed one, that we did it because we know it was the right thing.”
19, he is frustrated. He’ll try to show off, buying all that stuff he shouldn’t buy. And he will throw up on himself at David’s beach party. Everyone will laugh. Everyone – only she won’t. Angelika will offer him tissues and walk him to the bathroom. And then he will know that the right woman is not the one that is nice to you, it’s the one that is nice to you – even when everyone else is not.
“Pain is good because there are lessons that words cannot teach. But also good things can bring lessons, right 28? How is it going back there? That thing you’re smelling, that’s our lovely number 1. And you have the honour to change him! 32, show him what to do, okay?”
32 grinned while making his way to the back. 1 cried when the two men, one with smooth movements and one with the shivering fingers of a bachelor, peeled 1’s clothes and finally his diaper off. 29, with a sleeping 2 in his arms, was laughing.
I waited for them to finish while some of the others turned to each other, some exchanging wisdom and most exchanging jokes. Surprising to think how, even with such a unique chance, we would still waste it with jokes.
What things would men be able to achieve if they would use all their chances to learn? If they would dare to take every shot and ask every stupid question, rather than pretend to be smarter in front of people that know they are not?
“Can we have an applause for 28?”
Laughter followed, only a few of the younger ones tried to clap.
“I have to say, I’m probably jealous of all of you. For all those things that are still ahead. Even 48, shivering here in front of me and carefully trying to remember ever word I say, even he will still have a great year. But the one I’m most jealous off, that’s certainly 28. My god, you’ll be a father! 18 has become a man – but you, 28, you’re soon a father! Just remember not to spill the beans on who it is with – we don’t want to kill all the surprises for 27, okay?”
28 was staring at 1, but I knew he heard me because I remembered hearing the same words. And back then they were not just words, they meant something much more deeper, a life change, a whole change of storyline. A baby – and suddenly, when it is real, you know that you don’t just live for yourself any more.
“35, I want to say something to you too. I want to say so many things to each of you and for most of you I want to say mostly positive things. But 35, please stay strong. Look around you here and when the moment comes, please remember the scene here and remember that life goes on, alright? There will be difficult times this year, but it is worth it to go on. Things happen that should not happen, that is, sadly, how life goes. Please don’t be upset if we don’t tell you what it is – believe me, it makes it easier that way. And 36, the two of us have a little chat after this, alright?”
They both nodded, but they both didn’t mean it.
“But I’m not standing here to say sad words. I suppose it should be a goodbye, but when you come here you’ll all realise how many things we would like to say and how many things we regret not saying earlier. The thing is that we are lucky. We are probably the luckiest man alive, to have this opportunity to meet one another. Each year we get this unique chance to learn and to teach – not anyone, but ourselves. Each of you, remember the words that you were told last year. Yes, even you 5. Remember the words you were told – not the exact words, but what they meant and how they changed your life this last year. And then make sure to pass them on to the next one that will need them.”
This time nearly everyone nodded, even 36, just the young ones and 30 were somewhere else with their minds.
“The thing is, whatever makes us come here, it is a wonder. It is a pleasure. It is an incredible gift and I am glad that we have received it. This life was so precious, with all the love we received and all the love we had the chance to give.”
“But I have to admit, there is just one thing I always missed. I know we are free and you all know to keep the advice vague enough not to spoil the excitement – but still it was strange, all these years, to always know what would come next. Isn’t that crazy? While all the people around us live with nothing more than their eyes to watch out for speeding cars, we all had one another, each watching out for the younger one and making sure that the year would work out well.”
More nods. And, even for those that heard the speech so many times – silence and pure attention, the same attention for words that I too had felt every year on my birthday and only ever one other day, when she was lying there, surrounded by wood and pillows and her sisters stood at the front, to the left of the altar, with tears in their eyes, to tell a room full of people, but, really, just me, how much she had loved the kids and me.
“You know, all those years I looked up to the stage, to 49, fearing that age. And a few hours ago I still dreaded this moment, to return home, wake up, and suddenly not be sure any more of what will follow. I was so scared of coming here that I was desperately trying to stay awake – but I guess you all see how that turned out.”
This time the laugh was dry. Fear dries the throat.
“The thing is, now that I’m here and looking at all of you – I have to say I’m not afraid any more.”
I spread my arms and raised my voice, unconsciously shouting the last word. “I’m actually excited.”
“I know you think I’m crazy, but you know what, I think it will be interesting not to know where I will go or which mistakes I will make. I mean, you all think I will die – but, really, do we know? Maybe I just can’t return here any longer!”
41 turned his head to 32, whispering “I think he’s gone mad.” Just like I did back then.
“So there is just one toast I want to give this year. It is a toast that will mean something different to each of us. It will mean something different for each of you, considering what was and what will come. Let us drink a toast then.”
They all raised their arms, even 1. Only 2 was still asleep.
“On next year,” I said.
“On next year,” they echoed.