It was the best birthday I ever had. My small group and I had dinner in a tiny, intimate Italian restaurant named La Boote, nestled away near the corner of something and somewhere in Frankfurt, Germany.
I got their Tortellini al Forno. A creamy white sauce, cheesy tortellini with ham, peas and mushrooms, thank God it wasn’t until years later that I developed an allergy to the mushrooms. It was lasagna, for my sister. I don’t remember the others, but probably chicken parmesan for my best friend.
My current crush, a somewhat older soldier, was there. The high school boy with a crush on my sister, and his best friend and my best friend who were dating. They were there. It was February of 1990 in Germany, there was a chill but no snow, and a wind that would later push over a Strass car.
That wind blew my cigarette into my sister’s hair as we waited for our bus, on our way to her admirer’s house, where we were to be hanging out the rest of the night. Distracting, disorientating wind; it was so fierce and blowing our stiff, hair sprayed hair everywhere, that we got lost on the way and ended up in a dark park.
That wind made me feel things I hadn’t before, as did the attention of my cute Army escort. So did being seventeen make me feel grown up-- like growing up, at last. Sixteen was still a baby, eighteen-- a has been. Seventeen was the perfect young, sexy age, and that was exactly how I was feeling.
I was flattered that my Army man had gotten leave from his base and had taken the hour-long train ride just to take me out for my birthday. We had met over Christmas at the Burger King near my base exchange. He was there shopping and I had gone with my family just to be seen, feeling cool in my new makeup and clothes that Santa had brought.
We flirted over fries and exchanged numbers, I never expected he’d show up when I’d told him my birthday was coming. He’d remembered, and he had.
It was an effort made for me that I hadn’t wanted to be wasted. As we kissed and held hands in the dark Frankfurt park, I let him know that by asking my question. Would he be my first lover?
I was ready, I’d said. I wanted him to be glad he’d made the effort that night, I’d said.
I cried when he told me no.
I cried while he sang “Young Girl” into my blowing hair, while the moon shone bright on our faces, onto our clasped hands, and the wild wind blew the naked trees. While he’d told me I didn’t owe him anything, that he was the one who owed me something.
While he begged me to understand that it was only his sense of what was right that was keeping him from acting on what I wanted. That, and his sense that I really didn’t know what it was I wanted.
While he said that my company was enough for him that night and promised he would be back for my junior prom in a few months.
He was the first man to be asked by me, he was the first and last man to tell me no.
I met his replacement at a bar in Sachsenhausen a few months later, while depressed the prom date never happened, due to his cancelled leave.
A few weeks later, that helicopter pilot from Hanau was my first. Before I knew he belonged to another, and that I was just a replacement for her. Ironic.
Another dark park, another dark night, no wind this time. I got what I wanted and felt grown up fully at last. While that last piece of myself that I’d felt was keeping me a child was lost forever.
And many more dark parks and dark nights and many more “yeses” followed.
Seventeen came back to me a year later, to tell me he had to see me before he was transferred back to the States. Seventeen sat on a wall outside my housing unit and asked me why I hadn’t been able to recognize respect. Or have any for myself. And I, well into eighteen, was still not able to. Eighteen only wanted to know why I hadn’t been what he wanted.
He left forever after telling me he had loved me from the moment we’d met.
Something I refused to believe until now, refused to remember until now--these 26 years later--now as one of my own turns seventeen.
I hope her seventeen is as good to me as mine was. That she recognizes it as good faster than I did. It was the best birthday I ever had.