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by Shlomit Ovadia

Camping in the heat of summer’s end, on a dirty waterfront littered with spiky seashells and noisy kids, dates ripe and full drop from the large palm trees hanging overhead. Our thin tents flap open, choking for air as ants crawl crazily around the periphery.  

For my 29th birthday I had signed myself up for a communal camping trip, figuring it would be a great opportunity to meet new people and enjoy my birthday outdoors. The turnout was an odd group of 35-50+ something year-olds— widowers, divorcees, cynical singles, socially awkward folks—some tall and lanky, others short and balding, their hairy stomachs bulging with age, thick grooves etched into their faces, hair dry and frizzy, lines holding the skin under their eyes. Their outfits are ordinary, clashing prints in colors worn out from over wash. Many seem to have never gone camping, dragging garbage bags and old suitcases onto the sand with random junkyard items that comprise their belongings.

The conversations are impassive and monotonous. Everyone seems to have skipped over the excitement of youth and is now trudging through the turgid waters of late adulthood.

One lean man in plain clothes and green eyes nods at me on the first evening.

“So, what are you about; what’s your story,” he says as a statement, inured to the passionless dance of endless introductions that lead nowhere.

I say, “what do you mean?”

“Like hobbies and all that,” he responds, glancing down at my stubby, bare feet. I suddenly don’t feel like sharing.

One girl with tired eyes and a dull complexion rattles on about dating and marriage as we sit on the shore later that night. I keep my idle hands working as I play with a handful of dirt and seashells on the shore, looking at the twinkling lights across the water. Earlier she had talked to me about fitness challenges as we walked, her calves jiggling over flip flop sandals, her posture radiating complacency with her body and what it could do for her.

The following day, an older woman rolls up with a cart that’s filled with store-bought cakes, bagel crackers, cheese, herring, black olives, sour yogurt, and fruit. Flies dive into the open wetness of the snacks. She sticks her fat finger inside one of the half-served cakes and sucks off the mush. “My husband died, so I have a lot of free time. I have several kids who are older now. They are all doing well,” she says to no one in particular.

A middle-aged man with slouching shoulders asks me from behind drugstore sunglasses, “do you like to eat?” why, I ask. He says, I have a theory about skinny women who like to eat a lot. The trick is they have particular taste preferences. They’re picky. He smiles dumbly, revealing a missing tooth and an oblivion to his own coup de social faux pas.

Heat rushes to my face as I think back to my eating of the poppy seed cake earlier. Peel back the dry, flaky layers and nibble on the soft, gooey, sweet center, discarding the bits without flavor. “Yes, I like eating,” I say, admitting that I’ve gained a few kilo in the past month. “Well, you have a ways to go,” he responds, looking me up and down. I feel my fat bulging out from the confines of my clothes, threatening to reveal themselves in the wake of his comment. I mentally punch my own mouth shut.

We engage in some board games. At one point I glance at my hand and realize I am losing by quite a bit; I am trailing far behind the average points. A look at the other players would not reveal this: everyone seems careless as they progress through the game. No celebratory moments as they move to accumulate hefty sums of points. It seems weird to experience a board game without emotion—like going to a play and not fighting the desire to cry, I don’t understand what is happening around me, but it feels hollow and strange, so I get up and walk away.

I had awoken earlier that hot morning with a pounding headache. Checked my phone. No birthday messages, even from my closest friends. I guess as you grow older people get busy with the immediate circle that is their lives. Having babies, going to showy events posted about on social media, starting new jobs, making investment purchases. Celebrating big milestones with their new little families.

That’s the thing about birthdays. It’s the time of year that collects your periphery memories and folds them together, presents you with the package that is what your life has amounted to and all the things you forgot to think about over the past year that are still there and constitute your reality. Look at them. Feel their consequences wrap around your consciousness like a thick blanket.

Every additional year of life compacts your decisions and actions more, narrows the focus of your life until your reality is bright and screaming—look here! This is what we have amounted to! Like an accordion, contracting, squeezing the noise out, the life out. If you’re not careful, you’ll wilt and turn gray like a flower without sun and water.

All the uncomfortable parts, the people, experiences, and memories that make you cringe. Think about them. React to them. Make a change. Invest in your future, I tell myself, a person plagued by indecisiveness in an age of endless choices.

An evening breeze rolls in as my new Australian friend dismantles her tent. She tells me not to become like them, her voice dynamic and musical, as the day comes to an end, her eyes the color of the ocean, her complexion fresh, her will and fullness fading like the red sunset behind us. Having choices paralyzes us, she tells me, the lumps and curves of her body hidden under baggy clothes that flow, running away from the touch of her skin. I don’t want to give up! I think as I see her, a beautiful soul whose light is closing. I don’t want to be like these people. The shoreline’s waters ebb and flow like the moon’s cycles.

About the Author

Shlomit Ovadia majored in English Literature as an undergraduate at California State University Northridge, and won a national, academic writing competition shortly thereafter, which was awarded by the Sinai Scholars Society. In addition to writing grants and content as her profession, she has also recently completed two online creative writing courses in order to further explore opportunities for authorship. Aside from briefly serving as a contributing writer for the Op-Ed section on israelnationalnews.com, Shlomit is a budding writer with hopes to become published in the future. This story is a delicate bildungsroman about the art of aging and how complacency can rob you of authentic living. Choices become larger and more daunting as time passes. Let's challenge those.