I. "JS ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!" I don't speak in ALL CAPS, but I might as well have then. "What's JS doing here?" That's my first thought when we arrive at Imadake, a Japanese restaurant sitting just on the outside of the western border of Montreal’s downtown. "What are the damn odds, that JS would be here tonight, too." Too good, it turns out, but that comes later.
I’ve opened the outside door of Imadake; I see my friend inside, which is odd, and I see Josh too, which isn’t odd. For now, the two are all I see as I get to the inside door; the lights inside are dimmed—or is that a tinted glass door?
I’m here with my girlfriend Gen, and we’re meeting two of her friends and work colleagues and their boyfriends. Because the triple date is the new double date. We’re meeting them for a drink or two (or three); it’s December 19, the Saturday before Christmas so why not have a drink (or three), right? From Imadake, we’ll be off to Mascouche, a suburban town about an hour away for an ugly Christmas sweater party; I’ve brought my sweater, which isn’t ugly because you should be able to have a not-ugly ugly Christmas sweater. "We’ll eat fondue there, so we’re just getting a little appetizer beforehand," Gen said as we left our apartment. Alright then.
It’s our first time at this restaurant and we’re thrilled to see why Cult Montreal calls it the "Best izakaya in Montreal." Put it another way: a restaurant doesn’t just put "WOW" on its website for no good reason.
But right now, all I see are JS and Josh. I open the door and JS starts screaming, his version of singing; this startles me and Gen pushes me forward, closer to Josh and JS. Just then, the lights inside Imadake switch on. I see everyone then. "Wait, is that…," I think, as I look back to Gen, who again inches me forward. It’s like she’s saying, "Yep it is."
"Bonnnnnnneeeeee fêêêêêêêête à Chuuuuuuck!" They’re all here and they’re all singing-screaming; it’s the surprise party for my 30th birthday. "Holy fuck" is what I’m thinking then. That’ll be a theme for the weekend.
II. HOLY FUCK INDEED. They’re all here. All the closest friends I’ve made over the past 30 years, a majority from high school but excluding those from Toronto because Toronto is far, are here at Imadake to celebrate my Big 3-0.
There’s light now, and they’ve stopped singing. They’re all standing up by our table, which is just by the restaurant entrance. It’s like we own the place—though we don’t—and really, that’s how everyone should celebrate their 30th birthday.
So they’re here, yes. There’s Mel and Flavie, Gen’s two friends and work colleagues, and their two boyfriends. Earl and H, the two guys who used to live next to my parents’ place and with whom I’ve learned all the typical and minor mischiefs of any good teenage life. Milan, who had moved back to Serbia to become a doctor but who’s apparently back in town right now (and still on his way to becoming a doctor, it turns out). Leonid too, he who’ll probably sit as Supreme Court Justice before long or some other crazy thing. All nine others from our Brébeuf group of friends we called The Hood even though a group of people aren’t actually a hood but it’s fine because «almost» is basically synonymous with being a teenager. It’s Ralph, JS, Pat, Eddieman, Thierry, Alex, Amine, Chris, Max and myself. All 10 of us.
Everyone’s here so again: holy fuck. I’m touched, I think then, in quite the understatement.
III. MORE ACCURATE WOULD BE to say that I’m like Peter Sellers. I’m like the great, late comedian in his turn as Chief Inspector Clouseau in that Pink Panther movie, walking in that dark room with his eyes fixed ahead. Determined. "I’m turning 30, but all good. No need for a party, I’ll just see my mom and my dad, my family. Then, I’ll see my friends at some point." That’s what I’m thinking. Serious and resolute. That’s me. Also: silly. Because then the folks at Imadake switched the lights on to reveal that I had been walking nowhere. I was walking in place, on a treadmill like Sellers had. Only the difference with the Pink Panther movie is that then Gen pulls out the treadmill out from under me, and there’s ice underneath it and it turns out that I’m wearing two of those curling shoes that glide on the ice, so I fall flat on my ass.
IV. THAT LAST PART HAPPENS when she gives me my birthday present. It’s a black book of "the journey to the 30s" as she’s titled it. The book is full of pictures, both old and more "Oh wow he applied himself when he wrote this," I say of the nephrologist whose calligraphy is typically impossible to decipher for the untrained eye. There’s also a text that my mom wrote, as well as one from my sister and another from her husband. Again, holy fuck.
"She’s trying to get me to cry," I think then, of Gen. That comes next, as I see that my nine-year-old brother also wrote something. I realize what Gen has done: get everyone I hold close to my heart to reflect on what I mean to them in written form. For the writer that I am, this is entirely priceless inthe purest sense of the word. Everyone, my dad’s new wife, her three children, my great aunt, three friends from Toronto, all nine of my high school friends, Gen’s parents, Gen herself, they’re all there in the book.
V. WE'VE MOVED. After three (I think?) sake bombs that I had before I even sat down at the table, after two other things called sake rainbows (are they bombs too? Whatever), after two one-litre prints of Sapporo beer, countless cheers and laughs, some food I ate without really knowing what it was (some beef? Some shrimp tempura?), after all that, we left Imadake.
It was almost 2 a.m., I’m told. Gen left, back to our apartment to sleep and leaving me with about 7 of my friends; we had gone to Peopl, I think it’s called, a club-ish place in Old Montreal. I have a drink here too, a rum-and-coke most likely though by then I’m really just following my friends’ lead.
We’re about to leave to another place, where Pat works. A few of our group have already left actually, but not us. We’re all here. Earl, H and Eddieman, the three guys I spent just about every weekend with between ages 15 and 22, give or take a year or two. It all comes back then, all the dumb but ultimately harmless and idiotic things we’ve done together. The time Earl broke a window in his parents’ basement with a drum pedal. The time that a stranger (and a stranger’s dog) chased H and me for 50 some metres, because we had done, hmm, let’s call it teenage stuff. The time I got so drunk on the eve of a school trip to Italy and threw up in my parents’ house’s bathroom and pushed way past curfew, after having promised my parents I wouldn’t do anything stupid so that they would let me go out. The time Eddieman and me were at the nearby park and saw a live reenactment of a Middle Ages battle or whatever that was, with people dressed in armour as knights or soldiers, with wooden sticks and swords. We were drunk, but weren’t hallucinating; they really were there.
The four of us are here and I soak it all in—because it’s just the four of us for the first time in a mighty long time, so I need to remember it.
VI. WE'RE CHEZ CLAUDETTE NOW for some (very) late-night poutine.
We’re not all here, it’s just JS, Chris and me but it’s fine. We were all here just a year ago anyway to celebrate Amine’s engagement in another (very) late-night outing. I think, then, that in another life this restaurant could have been the site of an episode of the short-lived YouTube series The Putin of Poutines. Because if there’s a thing that this series lacked, it’s a good destination that satisfies and comforts late-night cravings. Chez Claudette is the quintessential late-night eatery. The lights are dimmed, the tables are close to one another, there’s a snack bar at the front, the walls are painted an ugly yellow, and the workers are typical Montrealers: charming and talkative.
But anyway, we’re not all here and it’s fine. That’s life, right? You meet people when you’re in high school and you call them your friends because you see them at school every day of the week. They’re the ones you disturb French class with when you’re sitting at the back and take someone’s basketball and roll it toward the front just so the teacher will have to scold someone. They’re the ones who, just like you, hate arts class because they’re so terrible at it. They’re the ones you sass your Latin prof with (because, yes, you had Latin in high school), over her constant empty threats of handing out detentions. "Who wa-aaaaants one?" She’d always ask, and you hated it so you decided to do something about it. And that Friday afternoon, during detention period, those friends are the ones you realize with that not all threats are equal or as equally empty.
Then you grow up, graduate and leave high school and suddenly, your high school friends aren’t your friends anymore. Suddenly, your actual friends are the ones who remain. They’re the ones you go to Chez Claudette with on the night of your 30th birthday. They’re Chris and JS, on that night at least.
At 30, you’re wiser and realize that Nas, that rapper you don’t listen to anymore, wasn’t right: that seasons do change but best friends don’t become strangers. You realize that a good friend is like a good poutine: no matter how long it’s been, you’re always happy to see him/her/it.
VII. THEY'RE ALL HERE; all my family is here, even my sister and her husband have FaceTime’d in from Newark.
It’s the following day, and everyone’s at my mother’s house. It’s yet another surprise party that Gen has pulled off successfully. I was supposed to help my mom with her Christmas tree but waddayaknow, that thing is standing upright and has decorations already.
I’m thanking everyone for being here, my two cousins Hugo and Blaise—"Hey, thanks a lot! Je vous ai pas vus depuis longtemps!"—then my grandma, then… my mind wanders and zeroes in on all the little, tiny clues. My mom insisting that we arrive, Gen and I, no later than 2 p.m., as if putting up the Christmas tree was some sort of emergency. Then, to Gen who, as we exit the highway, telling me to—"Oh salut Sandro! Ça va?"—telling me to text my mom to let her know we’re just a few minutes away. It’s all there.
It’s all there but, as much as it makes sense now—"Papa, allô! Ouais tu m’as bien eu! Donc pas de souper remain soir, hein?"—as much as it makes sense now, I had absolutely no clue then. But of course there’d be a surprise party, especially that there was one with my friends the night prior. Of course.
In the weeks and months prior to my birthday, I had been calm and serene about turning 30. I thought that, "Nah, all I need and want is to see my girlfriend and family." Silly Chuck. Because said girlfriend knows me better than I know myself and knew that I’d love to celebrate it in style—"Lise! Wow je suis content de te voir". My girlfriend and my family knew that I would love a party even if I didn’t know it myself. "François, salut! Donc c’est ça que tu as failli ruiner come surprise au téléphone vendredi?"
VIII. THEY'RE ALL HERE AND SOON ENOUGH, after my dad has made a speech and toast (and cried because he always does when he says a speech of this kind), after my mom has done the same (minus the crying part), they’re all singing "Bonnnnnne fêêêêêêêêêêête à Chaaarles!"
They’re the rock upon which I’ve relied over the years as I’ve grown up. They’re my rocks. Yeah? Yeah.
Your family are your building blocks, your rocks. They’re the ones you’ll use as a stepping stone. They’re the ones who’ll prop you up over their heads and fend off wave after wave after wave that life throws your way. They’ll keep doing this over and over again until one day, you’ll have erected your own rock. Inevitably, it’ll be right on top of your family, of your rocks. By then, they’ll be happy and beaming to see that you’ve done it; they’ll still prop you up if you need it, though they won’t be able to do it quite as often or as long as they used to. You’ll say it’s fine and say that this is the day that you’ll fend off the water on your own. This too will make them proud and happy.
Sadly, your family, or your rocks, eventually die; but they never go away, they’re forever part of who you are and have become. The person you are on any given day is a product of how your family propped you up while they could. And that’s why you’ve built your rock right on top of them.
IX. WE'RE AT TAVERNE F NOW, though not everyone is here. It’s just my mom, her good friend Renée, my cousin, my grandma, Gen and me. It’s the Sunday night of my birthday now and it’s tapas season apparently. Though this isn’t a surprise dinner, it was still a surprise when my mom told me that there was more to my birthday than two surprise parties.
A dinner here, at Taverne F on Jeanne-Mance Street in the heart of downtown. It’s a trendy place, which the restaurant gives away by 1) its location, 2) the fact it’s "presented by Ferreira," himself apparently a well-known chef though I don’t know this Café Ferreira he’s responsible for, and 3) the fact that we’re sitting inside of a box.
Seriously. Taverne F isn’t so much a restaurant in the traditional sense of the word and according to what we’ve grown accustomed of seeing from one; it’s not so much a restaurant as much as it is a box on the middle of the sidewalk that happens to serve food to customers. People are walking just outside, beside us; we’re separated by a glass window, though we’re grasping our cutlery and they’re clenching their fists and shivering in what is a cold evening of a winter season that’s been mild up to this point.
For my 30th birthday, I’ll forever be able to say that I was spoiled (as if you hadn’t gathered so, by now…). It’s funny to me: you only turn 30 once, though we all could say the same thing about literally any other age. We all prefer round numbers in our society and that’s why we give them meaning and significance. Thirty means that a young person forever leaves youth behind him- or herself; he or she enters adulthood for good. When you’re 30, you’re finally an adult and you forever will be one. But personally, I think that happened a year ago: that’s when I met Gen, at 29, and that’s when I grew up. Because I knew I’d met the woman I’d spend the rest of my life with. And now, I’m 30.
X. NOW WE PARK THE CAR, take our bags from the seats in the back, walk the few steps up to the main door and open it. Then I fumble for my keys, finally find them and open the door inside. We’re in the main lobby, with the large glass mirror and the seafoam-like green walls. We take the right staircase, go up the eight steps, open the door and find our apartment on the right corner. Again I fumble for the right key, then open the door and finally we’re home.
No one else is here, it’s just Gen and me. We’re all we need.