"Surprise!" my mother and father shouted in unison, laughing gaily. I stared at the photograph in my hands. My throat was dry. My hands shook with tension. I gripped the picture so hard that my fingers almost tore through the page. Did I need glasses? Was I losing my mind? Or – worse – were the words I read a true portent?
Just a moment before, I'd excitedly opened the pink box, now discarded on the floor near my left ankle. A sixteenth birthday only comes around once in a lifetime. All day, I’d imagined the fancy party later that evening; charming, cleanly shaved boys, beautifully groomed girls, delicious finger sandwiches, strobe lights. Well, I thought grimly, maybe the strobe lights will distract the other guests.
All I'd wanted from my parents was a new convertible. Not a Porsche or anything - a nice, current model, one that was fast and had good mileage and made my ass look like a dream when I stepped out. I'd even planned on it. When I invited the kids from school over to my sweet sixteenth, I handed out embossed invitation cards that read "Come see my hot new ride!" Everyone was envious.
And when I'd stepped down to breakfast, after dreaming all night of speeding around quiet neighborhoods with the bass up and the top down, I’d seen it on the kitchen table. A fancy pink present topped with a tasteful green bow. I’d squealed and ran to open it. But instead of car keys in the little box, there was only a picture. Frowning distastefully, I had pulled it out, gripping it loosely between forefinger and thumb like a used sheet of toilet paper.
The photograph showed a greasy man with a hideous smile on his face. His lips curled hatefully, reminding me of two slugs performing a ballet on a salt lick. His lank, insipid hair draped a wrinkled, nasty face with squinty eyes. And just in case I could not recognize the man, he'd helpfully autographed the bottom of the page:
"OWWWW! LOOKIN FORWARD TO THE HOTTEST SWEET SIXTEENTH EVER! PLAN ON A REAL PAR-TAY!
(Pictured here was a series of four hearts hastily sketched and an ‘XOXOXO’)
* * *
"HONEY," my mother shouted as she banged on my bedroom door. I’d dead-bolted it shut while I fashioned a little hobo stick out of a few paper towels and the stick off a little American flag. Inside were all of my important possessions - a little plastic saxophone, a cassette tape of Tommy Tutone's greatest hits, a small handful of candy corns. It was time to blow this Popsicle stand.
I opened the window and stared out at the concrete below, trying to figure out the best way to descend from the second story. I wished there was a trellis to climb down.
I heard a noisy rattle at the door, and then my father began to yell. "We paid a lot of money for this, and you aren't going to ruin it! Your friends are going to be here in an hour and imagine what they're going to say if Steven Tyler is here and you aren't!" I cringed and then crouched, preparing to leap. I might die, I reasoned, but that was better than the alternative. I was just about to jump when the doorknob turned and the door opened.
"Sorry," Mom said, smiling that bullshit fake apologetic smile that grown-ups get whenever they screw you over. "I had a key."
"This is the worst day of my life," I yelled, breaking the hobo stick across my knee. "Why is it whenever anything important happens in my life, Steven Tyler has to be there?"
"Baby," Dad said, "you love Steven Tyler. He's been your hero since you were ten years old."
"When I was ten years old," I said, gritting my teeth, "I used to pick my nose and save the boogers for my collection. That's just what little kids do."
My parents both looked at each other, and Mom sighed.
"Sugarplum," she said, "it would be rude to not let Mr. Tyler come to your party. He's really excited. I'm making his favorite kind of cake."
"What kind?" I asked.
"It's a lemon coconut cake with cocoa sprinkled on top."
"That sounds disgusting. I want a chocolate cake."
"This is close enough, and Mr. Tyler loves this cake," she said. She raised an eyebrow. "And you'd better be polite. He'll be here any minute."
* * *
Two hours later, I stood scowling by the front door, shaking everyone's hand as they entered. At first, I was apprehensively excited, but after the fifth person asked where my sweet new ride was, I grew tired of greeting guests. How should I explain it? "No, sorry, I didn't get a convertible. But Steven Tyler is going to show up later and eat some birthday cake!" I hoped that when he showed up, no one would recognize him and I could play it off. Maybe I could make everyone believe that it was my father's lover, come to exact some sort of hateful retribution for a sex crime so dastardly that it didn't even have a name.
"Wassup?" announced another anonymous androgyne as it stepped through the front door. It sported a backwards cap and hairless baby chin. With its shoulder length hair and squeaky voice, I couldn't tell if it was a particularly ugly girl or a particularly girlish boy. I silently pointed towards the large bowl of Chex mix in the middle of the living room, sighing heavily.
Actually, things were beginning to look up. No one had been creative enough to bring me any sort of present, but a few kids had palmed me a ten dollar bill as they walked in, so I was holding roughly seventy dollars in my pocket. The stereo in the living room was playing some good music, some sort of hip hop electronica, and everyone was starting to dance. Well, sort of. We were at the uncomfortable age when everyone was afraid to dance with members of the opposite sex, so everyone was bobbing up and down separately while holding canned sodas. But so far, my sixteenth birthday party was really happening. Everyone seemed like they were having a nice time.
And wonder of wonders! Steven Tyler hadn’t even showed up. I looked at my watch. According to Dad, he should have arrived around 45 minutes earlier. Please, don’t let him be fashionably late, I wished. Please say he took the money and split. Maybe this would be the best sweet sixteenth in the world.
These thoughts had just swarmed through my mind like a hive of bees, and as if God had heard them and wanted to make a mockery of the honey in my brain, the front door slammed open and a - I hesitate to say "man", more a disheveled mass of hair and lips - walked in.
"YEA-AHHHH!" shouted Steven Tyler. He took a swig from a bottle of whiskey he was holding, belched, and held up a hand to silence the already silent crowd. "WHAT UP, EVERYONE! HOW YOU ALL DOIN! LET'S MAKE THIS THE MOST ROCKIN SWEET SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY EVER, C'MAWN!"
My throat closed up and all of my dreams faded away. Blackness covered my peripheral vision, and I swayed. I felt my knees buckle. Was I going to faint?
Just then, one of the androgynous boys snickered, pointed at Steven, and said "Check out the birthday surprise! It's that sweet new ride we've all been hearing about." Everyone started to laugh. Steven Tyler looked surprised for a moment and then he said, "I'M THE SWEETEST! YuhAAYUH!" After shouting this last (word? I’m still not sure what it was), he strode over to the stereo and poked the eject button.
"Hey, come on!" someone protested angrily. Steven Tyler picked up the CD in the same disgusted way I'd picked up his autographed picture that morning. "A BURNED CD? ELECTRONICA MIX? WHAT’S ALL THIS!? YOU CATS NEED SOME REAL MUSIC AT THIS PARTY, UH YEA YEA YEA-AH!!" He slipped in a disk and pressed play.
Immediately, the opening strains of "Love in an Elevator" began shaking the house. "GOO WINNG DOOWWWN," howled the studio recorded Steven Tyler. The real Steven Tyler stood in front of us, smiling with giant liver lips. He closed his eyes and lip synched along.
One girl started crying, and several kids walked outside to call their parents and say they needed to be taken home. I didn't blame them. I bit my lip with frustration. Would Steven Tyler ruin every party ever? It seemed that the answer was yes, absolutely.
"WHERE’S THAT CAKE YOUR MOM PROMISED!" Steven Tyler yelled out to no one in particular. He didn't even know whose birthday it was. I wanted to pretend that I didn't know either, but someone looked at me and said “Yeah, where's that cake?”
Steven Tyler walked over and hugged me. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YEA-AAHUH!" I felt greasy and misused. "LET’S GO GET US SOME CUH-YAH-UKE!!!" he yelled and sang at the same time.
Mom brought out the cake. As expected, it was mildly yellow with a brown powder sprinkled on the top. The words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” were scribbled in icing. Actually, it really didn't look that bad. Sort of like an overripe banana. I'd almost convinced myself to try the cake when Steven Tyler stuck his nasty finger into the cake, pulled it out, and licked it.
"EAT THE CAKE!" he sang. "THERE'S ONLY ONE THING THAT IT'S GOOD FOR!" Then he laughed hysterically. "THAT CAKE’S AMAZING, MRS COMBS!!!!" he told my mother, who was busy trying to light all the candles on the cake.
"Thank you, Steven," she said, smiling and blushing. I remembered that she'd once told me that she had a huge crush on Steven Tyler in her youth and I felt sick to my stomach.
The stereo was still playing Aerosmith tracks. That - along with the ragged hole in the top of the cake - eliminated any hunger I might have. I did not even want to look at the birthday cake, which - due to Steven Tyler's disgusting finger - now read "HAPPY BIRTRDAY". But everyone crowded around and sang, and I had to blow out the candles. "Make a wish!" Mom exclaimed.
"HERE, LET ME HELP!" chirped Steven Tyler, and he blew on the candles. His fish-like lips flapped like a heavy, damp curtain in the wind. Spittle flew everywhere, and the candles were extinguished. "YUH YEAAH-AAH!" he shouted, and everyone clapped politely. Mom cut everyone a piece, and it tasted exactly like it sounded. Like a lemon coconut cake with unsweetened cocoa and Steven Tyler spit on top. I couldn't even eat two bites, and I noticed a lot of untouched slices sitting around the house later. Steven Tyler ate five pieces while he drank half the bottle of whiskey.
Half an hour later, he was crawling around on all fours and dry-heaving. I never actually saw him get sick, but there was a rancid smell from behind the potted plant in the corner. He stood up every few minutes and ate another plateful of cake and had another swig of whiskey (just watching the rising and falling levels in the bottle, I estimated at least three bottles consumed during the birthday party) and then he crawled around on the floor and talked to himself some more. About the only times he walked like a normal human being were when he was hitting on the fifteen-year-olds from my class or when he was putting in a new Aerosmith CD. After the first CD ended (he announced that it was a mix of his very favorite tracks), he started on the very first Aerosmith album and went through them all chronologically.
Somewhere after “Night in the Ruts” but before “Get a Grip,” Steven Tyler came up to me and asked if he could borrow five dollars “for a magic trick.” When I opened my wallet and said all I had was a bunch of tens, he said “YUUAAYUH! LET’S TRY EM OUT!” and took them all. Then he tucked them in the waistband of his leather pants. I didn’t even try to get it back. That was all the cash I had in the world and the only birthday present I got, other than Steven Tyler’s presence.
* * *
Steven Tyler stuck around at my Sweet Sixteenth for nine hours. Long after all the other kids had made sad, fake excuses and left early, Steven Tyler told me he was going “to make sure [I] got my money’s worth.” Then he passed out for a few minutes, whiskey bottle still in hand. When I finally went to bed, he was still listening to his own albums and staggering around.
The next morning, I woke up feeling ill. My stomach ached and I couldn’t stop thinking about the evening before. Would anyone ever talk to me again?
When I walked downstairs, I saw the worst sight ever. Steven Tyler was passed out in the living room. His thick lips were smeared with the remains of the birthday cake, and some icing was on his nose. The remains of his last bottle of whiskey were spilled on the carpet and he smelled like he’d pooped himself. I wanted to push him a little with my foot so he’d wake up, but I was also uncomfortable about rousing him.
When I turned off the stereo, he snorted and woke up a little. When he realized I was the one walking around, it was like an electric shock hit him. His eyes lit up. “WUH-YAAAYUH,” he shouted at me. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY! WAWNA BIRTHDAY SONG?”
“My birthday was yesterday, Mr. Tyler,” I said, but he didn’t care. “TAWKIN BOUT THANGS THAT NOBODY CARES,” he yelped like a kicked puppy. “WEARIN OUT THANGS THAT NOBODY WEARS.”
I backed out of the room and went back to bed. And as I covered my head with a pillow, hoping that he’d quiet down and hoping the neighbors couldn’t hear, I felt a little sad. My parents had believed that hiring Steven Tyler was a smart and considerate thing. They thought that they were making my birthday an affair to remember.
And who was to say that they hadn’t? As I listened to Steven Tyler’s shrieking in the living room, I realized that I was now an adult, that Steven Tyler had somehow ushered me through childhood and into maturity. And, remembering the way that my mother had blushed while looking at Steven Tyler’s freak show lips, like two painted goldfish wriggling for air in the middle of his face, I hoped to God that I’d been adopted.