Every year we had to spend the evening of February 28th with our next-door neighbors, Barney and Emma. They were a couple whom we struggled to connect meaningfully with. Their apartment was the mirror floor plan of ours, and they were demographically identical to us, but the most delightful little coincidence was that we and they had the same anniversary.
Technically that’s not correct. Our anniversary was Leap Day, February 29th, which famously does not return every year. When Barney and Emma found out about this, they insisted we celebrate our anniversary with them, as if we were children with summer birthdays, and they were teachers pitying us with an ice cream social.
As we stepped into their apartment for their first anniversary we had the feeling of being subjugated. It was not our anniversary. Our anniversary was arguably the next day, but technically it was on a day that squeezed itself into and out of the calendar as a mischievous little treat. The forces of conformity, we felt, were bringing us into line.
We spent the evening cheersing. We got wine teeth. And slowly we regained our confidence, as we realized that they were boring. They were both good-looking, with clear skin and expensive tattoos. She wore makeup competently, he was pretty tall. Their conversation topics were well-reviewed podcasts and documentaries, or sometimes a debate prompt like, “Is a hotdog a sandwich,” meant to provoke good-natured pedantry. Their apartment was put-together, with the spider plants and the end tables and the tasteful bong. It was stimulating because it was stultifying, in that it made us think compulsively about their sex life. The source of their interest in each other, when they seemed so dull, had to be that which was concealed, and it had to be pretty compelling. But we equally enjoyed thinking that wasn’t the case at all: that their shallow and conventional relation to each other went all the way down, and they had no secret. And naturally we enjoyed thinking that they were thinking the same of us, and how wrong that would make them.
We went mad with smugness. It seemed thematically harmonious with the difference between the basic February 28th and the idiosyncratic February 29th. We went back into our own apartment clinging to each other and immediately made love.
They brought us around again the next year. February 28th. Technically, our first anniversary had not yet come to pass. It was Barney and Emma’s second. This time it was a party. Heterosexual couples populated the apartment and Barney and Emma took on the energetic aspects of hosts. We brought some chairs over from our apartment as well as plain potato chips. It was as humid as a gym. We learned which couples were married and which couples were engaged. We agreed that the corniest thing that could happen this evening would be for Barney and Emma to get engaged. Which is what they did. In high school, people go out for four years without ever moving beyond mouth stuff, but when you’re 30, people go out for two years and then get married. We found ourselves clapping and even slightly crying. In the face of so much joy, and pride, and social reward, our smugness felt adolescent and unbecoming. Who were we to imply that they were marrying simply to follow convention, or rather, that that was at odds with emotional actualization? What did we know about them? And how stupid were we not to see what they saw plainly, and had seen all their lives, which was that enjoying convention was akin to having a button that you could push for an instant orgasm, and pushing it over and over again, with no fear of reprisal, and no threat of insanity, and no diminishment of rapture?
The third year, on February 28th, they held their wedding. The date was to be carried into their married life as their wedding anniversary. They would have a bashful little routine to do for the rest of their lives, exactly like ours, “Well, it’s our first anniversary, well, technically our fourth, well, who’s counting…”
Barney and Emma’s wedding took place in the stunning botanical garden walking distance from our apartment. We were not invited. We were not, in truth, their friends, only their neighbors. We agreed to take care of their dog during the tumultuous day. Their dog had the same name as everyone else’s dog, and occupied the sweet spot of photogenic but not purebred. The dog was a celebrity on Instagram and had hundreds of thousands of followers. It had had several traumatic experiences on airplanes, flying for trips related to its quick rise to fame, so it was now too nervous to attend the wedding.
We allowed ourselves to think it an ill omen for their marriage. The way they maneuvered this child-substitute, the avatar of innocence, as a prop for their vanity. We didn’t think the voice they gave the dog in its Instagram captions was very fitting for the dog. Naturally we envisioned the dog as a baby, and Barney and Emma as narcissistic parents.
“You’re famous,” we told the dog. “You have three hundred and fifty thousand Instagram followers.” It had no reaction, which was the point.
Come now into our apartment, we told the dog. We encircled it conspiratorially like witches and passed our hands over it. The dog will like us better than its parents. It will see something and know something about us. But instead it got too nervous and peed on the carpet and cried and cried. When Barney and Emma came to retrieve it, giddy drunk and profusely thankful, they were married and it was the early hours of March 1st. We decided that taking care of a baby was actually easier than taking care of a dog, or even a plant. Because it was made of the same things as you and you knew what it needed. And also because you loved it more.
The fourth year, February 28th was at last followed by February 29th. Leap Day. But by that date Barney and Emma, the couple, did not exist anymore. Barney had succumbed early to his midlife crisis and had left not only the apartment but his career and the state, and was never heard from again. Emma kept the dog, who lost an eye to an infection and became even more beloved online wearing little outfits with eye patches.
So we spent Leap Day, our first anniversary, after four years, alone. The traditional first-anniversary present theme is paper, and the fourth anniversary present theme is flowers or fruit, so we made each other crude flowers and fruits out of paper, and had a silly time smelling them and biting them, saying, “Mmm, smells like nothing,” and, “How fibrous, you know, the roughage is good for you.” From the point of view of this story, this might seem like the first time we were properly alone together. But that’s not true. We actually spent almost all our time alone together, and our deranged jealousy and contempt of our good-looking neighbors didn’t preoccupy more than a week of each year. Now that their relationship was over, we marveled at how accelerated the whole thing had been, from courtship to divorce, and our smugness crept back. We, on the other hand, had spent four years coming to our first anniversary, luxurious and slow like a blooming flower. That Leap Day we had the sense that we were living against a unique clock that was stopped most of the time and only ticked down rarely, and that our slow progress afforded us secret hours. This, of course, was a grave error, and a wild misinterpretation of the nature of things. ⬛