happy birthday, santiago

One year there was a dinner, and senhora didn’t know that it was my birthday. I was going to take a day off, it was November 20th, and senhora said to me, “Look, Santiago, I’d like you to postpone the trip, go later if you can, because I have a very important dinner for some visitors from Europe.” And so, very well, I stayed… When they came, there were about 60 people dining, all chic, and at midnight the head waiter — there were about twenty waiters serving — comes and says, “Santiago, madame is calling you.” I say, “How is that possible? She’s calling me?” I was tidying away some porcelain, but I went over there. And she said, “A moment of silence, please, this is Santiago, my butler, today is his birthday and we’re going to toast him,” and they all lifted their glasses and drank champagne, and I drank with them… That was the greatest prize for me. I had postponed my birthday, and I wound up celebrating it with French champagne. With Laurent-Perrier. Laurent-Perrier! The best there was.

November 20th, 2012 snuck up on me.  He’d been born on November 20th, 1912. The hundredth anniversary of my thesis subject. (I said this to many people and they were understandably confused until I explained that my subject is a physical subject, being a person. “Oh, it’s a man. Well, that’s different.”) Birthdays in Sunchales, in Buenos Aires, in Mexico City, in Cuernavaca, in Washington, in Rio, and now in Princeton.

I realized about a week before the actual date; and the knowledge of the proximity of Santiago’s hundredth birthday inspired something close to full-blown panic. Daydreaming in lecture, I scrawled a list of ways to commemorate it: opera, lights, flowers, champagne. But my budget and patent lack of talent for interior design and party planning in general paralyzed me. I knew that whatever I did would be paltry, fall just short enough of adequacy to make the whole sad farce visible, make his absence even more glaring. I consulted friends, professors, classmates, patiently explaining who Santiago was and why this needed to be done just right. I canceled engagements to make time.

The evening of November 20th, 2012, however, found me wandering unsteadily across campus in high heels, in search of transparent plastic cups. Continue reading