To call it a birthday party would be a bit of a stretch.
It was my 22nd—not a particularly celebration-worthy year to begin with. I also didn’t have any friends with whom to celebrate. I was only a couple months into what would be a year-long stint as an intern at The Bakersfield Californian, and furthermore—since I was in the employ of a newspaper reporting news—planning ahead was a shady proposition.
Still, when my roommate Shelly got wind that my birthday was coming up, she sweetly insisted that we simply had to do something. Not being one to pass up an opportunity for free food, I suggested dinner at home.
To call it “home” might have been a bit of a stretch, too, come to think of it. The stucco ranch house in Bakersfield’s sprawling, suburban northwest was the first and only place I saw after I got the job. I was fresh from Berkeley, which is about as far from Bakersfield as you can get ideologically. If California is a big, swirling Jupiter, then Bakersfield is the Red Spot. (I’d heard Bakersfield called the “Armpit of California” before I moved, but I found that to be true only in overall sweatiness, rough geographical location, and occasionally scent.) I’d figured my best house-hunting plan would be to find a room where I could hole up and watch TV unbothered by any potentially gun-toting, giant truck-driving peers. I skipped Craigslist ads for “fun” roommates who’d be “down to chill” or whatnot, and went straight for the ones seeking a “quiet, responsible” boarder.
That is exactly what I was. For the first couple months that I lived with Shelly and Annette, we didn’t talk much. We were all friendly, of course. When we passed in the kitchen, we’d chat about our days. In the evening, Shelly, who worked early morning shifts for FedEx, would offer me a bowl of chili before she shuffled off to her room. If Annette was sitting at the counter with her 8-year-old son while he did his homework, I’d ask how it was going.
But really, we didn’t have much in common. Both Shelly and Annette were grandmothers, for one thing, which meant they each had two levels of parenting-related life experience on me. For another, they were both Christians. My dad grew up Jewish and some of my mom’s Japanese-American relatives had Buddhist leanings. In our house, that translated into a mish-mash of general agnosticism, which had always played well in Berkeley. In Bakersfield, though, I tried to make sure my immortal soul, or lack thereof, kept a low profile. I said nothing when I found out our wi-fi password was GodIsLove, and I ignored the porch decoration that read “Bless This House,” in cutesy lettering.
By the time my birthday rolled around in early August, if Shelly was concerned about my spiritual well-being, she’d certainly never mentioned it to me.
So it was a bit of a jolt when, just as we were about to tuck into a veritable feast of glistening flautas and chicken enchiladas Shelly had picked up for the occasion, she politely yet firmly asked that we pause to say grace.
Say grace? As far as I could remember, no one had ever asked me to say grace before, and they definitely haven’t since. For a moment, I thought about it. Should I take a stand against such a casual assumption of mutual faith? My Berkeley impulses cried out that it was my party, and I could refuse to thank the divine for my takeout if I wanted to.
Annette, her boyfriend, and her son put down their forks. I lowered the taquito.
We all bent our heads, and I tried not to peek at everybody else as Shelly prayed. Something along the lines of, “Thank you, oh Lord, for our food and this beautiful house and for the good company.”
While she spoke, I felt at least one layer of cynicism wash away—just for a minute. Hundreds of miles from the nearest person who loved me, I felt like part of a family. “Amen,” we said. And I meant it.