A Birthday Inspired by a 1996 Movie About Death

New York City is a beach town, and in the fall it is a haunted beach town.

A collage of a birthday cake, a Rockaway Beach sign, a still from the movie To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, and a woman at a bar.
Alamy; The Atlantic

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Kaitlyn: According to the 2016 book Love in the Afterlife: Underground Religion at the Movies, the late 1980s brought the beginning of “a surge of new supernatural romances” to movie theaters. You know—Beetlejuice (1988), a movie about a young couple who die and become ghosts; Ghost (1990), a movie about Patrick Swayze getting murdered mere days after moving into an amazing apartment. There were lots of others.

And by 1996, there was a movie called To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, which was based on a play and panned by The New York Times as “one very sad Gap ad indeed.” I don’t want to get too deep into it, but the movie is about a man (Peter Gallagher) whose wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) dies on her 35th birthday by falling off the mast of a sailboat, which she was climbing while taunting him about how, as her “fun-loving husband,” he should encourage her to risk her life in cool and photogenic ways. (She also rode her bike with no handlebars.) Two years later, the couple’s teenage daughter (Claire Danes) is suffering because her father is not grieving in a normal manner. He has quit his job at Boston University, and he has moved permanently into the family’s Nantucket beach house, from which he plans elaborate birthday parties for his dead wife, with whom he also speaks constantly. At the risk of splitting hairs, it seems to me that Gillian is more of a hallucination or a thought experiment than she is a ghost in the sense that most would imagine. The movie is supernatural, though, sure. And it is relevant to our lives because our friend Meredith stumbled across it many years ago and decided that she would like to use it as inspiration for her own 37th birthday, a decision that doesn’t make sense but that she stuck to all the way up to a recent weekend, when she followed through on the plan by renting herself a small house in the Rockaways and moving in for a few days with a bag full of oversize button-down shirts. I’m sure you can see why she would be friends with us—almost everything we do has some kind of (no offense) silly explanation like this.

In the email inviting everyone to stop by during her birthday-weekend office hours, Meredith informed us that the dress code would be “coastal grandmother, but younger, and dead; ghostal ghostmother!!”

Lizzie: I didn’t prepare for this party as thoroughly as Kaitlyn, who committed to watching the entirety of To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday the night before the party. In fact, I hadn’t even watched the full trailer until just now. Kaitlyn dutifully ran me through the plot on our way there, but I’m just realizing now that the movie might be a comedy. The trailer ends with Peter Gallagher admitting to some woman that he sometimes “swims with” his dead wife in the ocean at night. Then another guy standing in the room asks, “Is she naked?” Is it comedy to surface the visual of your friend’s dead wife’s ghostly nipples against ocean waves? You can see how the movie’s boundaries are confusing. The first half of the trailer opens with a jaunty little tune and what sounds like a slightly off-kilter rom-com premise, but by the end of it, you’re left with strong vibes of Leland Palmer dancing alone.

The boundaries of my outfit were confusing too, partly because I had just gotten out of the shower when Kaitlyn texted that the A train was doing something weird that was going to require an extra 30 minutes of travel time and a bus ride. I put on what is perhaps my only long-sleeve shirt—one advertising a podcast—plus pants and a sweatshirt and a jacket, and agreed to meet Kaitlyn at the A in 23 minutes, neglecting to realize that it was going to take me 19 minutes to walk there. Unfortunately for my choice of shirt and my timing, I did see someone I knew on the walk to the train, which caused a minor unexpected delay. When I got there—sweating and seven minutes behind schedule—I shuffled shamefully up to Kaitlyn, who was staring up at a sign indicating a new price increase on a dollar slice. And yet, that walk to the A would turn out to be the most efficient part of our commute to the Rockaways.

Kaitlyn: The name of the pizza place was 99-CENT PIZZA, and I’ve been in and out of there in my past, so I know that the name was once accurate. Yet current signage indicates that a “regular slice” costs $1.25. “Inflation,” Lizzie told me, with a wise little glance at the ground. Days are dark.

Anyway, I hesitate to complain about New York public transit, because nobody really has anything new to say about the ways in which it disappoints. Sometimes I read the reports that are posted online by the Office of the MTA Inspector General and I just shake my head. It’s chaos over there, and who could possibly fix it? Not I, although there are a few decisions I think I could have improved upon easily. (Like, for instance, naming a boat “Perfect Storm.”)

To keep it short: The A wasn’t running all the way to the Rockaways—because of repairs or maintenance or whatever it is they’re doing when they shut down sections of train tracks you’d like to use—and we made a mistake when we chose which bus to switch to in East New York, which meant we ended up on a bus for a very long time. So long, in fact, that it became eerie. At one point, we looked up at a plane that appeared to be suspended in the sky—not moving forward, up, down, or even backward. “There’s something not right about that plane,” I said to the other people on the bus. None of them cared.

An MTA city bus to Far Rockaway.
A free shuttle bus replacing part of the A train line, allegedly. (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Lizzie: I think sometimes planes just look like they’re not moving, and this 2012 blog post from something called The Engineer’s Pulse backs me up. Basically, when a plane is landing, it is, obviously, moving more slowly than it does at “cruising speed,” and also it’s far away, and we’re bad at judging what things are doing when they’re far away. We learned this in My Cousin Vinny when Vinny convinces us that we can’t trust any of the witnesses’ versions of the crime because they were far away and wore prescription glasses. Here’s a tip from The Engineer’s Pulse: “The next time you perceive a plane to be moving oddly slowly, remember that it is as long as a plane, not a bus.” I don’t see how you can argue with that.

Speaking of buses, Kaitlyn is right that we were on the bus forever. Like at least 40 minutes? And we didn’t stop at all! At one point I thought the bus driver might be going home or something. Maybe he zoned out and forgot we were all sitting back there waiting to deboard. We did eventually touch down in the Rockaways after getting off the bus and back on the train again. Now we just had to find Gillian! I mean, Meredith.

Kaitlyn: While we were texting Meredith and trying to figure out where she was, she appeared suddenly on a street corner—a glimpse of the Atlantic behind her, just like Gillian! (She was wearing beachy jeans and a light sweater in a ’90s shade of rose.) She and the beginnings of her birthday crew had already been to several locations, including a tiki bar and the ocean. They were on their way to Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which is a nice patio framed by a bar and a taco stand. I’ve become annoying to my friends on this point, but did you know it’s pretty close to Patti Smith’s house?

We drank $15 margaritas in plastic cups and talked about the weather. We had all dressed for the frigid ocean breezes of an autumn ghost story, and now it was sunny and warm and we felt foolish. This mild conversation was interrupted by the sound of loud barking noises, coming from what could only have been an adult man … Nobody knew what to do about this, so we just bought some chips and salsa and changed the subject. Meredith and I were the only people at the table who had seen To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday—in my case because of journalistic rigor—so we recapped the harrowing scene in which Peter Gallagher catches sight of a young woman’s butt at the beach and, as Meredith put it, “likes what he sees.” Upon realizing that this butt belongs to his own daughter, teenage Claire Danes, he tackles her with a towel and berates her. “You can really tell it’s based on a play,” Meredith said. And she’s right; plays do have more incestual undertones than movies, for whatever reason. (Don’t you think you would recognize your own child’s butt? Or like, the shape of the back of her torso? Her haircut?)

At this point, Meredith told us an absolutely haunting story about a man she dated recently who did a number of things I don’t want to give him the thrill of recounting (seriously, screw you!), and also said “ya” instead of “you” in text messages. Not to be all, “Ladies … I think you know the type,” but I think you know the type!

Lizzie: That story had me white-knuckling my little wooden stool and putting my mouth inside my podcast shirt, and I loved it! I love stories that are none of my business.

Meanwhile, the Rockaway Surf Club was playing dance remixes of classic songs like “Tiny Dancer” and “Jolene.” Maybe that inspired us to steer our conversation toward cultural touchstones—for example, the 2012 Bravo series Gallery Girls, which starred 20-somethings in the art world (generally meaning 20-somethings whose dads collected art, and, according to The Huffington Post at the time, “the worst of what we associate with Williamsburg, Brooklyn”). A related thought for a birthday party: A lot can change in 10 years.

Kaitlyn: Yes, in 2012 people were worried about Williamsburg’s production of “hipsters,” and now it seems that the neighborhood and the “edgy” magazines based there actually produced at least some of the current far right. I was going to praise myself, Lizzie, and Meredith for constructing our life narratives—and the bulk of this newsletter installment—out of hoarded bits of popular culture, but now I wonder if that’s inappropriate and we shouldn’t be doing it …

Well, after I made Meredith tell me the plot twist in Don’t Worry Darling, a man that had been mysteriously close to the source of the barking noises came over and told us the Surf Club would be closing at 6:30 for a wedding. So we took our bag of chips over to Meredith’s Airbnb—the most precious, adorable, cozy little shack with perfect shingle siding that anyone had ever seen. Lizzie and I spun around in the yard in a panic, wondering if we could move to the Rockaways. Would our friends come visit? Would we be exempt from “return to office” policies if our commute was two hours? Would we get tired of being neighbors mostly with surfers and Patti Smith?

Inside, Meredith showed us a sweatshirt that her friend Martín had given her, which said In My Honk-Shoo Era above a sleeping cartoon bear. Apparently something she loves is when cartoons are sleeping and their breath sounds like honk-shoo, honk-shoo, honk-shoo, mi mi mi mi mi.

Lizzie: The beach cottage really made me feel unstable for a good 10 minutes. It had a huge yard and a lofted bedroom and pocket doors and probably sand between the floorboards. Martín could see me and Kaitlyn forming our Rockaway-living fantasies in real time and reminded us that whatever we were imagining wouldn’t be the reality, but he said it in a nicer way.

We sat in the yard and ate cookies and talked about weed and work. When the sun started to set, we shared a car home with Martín because we were all going in the same direction and no one wanted to get back on the infinite shuttle bus. I don’t normally derive much pleasure from things like “a sunset,” but the gradient was really perfect that night—kind of orange and blue, like Kaitlyn’s new favorite sports team, the Mets.

View out the front window of a car at sunset.
A Mets-branded sunset. (Courtesy of Lizzie Plaugic)

Kaitlyn: The view of the Manhattan skyline was something to write home about!

A second round of birthday office hours was scheduled for the following day, and Martín mentioned that he would be heading back to the Rockaways to hang out with Meredith some more. We complimented him on his commitment to the friendship, and he said something beautiful: He and Meredith are “infinite friends,” which means they are content to do anything at all for any length of time in each other’s company. It doesn’t matter what it is!

“Like you guys, I think,” he added. We had never thought about whether we could have a good time together no matter what, but we were really pleased that this seemed like the case to a near stranger. It’s true that we had fun journeying all the way out to Queens and then not even setting foot on the actual beach.

Lizzie: Little did Martín know, but as you all probably do by now, Kaitlyn is pretty invested in the idea of a friendship-ruining fight, and to be creatively intertwined like this seems even more dangerous. I’m not saying we’re hoping for a fallout; I’m saying we’re bracing for one. I can see the email I’ll have to send down the line, after years of silence between us: “To Kaitlyn, on your 37th birthday …” Oh my God, she’s not dead in this scenario; just dead to me. And I to her. Why don’t they make a movie about that?