ain’t nothin’ but a number

When I was seventeen, the sleepy-eyed 26-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Peggy in 42nd Street fell hard for me. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he’d start, his thumbs pressing the tape into the back of my neck for far longer than he needed to, “but—you’re beautiful.” I’d giggle and look away, not sure what to do, unused to being told I was beautiful and uncomfortable that it was coming from someone older than my sister. (That’s always been my barrier. Are they older than my sister? Then they’re old. Sorry, sissy.)

The night before we opened, he was gone. I think it had more to do with him showing up strung out every night than with him preying on the underaged star, but I was left with the keen sense that I was swimming in deeper waters than I could handle. I was seventeen and a young seventeen at that, and I had read enough Cosmopolitan to be terrified by the prospect of… well… you know.

Time passed, and to my great relief, I discovered that Cosmo had exaggerated the number of alternate purposes I would find for my scrunchies in the real world. (Tangentially, I sometimes wonder what would happen if women were as pushy about the ideas they read in Cosmo (http://jezebel.com/5919206/cosmos-44-most-ridiculous-sex-tips) as men are about porn. Would our nation’s emergency rooms suddenly be filled with men suffering from unspeakable chafing injuries?)

(When I was 21, conversely, I fell hard for the sleepy-eyed eighteen-year-old sound engineer who taped a microphone cord to the back of my neck every night before I went onstage as Nadine in The Wild Party. It started as a means to check a certain box off my senior year bucket list, but before I even had a chance to remind myself that I was a wild and unfettered senior and not a cradle-robber, I was smitten. Time and geography eventually separated us and now when I stalk him on Facebook I sort of feel like his older sister, which is something Freudian that I don’t want to think about too much.)

I am so aware at every moment of how old and how young I am, of the precise spot I occupy on the space-time continuum. It’s a spot that seems to shift depending on who’s looking at me. “You’re so young,” my coworkers say to me every once in a while when I make a reference to being born in 1989 or admit that I’ve only seen “Saved by the Bell” in syndication.

But that doesn’t happen as often as it used to a few years, during my first year at the company when I was 23. Now I gleefully join in teasing the new generation of 23-year-olds—I work at a software company where there is always a new batch of 23-year-olds, wunderkinds who write software code that solves the most existential problems of CEOs on the Fortune 500, then wake up the next morning to realize that they left their laptop at the bar. “Infants,” I tell them, “you’re all infants,” mostly because they are infants but also because I need to say something to make me stop worrying about the fact that I am no longer a wunderkind myself. (Mostly, though, I take great pleasure in being just older enough that I seem wise without being totally irrelevant yet.)

I feel lately like I’ve been in an extended renegotiation process with my feelings about my age. I had just turned 24 two and a half years ago when I started dating a 33-year-old, which made me feel more special and precocious than anything, even more than working at a company where people regularly marveled at my youth. “I thought you were older,” he said at first, which felt like bullshit given that we’d known each other for a year and that I look so young that, as an adult, I have not once but twice been asked by TSA agents if I’m under twelve. (If you’re under twelve, you don’t have to go through the backscatter X-ray. If a TSA agent thinks you’re under twelve, even though you’re carrying a branded corporate laptop bag and you have a fully grown set of adult breasts, he will actually turn off the machine and ask you your age.)

My next boyfriend was 36. I guess you could call it my older man phase, though I think the second relationship was something of an attempt to make up for the first one, which ended disastrously when it became apparent that I was actually 24 and that even smart 24-year-olds who don’t like brunch are still basically children. That breakup left me reeling. I had just turned 25 and I was watching the new generation of infant geniuses take up the wunderkind mantle at work and my ex-boyfriend had just written me a screed informing me that our breakup was my fault for being immature. (“Imagine one’s girlfriend, nine years one’s junior,” it began, as though I had performed some kind of Catfish-style bait-and-switch instead of just being a pretty girl of ambiguous age with a deceptively robust vocabulary.) So I found a new thirtysomething to prove that I was still special, and then I realized that I’m actually 26 and that even smart 26-year-olds who don’t like brunch are just barely not children and not remotely qualified to get married or have them.

I am dealing now with the repercussions of my older man phase and, at the same time, with the first stirrings of the notion that I’m no longer the freshest thing on the shelf. It was so disorienting to be introduced to my older boyfriends’ family and friends and to sense that they were wondering quietly—or not so quietly, in some cases—what role I was supposed to be playing. I recall a dinner with that first boyfriend’s college roommate and his wife where I was suddenly, keenly aware of how young I was compared to all of them, that two nights later I would be taking Fireball shots at the bar for my friend’s 25th birthday, that I didn’t use eye cream.

(As an aside, last summer I went on a series of terrible dates with men—let’s call them boys—closer to my age. One of them texted me five minutes before our second date to tell me that he hadn’t left his office yet; another smoked three cigarettes in my face and told me that he thought Uber was evil. They had roommates and plans to go to grad school in a couple years, maybe, and I felt old all over again, with my wristwatch and my career and my burgeoning awareness that occasionally, I understand where fiscal conservatives are coming from. It was a mindful attempt to not date people who are older than me just because they also don’t like brunch that taught me that perhaps I should just not date anybody because everyone is terrible in their own unique way.)

I rely so much on my age to tell me what I mean at a given moment. I am younger than you, I am precious or irritating; I am older than you, I’m worldly or maybe I’m pathetic. At 26, fast approaching my late twenties, it occurs to me that from now until many years from now my age will be mostly irrelevant. There are only a few things you can do after 25 or so to be impressive beyond your years and since I’m not about to found a company or publish something literary, I’m pretty sure I’m about to embark on several years of being decidedly average for my age. In ten years or so it will become weird that I’m not married; in fifteen, that I’m not a parent. (And then eventually I think I’ll become one of the kind of old lady who people describe as a “firecracker,” whacking manspreaders on the subway with my cane. Or maybe I’ll just get a cane now and start whacking manspreaders with it.)

Much of growing older makes me sad. The notion of putting away childish things: that I no longer find the joy I once did in novels written for teenagers, that I can’t make the time to perform in community theatre musicals. That I’m never quite as joyful as I was as a child or even as a teenager, that I’ll never be as excited as I was on the first date I ever went on, when I was fifteen (and he, of course, was seventeen). And I’m not naive enough to think that I am anything approaching old, no matter how often I tell my 23-year-old coworkers that they make me feel like a grandmother. I am well aware of how much is left in the world for me to discover.

But for most of my life I’ve built my identity on being little, precocious, special, and that’s really the childish thing that I’m putting away. When I was seven the principal of my elementary school pulled me out of class and made me read out loud from a novel to some visiting official from the school district. I felt validated—whatever that means to a seven-year-old with giant glasses and no friends—in the same way that seventeen years later, I felt validated because an older man that I thought was sophisticated told me that he loved me. It’s been kind of disturbing to realize that such a pillar of my identity is so perishable.

And at the same time it’s invigorating, to realize that my Finnish ancestors all lived until they were about a hundred and ten so I’m only a quarter of the way done, and I have three-quarters of a life left to remake myself into something that doesn’t rely on other people perceiving me in a certain way for me to feel validated or like there’s a reason for me to be here. Like, hey, I’m a person in my own right, and I’m special because I’m special, not because I know more words than the other kids or because I don’t watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. That means that I have to supply another reason why I’m special, of course, which is scary, but it also imbues me with a sense of purpose. Every time I write another chapter of my novel (once every twelve weeks or so, which doesn’t bode well for ever finishing), or get a thank-you email from a coworker, I feel a little closer to finding who I am irrespective of my age and what I am or am not doing with it. I feel more confident that I am doing it right by being alone. I feel wise, almost.

dana got run over by a reindeer

This holiday season, I fell into a funk, captured for posterity in a series of journal entries where I asked myself some variation of “what’s wrong with me?”

I blame Christmas, when the answer to this question is obvious: I don’t have access to a baby or a purse dog or a mini-SUV that I can dress in antlers. It’s all I can do to decorate my apartment past the point of it looking like a prison cell, let alone put up a tree. Although I own an impressive wardrobe of sweaters, I look weird in knit hats. I’ve still never seen either Miracle on 34th Street or Die Hard.

In a nutshell—roasting over an open fire—Christmas is the time of year when being a normal, functional adult is both the most attractive and the most elusive.

For most of my life, I’ve unabashedly loved Christmas. Every year, I have a ritual first listening of Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Until I was probably way older than I should admit on the Internet, I used to close out Christmas whispering to myself in bed, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” I love Christmas so much that when I go to Christmas with my family, I magically transform into my eight-year-old self, and not in the cute way, either. In the “I want to sit on the couch and read Harry Potter! Don’t make me empty the dishwasher!” way.

As I grow older, the holidays serve as a progressively harsher reminder of all of the ways that I’ve failed at adulthood. For instance, eating: what was once a normal activity regulated by my brain stem and aided by my ready access to grocery stores that stock hundreds of different kinds of cereal is now an emotional undertaking that requires yoga breathing and me giving myself inspirational talks in the mirror. Fifteen years ago I was eleven and eating a Chocolate Orange and waffles and maybe part of my sister’s Chocolate Orange. Two years ago I was 24 and I stuck my finger down my throat after Thanksgiving leftovers. How do you reconcile that? What went wrong during those thirteen years? Is there any part of me that is, like Sandra Cisneros, still eleven, and if there is can I find it and cling to it and let it rocket me back into the past like the flux capacitor?

I want desperately to turn back the clock, to be eleven and twelve and thirteen and flop my body along the armchair that once sat in the corner of our living room and now sits in the corner of my studio apartment. I want to read the third Harry Potter for the first time like I did on Christmas in 2001 or so and I want it to be okay that I’m doing that instead of emptying the dishwasher.

In short, on Christmas, the troll inside me that usually only emerges when the N/Q is delayed or one of my coworkers tries to correct my grammar overcomes me.

My trollishness is exacerbated by the fact that everyone else seems to be having a great time. Especially now that everyone has an ugly baby to put in a Christmas onesie, while here I am fifth-wheeling with my family for the 26th year running except for that one awkward year when I brought home a Jewish vegetarian I had been dating for like five minutes and everyone kept offering him bacon. I mostly just want to lock myself in my room, write slam poetry in my journal, and listen to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on repeat, and everyone keeps trying to get me to do things like play Settlers of Catan.

I find a happy medium in the corner with my Kindle, where I drink a beer and glare at everyone. It’s much like the Christmases of my youth, plus alcohol, which means that at some point I’ll stop pouting and start giggling, if we’re lucky, or antagonizing everybody, if we’re not. Then later in the evening—around 8:30, if we’re feeling wild and we stay up late—I retreat to my room and think about what a pill I’ve been for the past twelve hours and wonder if I’d be happier if I had a baby to dress up in a Christmas onesie.

This is the question I ask constantly during the holidays, when I look at Facebook and the family sitting in the row in front of me on my flight out of JFK and the Christmas cards with family photos on them: are you happy? Are you happier than me? Will I ever be as happy as you? How? How do you find happiness when you can’t be eleven anymore and stomp your foot and stamp out of the room and read in your bedroom while the rest of the world goes on around you? How did you grow up and why am I finding it so hard to?

I was happy on Christmas when I was eleven and all I needed to be happy was a Chocolate Orange and the new Harry Potter. I was happy on Christmas when I was nineteen and I was at home with my parents for the first time in five months. I was happy on Christmas when I was 24 and I was finally not the fifth wheel of the Cass family station wagon. I was happy last year, reading books for the first time since I gave up on the anorexia thing and talking with my grandmother for what turned out to be the last time before she passed away a month later.

This year, it felt like the weight of the past 26 years came crashing down on my shoulders: the knowledge that I am no longer eleven so I can’t act like a troll at family gatherings, that I’m bad at relationships and that means I might die alone with cats eating my face, that I’m a recovering anorexic and that means that I can’t eat a cinnamon roll without poking and prodding at my stomach for the next twelve hours.

The transition to adulthood is less of a precipice than an interminably long catwalk, where I’ve been perched for several years now, inching incrementally closer toward being a mature and selfless human and constantly, dramatically, flinging myself backward. It occurred to me this Christmas that the magic secret that everyone else seems to have discovered is something relating to not being a complete jackass all of the time. It’s contrary to my nature as a selfish troll (“spoiled brat,” as my ex-boyfriend once said, memorably) but seems like a necessary final step to getting my grown-up card.

I anticipate that once I make it through a holiday without dropping the F-bomb in public I will receive this card in the mail, followed shortly by my AARP card. Officially, my New Year’s resolution is to have more fun—because you don’t have a lot of fun when you’re too busy starving yourself to drink beers with your friends!—but I think perhaps it’s time for me to focus also on being less of a troll and more of a grown-up.

If I can spend less time Tweeting to the MTA when my train is delayed, less time grousing about the fact that I don’t have my own desk at work, less time making fun of my Facebook friends who hashtag their baby names (just kidding, I’m never going to stop doing that, your baby name hashtag is obnoxious), will I learn to love Christmas again? Is this the modern equivalent of the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes? Is this how you become an adult? Given the amount of tears I shed this holiday season over finally realizing that I don’t get to be eleven anymore, I’m willing to do a lot to find out.

So I guess my New Year’s resolutions are to have more fun and be less of a self-absorbed troll. The easiest path to achieving both of these outcomes seems to be to drink more and volunteer more and go to SoulCycle more often (although SoulCycle is arguably a bad way to not be a self-absorbed troll, since it’s basically paying three times as much as I used to make in an hour to listen to someone tell me that I’m a warrior because I can ride a bicycle that is LITERALLY GOING NOWHERE).

This is getting dangerously close to a schmaltzy NEW YEAR NEW YOU think piece, which is not at all what I intended, but halfway through it was starting to read like something Narcissus might write after a bad day standing in front of the mirror. I promise I won’t start blogging about chia seeds or gratitude, and I’m not going to steal a baby to put it in a Christmas onesie, and if you want to know the worst baby name hashtags on my Facebook feed, I have an opinion on the matter that I’m happy to share.

And frankly, I’ll probably still rage-Tweet at the MTA because COME ON I PAID A WHOPPING $2.75 FOR THIS RIDE CAN’T THE TRAIN MAGICALLY APPEAR THE SECOND I REACH THE PLATFORM? But other than that, I’m totally going to start acting like a grown-up soon. Otherwise I might not get any presents next year, and then I’ll really be mad.