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.

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