It occurs to me now that this story is wasted on the young. As a child, I found it overwrought. Then again, I was the kind of insufferable pedant who insisted on pointing out that I was ten and a half or turning thirteen next month. To me, the delta between just-turned-twelve and twelve-plus-eleven-months was significant enough to merit pointing out. And that made the idea that you were somehow harboring past and lesser versions of yourself like a parasite preposterous.
These days, I don’t put as much stock in birthdays as I once did. 21 ruins it, I think: the difference between “surreptitiously taking shots by a mailbox on your way to a party” and “drinking a beer while sitting on a legitimate chair in a licensed establishment” is profound enough that nothing else really comes close. I suspect that your twenties are the only time when you don’t fixate on aging, and given that I spent my childhood obsessing over how much better nine would surely be than eight has been, and that from what I understand I’ll spend my thirties wondering whether I should freeze my eggs just in case I wake up one day not trying to figure out a workable solution for flying babies in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin, and then from there it’s just constantly counting my gray hairs and wrinkles, it’s kind of a relief.
Sure, sometimes I look in the mirror and panic because I think I went gray overnight before I realize that I just forgot to comb in my dry shampoo, but those moments are few and far between. More often, I feel like the same person I was six years ago, only with a better wardrobe. (As an aside, I just put my last remaining Forever 21 garment in a bag to take to the thrift shop. It’s a shirt by strict definition, but I definitely wore it as a dress to at least one Vegas club, which tells you all you need to know to agree that throwing it out before I turn 30 is the right choice.)
A coworker of mine, someone quite senior in my company, said to me the other day that what I say carries substantive weight in our organization. “That means a lot,” I said, because it does. I don’t think of myself as having substantive weight. I think of myself still as I was at 23, a little precocious and certainly talented but hardly substantive. I am marginally more jaded than I was four years ago, but most of that has occurred over the past seven months. (I’ve developed an obnoxious habit of repeating “We’re all gonna die” to my boyfriend in conversation. He’s as pedantic as I am, so he can’t argue this point, but it’s not really helping either of us deal very well with our impending dual Russian citizenship.) But it’s hard to conceive of myself as anything like… substantive.
I have a tortured relationship with my youth. I chalk much of this up to the confluence events that made 24 such a disaster, starting with the bizarre relationship that I had with an older man who, over several months, went from fetishizing my youth to demonizing it. At the same time, I was nearing my Silicon Valley expiration date, the point at which you’re no longer the wunderkind and if you don’t start proving your relevance, you’re about to get crowded out by all of the Princeton alumni getting off of the Goldman Sachs elevator with their loud voices and their impenetrable business jargon. And also at the same time, I was starving myself down to what I weighed when I was twelve, and it turns out that you can’t really do that without also starving yourself down to the emotional faculties of a twelve-year-old.
I was at once too old and too young and I’d become completely unmoored from that only reliable marker of age, the body. And frankly, I’d also mostly lost my mind. I was functioning, kind of, but stagnating, even regressing, just as everyone around me was discovering their mid-twenties selves. A few months after I started learning how to eat again, three of my teammates at work—two of whom I’d started within three months of and one of whom I’d helped hire—were promoted. And as much as I appreciate that my friends knew to elbow me at the end of a meal and congratulate me for eating it, it’s a little demoralizing to compare rediscovering your beer belly to being handed a set of responsibilities to own and a fancy title to go with. (Granted, this is Silicon Valley we’re talking about, so the titles are mostly things like “Ninja” or “Droid.” It is not unthinkable that living in an environment where jobs are named after Star Wars creatures and everybody rides around on scooters wearing T-shirts has also contributed to my sense of perpetual immaturity.) Instead of getting to enjoy growing up, I felt trapped in my youth, the thing that had made me special until my ex-boyfriend called it my affliction, like a Dorian Gray bargain gone uniquely sideways.
For so long I identified more with the eleven-year-old on her birthday than I ever did as a child, ever conscious of the 24-year-old fitted inside me like a matryoshka doll. It’s jarring, welcomely so, to be reminded that I’ve grown layers beyond that one. That I’m 28 today and that sometimes I argue with the directors of my company and they listen to me, and that I pay my own rent and I would do my own laundry if it weren’t such a goddamn hassle in New York, and that even if I don’t do my own laundry, I have never run out of underwear, except that time I got stuck in London for an extra day last December and had to wash what seemed like the cleanest pair in the sink of my Heathrow hotel room with hand soap. (These were extenuating circumstances and should serve only to demonstrate what a sophisticated jetsetting individual I am.)
The other day, my coworker asked me if I was planning to buy a beach house soon, and while it turns out that that was mostly because that’s a normal thing for well-to-do adults to do in Sweden because there are “so few Swedes and so much coastline,” I only sort of laughed in her face, because it’s finally occurring to me that I am 28. (And yes, this post was paid for by the Sweden tourism authority.) I’m 28 today, and 27, and 26, and I’ll spare you the rest because I’m pretty sure you know how the story goes. And I’m 24, still, too, but I don’t need to worry about that anymore. It’s buried somewhere underneath all of the beers I drank on Pier A on Saturday surrounded by friends who have been shedding their skins alongside me since we were eighteen, nineteen, 23, 26, below the compliment of being told that I am thoughtful, substantive, that I carry weight. It’s nice to carry weight again.