roaring twenties

Ten years is a long time. Given that, it’s really shocking I made it through my twenties without being offered cocaine even once. Granted, I was invited to join several book clubs, and that’s a little more my speed (no pun intended) anyway, but still. Unless I crank (no pun intended) up my nightclub attendance in the three days left before I turn thirty, it seems that that ship has sailed. Pick up a coke habit in your thirties and the next thing you know Jay McInerney is writing your life story. Thanks, but no thanks.

I thought of this in reflecting on all that I accomplished in my twenties. The only things that came to mind were debauchery. Not because I’m especially wild — I wasn’t kidding about the book clubs — but because that’s what I thought my twenties were for. Landed a coveted job? Visited the world’s great cities? Contributed regularly to a retirement account? Sure, but what about the time I walked into the house I grew up in at eight in the morning and puked in the kitchen sink? It was the summer after I graduated from college; I was 22 and sleeping in my childhood bedroom in Las Vegas. I woke up every morning to the Moulin Rouge poster I bought in Paris when I was sixteen looming over me. The teenagers next door had a garage band that only knew “Seven Nation Army” and “Smoke on the Water.” They practiced every afternoon.

It was 2011. I had a degree in English and a part-time job selling shoes and sometimes I’d be invited to the Strip or to one of the old casinos downtown where the other patrons mostly looked like if they didn’t have skin cancer yet it was only because they hadn’t checked. We’d play penny slots and tip dollars on the watered-down vodka sodas the cocktail waitresses brought us and eventually we’d end up in the hotel suite someone’s friend’s friend had been comped or, once, in the living room in one of those chi-chi apartment lofts downtown. It was furnished in bachelor-chic with a record player and a cherry-red metal bookshelf or whatever you buy when you don’t actually like books but there were still meth deals going on in the street outside, so we slept on the couch until the sun rose and it was safe to creep to our cars.

I woke with cotton in my mouth and couldn’t stop myself staring at the man standing outside the parking garage where I’d left my Honda who looked uncannily like Santa Claus, had Santa Claus stopped off in Walter White’s trailer on his way back to the North Pole. Then I drove home and threw up in the kitchen sink before I spent eleven hours at the shoe store where I worked getting my fingers trampled by three-year-olds in tap shoes.

A year later I was making a salary and sipping champagne — okay, it was probably Prosecco, but the point is that it wasn’t Arbor Mist, and I wasn’t chugging — at the company holiday party. Sometimes I feel like I cut myself off too early. I loved being 22 and playing at being wild. I was bookish, had always been bookish, and I wanted not to be. I wanted to be carefree. I wanted to be fun. I wanted someone to offer me cocaine! (I have no real interest in doing cocaine. Last year I drank two cups of Swedish coffee before boarding a plane and I spent the whole flight wondering if I should call for the defibrillator. I just wanted someone to look at me and know that I was fun.)

I think I spent my twenties just as I should have: trying on the costumes of people I thought it might be fun to be. Most weren’t. Being thin meant I was moody and my hair fell out and I couldn’t drink at parties. Dating older men meant being criticized for my immaturity. (If I relate only one pearl of wisdom to my younger sisters, let it be that when your 33-year-old boyfriend tries to shame you, a 24-year-old, for being childish, instead of apologizing, consider suggesting that he not date someone nine years his junior. Honestly!) Auditioning for musicals meant… auditioning for musicals. That one lasted for about ten minutes before I realized that while the normal job hunt might be just as much an affront to my dignity, at least I only had to do it once. Going out drinking meant vomiting in the kitchen sink; going out dancing meant getting other people’s sweat in my hair.

I thought it might be fun to be thin and glamorous and to exist on champagne and air and to sleep in the afternoons and dance in the evenings, or maybe to be gritty and hustling, showing up in the casting room and building out my “book,” living in Astoria and hauling down to the Bell House on the G train (and thin. Every fantasy life I live out begins with being thin).

It turns out what I actually want is to sleep eight hours a night, preferably nine. Pretty much above all else. And what that requires is working a nine-to-five that pays enough to fund the occasional cab home from the Bell House because Lord help me if I’m going to lose out on sleep because I waited thirty minutes for the G train. It requires eating enough that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating out of my chest, which in turn requires that I can live without thigh gap. It requires reading quietly in the evenings, not dancing, and drinking tea, not booze. (It turns out that I was born to be bookish.)

I think I did enough this decade to be okay with this. I crammed a lot in. Mostly just scrolling through Twitter, yeah, but also, I rear-ended a cab driver, walked out on a Tinder date who chain-smoked three cigarettes in my face, played Val in “A Chorus Line,” visited New Zealand, saw the original cast of Hamilton, voted for a woman for president, partied at the Bellagio with Australian tourists, climbed an Alp, got harassed on Twitter, got harassed on the street, sort of learned to cook, rode a bicycle through a hailstorm, and did I mention I saw the original cast of Hamilton? I kept busy.

I don’t regret much. I regret rear-ending that cab driver (it was his second accident that week!). I regret not trying to clean the limescale off my shower floor before the week before we moved out. Sometimes I wish I’d pressed on with trying to be an actress. Mostly I’m excited for everything else I’m yet to do. Can you believe I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon? That I don’t know how to use Microsoft Excel? The list of books I haven’t read alone is enough to keep me occupied until I die, may that be far enough into the future that I don’t ascend to heaven without having read Mrs. Dalloway.

I haven’t made any special plans for my thirties. Keep on keeping on, I guess. Every so often I look up and marvel that I’m still working for the company that hired me when I was 22. Taking that job sent me spinning off my axis. I had always cringed at the idea of a desk job; I got lucky with one that has sent me to the corners of the Earth and taught me to be curious and skeptical. I thought I’d be itinerant for longer than I was and I feel faintly jealous of my friends who still are, but there’s more than one way to be itinerant. I expect to spend my thirties as I spent the back half of my twenties: as impetuously and spontaneously as a hyper-anxious stick-in-the-mud can manage. I’ll move again. I’ll travel more. I’ll forget to text my friends that I’m visiting from overseas until I show up and beg them to cancel their plans that evening so we can have dinner. I might start using eye cream, but it’s probably going to be another limescale-in-the-shower situation. I’ll read more books and maybe I’ll write one. I’ll get better at cooking, and I have this vague idea that I’m going to learn to play the piano. Who knows? I have plenty of time.

thirty, hurty, and dying

In two months I’ll turn thirty. On Instagram, my friends are celebrating their own thirtieths with oversized 3-0 balloons and bachelorette-style nights out with sashes, recording lash-batting, foot-popping Boomerangs, with cute hashtags to boot. Meanwhile, I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other in an ergonomic clog.

That’s an exaggeration. I haven’t bought clogs yet. Speaking frankly, though, there are six things very wrong with my life*:

  1. I haven’t been able to move my back properly since January.
  2. I regularly pull a muscle in my butt by walking wrong.
  3. I get a migraine if I so much as look at a third beer.
  4. I get heartburn when I eat anything but raw vegetables…
  5. …but when I eat raw vegetables my jaw gets stuck shut.
  6. There is a Grand Canyon-sized wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.

 

It’s enough to make a girl go full Gwyneth Paltrow. I scoffed for a long time at the concept of wellness, but you only have to stumble through so many days with a low-grade migraine before you’re ready to stuff precious stones wherever GOOP tells you to.

I jest. (Kind of. Has anyone tried the jade egg thing? Because seriously, Excedrin Migraine isn’t doing a thing for me anymore.) But thirty is weird. We decided recently to extend our stint in Europe and I keep catching myself thinking that by the time we return, we’ll have missed all the fun, as if when everyone has turned thirty-three they’ll have retreated into the suburbs with their babies, never to be seen again. Or that I only have so many glasses of wine left to drink before the migraines fully take over, or that my back is going to grow stiffer and stiffer until they have to carry me out of economy class on a stretcher.

Work doesn’t help. My colleagues who haven’t yet attended their five-year college reunions are always tagging me in Slack channels and Quip documents, channels so ephemeral that they might as well be sky-writing. “If you want me to do something for you,” I want to say, “you need to carve it for me on a stone tablet and hang it around the neck of a carrier pigeon.” But no, I just apologize for the delay, busy week, I have to do thirty minutes of yoga every night if I want to get out of bed the next morning and it’s really eating into the time I would otherwise spend learning how to organize my Quip notifications.

Once, the only time I worried about what my hair looked like was in the morning before I left the house, or when I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. (Or when passing a building with reflective windows. Or when I had an especially large spoon. Or any reflective surface at all. Whatever.) Now I spend half my day in meetings saying things like “Not really in sync” or “Can we just table that for now?” or “Can we just table that for now until we’re more in sync?” And although you’d think I couldn’t look myself in the eye when I sound like such a raging douchebag, all I can do in a videoconference is stare at my little self-view in the corner and either admire my dewy visage or gawk in horror at how the gash-like wrinkle in my forehead is increasingly resembling a Harry Potter scar. During particularly contentious meetings, or when someone with a computer science degree starts to correct my grammar, I can literally watch it deepen.

I’m facing down the barrel of living in this body for the rest of my life. When I was nineteen and soft all I needed was a McDonald’s hash brown to buck me up after a night of drinking or twenty minutes with an ice pack to get me back at the barre, pulled muscle and all. I was preoccupied by the immediate concerns of the body: I needed a haircut. I needed to learn to apply foundation properly. My belly didn’t look like the bellies in Women’s Health. My calves were sore. My quads were sore. My clothes were hopeless. Things that I thought, dwelled on, and then immediately forgot; things that resolved themselves or that I resolved myself to. This wrinkle down my forehead? It’s not resolving.

As a dancer I bounced back from one injury after another. A summer of physical therapy here, a Nutcracker season with my shins sheathed in Ace bandages there; it was always traumatic for a day or two (as if a case of shin splints were the only thing that could keep me from a career in ballet) but a month later I’d have forgotten entirely. Now? Stick me in a hotel with a bad mattress for three days and three months later, I still can’t crack my back without a twinge to remind me that the Swiss don’t know how to build a bed properly. I used to think warming up before working out was just for those sad people who can’t touch their toes. That was before I spent eight weeks in physical therapy doing butt lifts! (“Glute bridges.” I’m sorry, Doctor Mike.)

I’ve long awaited the day when I could look back at the body I’ve fought against for so long and think of how grateful I should have been for its agility, its resilience, its lack of Moses-having-parted-the-Red-Sea-down-the-middle-of-my-forehead, blah blah, etc., etc. That day hasn’t come. I have some time yet.

That’s what terrifies me the most. “The rest of my life” is an awfully long time to live with knees that twinge when you jog, with an esophagus that will let you know when you’ve eaten one French fry too many, with blood vessels that slacken and send the alcohol straight to my brain to slosh around and throb for days on end. It’s an awfully long time to live regardless, in a world that’s getting steadily worse or at least whose worseness is getting steadily louder. I can’t say the phrase “self-care” aloud without cringing at myself but I can understand it. I do yoga; I drink tea; I take vitamins.

It’s easier to look at aging as a matter of the body. The body is not ephemeral. The body endures. Its component parts can live on after death; even scientists with scalpels will leave behind something that needs to be incinerated; even ashes need to be scattered. Last week I read a New Yorker article about a paleontologist shaving away silt in North Dakota to discover fish, frozen in amber with its jaws — gills — outstretched, gasping madly, at the moment it and the dinosaurs died:

“The block told the story of the impact in microcosm. ‘It was a very bad day,’ DePalma said. ‘Look at these two fish.’ He showed me where the sturgeon’s scutes—the sharp, bony plates on its back—had been forced into the body of the paddlefish. One fish was impaled on the other. The mouth of the paddlefish was agape, and jammed into its gill rakers were microtektites—sucked in by the fish as it tried to breathe. DePalma said, ‘This fish was likely alive for some time after being caught in the wave, long enough to gasp frenzied mouthfuls of water in a vain attempt to survive.’”

The body endures. That fish probably didn’t anticipate serving as the key to understanding the extinction of the dinosaurs. (That fish probably didn’t anticipate.) I don’t expect my body to be my legacy. I dream of writing novels so popular that the diaries I’ll have released upon my death will be my legacy. The idea that something so crude as my body could be the only thing I leave behind disturbs. But approaching thirty, all that will reliably survive me are my organs, and those only if I start remembering to swap my contact lenses out more often.

The thing about thirty is that I’m not sure whether to be horrified at how much time I’ve wasted or at how much I have yet to endure. For the first three decades of my life it was enough to live. I had only to wake up every day and stagger through it. Now I have to take vitamins and contribute to my 401k; now I have to plug away at the long-suffering draft of my novel. There is only so much time left, and I might spend all of it trying out anti-TMJ facial massage techniques from YouTube.

The noble thing, now that my youth is finally starting to fleet, would be to abandon the burderns of the body and turn fully to the mind. Now is the time to give up SoulCycle and the vain attempts to be a forty-year-old with six-pack abs — yes, this is exactly like how that one time I had shin splints sidelined my whole ballet career — and spend my time writing instead. The cretaceous fish is proof positive that the body will take care of itself. My oeuvre will not. Of course, in putting off trying to think of a conclusion to this piece, I opened the New Yorker and the third sentence I read was this: “I think anyone who spends his life working to become eligible for literary immortality is a fool.”

This was Harold Brodkey, who I had never heard of before but who apparently spent his entire career publishing things that weren’t the book he won his first contract for in 1964. 24 years later he told New York magazine that he “[writes] like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered,” which is a good way to punt worrying about your legacy, if you ask me. I intend to be posthumously discovered; I intend to donate my estate; I intend to be buried in a carbon-neutral fashion; I intend to stagger through the rest of my days assuming my dreams will play out once I’m no longer around to get in their way. Until then, I’ll put on sunscreen every morning and Aquafor at night. I’ll take magnesium and a Tums with my wine. I’ll do my glute bridges before I jog. I’ll endure.

 

*If you caught that reference, I’ll buy you a drink.

queen of the road

Ten minutes into my first solo trip as a licensed driver, I got stuck in a parking lot. I had chosen a spot in the corner that was open only because everyone else knew better than to try it, a fact I discovered when I started to back out and realized that there were cars where mine needed to be. I hyperventilated for a couple minutes and then executed a sort of fifteen-point turn while the other suburbanites who needed to visit the Wells Fargo before it closed at five honked at me. The wind, needless to say, was not in my hair.

It was a rude but ultimately apt introduction to the reality of driving. Parking would prove to be my Achilles’ heel. My ‘98 Honda Accord, a hand-me-down from my father, bore the scars of my unusually bad depth perception. The scrape on my driver’s-side door is from the basement garage in my apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, where I lived — along with an army of GW postgrads in salmon shorts — for two years. I retired from driving shortly after I scraped my car against one of the dozens of poles that, I swear to God, popped up in the garage like Whack-a-Mole. You’d be backing your car out, certain of clearance on every side, when BAM! There goes your paint job.

One of the rites of passage at my urban high school was to sneak off campus for lunch. It was the height of glamour to throw out your Port of Subs wrapper as ostentatiously as possible in front of the suckers on the quad eating a peanut butter sandwich that had been flattened under a history textbook since six A.M. I was, as a rule, one of the suckers, except the one time that I let myself be convinced to drive three of us down Charleston and through the drive-thru at Los Tacos, where my classmate splayed herself across my lap to order for us in Spanish. It was seamless — and the tacos were delicious — until we arrived back at campus and realized the fly in the ointment, which was that the only place to surreptitiously re-park your car midday was on the street at the far edge of campus.

I had passed my driving test only because I was the last candidate of the day and my examiner couldn’t be bothered to get out and check my parallel parking job. To be fair, parallel parking isn’t a skill you really need in Las Vegas, land of the warehouse-sized parking lots, unless you’re trying to pull off basically the only bad thing you’ve done in your high school career without side-swiping the choir teacher’s Honda in the process. We finally resorted to a sort of combination airport tarmac/life coach situation where one of my classmates got out and guided me into a spot while the other one sat in the passenger seat and talked me through it. It was only the woeful underfunding of Clark County School District — and its attendant lack of security around our campus — that saved us. But some twelve years later, I still haven’t successfully parallel parked a car.

And of course there was the gouge on the bumper, from a few years after high school ended, when I drove clear to the other side of town because my high school crush invited me over. I was twenty-one, and I knew better, but seventeen-year-old me couldn’t let the opportunity slide. We played a round of Scrabble and fooled around for a while and then I got in my car and made a U-turn that crossed into the path of an automatic gate’s sensor and then there was a terrible scraping noise and there went my bumper. All at once I realized how many mistakes I’d just made, and I whacked my hands on the steering wheel wondering: What kind of automatic gate opens inward? How sad of a sad sack do you have to be to go running clear across town just to prove, years on, that you could have made it with that guy from sixth period chemistry? Why, but why, did we play Scrabble?

I drove all the way from Henderson feeling like an utter fool, back to my parents’ house in Summerlin, where I made up a story about a shopping cart that went astray and swore that I’d take the whole episode to the grave. Since then, that high school crush has unfriended me on Facebook, had a baby, and gotten married — in that order — so the gouge on my bumper will have to do. (I resold the car to a friend who, had I consulted her, would surely have raised one eyebrow high enough that I’d have thought better, hung the keys back up, and stayed home alone on my couch. But then how would seventeen-year-old me have made her peace?)  

It was a relief to give up driving shortly before I moved to New York. I wasn’t very good at it, and I found owning a car stressful. But I had never felt control like I did after I got my driver’s license. I think often about how as a teenager, with adulthood in plain sight, the mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley began to close in on me. Behind the wheel, I felt for the first time that I had the agency to escape them.

That sensation was never keener than when I sat in traffic on my way home from school. On days when I had too much to feel, I liked to take the surface streets home so I could wallow in the belly of the mountains and imagine what it would be like to drive beyond them. The Postal Service was on rotation in my CD player (“I want so badly to believe / That there is truth and love is real”) and for as long as I could sit in traffic I could sit alone with my feelings, with no one there to judge me or mock me or, God forbid, try to comfort me.

Learning to drive was the freest I’d felt — but it wasn’t the first I’d felt free. That came the summer I turned thirteen, the summer I spent palling around with a group of friends who I didn’t jibe with as well as I wanted to. I was still a mouthy little Poindexter who couldn’t keep it together when there was an opportunity to correct someone’s pronunciation or offer up a fact. None of us were cool but the others had figured out chill while I bumbled, stuck on desperate.

It was a humbling summer. But it was the summer that I began to understand what it was to create a life of my own. I ran out the door at ten and the day was mine, all mine, to buy candy with my allowance or spray myself with strawberry-scented glitter in the Bath and Body Works sample aisle or make a fool of myself in front of a boy. I was home again at eight, sure, but it was enough to glimpse what it would be like to live as I pleased.

It was a summer on wheels. The boys rode skateboards, and I was struck recently by a clear memory of me, on a bicycle, grinding up a hill that felt like a mountain, then sailing back down it like I was unstoppable. (A few years later — the years between thirteen and sixteen, which might as well be a lifetime — I was astonished to realize in my car that the “Great Hill” was barely a grade.)

I half wonder if I’ve conjured this memory. It seems impossible now that we could stand gripping our black rubber-coated handlebars under the August sun, like we didn’t need the skin on our palms. And I was hopelessly clumsy, and my body was just beginning to give way to the softness that I would quickly learn to hate. I can picture myself tripping after the other girls in my gang while they rode their Razor scooters up and down the sidewalks. I knew better than to let myself be seen on one of those. (Those colleagues at the software company where I work who are reading this may note that they have never seen me on one of our ubiquitous Razor scooters. To which I say: It’s enough to get you all to take me seriously once you find out I was an English major. We don’t need to complicate things with a head-over-feet-through-a-glass-conference-room-door situation.)  

I can’t imagine myself, at thirteen, on a bicycle. Nor do I have a photo or even much of a memory, but what I do remember is the hill, how daunting it was on two wheels, and then how simple it felt on four. At thirteen, when it was the indignity of begging a ride from my mother or a walk in the hundred-and-ten degree Vegas heat, my bicycle felt like a pair of wings. At sixteen, when the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley closed in on me like prison walls, the wheel beneath my hands felt like power.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the jarring experience of moving abroad. I felt impotent: Simple tasks like visiting the dentist or buying pants hangers became insurmountable obstacles, and so instead I sat on the couch and wondered if pants hangers would appear in my closet if I wished hard enough. I felt trapped, keenly aware that my residence permit was tied to a job that I vacillated between loving and resenting. I felt, frankly, like a teenager. The world was at my feet but my feet wouldn’t move… until I bought a bicycle.

Buying a bicycle in Copenhagen is like getting a driver’s license in high school. You imagine that you’ll hop on the seat and all the sudden you’ll be willowy and blonde and wearing a maxidress that will flow behind you like a wave while you somehow don’t flash your unglamorous bike shorts at the whole King’s Garden as you pass, and you’ll put flowers in your basket to carry home to your monochrome apartment that isn’t full of dead succulents. I thought, similarly, that once I drove to high school, I’d roll out of my car looking like the girls who flounced down the hall every morning with car keys in one hand and a Frappuccino in the other. I’d know how to tease my hair. I’d pull off smoky eyes. (I have never pulled off smoky eyes.)

So, predictably, there I was on the sidewalk outside the bicycle shop, paddling along like a penguin. The prospect of picking both feet up off the ground and pedaling myself voluntarily into the sea of svelte blondes racing by in their monochrome best was unthinkable. I was flashing back to 1996 and the cul-de-sac where my dad pleaded with me to let him take off the training wheels. To 2005 and the empty parking lot where my dad pleaded with me to pull out into the street. To 2012, the rack of Razor scooters lining the halls of my startup-style office, and the security camera whose operators could be sweet-talked into giving up screenshots of anyone who biffed in front of them.

But what I found when I finally willed myself into the bike lane was a revelation. No, I still can’t tie a scarf around my neck so it will flow behind me in the breeze without it looking like it’s there to keep my head in place, but I can get anywhere. You can reach the hippest places in Copenhagen by bus, sure, if you want to wait for one to show up and then bump along through traffic while the rest of the city sails past på cykel. Or you can climb on your bicycle and sail along with them. In minutes you’re out of the cloying, candy-colored tourist center, laying in the grass outside a converted warehouse with a glass of natural wine in hand, or pulling off your shoes to wade into the sea. I rode up and down the coast and underneath the planes landing at Amager. I clanked along the cobblestones until my teeth rattled. I weaved around tourists and flicked my bell like a truck driver laying on the horn on the highway. I felt that the world was my oyster again.

On wheels I feel like a cyborg. I am myself, but more capable. I can go where I could before but faster, on my own terms, on my own timeline. I am no longer standing shoulder to shoulder with every other twentysomething in Astoria on an N train that stopped halfway to Queensboro Plaza twenty minutes ago, or pondering the physics of air travel in a fiberglass tube that’s hurtling through the sky like a speedboat. I control my own destiny. I’m not carsick or airsick or cursing my mother for setting the cruise control two miles below the speed limit. I’m not stuck behind a tourist taking photos with their iPad. I’m not waiting, perpetually, until the icebergs melt and the mountains erode, for the G train.

At thirteen, at sixteen, and at 29 all I wanted was freedom. A vehicle is not a panacea. I got my driver’s license and I still couldn’t get myself out of a parking lot. I can’t ride my Danish bicycle to Williamsburg to meet my girlfriends for karaoke on Friday night. I could write a letter as lovelorn as this one to the subway, and I could live happily without owning a car again in my lifetime, but it’s the principle of the thing and what it gave me at sixteen when the world was closing in around me. Freedom, to me, is to know that I can get up and go. Wheels are what I need to do it.

 

these changes ain’t changing me

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.

city mouse, suburb mouse

“Master-planned community”: a euphemism for “white people and expensive trees, arranged along streets that are cleverly named so that a typical set of directions sounds like ‘make a right on Timber Rose, then a left on Heirloom Rose, and then another right on Scarlet Rose.’”* This is where I was raised, on a parcel of land in the heart of the Mojave Desert that Howard Hughes bought and named after his grandmother sometime before he started pissing into jars that he kept in his suite at the Desert Inn.

In general, growing up in the suburbs has ruined me for the life I live today. For example, in Summerlin, there was never any danger of being unable to find a last-minute ingredient for a recipe in progress, what with our walk-in pantries. In the event of a true emergency, the supermarket five minutes away was roughly the size of Grand Central Station and stocked like fifty different brands of yogurt. This is less true in New York. For one, I store my pots in my oven and my shoes in my kitchen cabinets, so it’s kind of moot regardless. More to the point, while there are several bodegas within a four-block radius, not one of them sells both flour and eggs. (Let’s be real, though. They know I store my pots in my oven. I don’t actually need them to sell me anything except for hummus.)

For another, living in a newly constructed house meant that we often saw cockroaches inside. You’d think that this would prepare me well for the moment last year when I spotted a cockroach the size of a small animal moseying through my kitchen, but whereas in Summerlin I could escape to any of the palatially sized rooms that made up our house—the kitchen! The dining room! The living room! The den, which is not the same thing as the living room! The bathroom! The other bathroom! The other other bathroom!—my apartment in New York is a single room that is only marginally larger than the other other bathroom in my childhood home. So instead I put on my snow boots, abandoned all of my feminist principles, and texted the guy I’d been casually seeing for a month or so to come save me. Two great mysteries linger from this incident: one, why that guy is still dating me, and two, where that giant cockroach went, because we never did find it.

Cities, as it is often rumored, are noisy. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that I have heard outside my apartment window in the past twelve months:

  • Bargoers screaming for taxis, then screaming for Ubers, which is an ineffective way to achieve either goal but particularly the latter
  • “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” being played on a stereo mounted on the back of a pedicab
  • A man screaming the lyrics to “Beauty and the Beast” along something that vaguely resembled the melody if you squinted at eleven A.M. on a Saturday
  • The dulcet tones of restaurant equipment being pressure-washed, continuously, between the hours of six and seven A.M. on a Monday**
  • The NYPD threatening protesters with arrest over a bullhorn (a great motivation to donate to the ACLU!)
  • Honking. Always honking. (Did you know that traffic moves faster if you honk? No, you didn’t, because it doesn’t.)

By comparison, here is an exhaustive list of things I heard outside my house between the ages of twelve and 22:

  • The next-door neighbors’ children’s garage band practicing the first 30 seconds of “Smoke on the Water” for a solid two hours every Tuesday afternoon

I suspect that children who grow up elsewhere than a neighborhood where debarking is considered not animal abuse but mandatory may be less sensitive to noise than I am. I lost the ability to sleep through the night long ago—tiny bladder, crippling anxiety, yada yada yada—but living on the very block that Jane Jacobs herself characterized as the epitome of an active community is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. The noise, the light that seeps in despite blinds and curtains, the humming and clanking of the gremlins that live in my refrigerator and radiators; they all conspire to wake me. They have no patience for a girl who grew up believing that there was nothing worse than her father grinding coffee beans at five A.M.

In the suburbs, nobody encroaches on your space. There is no opportunity for anyone to do so, not unless you count the Prius behind your Honda getting closer to your precious bumper than you’d prefer. That hardly prepares you for the inevitable straphanger who, when it’s not even rush hour, decides that not only are they going to hold the same pole as you but they’re going to hold it a quarter-inch above where you’re holding it, and they’re not really going to commit to keeping their hand a respectable distance from yours, and before you know it, you have Ebola. This never happens in the suburbs, although I guess not using the divider in the supermarket checkout is an appropriate analogue.

I guess when it comes down to it, all of this really is about space, and whether or not you can learn to live without it. Everything that I dislike about New York has to do with space: how I can’t buy more boots because I don’t have any room left in my kitchen cabinets and storing boots in my oven feels like a line that even I can’t cross, how you can walk up and down Hudson Street on a cold-as-hell Saturday night in February when nobody in their right mind should be out of their apartment and still not be able to find a bar with two open seats, how… cockroaches. Exist. In your apartment.

In Summerlin, no commodity was more infinite than space, except for maybe brands of yogurt at the supermarket. I grew up riding around in minivans and SUVs purchased for families of four on ten-lane roadways past endless strip malls, vast seas of parking lots, megastores selling televisions wider than my kitchen counters. I get a great deal of pleasure out of going to giant suburban Targets and Costcos: I want to run around every aisle and pile my cart high with enough toilet paper to last me a year because you know that goddamn four-pack that’s all I can cram into my closet is going to run out when I’m couchbound with the hangover runs. And I want to put that toilet paper in the trunk of my unnecessarily large car and drive it home, not wrestle it down into the subway only to discover that the 1 is delayed because our trains are actually propelled not by electricity but by a small army of rats, fortified by pizza, whose regular rest periods are characterized by the MTA as “signal malfunctions,” then decide whether to wait it out or clamber back up and try to get a cab whose driver is going to smite you for asking him to drive you ten blocks because your arms are too short to comfortably carry a thirteen-gallon trash can without whacking yourself in the shins every time you take a step. I mean toilet paper. This has never happened to me. I’m a graceful swan.

I don’t need to enumerate the reasons that I prefer city living. They are myriad. I subscribe to the theory that being forced to interact with your fellow humans teaches you to be more empathetic. (The future that liberals want, and all.) I’m not the person to extrapolate on this. Talk to someone who’s studied sociology, who will address this question with the nuance it deserves, and I’ll keep talking about things that aren’t current affairs because we all deserve thirty minutes a day when we don’t actively hope for the apocalypse to just start and end already. In fact, that’s a good segue to what I believe to be the best selling point of a city versus the suburbs… when the nuclear war inevitably begins, I’m pretty sure that those of us in urban centers are going to be the first to go. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read enough dystopian fiction to know that I’m not the kind of delicate flower who discovers her inner strength in the face of a crisis. I’m the kind of delicate flower who gets left behind because she doesn’t know how to feed herself when she can’t buy hummus at the bodega. These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about as I evaluate my living situation here in 2017. (Sorry. I’m in a dark place.)

I don’t begrudge my childhood in the suburbs. This will sound glib, but I don’t intend it to be: growing up in Summerlin imbued me with a desire to get out that has propelled me to take chances through my adult life (not to mention the privilege that allowed me to do so). Thoreau didn’t know it in the nineteenth century, but the suburbs are the best place to go to witness the phenomenon of “lives of quiet desperation.” I wonder sometimes what it’s like to never have left or to never have wanted to leave—to have purchased a starter McMansion at the nadir of the recession, five minutes from your parents’ house, walking your dogs down the concrete “trails” that wend through artfully laid rock gardens with succulent accents and drive your SUV to the supermarket.

It has been a great pleasure to me to watch my family over the past several years now that we’ve all left Summerlin. My dad’s bus commute from their condo in the city where they live now to his office in a skyscraper that overlooks a bustling downtown is a great novelty to him. (I don’t think anyone else was joyfully texting their family that they had to walk home after the traffic jam that snarled roadways last week. See? Spending decades in the suburbs inures you to the indignity of city life!) I, of course, walk every day through the West Village, around construction and packs of dogs on leashes and, worst, children on scooters. We were never suited for the suburbs, I don’t think, incapable of the kind of socializing that life in a master-planned community demands. I was awkward with the children in my neighborhood, my mother was awkward with their mothers, our neighbors were constantly complaining that our cats were in their yard. I feel confident that all of us are better suited for the lives we live now and that we know and appreciate it because we know what else might have been… which is, to say, not debating whether Kleenex or a pile of Just Salad napkins in the cupboard will flush better when going out to get toilet paper isn’t a viable option.

* These were literally the directions to get to my house.

** I called 311. 311 is polite, it turns out, but ineffective.

bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.

freshman disorientation

Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)

I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.

What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.

And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.

So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)

But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.

I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)

The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.

I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.

But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.

It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)

In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.

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.