23 and Me

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Booze-and-Benadryl-hungover on a futon in West Philly was how I awoke on day one of 2017. The comforter in which I was swaddled matted with enough cat fur to send me not so much into anaphylactic shock as anaphylactic Liza-Minnelli-under-a-spotlight. There’s that Nana-ism about the rest of your year being foretold by however you chose to spend January 1st. And, wouldn’t you know it, waking up dazed in a foreign bed with the detritus of someone else’s pet all over my body is very much so a daily reality. Whether that cautionary tale also applies to how you ring in the day of your birth, I don’t know. But either way: shit.

A turkey baby, my birthday fell the day after Thanksgiving this past year, which we celebrated as a family up in New Hampshire. It’s the only holiday every year where we’re all together: my parents, my sisters and their husbands, me and my husband, Shannon. It didn’t get all that wild, from what I can recall. Nothing more debaucherous than some glasses of middle-row pinot noir and a toke-and-a-half of some Garden State strain brought along by my brother-in-law. At some point on Thanksgiving night however, surely after seeing a bloated specter of my carbohydrate-face staring back at me from a sheening mound of green bean casserole, I asked my mother if there were any gym classes we could go to the next day.

“What’s tomorrow, Friday?” said Kristine, sucking the tannins clean off her front teeth as she slapped open her purple pleather phone case. “I’ve got the schedule saved as a…as a screen…a screenshot? Right? A screenshot? Alright, here—yeah, there’s a Bodypump class tomorrow. 9:30. That biatch who shops at the Alton store always goes to these early weekday classes. But I’ll deal.”

I’d like to think I’m fit but I’d also like to think I’ll have written and directed an Oscar-nominated feature film by 27 years old. As daily of a regimen as it may be, my 45 minutes on the elliptical weren’t exactly an equal match for a gym class that already had me sucking wind by the time Edna Endorphin roared into her headset microphone, “And now that we’re all warmed up…!”

Maybe if I hadn’t drank the night before, things would have been different. Cause god damn. Shannon and my oldest sister joined us to the class as well but on a scale of My Limping Sorry Ass to My Parents Jogging-in-Place While Gabbing With the Gym Owners, they were comfortably, healthfully, some place in the middle once the class was over. It was, at most, 18 degrees that morning but I demanded the windows be rolled down and that no one speak during the nine minute drive home. But by the time we huddled masses stepped out of the car, clutching our unzipped jackets against the cold, I figured I was in the clear.

Alas.

“Get out of my way,” I pled, hip-checking my loved ones as I hauled ass to the bathroom as fast as my electrolyte-less legs permitted.

My molars floating in that distinctively ante-upchuck cocktail of saliva, I made it to the toilet just in time to hurl out most of my innards. Located just off the living room, I was in the smallest bathroom of the house. Sometime during my freshman year of high school, my gay ass convinced my mom to paint it a riche shade of burgundy, a decision I had no reason to regret until that very moment—with my akimbo limbs managing to simultaneously jut against all four walls of this five-by-five foot room painted the very same shade as the Francis Ford Coppola I’d guzzled the night before.

Rap-rap-rapping on the door, her shit-grin just about audible from the other side of the faux mahogany, my mother cackled, “Happy birthday, bubby!”

Twenty-three concerned me from the get-go. Something about the maturity that it implied. Twenty-three. It seemed like this threshold with the lone purpose of rendering a still-emerging adulthood as something, at best, concerning and, more likely, sad. Eighteen to 22 all felt like these celebratory rungs on some life ladder but 23 was, I don’t know, the roof. Some plateaued expanse that I now had the skills, network, and know-how to fashion into my adulthood of choice. Debatably. It wasn’t a be-all-end-all of how things would always look, obviously, but it did seem like the first time when making some sweeping decisions for myself wouldn’t only be realistic but expected. And, yet, stealing a single slice of 15-grain bread from a dog owner’s kitchen after forgetting to pack a lunch for the day was how I ended up commemorating my first week of this decidedly-adult new age.

“Bye bye, Maggie,” I full-mouth-garble, closing the apartment door, praying it was a surround sound speaker on the opposite wall and not an at-home security camera. “Be good girl.”

Destitute, I wasn’t, quite yet. Not until May did I quit my job at the hotel and, even then, it didn’t have much to do with making career moves in any other direction than lateral. Really, I was concerned that the overnight shifts I worked were contributing to my earlier death and deeper wrinkles. Cause a hotel never closes. There’s always room at the inn. Even on Christmas night. Which I worked. The hotel was barely half-occupied, making for an altogether quiet night, but I might’ve preferred the opposite. Because as often as I feared for my literal life every time a Boylston Street Vagabond wandered into the hotel at 4 a.m., the loneliness of an otherwise empty lobby wasn’t much better. My thoughts and—for that night at least—Judy’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” my only company. The yuletide decidedly gay but not in the happy way.

I spent those bitter first few months of the new year wondering what it was I should do next. Having been, essentially, paid to tan the summer prior, I didn’t want to give up walking the dogs. I also had less than zero desire to work at any one place for more than 18 hours per week. Which left me with either crawling back to my college cafeteria job where I could make a cool $10 an hour or consider internships where I could make $0 an hour. Like an idiot, but a proud one, I opted for the latter.

There’s this writing center, headquartered in Boston, that I’ve been trying to weasel my way into for years now, what with its $500 Memoir Incubation courses I could never afford and its Creative Director Daddy I want to bone. Managing to land an interview for a summer internship, I showed up to the office with no chapstick and such severe cotton mouth that I applied grease off of my own nose to my tundric lips. And it worked about as well as my preparation for the interview.

“So, Brian, I see you studied Communications, that’s awesome, we love a Comm major here,” said their operations manager, scanning her finger down my resume. “Much of the day-to-day tasks given to our interns involves, you know, outreach, data gathering, logging student surveys, stuff like that. So, tell me, what’s some of your go-to research methods?”

Pausing to think, I replied, “Hmm.”

It didn’t pan out. Nor did my plan of getting a second job. Because, consciously or not, I kept committing to things that would have made my answer to the “So, when can you start?” question enough for any employer to truly think twice about putting me on payroll. My plane tickets to Chicago for Memorial Day weekend had been purchased months before. Just about every weekend in June was already booked with a dog to sit. And my biannual sex pilgrimage to New York City had been penciled in for early July and fuck if I’d miss out on that. Like sands through the hourglass, so the Trader Joe’s application on my nightstand collected dust.

It was right around then—midsummer, I guess—that I passed on paying for a ticketed David Sedaris reading at the Harvard Book Store but came nevertheless for the open-to-the-public signing. He was promoting his latest release, a collection of his diaries which I’d started reading the night before. Three hours, I ended up waiting. And I would have waited twice that long but only if the endearingly-low-power-posed boy who was one person ahead of me did too. Winding up last in line, I don’t know if it was the lack of pressure for him to get to the next person or because I gave him no opportunity to send me packing but, either way, David and I ended up talking for what must have been five minutes. First about my nameplate and then about his hopes that I never asked a guest “How was your flight?” as I checked them into the hotel and then about Feud: Bette and Joan where he vied for the superiority of Jessica Lange’s performance as I defended Susan Sarandon’s consonants.

“Beau-TIful,” said David, laughing to himself, impersonating my impersonation of Sarandon’s Davis impersonation as I floated my way out of the bookshop. My dopamine verging on Richard Simmons-levels, I hadn’t been centered enough to see what he was writing in my copy of his diaries while we chatted. Stifling the urge to butterfly kiss the next stranger crossing my path on Massachusetts Avenue as I pliéd to the nearest streetlight, I opened up to the title page and read his inscription.

“To Brian,

You know who you are.

David Sedaris”

To be fair, he was definitely taking a jab at my nameplate. Like, without a doubt. But, deciding to walk home that night instead of taking the bus, knowing that crossing the Charles River on my way back to Allston would prove exponentially more dramatic on foot than it would on the 66, I schmaltzed the interpretation. Convincing myself that despite my manic-mouthed repartee, maybe I’d come across as self-possessed or clever or, at the very least, tall with a virile jawline. And even if that wasn’t the case, it was still recognition enough to make me tear up every single night that entire summer, reading a few of his entries before bed, following him along—from IHOPs in Raleigh to IHOPs in Manhattan, from hitchhiking in his 20s to trash picking in his 50s—as he became himself.

“Are you making ends meet alright?” asked my dad. “Now that you’re just with the dogs.”

We were driving down I-93, en route to the bus terminal where Concord Coachlines would serve as my golden-shower-chariot back to Boston after spending Labor Day weekend up in New Hampshire. While some say he and Tim Robbins resemble each other, I’ve always observed a keener similarity between my father and those Easter Island stone heads. Monolithic. Imposing. Without language. I took advantage of his curiosity.

“Surprisingly,” I said. “No, it hasn’t been that bad, really. I can’t be as generous with, like, buying myself lunch during the week. And I try to only get one coffee a day. And I don’t really shop for new clothes all that often. But I don’t have, like, expensive hobbies or anything so it—it hasn’t been that hard.”

“That’s no way to live, though,” my dad responded.

What I might’ve done to deserve this, I don’t know, but my parents stay out of my business. What they tell friends and family when asked what I’m up to, God only knows. Because if it rings critical, they keep it to themselves. Which made this observation, from my father no less, shared without so much as an eyebrow-arch of judgment, all the more weighted.

“I mean, I don’t deny myself anything. The not-buying-stuff business, I do all that so I can still go out on the weekends and take all my trips—visiting friends and stuff. I never feel like I’m, I don’t know, missing out on anything. I’m content. Really.”

“I just think of what I was doing at your age,” he said, signaling his turn onto exit 14. “I was working 50 hours a week. In grocery. Overnights. I had paychecks stuffed into my pockets that I wouldn’t even get around to cashing. But you’re so free. I get a little jealous of that.”

Joni Mitchell’s heartrending-est hits were more fitting than usual during that bus ride back to Boston. Because my dad’s conclusion was one I myself had come to, not long before that car ride. Perhaps an internship in my field would have indeed gotten my foot back into some YoProverbial door and maybe I should have said yes to that dog owner who asked me to write copy for her travel agency’s revamped website. But, then again—no. Am I missing out on the most lucrative years of 401(k)-saving and will this ever-increasing gap in my resume prove impossible to explain in interviews and might I one day botch my birth certificate so as to stay on my parent’s health insurance beyond 26 years old? I’m sure. But the uncertainty of it all, when confronted with the alternative, seems all right.

“I honestly think we’ll look back at this point in our lives with fondness,” I recently said to Shannon in our not-heated-till-December kitchen, two scarves wrapped around my neck as I prepared my week’s rations. “Twenty-three, it’s, like, tailor-made for falling flat on our faces. I really believe that. How boring would it be? If the ribbon was already tied, ya know?”

Having sought out and applied to about two-dozen jobs per week for the past few months, Shannon shrugged, “Sure.”

This past Sunday, my final one as a 23-year-old, I agreed to help out Hilary—my editor from three years and three careers ago—by photographing her first grader’s birthday party. A promotion from my initial gig of manning the temporary tattoo station. Initially begging the two-dozen 7-year-olds to pose in front of her hand-fashioned step-and-repeat, I quickly learned children don’t respond to shame commands in quite the same way as dogs. So, I ended up following them around, capturing them at their id-iest, the kids not yet self-conscious enough to shield their faces at the sight of a camera.

“Here,” said Hilary, handing me a plastic glass of boxed red wine. “You deserve this.”

Letting the camera hang around my neck as I sipped, a parent of one of the kids sidled up beside me, asking where she could expect to see the pictures.

“Hmm,” I said, setting down my cup. “That’s more of a question for Hilary, honestly. It’s her camera. I’m not, like, a professional or anything. Just on hand to help.”

“Oh,” the mother said, her brows, unconsciously or not, furrowing. “Well, that’s sweet of you. What, uh, what do you do then?”

My answer was no more succinct that afternoon than it was at any other point this year, the explanation of my day-to-day no less likely to garner unwanted sympathy from those hearing about it. But I didn’t dread the sound of that question quite as much as usual. I was more off-path than ever, really, what with how much I was enjoying something so diametrically different from my intended career path as photographing a kid’s birthday party. Gearing up to respond, however, I felt no urge to justify what it was I was doing, what it was I wasn’t doing. More confident, somehow, in whatever I was about to say. But before I could respond, I felt a tap on my shoulder, pointed by another parent in the direction of a kid waiting over at the booth. Telling her I’d be right back, I made my way over to the boy, waiting, eagerly, for his photo to be taken. Kneeling down to his level, telling him to smile, I framed the picture and took the shot.

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