Ten years ago, I turned 30.
I didn’t feel too ceremonious about the number itself. Maybe it sounded high-ish, because after all, I had never in my life been older. I was vaguely aware of traits the dominant culture might start attributing to me, but I was astute enough to realize that 30 wasn’t old – in fact, a whole decade later I’d only be 40, at which time I STILL wouldn’t be old yet. Plus, I had no spouse or kids, which made me automatically exempt from certain concerns.
It wasn’t a conscious celebration, but around that time I did go back to my hometown and get the closest someone like me could ever get to a high school reunion. Which is to say: I caught up with a couple cherry-picked people. People who’d been sufficiently troubled and disenchanted when I’d gone to school with them. People with whom I’d reached an almost indecent level of psychic familiarity. And what did I do with them?
What else, but take an awkward excursion down a corridor of shadows and stains.
I saw my best friend from seventh grade. In the early aughts she’d had a sort of bright period involving a job that seemed to suit her strengths, a band she formed with co-workers to cover stuff like Flyleaf and Paramore, and a brief romance – but by the time of our reunion a lot of that had fallen by the wayside and her future seemed uncertain. She was living in her childhood home with her parents who had health issues, gaming a lot, and she’d just started sexting with her middle school crush who’d been thoroughly disinterested in her back in the day.
We determined to meet up at a festival at the Greek Orthodox church where, being part Greek, I’d occasionally gone for special events growing up. There we’d also be able to see her crush, who had been getting more in touch with his roots and had just adopted a Greek surname (in addition to, incidentally, doubling down on Objectivism and some weird doctrine of masculinity).
She and I got there first and it was like no time had passed – only it was obvious she kept measuring the version of me her mildly envious mind had romanticized with the me that stood before her, an insurance grunt, hair still sort of doing cool things but obviously thinning, and confessing that school had never been easy for me, no matter what it had looked like from the outside.
Then he showed up and, well… Of Human Bondage comes to mind. Mankind’s eternal attraction to that which is apathetic toward us. She had obviously imprinted some lonely, horny, nostalgic importance on him, but any witching-hour virtual indiscretions aside, he was disinterested as ever in the flesh-and-blood version of her. Even more unfortunately, out of rebellion, cruelty, or the novelty of it all, he seemed to take a keen interest in ME (which I was careful not to indulge).
Mercifully, this gathering broke up pretty fast. She was indignant but didn’t take it out on me. We went back to her house and ended the evening on the dewy lawn under a starry sky, where she told me she wished she could be lesbian for me (“but, alas”). Award for most poignant comment of the visit still goes to her dad who, when we hung out with him briefly in the living room and I was honest about all the ways my situation is flawed, said, “Yeah… but YOU got out.”
Around the holidays I came back and saw my old… sure, I’ll say “flame”, because he was, though not in the traditional sense. I had a thoroughly G-rated evening with his rollicking blended family who despite my ambiguous connection to them were happy to treat me to a seasonal sit-down dinner and a stage show. I was stricken by how casual and normal it all was, in contrast to the absurd mythologizing I’d done for so long. I also felt strangely powerful, committed as I was at the time to a serious relationship and a lifestyle completely disengaged from everything I had previously been and grown to loathe. I liked how platonic we felt. I liked that we sat next to each other in formal wear at the show and made intermittent side remarks to each other and didn’t touch. I liked being a grownup, with a life, in control.
I had parked my car on their property, which he always called “the compound” because it’s several of their family’s homes clustered close together. At the end of the night, he gave me a drawn-out hug and warmly said, “I didn’t miss you”. I chuckled, still very much in control. This was our last exchange in person:
He (half-jokingly-?): “Wanna come inside and… get drunk?”
Me (earnestly): “That is…actually very tempting. But I should get home.”
On the way back to my folks’ house, the road trip mix I’d recently made fell on the London Suede’s “Sleeping Pills”:
Angel, don't take those sleeping pills, you don't need them Though it's just time they kill Angel, give me your sleeping pills, you don't need them Give me the time they kill You're a water sign, I'm an air sign Gone gone to Valium, can you get me some? You're a water sign, I'm an air sign Too Siamese to catch the leaves from those trees
Only then, alone in the car under cover of night and watched solely by the clear, icy moon, did I… maybe not wholly, but at least partially… crumple.
Now I’m about to turn 40. There are no nostalgic fiascoes planned. I don’t know any of these people anymore (and have lost loads more due to irreconcilable differences). What I AM doing this year – on my actual birthday, in fact – is putting out an album. In addition to exploring the many ways our pasts can shape us and alter the faces we present to the world, it is, in large part, my origin story.
Here, have a lullaby.