I don’t usually miss me in my twenties. Blinkered, that girl tried so hard to kill what she felt, to be someone she wasn’t. She tried so hard to be brave. Who wants to hang out with her? My friends who know and love me now, I suspect we would roll our eyes at her. She would leave the party and we would sit and have another glass of wine and say, “God, it was hard being twenty four…”
Of course, part of me is just jealous. Sometimes I look at TV shows about twentysomethings and I think, what are the stakes, here? No choices about public school and no sick or aging parents and no ticking biological clock and no exhaustion beyond breaking but still having to get up to feed the baby? Heartbreak? Who has time? Your twenties are like your wedding. The details matter very much to you, and everyone gets that, but they seem pretty trivial to the rest of us.
I remember that time I sat on the floor, in the corridor near the payphones, at the offices of the weekly paper where I worked as a reporter. I sat on the blue pile and looked at the women’s restroom sign and hung onto the cord to the receiver like I was drowning. (Remember payphones?) All I had to do was go back inside the office and do my work. That was all. And it seemed so impossible.
He was gone, the boy who had broken my heart, and I had to write some article about something. My apartment could stay messy, I could smoke Nat Shermans and drink alone at the hotel bar on the square, I could go to New York and flirt with the wrong people, I could drag myself into work looking tired and pathetic, I could call my girls and they would give me mix CDs to ease the pain. No one needed me to be cheerful or patient or wise or even consistently awake. And yet all I felt I could do was sit on the floor.
I called L., who was staying in my living room at the time and with whom I would probably hang out later that evening, and said: “I can’t do it.” Do what? Why was it so searing? We hadn’t even dated for very long. Was most of it injured pride? L. said, “It gets better. It will get better.”
And of course, it did, but it took its time, and there were the sordid relapses and more dumb, mute pain after more dead-end conversations. How can two people who don’t understand themselves figure out how to be with each other? They can’t, of course. They’re in their twenties.
Another friend now asks, “Is he doing Landmark? That self-help cult, where they have to apologize to everyone they’ve ever hurt?”
My ex and I meet at the park with our kids. He looks the same. I don’t know how I look—my feet are swollen because I’m four and a half months along with my second child. Even H. is moving slowly in the heat. On the one hand, it’s still his face. I look at him and get a powerful reminder of those Nat Shermans, that one hotel bar, the feeling of air rushing out of my lungs, the feeling of everything slipping out from under me, the desperate conviction that if this isn’t it then heterosexual monogamy is a fiction and a farce. And at the very same time, now he’s just somebody that I used to know. We share interests, we know people in common from college. I ask about his siblings, his parents. I tell my husband later, he’s the kind of guy we call “our people,” dealing with similar shit, figuring it out.
On our way back towards the cars, he says, “I was kind of a jerk, back then” and I say, “Yeah, you were kind of a jerk.”
All that sturm und drang. It seems like a story in another life. The kids watch Shaun the Sheep on his phone and we talk about limiting screen time and parenting books and the heat in Austin vs. Los Angeles. I lean back on my hands and the grass makes deep imprints in my palms. H. and I get back into the car and she demands our song again and I can feel the summer slipping away already. How did I ever get this old? And what a relief.