(This was written for Powell’s, the Oregon-based bookseller.)
“There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.”
I first read Great Expectations back in ninth grade or so, and while I don’t remember exactly, it’s safe to say that the above lines went over my head — whoosh! — along with pretty much anything else that didn’t have to do with boys, Rick Springfield, boys, and ways to make my hair bigger. It was 1981, more than a century after the book was published.
Now it’s 2010 and I’m sitting here having a first-time author fantasy: Charles Dickens and I are chilling in some divey Victorian pub, throwing back a few, and bonding over this very topic. (I’ve worked out the whole time/space continuum thing and have paid him a visit. It’s my fantasy. Go with me on this.)
Dickens, naturally, finds me riveting, and, not for nothing, my hair is perfect. I remark that I hadn’t realized that the feeling he describes in those lines — that much of youth is spent in forced and manic merriment, laughing altogether too loudly, so as to demonstrate that you are, in fact, having THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE — was one that 19th century young adults faced. I tell him that I’ve just written a book, My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young, which deals, in part, with the same ideas. I’ve concluded, I tell Charles (he insists I use his first name), that life is so, so much better on the other side of young.
He plies me with beer, and implores me to please continue, and while I spot Thackeray in the corner (Dickens is objectively better looking but for some reason I’m finding Thackeray kind of hot), I don’t want to be rude and he’s buying so I indulge him: I explain that the book is about a turning point in a woman’s life when she comes to realize that she’s no longer young — not old, either, but clearly she has been shifted without her permission into another category of human being, one who is treated differently than she has been for most of her life. It happened to me in my late 30s, a couple of years ago. I became an adult “tween,” suspended between young and old, and found the transition to be hilarious, and at times hilariously painful. He professes to want to know more — I’m starting to think he’s had a few too many — and so I explain that the book grew out of my blog, formerlyhot.com. Then I try to explain what a blog is, and that’s when I lose him (I had to start with the telephone, which gets invented in 1876, and move through technology’s greatest hits for the next hundred years). His eyes glaze over and I can tell he thinks I’m insane.
It makes sense that the pressure to act like you’ve got it all figured out when you’re young would span the centuries. One of the many aspects of life as a Formerly Young person that I find so satisfying is that after a certain point, you have very little to prove. Women of this age (I became a Formerly in my late 30s, but it can happen at any time) are happier, more confident, and more grounded; we know that there’s no single “right way” to do things, that if it works for you, it is by definition the right way. What’s more, we don’t care nearly as much what other people think, which is enormously freeing, even today. I’d imagine that in Dickens’s even more convention-ruled time, it would have been mind-blowing to have that freedom, especially for a woman.
Not that I didn’t have fun in my 20s. I did — I dated and bar-hopped and worked until all hours to make my chops and had many, many moments in which I felt as if my life was one long music video and I was the incredibly dramatic star of it. It was an intense and heady time, with a steep and exhilarating learning curve. I had room to repeat my mistakes 3 or 30 times until I found my right way, and to wear shoes so beautiful and so crippling, and yet to feel with all my heart that the pain was worth the temporary inability to walk. But as often as not, I found myself looking around the party, a bit bored and insecure, wondering what was the big secret everyone knew about how to have THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE that I had yet to be clued into.
A couple of months ago, I went out to dinner with some women I am still close with from that era. Back then, the idea that we’d all have big careers and little children — two of the group have three kids each — would have been filed away in the “someday” area of our imaginations, along with all the other vaguely fantastical concepts, like having a husband or owning a home, the complexity of which no one ever really understands until they’re living them. I was sitting next to the group’s (particularly) wild child, a woman who was an incredible dancer, tireless organizer of people and causes, and known for having had crazy sex with a mini-UN of men over four continents in her 20s. She looked amazing (nursing boobs!) and still had the astuteness, focus, and energy that she’d had 20 years before. All of us, in fact, had retained our essential selves, even if some of us (ahem, me!) had less hair on our heads and bigger circles under our eyes than we’d had when last we hung out en masse.
Of course, because we’re all more in touch with the cool new pediatricians than the hot new restaurants, we wound up someplace crawling with 20somethings by 9 p.m., when we were just finishing up. The music got really loud, and so we shouted. “My God, look at them,” one friend yelled, gesturing toward a trio of mini-skirted women in stupid shoes who were half looking over each others’ shoulders, scoping out the none-too-impressive men in the room.
“I know,” I answered. “You couldn’t pay me to be them again.” And I meant it sincerely. We’d spent the first part of the evening catching up, the second part passing kiddie photos around on our smartphones, and had tipsily moved on to dissecting how incredibly complicated parenting and marriage is. But even in light of all that was difficult and crazymaking and beyond tiring about our lives, not a single one of us wanted to be in the precariously high shoes of the women in that room.
“YOU KNOW, I HAVE NO REGRETS,” the wild one shouted to me, even though we were inches apart. By 9:30 the music was loud enough to compel us to request the check. “IF I HADN’T DONE ALL THAT I DID BACK THEN, I’D PROBABLY BE DOING IT NOW. AND I DON’T HAVE THE LEAST DESIRE TO.”
While there are, of course, things that I envy those young women — their elastic skin, their perky boobs, and their semi-delusional optimism about what a romantic partner can do to transform your existence — there is far more that I do not envy. Their anxiety about wearing the right thing, saying the right thing to the right guy, and whether their hair was behaving was palpable. They didn’t seem to be having a good time at all. The four of us made our way out to where there was less noise, said our goodbyes, and resolved to get together more often, which we will. And I’m going to give Great Expectations another read — I’m sure there’s a lot more that I missed because I was too young to appreciate it.
Photo in the public domain