When I was a freshman in high school, I had an orchestra teacher who passed out stapled exams of multiple choice and short answer music theory questions. I was good with my instrument but never truly learned to read sheet music (you’d be amazed by what a good ear and muscle memory can do for you) or understand theory, so I was relieved to encounter a personal, imaginative question: what would our ideal lives be as adults?
Not knowing when “adult” began, I imagined myself 40 because my parents had made such big deals out of their own: gimmicky coffee mugs, relentless teasing, bunting, long holiday trips because both of their birthdays fell over our winter breaks. All I knew at that point was that I would live in New York City. Nothing grandiose. A studio with a fire escape for me to keep my plants on. I would have a dog and I would write.
In my 20s, I sort of did that. I lived in the Bronx, and my roommate had a dog, and we had a little square of concrete out back for plants that wouldn’t thrive inside. We rode the endless 6 to Manhattan and I went to school in Bronxville for writing, though I didn’t take it nearly as seriously as I ought to. When I graduated, I got so hammered I ran the length of our apartment dozens of times with my master’s hood on, yelling “I’m a master!” and sometimes “of the Universe” would make it out before Claudia had to hold my hair back. Turns out I wasn’t adult quite yet.
Being with someone at all younger than you — even by a few years — makes you aware of your age in a looming, futuristic way. I have had a handful of 40th birthdays at this point because my wife thinks it is funny that I am close to 40 and it actually is funny that she’s duped so many high-end big city restaurants into believing it is my 40th in years past. We are handed free champagne, chef’s tasting desserts on the house, once even a menu printed with my name on it that now hangs framed on our dining room wall. Sometimes, it really is my birthday, but 37 or 38. Sometimes, it isn’t my birthday at all.
Now it is. The real 40 is upon me and it certainly is not what I expected, even in the years since New York. I do not live in the city in a studio with plants on a fire escape, but instead in the Deep South, in a beautiful house with a columned porch, a cracking driveway, and a yard we actually maintain. I do work I never thought I’d be brave enough for. I write, and while it’s not my job I’ve made it a second one. I’ve maintained a network of friends from all 10 cities I have lived in and have lost track of what every day looks like anymore. The passage of time is utterly irrelevant and also the only thing keeping the cogs turning. I, like all of you, am living through a pandemic and social unrest unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime, though the history books aren’t lacking.
A lot of life since NYC has sent me reeling. I used to believe I could do anything, and I had a way of looking over my shoulder as invitation. My confidence was at times obnoxious, so the self-doubt I feel now, at “midlife,” is a great disappointment and not just to me. Someone mentioned the other day that at some point, your person is no longer the person you married. My wife nodded but did not look at me. I stare at myself in the mirror and am idly obsessed with aging. My body aches in new ways, my skin pads my bones in new ways. I think of Botox, of retinol cream, of makeup, which I have not worn since my teens. I used to laugh about mid-life crises and those people whose glory days were so far in the past but it seems…I might be one of them.
Not that this can’t be fixed. Forty is hardly even adult anymore. Has anyone seen my bravado?