When You Wish for Youth

January 17, 2022

Graphic by Emma George

Getting older feels like swallowing sand and choking on it.

My earliest memory was from my third birthday, where, of course, I cried.

It’s a distinct scene from my childhood home: A cul-de-sac with a stone fireplace and a sliding glass door that led into the backyard. I was helping my mom in the kitchen when my fingers got caught in the hinge of the fridge. At that moment, it was the worst pain I had ever felt. Naturally, the tears were hot, and so was my embarrassment. I remember my dad scooping me up and rocking me in his arms, making me and everything else feel just as small as the world does when you're three.

On this day, I don’t recall having cake or seeing balloons or the Dora-themed decorations that were undoubtedly present. I only remember the big emotions, the warmth of the air, and my dad’s ironclad hold as I looked out the big glass window to see bare trees shaking in January. I stuck my hand out to wave back at the swaying branches. I didn’t know that he would die eight months later before I had the chance to turn four. I didn’t know that when you’re three the world is three — everything is shrunken down and it’s hard for things to make sense — like where the sun goes at the end of the day or what the hell heaven is.

When I was three I had a pair of purple matching pajamas with yellow ducks printed on them. I wore them religiously; I was a true creature of habit. There was even a whole month where I wouldn’t eat anything except Dora shaped Spaghettios and Doritos. I craved stability until suddenly the word itself went up in flames.

I like the phrase ‘if you were born into a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire,’ simply because my house wasn’t burning when I was born. It had a treehouse in the backyard that my dad built with his own hands and it held the laughter of three healthy children. The fire was set when I was three and it left behind an ash laced with bitterness. The absence of a scorching flame left me as cold as it often was in January.

I never cared for winter. In my mind, it was so definitively unglamorous, so I always wished for a summer birthday. My grandparents had what I thought was the best pool in the world, and every year, I longed to invite my friends over to have popsicles and giggle as we splashed in the deep end. Instead, I pulled out two pairs of socks for layering and cursed the swimsuits pushed to the bottom of my drawer.

On the fourth of January, there are no pools or popsicles. There are only leftover Christmas gift bags and noisemakers from New Year’s or pumpkin spice-flavored goods. It's always a cold day. Trees are naked; the wind makes kids' noses run, and people still have anxiety leftover from New Year’s Eve festivities.

There are always tears, so many tears. Birthdays mark the finite evidence of mortality — proof of aging. I suppose the annual celebration is my most consistent encounter with grief, mourning another year passing as I drone out the sounds of anti-aging cream advertisements and girls on TikTok getting what is now called “preventative botox.” The whole process of getting older feels like swallowing sand and choking on it.

When will I stop coming of age? When I can legally drink or rent a car? Or when Leonardo Decaprio will no longer date me? When the girls from my graduating class turn into wives and mothers, completing the coveted suburban circle of life?

The mourning started early in my adolescence — when phones took the place of dolls and people whispered about girls who started wearing makeup to school. There was such a fine line between wishing to be older and cursing the very thought. It was a novelty to be daydreaming about getting my license, being a legal adult, or drinking alcohol, but also one that quickly wore off. Getting older was like crying out at the pierce of a double-edged sword. I was cursed to always celebrate the clock striking midnight while nursing the pit in my stomach from finding a sprout of gray hair at 17.

I had arguably my biggest cry at Claire’s on my 10th birthday. For all the trouble of turning double digits, my reward was to get my ears pierced. All my life, I have been terrified of needles. I used to have to be held down by a nurse at the doctor's office to get shots; even now, I get queasy at the thought of a flu shot. But I remember being so envious of the girls getting their ears pierced and wearing cute dangly earrings, small hoops, or even the stainless steel studs that you could tell came from a fresh piercing. In my ten-year-old mind, having your ears pierced meant you were cool and an adult. Back then, the two were synonymous.

When the time came for some teenage employee to approach my ten-year-old ear lobe with a piercing gun, I folded. The tears were uncontrollable, slicing through feelings of disappointment and dread. I didn’t want to show up to school at the end of winter break with virgin lobes. I was almost furious at the thought, but not quite. Fury is something you can hold on to. Disappointment just lingers, taunting me.

I ended up walking away from the store with bloodshot eyes while my mom clutched the cubic zirconia earrings that can’t be returned once they touch the piercing gun. We avoided eye contact in the rearview mirror all the way home. I felt a sense of shame that I couldn’t be the tough person I thought I had to be. I no longer considered myself invincible; my skin wasn’t made of iron and that made me sick to my stomach. Under my mother’s anger about wasting a trip to the mall and throwing away $50 on earrings I never wore, I think she felt some relief. If I didn’t have holes in my ears, maybe I could be nine for one more day.

When you are constantly told you have an old soul as a young girl, aging is that much more confusing — having to navigate when to be a child and when to be a grown-up. When is it appropriate to cry in public, and when should you act like the adult everyone requires you to be?

I had been chasing after the term old soul since my mother recalled stories about bringing me home from the hospital and watching me sleep. She swore she could hear me making noises that sounded like words and babbles that had to be sentences. Maybe it was female hysteria or just me taking care of unfinished business, as she often said. I had been speaking my mind ever since those early days in January when the wind whistled and I opened my mouth to answer its call.

I took the name with pride most of the time. To be old was to be wise. I didn’t realize that it came with the expectation that I live up to my title. Being an old soul wasn’t just tied to where I had been in a past life, it was a direct reflection of what I had to be going forward. Responsible, respectable, not too loud, not too troublesome — I had to be the “easy” child. I have been 19 since I was nine.

Getting older is like always reaching for low-hanging fruit. Excitement feels more subdued, but contentment is a dreaded word. I wasn’t excited to turn 19. I didn’t have any of the anticipation of turning 18 and being able to buy a scratch-off from the gas station. None of the exhilaration of being 21 and buying a drink at a bar. Nineteen was an in-between year too awkward to really be a milestone.

I had celebrated under the radar; my brightest idea seemed to be a small lunch. Just the three of us: Joie, Henry, and I went to a restaurant known for its outdoor views and overpriced seafood. It was January, and people were doubling their socks and wearing big puffer coats, so of course, we couldn't sit outside and actually enjoy the view.

We spent our time debriefing the semester and carrying out something of a tradition that we had started earlier in the year where we shared our favorite memory about the birthday person. It was nice and cozy, but I was still stuck cursing people born in June or July who could enjoy their $20 salmon outside by the water with a breeze to keep them cool. Bitterness did not favor me well.

Hours later, I ended up crying over my cake. It was vanilla with jam in between the layers and chocolate strawberries on top, one of my all-time favorites. I don’t know what exactly had pushed me over the edge, if it was having to celebrate my not-a-milestone birthday in a suburb of Dallas where the company was sparse and there was still an 11 o’clock curfew, or if the thought of aging was too overwhelming.

I think most of my tears came from the knowledge that this was my last year as a teen. I felt like a bowling ball was sitting on my chest. Suddenly there was all this pressure to make the days count and hang on to all of the pieces of being young that were scattered like shattered glass. God, I hate bowling. I hadn’t fallen in love. I hadn’t become famous on the internet. I had spent months in therapy, and here I was still crying over cake like I had done so many times before.

I couldn’t stop the clock from ticking incessantly. I couldn't control time. It all felt like such a waste — like I didn’t have anything to show for nearly six years of walking around with teen attached to the end of my age. I wanted someone to bargain with, someone to make time stop passing so quickly. It was such a frustrating feeling, not wanting to get older and not being able to stop it all at the same time.

It was so strange to look in the mirror and see the same girl who caught her hand in the fridge hinge or cried over cubic zirconia and the lack of popsicles in January. But I am the same girl I was sixteen years ago, and nine years ago, and nine months ago and and and. I feel the same dread, and the same tears cross my face as the thought of turning twenty crosses my mind.

As I blow out twenty candles this year, I will count my blessings, each more coveted than the last. Then, I will say them silently like a prayer in the middle of the night — my wish to be forever immortalized as a twenty-year-old who sees the world as being twenty. Fresh, lush, hungry, and eager to please. ■

Graphic by Emma George

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