on turning twenty-one

“If you're going to be stuck in one age forever,” my Psychology teacher in high school asked my class back in senior year, “what age would you pick?”

I was sitting at the front of the class and was the first to be asked for my answer. Impulsively, I picked 21.

I turned 21 yesterday. Amidst so many other things I wanted and needed to do this week, I hadn’t expected it to be anything special. It wasn’t. But what I hadn’t expected was this sadness that had been building and building since blowing out the candles on the birthday cake—deep and inexplicable, heavy, the kind that gnaws.

When I was a senior in high school, I suppose, I thought I’d have a better idea of who and what I wanted to be by the time I was 21. I remember telling my teacher that I thought 21 was the age you got your first taste of freedom, and if not that, a semblance of independence that you yourself had built with experience, with some lesson learned from the mistakes that they tell you are no big deal when you’re teenagers. In some ways, university has filled out some of the criteria for me; I’m a very different person now than I was back then, and I like to think it’s a good kind of different. I’m more honest, more open than I was back then, more inclined to feel like this self is my self. University has done me good, I think, even when most of the time I don’t want to believe it for fear that I’ll ruin it.

Yet to reach 21 and still feel lost, to be so aware that most of the things people tell me I should be proud about still have so much potential to be the wrong choices, to become things I would regret farther down the line—it isn’t at all what I imagined three years ago.

I self-published a novel earlier this week. It’s a very terrifying thing, to send your work out there. Equal balance between being scared that no one would read it and hoping that indeed no one would. I’m trying not to think about it. But there’s a lot of processing required to come to terms with the sobering reality that you don’t just write and people would magically read it. That’s not how the publishing industry works. Writing fic has spoiled me on that regard, gave me the idea that people would find my work eventually, even when I can’t find the voice to market and advertise my own work with the initiative and confidence that other writers do. But I know I poured all I could into Carr—into his personality, into his dreams, his insecurities, into this boy so different yet so similar to me. And I published a novel at 20. It’s what I planned, what I wanted. Now I want to believe it’s enough.

Why, though? Why 20? I know logically that 21 isn’t old. I know I shouldn’t be in a hurry. But I am. So many of people rising to the forefront of their respective fields are around my age, some even younger, and though I never thought myself the type to be made insecure by things like this, it does get me wondering if I’d missed a shot I should have taken, if somewhere in the past few years, I’d made the wrong choice—if earlier this week, in publishing CARR, I made the wrong choice—and the next decade would pass without me ever getting the chance to get my life on track where I wouldn’t feel sadder and sadder each year, even more directionless than I was graduating at 18.

But I’m not very happy with my life. I’m not very happy with myself. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all. Maybe it’s just the depression devils settling back since the school year ended and they finally have my head all to themselves. Or maybe it’s that I feel, more than a little, like I’m disappointing my high school senior year self. I was so confident of how I would be at 21, that by now, I would have better answers. And while I do, while so much has changed since, while I keep picking myself back up and going with the wave every time life tosses me somewhere I didn’t see coming, I don’t think these answers are any better than the questions I had at 18. I’m sorry, then, 18-year-old me, that I couldn’t be better for you. That I rang in another year so, so sad, so, so lost, so, so eager to be done with this life. I’m sorry I haven’t worked harder to bring you to the age you thought would find you happier, prouder, less lonely, less detached. I’m sorry that it probably seems I get worse every year. I’m sorry we keep getting older, and yet never any better.

Or maybe it’s because I watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople yesterday, and Ricky’s Birthday Song is both the sweetest and saddest thing I’ve ever had to listen to on a birthday.

Either way, 18-year-old me, I at least have one piece of good news: I’m headed to Italy in two days. Years and years of wishing and I still can’t believe it’s finally happening. Hopefully, this trip would be there to be cherished and remembered, if not much else in the past three years.