By Elizabeth Newdom
It started one evening shortly after my 42nd birthday, when I discovered a box of journals hiding behind old clothes in my closet. Pulling open the cardboard flaps, loosened with time, I reached for a notebook with a purple velvet cover. It was from 1998, the year I was 25. I cracked open the spine, and there, on the first page in familiar scrawl, was a Joan Didion quote: “It’s distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair.”
I sank to the closet floor, into a puddle of blue skirt, marveling at how aptly these words both summed up my twenties and captured the predicament of my current midlife crisis.
At 25, I had been living in Seattle for two years, after moving out west without a cell phone or a bank account. I had my first “real” job at a consulting firm and lived in an apartment in Lower Queen Anne. I often frequented The Mecca, the neighborhood greasy spoon, with pen and notebook in hand. The little bit of money I had left after bills were paid, I spent on books and overpriced coffee. I was richer than I’d ever been. Meaning, I no longer had to choose between cigarettes or Bounty.
It was also the first time I noticed men actually paid attention to me, and I became aware I was pretty. My hair grew long. I wore short dresses with boots, red lipstick and vintage leather jackets. I was a beehive full of honey, and I finally understood why women read magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, envisioning every sidewalk as a runway.
But I was more than a lovely reflection in store windows. I was also a poet, a guitar player, a hiker, and a yogi. In some ways, I had become the girl I had always envied in college. You know the one. The girl who skipped “awkward” and “self-deprecating” on the checklist of early womanhood. The one who was editor-in-chief of everything — and whose poems were published in the college literary magazine. She was a champion surfer and hiked the Appalachian Trail. She could coil her hair perfectly into a tidy little bun with only a pencil.
By 25, I had reached pencil-bun status.
And now at 46, I am in the prime of my life, yet I am pining for 25-year-old me like a lost love, chasing her around the carousel, at a time when I am supposed to be aging gracefully, embracing my greying hair and turkey neck, and all that other “David Copperfield kind of crap,” as Holden Caulfield would say.
Most days, I feel more like Jean Holloway, the 40-something-year-old protagonist of the television series Gypsy, a short-lived drama about a psychotic female therapist who takes on the lives of her clients. There’s a scene where Jean, played by actress Naomi Watts, walks into a night club to the tune of a hip Indie rock song. She is sexy. She is vibrant. And as she struts in, the viewer hears the proverbial record scratch while young men’s heads turn to notice her in slow motion. Only this is the fantasy version. Then we have the replay. The real version. The scene opens again, and Jean walks into the same club, but not one of the gorgeous young men looks up from his beer. She is just an older woman walking into a bar, out of place and time, a picture postcard of any woman’s midlife crisis.
At 46, I am grieving the death of my pretty-girl image, the one I have held in my pocket since age 25. More simply, I am grieving the death of my youth.
I am grieving the ability to throw on a leather jacket, topped off with cherry red lipstick, without looking like an imposter. I am grieving the ability to eat a burger with an actual bun and toppings. I am grieving the endless hours I used to spend ducking into one local bookstore after another. I am grieving the ease with which I could stay up until 1 a.m. and still make it to work on time—looking like a rock star.
Family obligations, strict bedtimes, and gravity are the new hallmarks of my current age.
But as any diver hunting for sunken treasure knows, lipstick and hamburgers without buns merely skim the surface; they aren’t what’s entombed on the bottom of the deep. What’s in there is something I have been too ashamed to admit.
I am a happily married woman, on the youthful end of the grown-ups who came of age watching The Breakfast Club. I have a child who is bright and kind. I have a quaint yellow house in an idyllic suburban neighborhood. I am living the dream as a college professor and writer. My picket fence couldn’t be whiter.
And yet, I am perched on top of a life raft watching the Titanic of my youth sink, carrying chances not taken out of fear or indecision: jobs not accepted, friendships lost, adventures missed. Feelings unsaid and lips un-kissed. Moments that circle through my mind on an endless loop, keeping me frozen in place. There I am standing on a porch in Wilmington, at a café in Fremont, at a nightclub on Market Street, and at a performance of Shakespeare in the Park. Moments that passed as quickly as they came. Moments that we write about in journals and then forget until we go digging through old boxes in our forties, wondering why we couldn’t act.
But the light is fading now, and my little yellow house awaits, with its plume of chimney smoke, and my adoring family inside.
It’s time to put down the torch for my former self, and light Jean’s way back home. Cue new music for the bar.
It’s time to leave the painted ponies who have ceased their bobbing. To move along with the wind that carries the crushed cups and torn tickets.
It’s time, as Didion said, to leave the fair.
Elizabeth Newdom teaches writing and literature courses in Frederick, MD. She and her family live in a comfy yellow house with “two cats in the yard.” Follow Elizabeth’s journey through midlife on her blog, The Astronaut Wife.
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