When I turned 21, I had already embarked on my dream career. My 21st birthday was spent with coworkers and a couple of my roommates. I’d been at work for a year, carrying a full course load in college in Ohio while my family lived in South Jersey. I saw them about three times a year, because between college and my job, I didn’t get a lot of time off, and because I had a sister in college and another in high school and a third in grade school, so there wasn’t a ton of money for airfare.
I didn’t have a boyfriend. I can’t remember whether I dated anybody at 21—I didn’t date much at all before I graduated—but I do remember the mess I was kind of in with a married guy I worked with. It wasn’t a relationship, not an affair, though how do you define an affair? Does it have to have a physical element, or does a one-sided series of “I love yous,” a dozen gorgeous, unwanted roses at work on Valentine’s Day with an unsigned card quoting a country song, a fear of never hearing anyone else say what he’d been the only one to ever say, and a threat of suicide without you qualify? At 21, I wasn’t sure, but I felt certain that, when I dug my rosary out of a drawer in search of comfort and found it broken, I was in some very serious trouble. He was messed up and I was a little messed up in the most conventional way possible, and he loved me and I needed to hear the things he said so I could feel a little less messed up.
Twenty-one was a lot of work for me.
Twenty-one was a lot of country music.
Yet I thought I would get married and have kids in the way that every girl thinks she’ll get married and have kids, like it’s just a course of nature, a foregone conclusion, that stuff that always happens because it’s assumed to be guaranteed from the moment one enters the world.
I’m a few years shy of doubling 21, and almost everything has changed. That dream career for which I had sacrificed so much so willingly for so long turned into a bittersweet kind of misery for which I wasn’t willing to give up any more. It almost ended on someone else’s terms at 31 and again at 32, and then I left it willingly and very happily at 36 and three days. But for all I lost in those years, I gained a great deal, too. It made me different in a lot of good ways. Smarter. More able. More agile. I can’t imagine what else I could have done. I don’t have a dream career now—in a lot of ways, the one I left is still the dream, and it’s how I learned that when a dream goes bad, it’s not necessarily replaced by a new one dreamed with equal passion. But I have a life. I have the freedom to make new, exciting plans, and look forward to whatever happens next.
The college-owned apartment with three roommates morphed into a small rental place of my own, and then another in another state, back east, still not with family but much less far away. Then another, and then a house I bought myself. The guilt I used to feel about not living in the same place as my family is still there, but the excuse I thought I would need—that my job kept me away—no longer seems required, because I have chosen my second hometown for myself, and I no longer care who’s offended by that. I see my family every month now instead of three times a year. I live in a tremendously diverse neighborhood in a tremendously diverse city, instead of in the very, very white Midwest. I make less money, yet I am richer than I was a year ago.
My state does not get blamed for elections, nor credited for them.
The man who swore he literally wouldn’t live without me has been out of my life for 13 years, but as far as I know, he’s still alive. Divorced, but alive. I’m still a little messed up, and who isn’t, but I’m past the particular problems that put me in that situation and I have never allowed it to happen again, and I never will. My rosary, which I fixed, remains intact…even if what I believe has changed a little. There has been love since, and for all its twists, it has hurt me more, but hurt others less.
I have come to fairly loathe country music.
A few years shy of doubling 21, I am single and childless, and I like it that way, even if I’m not entirely comfortable with the way everyone else sees those words, and even if I feel bad about who it disappoints. I still want to get married, but it doesn’t have to be soon. I know that, if I find the man I want to spend my life with, he may want what I don’t. I know it may be the deciding factor in whether he spends his life with me. I may one day wake up suddenly feeling every loss of what I don’t have, but I know myself well enough to know that having it now would probably not be good for anyone. And I know that, when I’ve tripled 21, I may see that I would have been better than I think, and change my mind too late. But I have to live with what I know now. I’ve been told that my spine can’t do the job anyway, and even if it did, I couldn’t pick my children up once they got past 25 pounds. Some decisions are made by something other than the mind or the heart. Right now, I’m glad they all seem to agree.
Right now, my only true regret was the connection to a man whose feelings for me helped bring down his marriage. My role in that is one I had to struggle mightily to forgive, even though his marriage likely would have ended without him ever having met me. That part of what my life has been is not the only hard part, but right now, it is the only part I would change. It is the only thing that doesn’t pass the test of time, the only thing for which the lessons were not worth their cost.
I don’t look back at 21 and see my biggest concerns, dreams, fears and realities of the time as trite or simple or quaint. I respect who I was then. I like her. There are a few things I would tell her now, but she wouldn’t have listened to me, and I wouldn’t listen now to what I’ll want to tell myself in 21 years. She had to learn it her way, and I have to learn it mine. I saw some very difficult things when I was 21, and I’ve seen more since. I know more now, but I don’t mock who I was then. She never would have thought she would be this happy being me. She’d be pleasantly surprised. But she got me here. She’s every bit a part of why I’m me as anything else. Maybe more.
We’re friends, she and I. Soul mates. I am at once her mother and her daughter, the one who protects her and the one who has come after her.
And I will always have her.
That will never change.
This post was prompted by FiftyFourandAHalf’s post, When YOU Were 21. She welcomes everyone’s stories.