On Turning 21

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I used to really love birthdays. Well, I used to really love my birthday. Let’s be real—other people’s birthdays are fun when you can get a good party out of it, but past that, you really only care about your own. Unless you hate attention, or like to pretend that you are the kind of person who hates attention.

Last year I had my first terrible birthday. For starters, it was on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday where you literally are not allowed to eat and you have to repent for all of your sins. I was three weeks into my four months of living in Prague, and went to the Chabad in the Old Town to observe the holiday. For the service, I had to sit in the way, way back behind a tall, wooden gate. This is because I am a woman. I had to squint through the bars in order to make out the rabbi, who went so quickly through the whole thing that I genuinely couldn’t tell if he was speaking in Czech, Hebrew, or both.

The highlight of my day was coming home between classes, stripping off my turtleneck sweater and jean skirt, and falling asleep in my favorite bra. I woke up 45 minutes later and sat up in bed, rosy-cheeked and doe-eyed, and, for 20 minutes, ate sour gummy candy from a paper bag that my friend Emily had given me that morning. As the Jewish people say when something is blessed, baruch hashem.

I got home from the service that night and sobbed.

I’ve been secretly counting down to my birthday this year because I know that it cannot possibly be worse than the year prior. I’ve been waiting for this day because it would prove me wrong—birthdays are great, after all. I know it.

At midnight, I turn 21. For the last week, this has felt very, very weird.

The best and most commonly given advice to a birthday girl is to “not set your expectations too high.” That way, when you don’t have that much fun at your party, you wake up to see it’s raining, or the boy you wanted to kiss didn’t lean in when you wanted him to, you won’t feel the disappointing sink of your metaphorical candles being blown out by someone else.

The weird thing about turning 21 is that the American government has automatically instilled an expectation that I cannot ignore. Obviously, this is the expectation that, starting at 12am, I can legally drink alcohol.

I have been counting down to 12am all day. This makes no sense. I don’t have any wild plans for midnight (maybe a dive bar, nothing crazy) and, to disappoint you all, I actually have enjoyed a glass of wine or two before, so this will not be the first.

This is what counting down to turning 21 unexpectedly feels like: Cinderella watching the clock. New Year’s Eve. Checking to see if you got into the college of your dreams on December 12th at 5pm. Taking a pregnancy test. Waiting to hear the results of a presidential election. Getting ready to leave the nail salon because your toes will soon be dry. Getting out of class. Standing in front of a microwave.

It doesn’t feel like something amazing is going to happen. It feels strange to know that at a time I am already aware of, something about me is going to change. And the worst part of it all is that’s it’s not a big deal, but, because we are human, we feel things anyway.

I told my mom that I wasn’t in the mood for a birthday. Her response was this: “Hannah, you’ve always been sensitive to time.”

Maybe it’s weird because I remember turning 20, sort of sweaty in my bra and underwear, getting sugar in my sheets, writing a similar essay at this time one year ago, so vividly. I hated turning 20 so much. I hated that I was done with 19.

In that essay, I lamented a then-anxiety of mine: Is everyone else freaking out as much as I am? Also this: My one and only life goal was to write a book before I turned 20, because I thought there was something romantic and alluring about it, and I didn’t do it.

A very full year has passed. I have lived in Prague, and Providence, and New York City. I have aged immensely, though my fashion sense has perhaps regressed to that of a six-year-old in 1993. I have experienced so many people and things. I don’t remember the last time I thought about everyone freaking out, or lack thereof. I started writing a book.

This morning I told my roommates who also serve as my best friends that I was feeling weird and reflective, which I guess is a thing I now do on the day before my birthday. On my 12th birthday, I had a full-blown panic attack just as my mom brought out the cake. I ran out to the deck and hyperventilated for an hour and a half. I am terrified that this is going to happen to me tomorrow.

Incidentally, that birthday also fell on Yom Kippur, so maybe that’s just god’s way of saying “fuck you.” I mean, that would be shitty of him, but you never know.

I think I don’t want to have a birthday because I don’t need one. I don’t need a day about me. Maybe I don’t want a day where I have to think about me. Everything is good every other day. I really like every day.

Do you know what I also like? Hoppy beer. Also pumpkin beer. And Chardonnay. If we run into each other tonight, drinks on me.