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.
The first time I read Eat. Pray. Love. I was sixteen in Turkey. After my first two weeks in a summer homestay program in Istanbul, the return of my anxiety disorder from the dark depths of freshman year of high school sent me into a “self-help” phrase. I did not eat anything but baklava for those first two weeks because I was terrified of food poisoning (and I guess I assumed that baklava was immune to that?). On the fourth of July, an acid-reflux/diarrhea attack sent me hysterically crying as I tried to reach my mom in the States. I woke up every person in the apartment and then spent half an hour convincing them through hiccupy sobs that I was totally great, thanks!!! No worries!!
The next day, I knew it was time to put an end to the madness. As I strayed away from the idea of taking an SSRI (like Lexapro) or a benzo (like Xanax, but not in the way you used it to get blackout in high school) for the whole of my childhood, I had to come up with my own medication. Thus, I gave birth to the master plan of all master plans: I downloaded seven self-help books on my Kindle using my 23-year-old host brother’s phone Wi-Fi, and I’m pretty sure that at the time, I had never been so excited about anything in my entire life.
Whether the end of my panic disorder as it manifested itself for that summer in Turkey ceased due to inspiring nonfiction written by great women, I do not know. (The same summer, I also read all three books in the Fifty Shades of Grey saga. So…) But the memoirs and stories I deemed “self-help,” even though their actual genre may not read the same way, did shape my idea of being alone and being alive. I decided that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love. would be the first I read. It was also the best.
What I remember most from the memoir is a small paragraph in the introductory section where Gilbert speaks about herself as a someone who explores the world; though she has been everywhere from eastern Africa to Asia and back again a dozen times, she is not a “natural” traveler. She gets food poisoning everywhere, she catches malaria or something like that, her feet blister easily and she doesn’t do well on planes… that sort of stuff. But still, she chooses to travel. And she loves it. And this is the part of the book that I have been thinking about for the last six months, and, more recently, at least twice a day for the last 74 days. We, maybe meaning me and Elizabeth, maybe just meaning all of us, choose to do things even though we know they may be hard. It is the rewarding type of self-sabotage where, in the end, we aren’t quite sabotaging ourselves at all.
Since metaphysically joining Gilbert on her journeys to Italy, India, and Bali in 2012, I have wanted to travel alone. So, I made it a point to take a weekend away myself over the course of my four months in Europe. And I told everyone that I would too, maybe because I thought that would make its chances of happening higher. I sent my parents links to articles. Listicles. Anything. They weren’t very enthusiastic about the whole idea, but the truth of the matter is that a month ago, I booked a plane from Prague to Milan for two and a half days, so now I’m in the airport and soon I’ll be incredibly alone in the Italian city of Milan. I can already tell I will like it because the strong cologne of the thin, bald man in a sleek suit next to me at gate C2 is kind of a turn on. What???
I will be staying in a private room in an AirBnb hosted by a lovely fifty-something woman named Fabrizia. She signs her emails “Fab.” I think we will be best friends.
I don’t really know anyone in Milan at all besides Fab, I guess. People have been asking me what are you going to do there?? which I think is a silly question because I’m going to do what I would do if I wasn’t alone, DUH! I am going to see the Piazza Duomo and Via Montenapoleone and eat pasta at fancy restaurants. Yes, I will be eating pasta alone because I am traveling alone! Yes, I will wander to a bar at night where I can drink red, red wine so good it puts the song to shame (if it is not to shame already). I will buy myself something nice to wear, like a hat, and when it gets late at night, I’ll have a date with Microsoft Word, which is the closest sugar daddy to Bill Gates I’ll probably ever find.
I have no idea what to expect, but I am really not nervous at all. I promise I’m not even just saying that to sound cool. Because I thought I would be nervous and I’m not. I feel very amazing, actually.
Of course, though, this good feeling will only last until I wake up in the middle of the night with that dang ol’ hereditary acid reflux and call my mom crying. But I have my Zantac (not to be confused with Xanax) now so I’M ALL GOOD! Don’t worry, Mama!
So, I guess this is it. I’m not freaking out, but I may or may not be thinking I AM LIVING THE DREAM, because, and I could not be thankful enough for this, I am. Me and the little Elizabeth Gilbert who sits on my shoulder will be eating al dente pasta, praying for a good floppy hat that is affordable enough for me to purchase, and loving every second of being alone with my oldest friend – me. (Haha.)
I am about to start my twenties.
It’s like the moment in 13 Going on 30 when Jennifer Garner’s character, Jenna Rink, who has the best character name ever, wakes up one morning and realizes she’s no longer thirteen and she’s… well… thirty (as I’m sure you could have guessed). Anyway, this is exactly what has happened to me. I swear.
I have always wanted to be in my twenties, though never for a second did I genuinely wish I was another age. I’ve been excited for my twenties. I think that they seem glamorous and fun and they have all the good stuff. Like maybe within the next decade I’ll meet a guy who likes all the same things I do and maybe one day we’ll have babies. And in the next decade I’ll have a job, hopefully. I’ll really be who I am, or who I’m going to be, and it’s just SO cool that it’s all going to happen because it has to – because life just keeps going.
But I am pretty sure that just a few moments ago I was five and received my first lecture from a doctor after slamming my little brother’s chin into the wooden floor of our living room. (This was the first time I got lectured by a doctor; after the age of 16 most doctors’ lectures revolve around condom usage, no matter what!)
And I swear to the mother, the sister, and the holy spirit that just this morning – just this morning!!! – I was nine and so obsessed/intrigued by colonial American culture after a school field trip that I brought a silver mixing bowl from my kitchen into my room to use as a “basin” next to my bed so that I could “rinse my hands” at night before falling asleep. My mom’s response to this was something along the lines of WTF Hannah, so I had to bring it back down to the kitchen the next morning.
I loved more than just the habits of young colonial women. When I was in third grade, I told my teacher that I was going to write a book about famous females in history. On that lined paper we all used to learn script, I proceeded to spend free time for two weeks writing about my favorites: Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Anne Frank. Of course, this was all completely plagiarized from the mini-chapter books I obsessively read about each of them every morning from 6:30 to 7:30.
Later that year, in third grade, I completely made up a miraculous event in my life and wrote about it for my final memoir; I was called into a circus ring, which I vaguely remember happening but Mother dearest insists that it “must have been a dream.” Often, I have trouble remembering the moment I realized I wanted to write, or even the moment I realized I liked to write, and that it felt as good, if not better, than your legs do when you shave after two weeks sans shaving. But maybe, now that I’m almost twenty – double digits again! – I can say that this moment was probably it.
Right now, I’m sitting on my bed in my apartment in Prague. And I’m basically alone. And I cooked dinner for myself tonight, albeit the fact that I didn’t realize I had to cook dinner for myself until my blood sugar was so low that I felt weak in the knees, yes, in the same way I did when I realized how attractive Spanish men were this past weekend in Barcelona.
Can you believe that everything in the above paragraph is true?
So, we must ask ourselves: Is this real life? Am I really going to be 20? Did I actually just travel to Barcelona, casually, for the weekend, without my mom and dad? Where is my nightgown and my miniature-sized version of The Big Comfy Couch (ignore the fact that I still sleep with blinders/my teddy bear/blankie)? Where is that moment when, after months of unsuccessful attempts, I finally had the chutzpah to shove a tampon up my hoohah? What about the time I shit my pants on stage during my camp age group’s production of Sleeping Beauty in 2006? Or when I woke up my mom in the middle of the night to let her know I had my first kiss?
Life is a crazy, crazy thing. Last week, I was telling my therapist that at least twice a day I find myself looking around some public space and screaming inside of my head, “How is no one else freaking out right now? How am I the only one?”
Her response was simple: “Why do you think we speak to each other, Hannah?” she asked. “Why do you think we have language, or we have Skype [the method through which we were talking], or we communicate at all? It’s because no one can cope with it all alone. We would all go crazy if we did.”
And she was right. I’ve spent the last three weeks obsessively journaling, which is something I haven’t had time to do in years. But it isn’t really the same. Simply put, I can’t turn twenty alone.
So, is anyone else freaking out right now? Am I not the only one?
I had a very big life goal (I am a very big goals person, ask me for my New Years’ resolution list and I can serve you a copy of my 2008 Microsoft Word version if you’d like) and it was only this: to write my first book before my twentieth birthday. I thought that teenage allure would make it that much more, uh, alluring. I thought that I would be so accomplished, and I would be the YOUTH!
Well, bad news bears, I did not write a book, and I am about to turn twenty. My mom told me that maybe I should extend the goal one year, because obviously you aren’t really an adult until you can legally drink.
I’m not not saying that I plan on following the goal suggested by my mom. (Side note: I originally made that sentence a quadruple negative and decided that it was just mean to do and not even funny or worth it.) But, more importantly, age is just a number. I’m still the same me from third grade, so in another nine or ten months, I’ll probably be the same me that I am tonight, but a little bit different, too.
Tomorrow I will no longer be a teenager and I will never be a teenager again and soon 19 will feel as far away as the time I needed my first bra because early onset nippilitis at age 10. I’ll just leave it at that.