Autumn Phillips: Time to put down the pencil
Though my birthday doesn’t officially happen until tomorrow, I will always equate the day I turned 30 with a little French restaurant on the corner of 10th and First streets in Manhattan.
It was well after midnight last Friday, and we were on our way to a cheap and funky jazz club called Detour. But the warm orange light and the ragtime music coming from a tiny cafe one block away pulled us in.
They are the kind of friends it takes you years to make and they had driven down from Maine to help me celebrate my birthday. We already had gotten past the initial discomfort of seeing someone you used to know really well but haven’t talked to for a long time.
It was small talk and tiptoeing at first, but by this hour, Tara had stopped trying to explain her impossibly obscure “form as text in the study of early readings in 17th century Ottoman subtexts as form or text” something something — otherwise known as what she had been doing for the past three years. Peter was finished reciting the set list for his new band, and I was done justifying why I hadn’t left my seat in Steamboat Springs for two years.
We were laughing and speaking freely when Tara lifted her glass and gave a toast to “turning 30.”
Tara was giving a speech about how she was looking forward to her 30s. She had things figured out in a way, she said. And she did. She was at the beginning of an academic career. She was in love and planning to marry as soon as her partner graduated with a doctorate in “Poetry of the Plains.”
Meanwhile, I was having some bizarre chemical reaction in my brain known as a moment of clarity:
The bar was a dimly lit, exposed brick hole in the wall, and we were almost the only customers. Across the room, I watched the waiter — a frizzy-haired Burgundy Frenchman — lift an old woman out of her seat and start to dance with her. I saw a middle-age man in the corner sipping his espresso and wishing he didn’t have to go outside to light another Gauloise.
And I felt a chain tying me to a moment 10 years ago, when I was 20. It was September and instead of going back to college, I boarded a plane for Pittsburgh to serve a year as a volunteer for VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, promising my parents I would go back to school the following year.
I didn’t go back for years. But I was able to ignore the “throwing your life away” cacophony because I made myself a promise on that plane to Pittsburgh.
I gave myself my 20s. I gave myself a decade of freedom to try it all, see it all. On my 30th birthday, I would sit down and figure out what I wanted out of life. Until then, I was off the hook.
By tomorrow, I should have everything figured out: life and the universe.
It will be time to return to the Mothership, to put my pencil down and turn in my test. Bells will ring, and I will be back in the white room with the Ghost of Christmas Past/guardian angel figure and he will tell me that I have a decision to make.
Either that, or it will be just another Saturday. The second hand will continue to turn on the clock, and I will simply be a year older. The cacophony gave up on me a long time ago.
The only thing that will change is my metabolism.
I came out of my fog just in time to clink glasses with my friends and toast to “turning 30.” The room suddenly began to fill with people.
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