There I was, a recently 30-year-old woman. Girl? Lady? Who knows. I spent a good amount of time in the run-up to The Birthday thinking about what I would call myself once that milestone was reached. But the many moving parts of my brain never quite settled on one choice. For now, let’s go with lady. It’ll make this story sound fancier than it is, like I’m a brooding yet whip-smart heroine in a Charlotte Brontë novel. So there I was, a recently 30-year-old lady, standing by a window and peering through the blinds at the cars below as I waited. My portfolio was in my hand, the same portfolio that had been through medical school interviews during my senior year of college, returned home with me to Boston after graduation, moved to New York with me for my first real job, my first apartment, my first layoff, multiple temp positions, and an unpaid internship, before retreating with me to the city of my birth. That was over four years ago now.
She came into the office and introduced herself again.
“Have you been standing this entire time?”
I had, back straight as if once again a child grasping the barre.
“Please sit down.”
My resume was soon in her grasp, and I sat with my hands on my knees staring at the glass of water I had requested but would barely touch.
“So you were roughed up by the recession?”
A hollow laugh escaped. I wanted to reach out and catch it. Push it back down, but it was too late. “A little bit.”
She gave me a look. “A little bit?”
Okay, maybe a lot.
The whole tale is long and gross and its details are of little importance except that they landed me in front of a career strategist. She wrote notes on the back of my resume. I looked from her to my water glass to my knees to the lilac manicure on my fingers and back again, trying to find some grounding as I told the story. Trying to see if this time, what felt like the hundredth time of its retelling, would emerge some lesson that would make my path seem clear, or at least less full of bullshit.
“But you would be completely bored doing that.”
It was her response to one of the ideas I had thrown around as a possibility. I had heard it before, and although I understand why people keep saying it to me, I don’t understand its importance at this point. Eventually you don’t care about being bored. Sometimes with boredom comes stability and a lot more freedom of movement, both physical and emotional. Besides, it’s not as if I’m not bored to pieces now. Reading books two and three at a time. Going to the movies first thing in the morning and letting myself melt into various stories. Wandering all over Boston on foot in rain and snow and humidity. Boredom is something that I am familiar with. And unlike uncertainty and gut-wrenching stress, it’s something that I can handle.
A few weeks before that meeting I got sick. I’m a pretty good sick person. At least I have been since the second half of college when I discovered that actually staying in bed and drinking fluids will make you feel better more quickly. But on the eve of a trip to visit my best friend for her 30th birthday, I woke up with a sore throat, a fever, and the realization that no matter how religiously I stayed in bed or how many cups of peppermint tea I drank, I was going to be out for awhile. It was bound to happen. All of my stress was going to crop up at the worst time and leave me broken and shivering under a pile of blankets. In bed there was nothing to do but think, and as I knew that would only make things worse, I took to the warm embrace of Netflix and sleep.
“Samantha, what are you doing?”
I was usually ready for questions like this one. Shields up. A chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders. The non-answer. But it was a Friday night and there had been wine and as I leaned against the side of a building and complained about the preceding week, I found myself unprepared for it.
Weeks had passed since the meeting, since the illness that had sapped everything from me, and yet I was still feeling disjointed. There’s nothing quite like hurtling toward the midpoint of your 30th year and having someone who is barely 23 ask you that question. You recognize that it is a valid inquiry and, in turn, find yourself stunned by it. You are flailing and thrashing, sometimes floating, usually sinking, and it is obvious to everyone. You only hope that it’s not obvious in the cover letters that you’ve been struggling with and pulling at for the last six years. Except you’re a smart girl and you know better.
It’s the question that rests at the center of all of the other questions about me. Sometimes the words vary, but mostly it’s the tone that moves here and there. The Condescending. The Friendly. The Searching and The Confounded. I have, in a fight to avoid all of the questions and all of the tones, become incredibly good at talking about the weather.
It’s simple. I live in New England. Do you know how easy it is to get people to talk about the weather? So easy. Start by mentioning that winter where we had a blizzard every Wednesday or that spring where it rained every day until July 3rd, and suddenly you’ll find yourself in a fucking meteorological free-for-all.
But it was far too late for such games. And you can’t play those games with people who know you. Well you can, but they won’t play back. So I let my unrest sit in the air instead of inside me rolling around and picking up steam.
“I don’t know.”
Admitting that I don’t know something is hard for me. I’m known for knowing. Random historical facts and geography questions and 2^10. But it’s an especially hard hurdle for me to overcome when it comes to not knowing about my own life. I had been, once, in my structured adolescence, so good at plans, at the making of them and the fulfilling of them. But something about failure, about a career that isn’t a career at all because it never got started, erodes all of those skills. And now when people ask what I’m doing or what I want, I feel this emptiness. My brain has trouble making those connections. And when it does, it’s often for the most vague of concepts. Stability. Quiet. Not the exciting dreams of my childhood or the more mundane ones of my high school and early college years.
They do exist somewhere deep down, but I let them reside there, rarely letting them see the light of day, afraid that saying them out loud will insure that they don’t come true. Waiting to blow out the candles on some eternal birthday cake.
In that office, hashing things out, it was obvious what was expected of me. I was to turn back the clock and be the person I was before, the person before the hole-ridden resume that she held in her hands. I knew things were too far gone for such strategies. The past six (well, eight) years had been absolute shit, but going back wasn’t going to solve any of my problems. There were dreams in that past that had been left there for a reason, dreams that were not discarded lightly. And there was a person that I was then that I didn’t want to be now. But I could see the allure of the idea and why it was being suggested. Oh, to be 22 years old again. Unblemished by the first decade of this new century. To once again be an applicant that employers might see as full of promise.
After the meeting ended, I waited for the bus back into the city under a sky that threatened rain. I was unsure of what was next.
But that was a feeling I was used to.