Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

A MORTIFYING LESSON IN HOW I AM OLD

I've been in clutter-clearing mode over the last week, which is good, because Jeremy and I are two of nature's pack rats.  We both brought frighteningly large book collections to our marriage, along with a penchant for buying weird clothes from second-hand stores, and we both hate, HATE, to throw anything away.  Case in point: I still have the spiral-bound notebook with the notes I took in Introduction to Physics from my freshman year of college.  You know, because I might need it.

Usually, we only throw things away when we move, but every once in a while, the mood strikes me to just get rid of all the crap stuffed into the back of my closet and the weird, slightly lopsided bookshelf in the corner of our kitchen, and in the green canvas bags we're theoretically supposed to be using for our groceries -- because we're trying to take care of the environment and also we can't bring ourselves to throw away all those plastic bags.

So, looking at the pile of clothes I managed to cull from my closet, I had an idea.  "Ah," I said to myself.  "You have next to no money.  Why don't you sell some of these clothes to the trendy second-hand clothes shop that's just opened down the street?  Look at this weird lace shirt.  And these pointy shoes covered in sequins.  And these pants that look like something Han Solo would have worn if he were a wannabe Goth in the late '90s.  Surely they'll want some of them!  Then you can use the proceeds to buy more books.  And also ice cream."

I packed everything up in a brown paper bag, feeling very pleased with my own cleverness, and headed down to the thrift store.

"Have you ever sold clothes here before?" the guy behind the counter asked.

"No," I said.

He handed me a form.  "Just fill that out.  It'll be about ten or fifteen minutes."

I slid the form back to him and lifted the bag onto the counter, but as I did, one of the handles ripped.  "It's okay," I said.  "I don't need the bag back."

I poked around for a few minutes until they called my name.  I went back to the counter.  There was a girl on the other side now, maybe 18 or 20 years old.  She slid the ripped bag back across the counter to me.

"Unfortunately, we couldn't take any of these."  She made a "sorry" face at me.

"That's okay," I said, reaching for the bag.  I've sold enough books to used book stores to know not to be disappointed if someone doesn't want something I've decided I don't want anymore either.
"It's just. . ." Her face took on a pained look.  "These are a little more. . . mature than what we're looking for."

I don't think I've ever seen anyone look at me with pity before, but that was definitely the look I was getting now.  Mature?  I raised my eyebrows.

"But other than that, you've got the right idea," she said, no doubt seeing the look on my face and trying to put a last-ditch positive spin on things.

So I slunk away, muttering to myself.  I tried to laugh it off, but really, is there anything more mortifying than being pitied by an 18-year old?  And oh my God, I know I'm irreparably nerdy, but I really thought I was pulling off that whole disheveled-retro-librarian-chic thing, not walking around like a dun-colored frump, making myself look a decade older than I am.

To make matters worse, all of this happened two days before my 27th birthday.  I had been feeling pretty good about it -  Hey, 27 is still young!  Sure, I have to watch what I eat now, and make sure I exercise more, and I can't stay up all night like I used to, but I have a really fun job and the freedom to go see a band I like or go out to a free showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II without worrying about getting home late or, since Jeremy and I don't have any kids, finding a babysitter.
But this minor failure brought those good feelings crashing down around my ears.  It made me remember a conversation I'd had with my 16-year-old brother earlier in the year.  He had been trying to get my sister and me to join him in a Smiths sing-along (yes, those Smiths -- my brother is one of those guys who's going to end up being the music store employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of music who goes off on rants about how vinyl is superior to all other formats), involving him on guitar and us girls crowded around his laptop on vocals.  You should know this about my brother:  He taught himself to play the guitar, and he's really, genuinely good.  In a year or so, he's going to be as polished as any professional out there.

I told him this.  "Just think, in ten years, you'll have completely mastered that instrument.  You'll be able to play anything."

"Yeah," he said, bent over and picking at his guitar strings.  He looked up at me with a completely straight face.  "But by then I'd be twenty-six."  He said the number like one might say "imprisoned in a Soviet gulag," or "dying of a flesh-eating bacterial infection," with a prevailing sense of hopelessness and doom.

I nearly hyperventilated with laughter when he said it, but it also dawned on me that the world's sixteen to eighteen-year-olds, my own brother included, think someone in her late 20s in hopelessly, impossibly OLD.  It would be funnier if they didn't seem so sincere.

My father thinks I'm getting some much-deserved comeuppance.  He has never let me forget how eight-year-old me gave him an "Over-the-Hill crying towel" for his 35th birthday.  (Though in my defense, I'd say that falls more into the "cruel teasing of children" category than the "genuinely thinking someone is old and pitiable" category.  That's not the kind of thing you'd tease about if you really thought it was true.)

But on the other hand, all of these things make me think maybe I've crossed some invisible threshold into true adulthood that I never knew existed until I turned around and saw it behind me.  It makes me a little sad, mostly because I spend so much of my childhood and youth trying to be more grown up than I was -- helping raise two siblings almost a decade younger than me by the time I entered middle school, trying to get grades good enough to earn a scholarship that would put me through college, working after school in both high school and at the university, marrying young, and finding a job that would support me and Jeremy so he could go back to college.

Don't get me wrong, I love my life.  There are so many good things in it and people I love all around me.  But there's something sad about realizing you never really took your chance to relish being young.  Then again, maybe that's a myth we tell ourselves, this whole "carefree days of youth" thing.  Because I would not want to be a teenager again for anything in this world, and I suspect I'm not alone.  Give me 27.  Let's see what happens next.

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