My thirties are coming to a close, and it feels remarkably unremarkable.
I imagine I’ll wake up tomorrow, and nothing will have changed aside from the fact that I will have managed to have survived into another decade. Which is pretty swell, really. Certainly beats the alternative, as they say.
In anticipation of this birthday, I compiled a brief set of goals to meet ahead of time. Some more introspective than others, certainly, and while I accomplished several, including my renewed dedication to writing, others fell by the wayside, such as finding a decent lipstick shade.
And while I know that turning forty is a big freaking deal, I think what is stuck in my brain is how on earth I’m going to beat the awesomeness that was my thirties.
In my thirties, I became a mother. First, to my sweet baby girl who is creeping up on 10 herself, and then to three more tiny people, one boy and two more girls, who are happy and healthy and loved.
In my thirties,my husband and I bought our first home. Sure, it’s tiny, sure, it needs a metric tonne of work, but it is ours. And that is amazing. It’s terribly adult of us, don’t you think?
In my thirties, I realized a ridiculous amount about myself. I finally got comfortable in this mortal coil of mine. Through four pregnancies, I realized how much my body could withstand and was amazed by that. I stopped being paralyzed by self-consciousness. I learned how to recognize when the anxiety was talking and what tools were needed to get her to kindly eff off. I learned that whatever unkind word popped into my head didn’t necessarily need to pass my lips, no matter how justifiable my emotions may or may not be.
In my thirties, I learned my own opinions, separately from my family and friends – while some remained the same, not all did.
I don’t suspect I’ll wake up tomorrow feeling any differently. And I would venture to guess that as far as decades go, my thirties were a lot busier than the forties are slated to be. But I have a sneaking suspicion that in ten years’ time, a new list, albeit shorter, will be composed.
Perhaps by fifty I’ll find that elusive red lipstick.
The first time I met Aeryn Gillern, he walked into a study room in the mens’ dorm where I was cramming for a midterm with some friends. He was wearing a full length nightdress, an actual nightcap, and carrying a candlestick. He looks like a very manly and handsome Wee Willy Winkie. He swung open the door, muttered something about having a productive evening, slowly passed his disapproving eyes over the three of us, and dashed out. I remember being equal parts alarmed and amused.
Aeryn was a memorable character that I had seen around campus and town. He used to ride his bike to and fro, dressed impeccably with starched shirts and an interesting armband, the meaning of which I never did learn. His posture was flawless, even on his bicycle. He would have been a shoe-in for the part of Rolf if The Sound of Music film was ever re-cast. For the first couple of years on campus, I don’t think we ever spoke to one another, although I would see him from time to time in classes and on the rare occasions I made it to the gym, he was always there, headphones on, laser-sharp focus on his fitness routine. He was a bit of a mystery character – very reserved, stately, and not one for casual conversation.
It wasn’t until my semester abroad in Austria that I got to know Aeryn. As there were only about a hundred of us, it was impossible to avoid getting to know on another to some extent. But with Aeryn, I was happy for the close quarters. We took Austrian folk dancing lessons together, and we sang in the Latin Schola choir together. He was a fiercely loyal friend. I remember one time being asked to sing a part by myself, and feeling extremely self-conscious about it. One of the other choir members poked a bit of fun at me, highlighting just how quivery my voice had sounded. Aeryn stared him down, and in his booming baritone declared, “It’s called vibrato.”
Aeryn guarded his personal life closely, and it would several years before he was fully open with me about his reasoning. But even when I was a nineteen year-old spaz of a girl, he looked after me and tried to help me understand some of the world that my sheltered upbringing had left out. I didn’t even fully comprehend it at the time, but Aeryn came out to me one early Spring day as we sat on a bench outside the Kartause, our Austrian campus. There on the lawn of this centuries-old Carthusian monastery, bundled under our wool coats, he was trying to help me sort out my confusion about a mutual friend. I distinctly remember his tapdancing around the word gay, never uttering it in fact, as he went to great lengths to explain just how he was able to empathize with our friend. I still have no idea why my fiercely-private friend shared so vulnerably with me that day, but I am honored he did.
Aeryn only let most people know him at arm’s length. If you look through photo albums of our semester abroad, for example, there aren’t that many pictures of him. He didn’t come out to the pubs, he rarely traveled with any of us unless it was part of the school program, and he was fond of turning up his nose at most of our adolescent antics. Once, on the bus trip back from Rome, he even convinced our friend, Libby to take some Nyquil, pretending he thought she had the sniffles, but really just hoping she’d konk out and stop pestering him.
It would be years before all of the pieces fit together in that particular puzzle of his guardedness, but just as they were coming together, my friend disappeared. He hadn’t answered my latest email, and I wondered if I’d somehow offended him with my intrusive questioning. I only wish that had been what happened. I wish that he was just giving me the silent treatment, but sadly I would learn months later that he was really and truly missing.
The last time anyone saw my friend Aeryn was eight years ago today.
Today his mother, Kathy, stands vigil in Vienna, taking cold comfort in being close to where her son last stood. I wish I could be there with her – that I could kick down some doors and get answers for her.
But above all else, I really just wish that my friend were still here, still making me laugh, still making me think. While his last email to me was a bit of juicy gossip from our old stomping grounds, (he always had the dirt!) his second to last email started like this:
Greetings! You know, it just occured to me today, I like you! Not in that kind of way, but in the sense that I like hearing from you by e-mail and I look forward to the chats we have on line. It is funny, we have ekpt up with eachother for a good while. That's it. It just popped into my head today. Just let it go to your head, I know, I am wonderful, but, I am already taken!
Do you remember that show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Hosted by that dude with the silly name and the crazy hair? Some thought he was hot, but not me. I found him icky. Actually ran into him at a benefit in NYC last year. Turns out I was correct: Creeptown, USA.
Alas, I digress.
So I’ve known my Kim since we were sixteen years old. (Please pretend that was 10 years ago) And as fate would have it, we both ended up living in Northern Virginia at the same time. She with her sweet baby while her husband was deployed, and I with my husband, around halfway through my first pregnancy. Which is when Kim entered a contest and was selected to receive a house. On a reality show.
Home Team wasn’t nearly as fancy as that ABC version, and while we weren’t building a sprawling estate from the ground up, Kim and her new family would be provided a home with a bit of equity and some new furnishings. Instead of creepy Ty and his bird nest hairdo, the host of Home Team was none other than Troy McClain, runner-up on the first season of The Apprentice.
Of all the random situations we have found ourselves in over the years, this was definitely the most glamorous and exciting. Kim didn’t know she had won, she was told she was a finalist, but the producers were busy organizing our little group of friends to rehab her new house in a matter of a long weekend and surprise her with it.
The plan was this: Kim would host us all at her apartment for a party where the television crew would interview us under the guise of “getting to know the finalists.” We all had some snacks that evening, met the crew, and without Kim’s knowledge, made plans to meet up the next day for furniture shopping. Both Kim and her husband’s families were also brought in for the sneaky bits.
I was just coming off my permanent IV for my pregnancy, so I wasn’t much help in the light construction department, but while some were moving toilets and painting walls, I got to tag along on Home Goods runs with the production team, picking out candles and the like. Much more my speed anyway.
After three extremely intense days, Kim arrived at what she thought was a filming location but was actually her new home. It took a bit of time for it to sink in, but we were all there waiting, grinning from ear to ear, and excited to be a part of this amazing gift. The show had even set up a satellite link for Kim’s husband to talk to her all the way from the Middle East.
When the show aired, I think only a handful of people saw it, and while it was an awesome concept, Home Team didn’t last more than a few episodes. But our Kimmy and her family got a house, we all hung out with a reality TV star who was more than happy to indulge us with a “Troy McClain” impression, and everyone came together and had an awesome time. A job well done, I’d say.
For some ridiculous reason, my parents trusted that I was wise enough to start college early. There were of course some conditions, which included having to live with my older sister and have some “house rules” that most college freshmen don’t have, but all the same, I was a sixteen year-old freshman.
One of the first weekends post-matriculation, an outdoor dance was held on the tennis courts next to one of the dormitories. I knew a couple of girls who were siblings of my sister’s friends, and we were all standing around awkwardly when a confident and gorgeous girl strutted by. While we shuffled our feet around, this girl was full of life, laughing and talking away as if she had known everyone there for years and was their most cherished friend. As it turns out, she was also a freshman, and herself only seventeen. As she started to speak, I noticed her foreign accent – it turns out that in addition to being gorgeous, she had mysterious going for as well.
I don’t remember what it was that everyone discussed, but at this extremely conservative Catholic university, and myself still being fairly conservative, I remember we disagreed vehemently. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh well, she’ll never talk to me again,” as I went on my merry way, awkwardly bopping along to some R.E.M. I was pretending to know.
Except the strangest thing occurred – I ran into her the next day in the halls of the dorm, and she did talk to me. Which makes her a better person than I, because undoubtedly I had been a jerk. As one does when one is sixteen.
Inexplicably, we became fast friends. We came from very different beginnings – two different continents, in fact – and had nearly opposite world views. She is an only child, I have five siblings. She was a heavy metal-loving skater girl, I spent my evenings sewing dorky jumper dresses in my room.
But no matter who we met or made out with or fought with, she was my person.
Happy birthday to you, Lena-bunny. I wish Moscow were closer.