We are the reckless, we are the wild youth: reflections on the end of an era
But to come home each night,
have a drink, go to bed,
and be so deeply understood by you,
would be the greatest gift of my life.
– A Prayer by Clementine von Radics
I was picking the label off my sweating beer bottle when I met him. Leaning against the porch railing outside the kitchen door, there he stood, separated from the mob of people inside and the sprawling array of smokers outside. Tall, skinny, with a cigarette tucked behind one ear, and a can of Oskar Blues in hand.
“Hi. What’s your name?” He asked. So I told him.
“What’s yours?” I asked and he responded.
“So…are you graduating this year?” He said as I tapped the back of an Asian girl puking her lungs out over the porch railing.
“Yup,” I replied as I reached for a cup of water.
“Me too,” he paused, his eyes scanning over the casual retching, the group of freshmen with lungs too virgin for a joint, and the mosh pit in the kitchen. “Do you feel like you’re too old for this right now?” He asked, untucking his cigarette and lighting it.
Way too old, I thought. I handed the cup of water to my new friend and shoved her back inside the kitchen of collegiate debauchery. He exhaled and pulled the door shut.
On the porch of a 100-year-old house, the dull roar of the party finally dimmed enough for me to hear my own thoughts. Twenty-one. I waited all of my adolescence for this moment and it’s finally here. In all its boozy, legal glory, here is twenty-one. Here is senior year. Here is graduating and intermediary adulthood and paying that parking ticket from three weeks ago. Here is finally getting a checkbook and googling the true meaning of a 401K.
When did we get too old for this? I thought, looking between the cigarette dangling from his lips and past the kitchen to all the sweaty bodies pressed against each other and the stove.
I shook my head and downed the rest of my beer, smiling as our eyes met in the glow of his cigarette.
“I’m gonna put my smoke down and grab you a beer, is that okay?” He said, backing into the house. That is totally okay, I thought.
Here I am. Twenty-one and a boy wants to grab me another beer. That is more than okay, that is perfect.
Parties are an interesting phenomenon. In the drunken communion of crashing bodies made of limbs and hips and beer — there is something that happens, something that feeds us even if we don’t pay attention. It’s a thrill in the air, a buzzing, an energy that radiates of youth and the liberation of a few drinks and just the right song. Of an anything can happen idea. At this point in our lives, we can still feel it. The way our bodies vibe with equal parts alcohol and excitement, at the edges of our fingertips and lips, either a cigarette or a kiss. In the final stages of our wild and reckless youth, middle fingers thrown to the gods that followed us to college, here we are, on the precipice of what our lives could, should, will become.
The thing about twenty-one though, is it’s not old at all.
We are at an impasse, of where our undergraduate career ends but where we as adults, are just beginning. At an age where words like overtime, Social Security, happy hour, and your mother was right become part of our normal vocabulary. The end of an era doesn’t make us old. If anything, it should’ve made us better. Made us wiser, more mature. More self-aware and better at things like doing interviews and properly roasting potatoes. Better at dressing ourselves and saying no and hooking up and calling our parents more. We have learned so much and it has only just begun.
But there is a fear that lays dormant when you stand over the edge of adulthood. A fear of, what will I become? Will I find a job after college? Will all my friends leave the city? Will I ever find someone? Will they be good to me? Will I be happy? What if Trump actually becomes president? Holy shit, my loans. They are fears that plague me and I’m sure a lot of other people my age. They catch me when I’m not looking, when I’m at the grocery store or walking to class. They remind me of my perpetual adulthood, of my inability to hide in my youth like I used to. Yet they are fears we drown out with humor, with internet memes, with jokes about bottles of wine that we have way too much of.
I often think about twenty-one. For some reason, turning twenty-one made me see things I didn’t used to see. It’s not like I went from twenty to twenty-one and I changed overnight. I just have words for things now. I can pinpoint feelings and put names to a general boiling under my skin I all just used to refer to as angst. But the thing about twenty-one is that after the fog settles, after the two drinks from the bar clear and you’re in your bed waiting for your liver to do its thing, there is a moment of clarity for those that drink too often and too casually. It’s in the moment when you put on his shirt and you lay in bed, drunk enough to want something you can’t have and sober enough to realize how much that hurts.
In moments like those, you feel it. The loneliness that attacks like an opportunistic pathogen, waiting to attack when your defenses, energy, and sobriety are low. The feeling you get when you are waiting for a text back that never comes. When you miss your siblings but you don’t live under the same roof anymore. When your roommate is gone for too long. When you want to reach under the table to grab his hand but you know he wouldn’t want to, that it would ruin everything.
Everyone talks about this opposite of loneliness that happens when you’re running the race to graduate. Actually, Marina Keegan, a beautiful writer who I admire, writes about it in her book with the same name. Not quite community, not quite love, but this feeling that there is an abundance of people who are in this together and on the same team. And I feel it sometimes, the opposite of loneliness. It’s in the buzzing I mentioned earlier. In the mosh pit. In the time the three of us were lying on my living room floor, tangled in flannels, hair, and friendship. In the time we all sat after our shift and drank liters of beer, bitching about the night and our feet that wouldn’t stop hurting. The time with the records. The time he held my hand under the table and no one saw. The time we almost did it but my elbows kept hitting the wall so we stopped and I jokingly asked for a raincheck I knew was never coming. When he knew it too and kissed me anyway.
Twenty-one is lonely. It’s confusing, liberating, revelatory, and legal. But it isn’t old. It’s so, so young. And we have places to go, people to become, boys to finally find that are worth shaving our legs for. It won’t be lonely forever, I don’t think. We’ll still find it, the buzzing. The potential. The feeling that anything can happen when we’re surrounded by people. Our wild, reckless youth turned into bright, excited adulthood. Our middle fingers raised to the gods that once haunted us turned into strong handshakes we are proud to share. The edges of our fingertips and lips ignited on fire for everything we ever wanted to do or say.
One day we’ll get there. To a place where we can come home, have a drink, and be so understood that it won’t be lonely anymore. Maybe when we’re older.
The noise started to dim and the crowd thinned out as cars full of graciously sober friends pulled up in front of the house.
“Wait, I was really enjoying this conversation,” he said, as I was getting pulled up from my seat.
“I was too,” I agreed. He stood up and looked me in the eye, ignoring my friend tugging at my hand.
“Can I see you again sometime?”
I smiled and through the haze, I could see it. Everyone moving, hugging, saying goodbye. As arms encircled and crashed around sweaty backs, I felt it. The opposite of loneliness. The potential. The start of something that could be. We might be ending our college career but this is just the start. There is still so much time, our fears can sleep for another night. We are getting older but we aren’t old.
“I would love that.”