The year is 1984. The setting: a playground in Connecticut. A twentysomething father with long reddish hair is milling around with a group of young mummies as his daughter plays on the monkey bars. One of the mothers leans over and asks him, “How old is your adorable girl?”
“Four,” he says.
There is an audible gasp. The other mothers are horrified: How are their own children so wildly deficient? How is this four-year-old so impossibly advanced?
That adorable kid is me, and I’m actually six. My father is lying about my age so these women will think I’m a genius, and it’s working. Perhaps that’s where I learned that age could be used, that youth was a virtue that could be traded on. Years later, my mother would dine out on the story of how he “won the playground wars.”
I grew up in Manhattan in an intellectual household. I was expected to be precocious, piping up brightly at dinner parties, my ideas on the news of the day eagerly indulged. I learned to act like a grown-up well before I was one, an adult in miniature.
That training served me well at 16, when I discovered nightclubs like Wax and after-hours clubs like Marylou’s. The fake ID helped, but the attitude was what made it work. Sipping a Tom Collins in summer or a vodka martini in winter, I was once again the youngest in the room. Sometimes the VIP room. My friends and boyfriends were all in their twenties. They would complain about rent and jobs. I didn’t know from rent and jobs.
I did develop an expertise in other aspects of adulthood, however. I spent much of my teens buying drugs. I would go to my dealer’s apartment and sit on his sofa watching Baywatch with his girlfriend and her gold door-knocker earrings. I went to casinos in Atlantic City because my friends all loved to gamble. I slept around. I didn’t hide my age, exactly. It was part of my charm. All my twentysomething friends thought it was hilarious and cute that I was snorting, smoking, drinking, and hooking up with older men in my mid-teens. One guy I dated was 27—too old, I decided, to invite to prom.
Before long, I was in rehab, where once again I was the youngest person in the room. While my friends were heading off to Harvard, I was matriculating at Hazelden. When they went to frat parties, I went to therapy.
It seemed everyone my age was still in college and grad school, still years away from wrecking their lives badly enough to be forced into sobriety.
“It’s so impressive that you got sober so young,” people said to me after I “graduated” with what you might call my AA. I got sober young not because I was so wonderful, though, but because otherwise I was going to die, and I knew it. Still, I accepted the compliments. Even in sobriety, I traded on my youth, the brave teen, swapping tales of blackouts and dangerous misadventures with fellow addicts who were decades my senior. What choice did I have? It seemed everyone my age was still in college and grad school, still years away from wrecking their lives badly enough to be forced into sobriety.
Which isn’t to say that my precocity didn’t often serve me well. When I was 14, I told the Daily Mail about my issues with my novelist mother, “the sex queen.” I wrote articles for women’s magazines about my eating issues while struggling with them, and I produced a very autobiographical novel at 21.
Looking back, it wasn’t because I was an overachiever, or even an achiever, or even particularly ambitious. I never wanted to be more famous than my mother or grandfather (and I won’t be). I still spend hours on Twitter when I should be writing. But back then, what drove me was a conviction that I would never survive to middle age, a certainty born of being both a teenage druggie and an anxious hypochondriac. I would enthusiastically hoover up a mound of cocaine and then become convinced that I was having a heart attack. I was sure that I’d die tragically young.
I remember my mother looking at me one Christmas as I was about to get in the car to drive to my father’s house and being convinced she was sketching out the the story of my tragic Christmas demise in her head, which is ironic because we’re Jewish. That narrative struck me as irresistibly tidy, and so I went about fitting in as much living as I could before the denouement.
Oddly, it never came. In my twenties, I watched friends die of overdoses, but I stuck around. In my thirties, I watched friends die of tragic cancers, but still I limped along, completely, inexplicably healthy. An AA sponsee drank herself to death at 34, but none of it happened to me.
I got pregnant at 24. I was already engaged (the first among my peers, naturally), but I hadn’t planned on becoming a parent. One of my closest friends, then in her thirties, urged me to consider an abortion. I was 24, not 14. Months later, I became the youngest person I knew to have a baby. Most of my friends were in grad school or out doing all the stuff I had done in my teens. I was sitting in Mommy and Me classes and worrying about how my son would do on the ERBS (the kindergarten SATs) and trying to figure out how to use the fucking baby monitor. As for my friend, she put off motherhood until it was almost too late. In the end, she wrote a very good book about her struggle to conceive.
Meanwhile, I hung out at nursery school drop-off with people who assumed I was my son’s babysitter. I went to coffee with mothers 15 years older than I was who seemed puzzled by my choice. To me it was simple: I had children because the species depends on it. I had more children because they’re a bit like Pringles.
Also, I suppose, the kids kept me out of trouble. Nightlife didn’t tempt me. I’d already had my fill. But I was too drained to write. Instead, I toyed with the idea of running for office, joked about opening an oddities shop. A decade went by, and I barely noticed it. Mostly I took my kids to music classes and obsessed about their health.
Eventually I went back to writing, but all of a sudden, I was no longer the youngest. I wasn’t even particularly young anymore. I had gone from precocious to middle-aged in the blink of a publishing eye. Meanwhile, most print magazines had died or were on life support. Graydon Carter had become a cartoonist.
More and more, I find, I’m now the oldest one in the room. “Forty isn’t old,” a friend insisted recently when I’d complained about my age, looking at me as if I were the elderly narrator from Titanic. She was younger, by a good 15 years. My friend’s brow wrinkled with concern. My brow didn’t really wrinkle like that anymore, due to all the Botox. I glanced at her supple skin. It looked so soft. I almost wanted to touch her cheek, but I didn’t want to touch her cheek — I wanted to punch her in the face.
“Thanks!” I replied. What did she know? She was just a kid.