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Twenty-something

Is it pink? Is it something I can wear? What is it? 

Frantically racking my prepubescent brain for what my eleventh birthday gift could be, I curl up next to my mother. She is just as adamant in her commitment to keeping it a secret. 

Happy twenty-first birthday. I’m so proud of you. 

Her voice on the other end of the phone feels like home as I head down to my dorm’s front door, greeted by her delivery order of baby pink cupcakes and mini tequila shooters. 

Ten years ago, my eleventh birthday gift was not pink, not something I could wear, but my first phone. I was ecstatic, downloading every obscure and unavailing app imaginable, staying up well past my bedtime to text my friends for the sheer enjoyment of the sound of the Blackberry’s keyboard. 

A decade is meant to be a comprehensible measure of time. We’re always referencing decades to categorize music, trends in fashion, books, major news headlines. Yet somewhere between the euphoric excitement of unwrapping that phone, now a relic, and the mortifyingly off-tune singing of my friends’ recent performance of “Happy Birthday” at South Dining Hall, time became unquantifiable. A decade snuck by, and any attempt at computing an intelligible perception of the years leaves me disoriented. 

The first time I wished time would slow down, I must have been seventeen. Going into my final year of high school, the once-distant idea of graduation began to manifest itself in concrete reminders of the end of our time in familiarity — emails about caps and gowns, sign-ups for the alumni network, writing university acceptances on to the celebratory post-its on the wall by the counselors’ offices. The nights I spent wide awake, suddenly alarmingly aware of the way I could physically feel time moving. The easy April afternoons when we basked in our last few picnics, social-distancing appropriate and decisively nostalgic. 

In my vivid recollection of one such afternoon, we’re in the park, dozing off on the grass after a day of online classes and Zoom breakout sessions, with an assortment of snacks and drinks we emptied out from our respective pantries. One of our friends brings up an IDER song she says she just can’t stop listening to lately. She reaches for the speaker, and the band’s voices fill up our little nook under the tree, enwrapping the rustling leaves and chatter of sunbathers.

They keep telling me:

“You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, baby – don’t worry, don’t stress, do your best.” 

What if that doesn’t save me?

We sit in silence as we take the lyrics in. In the next few months, we would each be moving away, further from each other than we could have ever fathomed. The picnics would eventually turn into pre-scheduled FaceTime calls and sporadic, elaborately-planned visits. This song feels special, emblematic. It gives this afternoon a tinge of melancholy, and even while I lay my head in my friend’s lap with my book facedown on my chest, it already feels like a memory.

How did you do it? How did it turn out alright?

I swear it’s always easier back then, or is it just hindsight?

In cities that are oceans away, we are still alongside each other throughout all our biggest doubts and uncertainties. IDER captures it perfectly — when the blind faith with which I pursue my aspirations falters for the odd, brief moment, I am bewildered at how my twenties could unfold, how it could possibly “turn out alright.”

We’ve all heard it before: “College is the best four years of your life.” “Someday these will be the good old days.”

Personally, it is my fervent hope that the former isn’t true. While I owe indelible memories and undeniable growth to my adolescent years and my time so far at Notre Dame, I look to my post-graduate life in anticipation of grander times that will, conceivably, prevail over my years spent sleeping in a lofted bed and eating a rotation of dining hall foods. 

With an unsettlingly minimal approximation of what my future may look like, I will eagerly dispute the idea that these will be the best years of our lives, at least by certain metrics. I hope to be on a constant upward slope. I hope to be celebrating my sixty-first birthday one day, look back on the past year, and say, “Sixty was the best year of my life.” 

Revisiting the song last week, its first lines evoked a relatability in a newfound light. 

I’m in my twenties, so I panic in every way

I’m so scared of the future, I keep missing today. 

What a succinct and consolatory expression to articulate my seemingly perpetual learning curve of blunder and diffidence. How familiar we all are with what IDER means, the direct segue we mentally forge between navigating our twenties and the panic that finds us, in the smallest waves and the most daunting collisions. 

The night I turn twenty-one, I watch the digital clock strike midnight in the library. I’m sitting under the fluorescent lighting for what feels like the millionth hour, a perk of having a birthday in the eye of the hurricane known as midterms week. This is twenty-one. I feel older, I guess, I tell my friend wryly when she nudges me across the desk, asking for a birthday speech. 

Twenty-one feels like that wooden desk at the library’s window seat, etched with years’ worth of students’ doodles and puzzlingly profound quotes — a little fraught, a little weary. Twenty-one feels like an outdated travel book, with incoherent maps to destinations that nobody is even sure exists. It feels like the big break, the move to the city I so adore, dropping bags and boxes on the floors of the apartment I have not yet seen, breakfast in the cafe I have not yet discovered. 

At sixty, I may very well look back at my present day with humorous dismay. And yet I can be certain that the eleven-year-old girl with her brand new Blackberry would have envisioned her twenties in the most impressive, most romantic shade of pink.

Through the ambivalence and hesitation we encountered in the song, that day in the park, we clutched on to the one defining lyric that we so earnestly try to believe and live by — you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

Reyna Lim is a sophomore double majoring in finance and English. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and ‘80s playlists at slim6@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.