She says we should go out because it’s my last night and warm outside. There’s an underground bar by the park where we used to hang around as kids, between the house where I had a very bad kiss on the back of a ratty red couch and the stretch of road where she fell off her bike and called me screaming because she thought she had a concussion, but she promises it’s not gonna be as depressing as it sounds and I believe her.
I pretend not to see them when I do, blame it on the wine or the dark or the fact that I haven’t seen their faces in almost six years; but I have, and I do, and soon they’re the ones approaching me.
I’m suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that I’m wearing a bright yellow coat, big glasses and no makeup -which, retrospectively, might not have been my greatest idea, not tonight. I feel small, insignificant. Ugly. Sixteen.
There’s only one person I would have wanted to see and I know he’s not here, which should ease my tension a little but doesn’t -because if this is how I react to them, how am I ever gonna survive that?
I say stupid things, make myself even smaller.
They ask about work and I downplay it to the point where it sounds like I’m just hanging around doing nothing, which couldn’t be farther from the truth but makes me mad because why, why would I do that, what’s the point in pretending?
I’ve spent the last four years pretending for a living, but the last two getting closer to the truth and the last six months being so unabashedly honest I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth sometimes. And for tonight, none of that matters.
For tonight, I can only smile and nod and try my best to conceal the fact that I’m jumping out of my skin. The smell of smoke in the air is making me nauseous, and the mulled wine they’re cooking in the corner won’t be ready for another thirty fucking minutes, and the jazz music coming from the other room is slowly fading which means the concert is almost over. Applause roars over our heads and a new stream of people walk in, all in various stages of inebriation and probably, definitely, intoxication.
I don’t belong, not with my big glasses and bright yellow coat and all the guilt and remorse and fear of not fitting in, still after all this time. I don’t belong, but for tonight I can pretend.
I pretend I don’t remember the things they used to call me, all the different ways they had of making it hurt. I pretend I don’t have a home and people who love me somewhere thousands of miles away. I let my gaze linger a minute too long on the tall guy with the long hair whose name I desperately wish I could remember, and let myself wish for the kind of life I never wanted.
I could still live down the road, come down to the bar for a smoke and a chat, gossip about the one who’s become a model and the one who left for Australia and the one who can’t be named. I could still run into their mothers at the Thursday market and spend balmy summer nights by the water and the castle, laughing at nothing and crying at everything.
I’d still be in school, probably, and I wouldn’t know what it feels like to break and heal and be reborn the way I did in the last four years. She sounds sweet, this different me. I wish I could envy her.
Maybe I do, for only a moment -if only because the room is dark and the smell is intoxicating and it’s always, always easier to pretend we could have been different.
She asks if I want to get out of there, and I say we should wait for the mulled wine at least. She gives me a look, and we walk out hand in hand minutes later. My flight home is in less than ten hours. I’m done pretending.
“I found this necklace in a shop in Morocco, where tourists weren’t allowed but we made friends with the owner so he let me buy it anyway ‘cause I said it was for my sister. I think he knew you were the right person for it.”
My brother and I sit sprawled on the floor next to the fireplace, even though it’s September and it really isn’t that cold. But it's coziness we're looking for, it's comfort found in closeness and in tea in the kitchen at 4pm and the kind of hugs that are reserved for family.
Three years ago I wouldn't have allowed myself to admit I miss it, but these days it's all I talk about. Home home home home. Take me home and never let me miss my mother's embrace again, for breathing feels a little easier here from the quiet of my childhood bedroom.
There’s a new painting in my old room because a thing that happens when you leave home is that your parents re-decorate the whole place. It’s yellow and white and there’s a pink flower growing in the middle and I think it stands for a new beginning. Dad is listening to Einaudi and the dogs are alternating between licking his leg and my feet, where it tickles the most. His hand reaches out between songs and he caresses my arm, kisses my forehead.
Is it good to be home home, he asks.
I’ve lived here for 19 years and I’ve never felt more at peace with this whole damn country than I do right at this moment, I think.
One of the dogs moves away from our legs and scoots closer to my chest, tries to lick my face. I act like I’m not gonna let her for a whole 5 seconds, before caving and turning her over so she has free access to my face while I kiss her neck.
It’s a good afternoon.
Actual words of wisdom from my 17-year-old brother:
You don’t have to be scared.
I believe in you, we all do.
It’s gonna be okay.
You’re so strong, you’ve always been.
I’ll make you dinner, it’ll be great.
You need to experience as much as possible, and forget about figuring out who you are and what you want.
All that damn pressure you put on yourself.
It will all come in time.
You need experiences in order to create who you are.
You need to experience it all, and decide for yourself, and make an honest choice. And how could you do that if all you’d ever known was a safe life?
You don’t want a safe life, you’ve never been that kind of girl.
You did the right thing, you chose your own path.
I’m proud of you.
Here, have some risotto.
Who cares what anyone thinks? They don’t matter.
You need to focus on you, and only you, and not care about anything else.
I know it’s scary and I know you feel lonely, but you’re not alone.
You’re doing great, look where you are.
I’ll get the wine.
We’re so lucky.
You’re doing great.
I love you.
And when I tell him I’m immensely proud of him, and that he’s so amazing because when I was his age I’d just lock myself in my room and cry and scream and skip meals, he tells me everything happens for a reason and that he’s sure those experiences helped me get where I am today.
Which only makes me prouder, really.
Let’s go sit by the fire, I’ll bring wine and we can cuddle the dogs, he says.
I love you too, and thank you, I think.
"Sometimes you’re 23 and standing in the kitchen of your house making breakfast and brewing coffee and suddenly you just don’t feel at home in your skin or in your house and you just want home but “Mom’s” probably wouldn’t feel like home anymore either. You can’t remember how you got from sixteen to here and all the same feel like sixteen is just as much of a stranger to you now. The song is over. The coffee’s done."
I first read these words what feels like a million years ago, and I remember a sharp pain in my chest and thinking ‘ah, this tells me something’, but I was wrong.
I hadn’t felt like this, not truly, not until now.
Until this morning, when I woke up in my childhood room bed and sipped lukewarm tea from my favorite red mug and cuddled my dogs and everything was the same until it was all different.
It’s a strange feeling, and it doesn’t sit right.
I shut my eyes and I so desperately want to pretend I’m 12 again, but there’s lines around my eyes now and a heavy weight in my stomach and I am not 12. I will never be 12 again.
I will turn 22 in February and my childhood room doesn’t feel mine anymore. There’s boxes full of things I’ve never seen and shelves filled with books I’ve never read. My diaries are still in the grey box on the top where I left them at 19, but I know what’s going to happen if I start going through them, and I’m not quite ready just yet.
My tea is cold now, but I keep drinking it because I need to feel something besides this paralysing stupor.
This is not my home anymore, and it’s not my city.
London is my city, but I don’t have a home there either.
Somewhere in between here and there is the last three years of my life, and in between now and the next three is the choices I make once I finish this tea. And that… that’s terrifying.
Will three years be enough to forget this version of myself, too? Will I recognise her? Will I be proud of her?
I hope I can. I hope they’ll be the right choices. I hope I’ll find a home that can feel like one. I hope 2018-me will have a lot more things figured out than I do right now, but above all, I hope she remembers how she got there.
I don’t want to feel like a stranger in my own skin, I don’t want to forget about twentytwo the way I seemed to have sixteen. I want to remember the journey, I want to honour it.
Three years from now and three years after that, until there’s a wrinkle for every memory and I hope I can remember every single one.
The poem at the start is by Kalyn RoseAnne, Sometimes you're 23.