Coming of Age What a Woman Loses When She Turns Thirty Years Old
I feel what I feel, and I cry in the shower with a beer, but the week before I turned thirty, I felt nothing.
I never believed I would turn thirty. It’s not that I was wasting away from some terminal disease. Rather, it was that I never thought I would live long enough to learn to stop hurting myself.
I’d moved back to LA after moving to Oakland, to Connecticut, to Boise, to Portland, citing “no jobs” as my reason for leaving all of them. In reality, the cause was, “slow death by indecision.” When life feels like a string coming to its end, indecision is easy to swallow. There is no future; there is no choice.
At twenty-nine with a master’s degree and a checkerboard of stale job experiences, I could only find one “career” position as an unpaid intern for a washed-up, misogynist actor and his equally washed-up, misogynist writer friends, reading scripts and making notes like, “What if we were allowed to know the female character’s name before the killer removes her spine and fondles her breasts?”
I was angry at everything, and I couldn’t afford a beer.
I had to borrow money from my family for the first time in my life. My grandpa called from Michigan to demand I move back home and live with them.
“I’m a writer.”
“Good. We have a lot of paper here.”
One day, a nice magazine wrote to me and asked if I would repurpose a blog post I wrote about being so poor that I ate a roasted miniature sweet potato I dropped on the floor because I couldn’t afford more. They offered me $100 for it. It took two weeks of revisions, and by the time they published it, they’d rewritten my life story to suit their own needs, removing the details about my blue-collar family, my isolated childhood, my inability to find a way to transcend my low-class background no matter how many degrees I obtained.
For the next week, I endured nasty tweets talking about my privilege, my idiotic choice to want to be a writer. “Why would the writer of this article do this to herself? Why can’t she just find a job like the rest of us? All she does is WHINE-WHINE-WHINE!!!”
When I was a kid, I started working in my family’s dive bar, the bar my grandfather and grandmother sacrificed everything for, working seven days a week, all of us pulling together to get by, slinging dollar chili dogs and cash-only well drinks. I wore thirteen pieces of flair at TGI Friday’s. I wore a hair net and a smile third shift at Steak ‘n’ Shake. I cleaned out hoarder houses, I demolished the asbestos-ridden basements of colonial homes, I hand-typed Do Not Remove mattress tags in a dark office, and I endured freezing rain in San Francisco parking lots to serve high-end sorbet at farmers’ markets. I took that $100 check and bought a month’s supply of dried rice and beans and cried into my food. I got an email from an eighteen-year-old woman who’d read the article asking me for advice on how to become a successful writer. I wrote her a very long, very honest reply. She never responded.
Sometimes I would catch myself thinking, “I never thought it would turn out like this.” But that wasn’t true. I never thought it would turn out like anything. Maybe I never thought about the future because I knew it could only be bad.
A few years earlier, when I was freshly graduated from my MFA, about to move to San Francisco for a publishing internship, I was raped by a colleague. I grieved it, I drank, I moved away. I was fine.
But he had a job. He was teaching creative writing. He was organizing readings with my friends. He was fine. The more I thought about this, the more distant I grew from my love of writing. “These are the people who make it,” I thought.
So the week of my thirtieth birthday, I was asked: Are you excited? Do you feel different? What are your resolutions?
I am a person whose emotions usually bubble to the surface immediately for repair. I’m like a Chevy Cavalier you can diagnose by ear. I break down regularly, but my parts and labor are fairly cheap and easy to come by. I feel what I feel, and I cry in the shower with a beer. But I’d noticed that week before I turned thirty, I felt nothing.
My resolution was to pay my rent, to stop sweating so hard at the grocery checkout, to forget the friend I’d lost because I could not afford to fly to her destination wedding, to be appreciative of the one pair of shoes I had that didn’t fall apart no matter how much they threatened it.
The week I turned thirty, my boyfriend—six years older than I—flew to LA to see his poverty-stricken “artist” girlfriend. The day before my thirtieth birthday, I left my boyfriend in my barren bedroom and pedaled my bike into Hollywood for my unpaid internship with the washed-up, misogynist actor. He was having an investor meeting. A man was showcasing a collection of craft vodka in bong bottles you could smoke out of when the vodka was gone. The actor brought one of these bottles to me, where I sat on a couch with my laptop and asked me, “Should I invest some bennies in this?” I said, “You’re going to make a lot of money.” And I meant it.
I left early from the office that day. The air conditioning had been turned down to seventy degrees, and my legs pimpled up in the cold. On the way home, I walked my bicycle down Fountain Avenue. I passed a mural I’d ridden by many times before. Bette Davis is painted on the side of a building with the words: Johnny Carson asked Bette Davis “What is the best way an aspiring actress could get into Hollywood?” Ms. Davis said, “Take Fountain!” Then I passed the big, blue Scientology building, the hot dog ladies, the Vista Theater. And then I was home, and my boyfriend wanted me very badly to feel anything.
We’d devised a plan of attack for my birthday. We wanted to be prepared with a strict schedule of activities, because it is only when boredom sets in that one wants to spend money, and avoiding thinking of the $8.25 left in my bank account was the key to a pleasant thirtieth birthday.
We woke up early and made the coffee he’d brought with him from Portland. I hadn’t had coffee in months. My teeth were getting whiter every day. I was so sober I couldn’t cry. We sat in the sun and watched YouTube tutorials to learn how to dance like industrial goths. A friend had sent me a black sequined, backless halter top in the mail. Back in Idaho, we had passed this sacred halter from woman to woman on the event of her thirtieth birthday. I was the youngest of our group. The halter would belong to me until it was gifted to another woman on her thirtieth, to feel special, to feel young even when the people on your television are telling you that you are not. I was on the poverty diet, so it fit me perfectly. If ever there was a benefit to my unemployment at that time, it was one nice photo of me in a shiny black halter, looking thin and pretty for a quick moment.
By 2 p.m., I felt regenerated. I think I was genuinely smiling from happiness. I was trying. Or maybe it was just the exercise in the sunshine, being cared for by another human being. I wanted to be a toddler. And then I got a phone call.
Two weeks earlier, the flip phone I’d had for years died of natural causes. I’d found a man in Hollywood who was selling a burner phone for ten dollars. When he saw me, something compelled him to give it to me for five dollars without my asking. I was both grateful and humiliated. But with this new phone, I had none of my numbers. I couldn’t tell that the person who called me was not someone I knew.
“April, it’s your dad.”
I had met my father once at a knock-off Applebee’s when I was twenty-one, where I got drunk and rolled my eyes while he cried into a fish dish. Great, I thought, he’s calling for my birthday.
“Your grandfather is dead,” he said. “Funeral is tomorrow in Los Angeles. I’m here. I want you to be there.”
I had met my grandfather once at a real Applebee’s when I was twelve. (Do you see the pattern here?) He showed me ancestry books. He seemed very nice. I really didn’t know him. I didn’t know either of them.
My boyfriend sipped from his coffee mug, watching me. I’d spilled coffee on my jeans. The zipper was coming unsewn from the seam. I’d paid ten dollars for these pants, and I would have to buy another pair.
I don’t remember what I said in response to my father. It was probably a logistical question, like, “When?” or “Will there be food?” In truth, I was most likely thinking about the possibility of free food and whether that food would be worth the emotional torture of enduring a man I so thoroughly despised, who’d left us over and over again, starting new families, leaving cryptic phone messages about himself through sobs on our birthdays. Eventually, I was not on the phone anymore, and I was not interested in discussing the subject. He had not called to wish me a happy birthday this year.
We had plans to meet up with friends for a happy-hour drink at a Biergarten. My boyfriend wanted to take us out for something modest, so we could pretend like everything was normal. The only friends who showed up were my new Danish roommate, her Danish boyfriend who was living rent-free with us for two months without my permission, and her best Danish friend. They spoke across the table to one another in Danish, probably musing on their amazing welfare system back home and how they still collected checks from the government, while I got drunk off of one beer.
I watched two men on a blind date order two beers served in foot-long boot glasses. When the waitress set them down, the men avoided eye contact, taking only small sips from the glasses. While the table talked in Danish, I watched the men get up and slip out the patio door, leaving their boots full of unpaid-for beer.
Twenty minutes later, they weren’t coming back. Everyone’s eyes were on the unclaimed boots, the beer inside them.
A commotion erupted at a nearby long table. One middle-aged brave man jumped up, cheered on by his friends, and casually took the boot, strolling back to his table with a round of applause. The bar breathed a sigh of relief that the beer would not go to waste, but there was still the matter of the other boot.
I had been sober for a month. I had been a raw nerve whittled to a numb nub. I wanted that boot.
My boyfriend nudged my elbow. “I am very sure the guy who just took that boot is David Yow.”
It was. That emboldened me even more. David Yow was a perennial rock star, an ageless warrior of punk ethos. I wanted to be ageless, too. I wanted that damn boot, and I wanted to be drunk.
I slithered from my table, making a move like I was going to walk to the bathroom. The rowdy table caught my vibe, though. They knew. They whispered among themselves. I took a quick left, keeping an eye out for the bartender, who was busy but attempting to peek through a dense thicket of customers’ heads to see what everyone was looking at. When the coast was clear, I took the boot, turned my back to the bartender and slithered back into my seat.
The Danes do not show many emotions, but they smiled with their eyes. We passed the boot around as secretly as we could, and I could feel my drunk power coming back to me.
“You know, nobody paid for that!”
We looked up to see a petite woman in white-and-yellow lederhosen dress, hands on her hips, mascara thick and spidery. I’d seen her take the two men’s orders, the look of anxious worry on that powdery face as she set down the beers. I calculated how much the boot beers cost ($49 x 2 = $98) and how much money she would likely lose when she tipped out at the end of the night, or if she had a shitty boss, how much she would have to pay out of her own pocket for the walk-out. She hadn’t gone to David Yow’s table. She had gone to mine. I wanted to tell her it was my birthday, that I was turning thirty, because that number to other women elicits kindness, a knowing that nothing will ever be the same because that’s what we’ve been told over and over and over, a sequined black halter top.
“I just didn’t want it to go to waste,” I said.
The waitress sneered, and we kept drinking from our boot.
“It’s my thirtieth birthday,” I said to the Danes. They politely agreed. My boyfriend hugged me so tight I thought he was trying to hold me down.
The night grew blurry. They call them brownouts. I’d had them often. Some are worse than others. You don’t remember everything, which can become a blessing when the parts you do remember and can’t change will haunt you for years, even if you’re not aware of it. Even if you think you are fine.
I know David Yow invited us to karaoke at a dive bar. I know the moment I pushed through the dirty red velvet curtains at the bar, he pretend-stabbed me with a pool cue and screamed, “You’re ooooooooold.” This man with gray hair and distinguished wrinkles who’s made a decades-long career out of being himself and reinventing himself and generally just being a “cool guy” had screamed at me, “You’re ooooooooold.”
There were pictures of me with a strange man, sticking out my tongue. There was leftover cheesecake a friend had dropped off in lieu of a birthday cake. There was singing and dancing. I fell off a stool.
At home, I collapsed on the bed I was renting in this barren room with ugly beige carpet, bars on the windows, and a glaring emergency light that illuminated the bedroom all through the night no matter how many towels or pairs of pants I tried to hang from the curtain rod. Did David Yow live like this? He must have. That’s what young artists do. Was I young anymore? I’d been dreaming of babies for three years straight. I’d totaled my cherry-red Honda Civic daydreaming about a patio set, some nice chairs and a table and one of those tiki torches that burn citronella to ward off mosquitos so you wouldn’t have to spray that toxic shit on your arms in the summer. I hadn’t had a home in two years. My cat was healthier than I was. My mother said she didn’t think I would still be trying to do this writing thing after so much failure. She said sometimes things just don’t work out like you hope they do. Both of her marriages were over. She was a teenager when she had us. Her first husband, my father, had a boa constrictor he let sleep with us in bed when we were babies. My mother would know failure when she saw it.
The next day, I dutifully awoke and rode my bicycle to my unpaid internship. The office wafted the plastic scent of Keurig coffee, and the air conditioning was cranked to sixty-five degrees.
“You write novels and stuff, too, right?” the washed-up, misogynistic actor asked.
“Good. Read this by tomorrow. Tell me if we should buy the rights.”
I took a seat in one of the six LoveSac bean bag chairs he’d purchased since getting rid of all the office furniture. I was thirty. I had a slipped disc and a pinched sciatic nerve. I sat in a bean bag chair.
I had to read the first five pages of the book ten times to have any idea of what was going on. Like with everything I don’t understand, I decided it must be me. I am the problem. I read them again. Still, I could barely make it through the adverbs and long passages of names. It reminded me of the tedium of Bibles. What was this book?
I turned it over in my hands, looking for the publishing page. Perhaps this was a vanity book, the kind of hasty thing slapped together for self-pushing.
But no. It was a major publisher, the little icon in black and white. Who had written this? Perhaps he was already famous?
But I didn’t recognize the name. I searched for him on Google, and there was nothing but this book listed. He was a debut author. He got six figures. He wore a fedora and no smile in his photo. I can really, truly say I hated a stranger.
My phone rang. I didn’t pick up. It was noon. Across town, my biological father would be burying his father. I didn’t even own anything black. When my mother was thirty, I was already fourteen. She seemed so old to me then. I look at the pictures, and she still seems old. But it was also the ’80s/’90s, so maybe it was the style.
The washed-up, misogynist actor’s writer friend walked into the office and started a cup of Keurig coffee. He avoided eye contact and went straight to the supply closet, where I heard boxes moving around, something metal hit the ground.
A second later, he emerged holding a box of rose-scented candles. He was sweating and red, angry. It was sixty-five degrees in the office.
“Did you steal some candles?” he said. “Look, it’s okay if you did, but just be honest. The first girl we had working here stole candles. I know girls like scented candles.”
The Keurig cup had finished brewing. I would have to fill it with more water now.
“I didn’t take any candles.”
“You can be honest with me. If you need candles, just ask.”
“I don’t need candles.”
He muttered something under his breath and returned to the closet. He’d written the script with the nameless naked, spineless, fondled woman. He’d responded to my note, “I don’t need to know her fucking name.” Her character’s description read: GIRL–young, hot.
The cup of Keurig coffee sat untouched. I walked out and never went back.
In a way, I think I was right—it’s not possible to turn thirty. For a very long time, through boa constrictors and Barbies and your first bank account, you are GIRL–young, hot. You’re a character in a story, and every time you take off your clothes, there is someone there with a hatchet waiting to take out your backbone, to leave you as skin on the floor to be touched, not held. And those people with the hatchets, it’s their story. But there comes a moment you no longer exist, an age where you don’t fit their story, where you’ve been deboned so often there’s nothing left to gut.
And this is the okay part. It’s the part where the projections of others end and the projection of yourself begins, the hard truths, the crushing rejections, the difficult choices, the makings of a leading woman in a story all her own. She is compelling and recovering and failing and reinventing. Her hair is whatever color she wants it to be. Her belly is however many beers she wants to fill it with. Her face is whichever emotion she allows herself to feel, and these are many, a tour-de-force performance of humanity, a role of a lifetime, a role she had to write herself.
WOMAN–30, trying, fine.