“You know,” my best friend, Maggie, leaned forward in that same enticing way a child does while passing along a secret.
She was always starting her thoughts off like that. You know? They were then routinely followed by something I didn’t particularly “know.”
It was mid-July in our hometown. We were sitting on my back porch. The air was dense; The discussion was not. It was the day I turned nineteen. You could say we weren’t doing anything exciting for it, but we weren’t really doing anything at all - unless you count swatting off mosquitos in an otherwise motionless night.
“Twenty-one is the only birthday that really matters.”
According to her, this particular point in our lives was nothing but mere filler. It equated to an opening act while a much bigger performance hid behind the curtain, awaiting its call to stage. The intention was to hide our perceptible uncoolness, I knew, but still silently agreed. If you knew Maggie, you knew better than to argue with her.
I remember those days stretched along with the same agony you’d feel while watching hands inch their way around a clock during a closing shift. I had a terrible job as a waitress, which I always seemed to show up late for. I’d take refuge in the place’s back kitchen and hide out there, usually to collect my thoughts before I projectile vomited up one more I’ll be your server tonight. Can I start you off with some drinks?
That summer I was taught a whole menu full of Italian dishes and how to abbreviate them in the quickest, but still most legible, way possible. I learned the Limoncello cake was half-off on Thursday nights under some dessert special, but free if you boxed up a slice of it yourself when the boss wasn’t looking. I also learned about service and how terribly people will treat those who they feel are inferior to them. It taught me a lot about patience and how some will call my as-previously-referred-to-terrible-waitress-gig, a career.
One time I groaned to a coworker about a table I got during a slow night. It was a mother and a son. They ordered an entree. Their forks clattered against a shared plate, mimicking the sound wine glasses make when they meet for a toast. The sound echoed throughout an empty restaurant, but my own thoughts rang much louder. Are you kidding me? My tip is going to be, like, what? Three bucks?
It was the little boy’s birthday. I gave him a free scoop of vanilla ice cream - something which wouldn't make the bill any higher, either. I brought it over to the table where he instantly lit up with the kind of enthusiasm only children seem to be able to produce.
“Mom! We’ve got enough money for dessert now?” he exclaimed.
At nineteen I was so selfish I didn’t even think about the possibility that they may have been eating scarcely because money followed the same suit.
It’s interesting how paradoxical everything that year went. I was narcissistic, but I was also so insecure. I craved intimacy, but was still immature enough to fear it. I was independent, but I clung to my mother. I knew exactly who I was, deep within, but felt so incredibly lost.
It seemed like I was always looking for answers - no matter the question. It’s for that reason, one night before going to bed, I busted open a whole pack of camomile mint tea bags. They were spread across a marble countertop, making it appear as if I drank twelve consecutive cups. They were the kind that came with those little quotes on the end of the string, each individually wrapped separately from one another, and I opened every last one. I was looking for the words I so desperately needed to hear. None of them said it.
I’d find out later those kinds of words could only come from within.
Some moments weren’t as heavy, of course. They’re the ones I carry. I can still feel myself clinging to the steering wheel, hunched over in chaotic laughter as Maggie pointed to our old high school and from the passenger side deemed it a “glorified daycare.” We’d go driving around in our hometown because, well, there wasn’t much else to do there.
I remember I had all the time in the world to do absolutely nothing. And all the time in the world to complain.
Once, after putting on makeup before the gym, I lamented over broken-out skin, telling my mother about my clogged pores.
“Stop putting on makeup before the gym then,” she would say.
She was right. I didn’t listen.
Once, after putting effort into a man who didn’t reciprocate, I lamented over my own foolishness, telling my mother how tired I was of being with people who made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.
“Stop putting your heart into someone who isn’t doing the same,” she would say.
She was right. I didn’t listen.
I remember buying overpriced coffee when I was completely broke and thrifting leather skirts when all I did was complain about my thighs feeling fat. I remember over-analyzing my punctuation use before sending a text message and my tendency to judge other people's lives. All of these instances, I’d come to realize, were discrete symptoms of my own naive pomposity.
I remember putting up a good fight at losing. I remember learning about what it meant to really be kind, to really be genuine, and to really be true, and how sometimes, it isn’t easy to be anything even remotely close to those three things. Most of all, though, I remember nineteen contributing to my life in a way that was subtle, but large.
I ended up getting a seven dollar tip, by the way. I bought a lip gloss from the Rite Aid with it. I think the color was called tickled pink.