“What is it like?” she asks me.
“What is what like?” I ask back, not understanding.
We are in Starbucks, decidedly not having coffee cognoscenti-approved third wave beverages. I sip on my very basic mocha frappuccino with absolutely zero shame and plenty calories. (It’s cheat day anyway. On cheat day, you are allowed to cheat not only on your diet, but on your high-brow pretensions as well.)
For some reason, real talk is easier in Starbucks. There are so many of them these days that you’re unlikely to run into anyone you know, and depending on the branch of your choosing and the time of your visit, it can be so crowded with the noise of strangers that you need not worry about anyone overhearing — let alone caring about — anything particularly sordid or sensitive that you intend to discuss.
“What is it like? Well. You know.” There is the shrug of shoulders and a quick quirk of the head. “Spending your entire adult life trying to figure out who you are and what you want, and finally getting there,” she replies. “It must be pretty damn good, right?”
I laugh at her incredulously. “Mel, I’m not even 29 yet. If I’m at all lucky, I still have some time to go, and a hell of a lot to learn.” There is a lot of world yet to see, and even more than that to experience, and I feel as young and wide-eyed as I ever have, except with more of the freedoms that come with age, and I may not look it or feel it, but I am aging.
I pause to think. It is not an easy question to answer. “It depends, I guess,” I tell her. She arches a perfectly groomed eyebrow at me. “‘It depends’? The hell kind of answer is that? What does that even mean? ‘It depends.’” She rolls her eyes.
“It depends on what you find yourself becoming, in the end, and how easy or otherwise it is to continue to be that,” I reply.
“It’s the best and worst thing in the world,” I say, “to start to determine for certain who you are, who you want to become, and what you want your life to be like. Because once you hit that point, there’s no going back.”
The look on her face is quizzical. “Why would you want to go back? Isn’t it a good thing, to definitively know who you are?” she asks me.
For her benefit, I try to give myself an approximation of the Manhattan once-over for emphasis. “Look at me. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be different here on a superficial level, let alone in terms of principle? To, I dunno, swim against the current with the knowledge that it would be infinitely easier for someone like me to just go with the flow and become what everyone thinks and expects I should be, yet also knowing that to do so would kill me inside?” I ask her in return. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be that girl. It’s for other people, but it’s not for me.”
She laughs. “You and your Goth/fetish aesthetic,” she jokes, glancing at the leather collar I’ve taken to wearing lately. “Yeah, name five other people we know who can pull this look off,” I smirk back at her.
Sometimes I think I am resigned to this, to always being the oddball. Sometimes I resent myself for it, for not trying harder to realign myself and my interests and my attitudes, for not trying harder to fit in. I resent myself for the isolation I feel; the loneliness. (“He said you had too many issues for him,” I was once told by a friend about another friend with whom I had briefly shared a mutual attraction. And at first, it hurt like hell to hear — would I ever have a chance at love? would I have to make myself basic for it? — but when I was composed enough to think, I realized, who doesn’t have issues? Ours were likely just as incompatible as we were, and all the better to have discovered this early on.)
When I look past the internal conflict, though, mostly I am content. I have compromised, in some ways, as we all must, but I have never truly compromised myself.
“I’ve spent the greater majority of my adult life warring with expectations, real and imagined,” I tell her. “One time, I was at this very Starbucks with my friend and former co-worker Irish, and we got to talking about our time at Cosmo, and she straight up told me, ‘Mads, we always used to wonder why you were even there in the first place. Why did a girl like you even have to work? And you worked so hard, and never let anyone help you.’” I laugh, mix my fast-melting drink with my straw, and take a sip. “That’s just one of the things people thought of me — entitled little Daddy’s girl, which of course I sometimes am, but when you give me a job to do, nobody will do it better. Others thought I’d run straight to Dad and get a cushy job at the newspaper handed to me, which is the last thing I wanted, so I applied to Summit after graduation without anyone’s knowledge and worked my way up from the bottom for years.”
“And you’ve avoided politics like the plague,” she adds.
“Like the fucking plague! Yes!” I exclaim, laughing. “There was a point where I could have still been molded for that, but those years have passed, and nobody would ever vote for this anymore.” I am a little too strange now, a little too immovable, a little too uncompromising. Far too idealistic. Politics would destroy my spirit more than society ever could, and society has done enough.
I nick her fork and take a bite from her slice of Oreo cheesecake. “Is it so rich girl problems?” I ask her.
She smiles at me sadly. “To people who don’t understand, and most don’t, or won’t even try to because they can’t fathom that people like you have the right to have issues, yes,” she replies. “But you understand, right? You understand that this is the context you were born into. You didn’t choose it; this is the subset of planet Earth that you just happened to materialize in, and you’re only doing what you can with your life and everything you’ve been given. You just happen to be lucky to have been given a lot, and you can’t be blamed for that.”
I look down at the palms of my hands, and promptly press my face into them, grateful beyond belief that someone gets it. I feel her hand rubbing circles on my back. “You feel guilty, don’t you?” she asks me. “That’s the worst part, isn’t it? You feel guilty for being born into the world — the life — you were born into; something you had no control over. You feel guilty for things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.”
I turn to face her and look her straight in the eye. I am trying not to cry, but I’ve always been terrible at that. “Mel, I’m clinically depressed and I’ve never felt lonelier in my life, but at the same time, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything in the world,” I tell her. “Because it’s mine. Because I’ve done what I could with it. Because I actually get to choose what to do with it from this point on.”
(Photograph: Joseph Pascual)