You are young, so I understand if you don’t want to hear this, or can’t hear it right now. You might want to put it aside because you are busy—not in the way you’ll become busy later, but at the moment you have friends to meet and probably a boy waiting somewhere. Activity. Life. You can stay up late—even all night—and never feel it the next day. You don’t use moisturizer. You don’t work out. You are invincible.
But I need to warn you that things will change. At some point in the next ten to twenty years, the following will happen: you’ll not only use moisturizer, you will have a ten-step bedtime ritual involving various creams and gels. You will work out every day because if you don’t, you will be able to gain five pounds just by sitting still. There are certain things you’ll never be able to eat again. You will need your sleep, but you’ll have so much on your mind that you won’t be able to sleep through an entire night. You will suddenly be vividly aware of your mortality. Things will frighten you. You will find yourself thinking twice before boarding an airplane or getting on a roller coaster or going out for a night on the town, staying up long past your usual bedtime.
You will become an author. You will write books. You’ll get to travel the world in your work. But you will need to work a lot. At thirty-four—after some good, some bad, and a couple of harrowing relationships—you’ll get married. Your husband will be nice and kind, but you will have a sneaking suspicion that he isn’t the right man for you. The day before your wedding, your father will die of cancer. The wedding will be a blur.
Your marriage will be a good one at first, but as you get close to forty you’ll wake up one day not recognizing yourself or your life. Remember when you were ten and you wrote stories about being an international rock star? It will suddenly dawn on you that, even as you do other cool and exciting things, you will never be a rock star. It doesn’t matter that you were never going to be one anyway. The sudden realization that it will never happen will be enough to shake you. You will walk around, in the light of day, stunned by this fact.
Your mother will get cancer, but she will recover. You will help her recover. You will take temporary solace in your marriage until it hits you that you don’t even know this person anymore. This is when you’ll start thinking about the boys from your twenties—especially the bad boys, the ones you wasted so much time on. Because, while it is nice to have someone fetch you chicken soup when you’re sick, you will miss the days when you could be this mysterious, exotic creature who doesn’t (as far as anyone knows) get sick or have a period, someone who doesn’t haggle over whether or not the bills were paid on time or whose turn it is to do the dishes. You will want to feel like a vixen again, but you’ll be too tired to attempt it, even though you will want sex more than ever.
You will begin to fixate on Seth, the baddest of the bad boys, the one who was always there after every bad breakup. Seth, who looked like Jesus and moved in a haze of American Spirit cigarettes (the ones in the black wrapper). Seth, with the hooded eyes that always looked sleepy, and the Indian medicine beads worn even in the shower. Time with Seth spent with no expectations (or so you’ll tell yourself now, looking back) because no one could pin him down.
Eventually, something will snap inside you—based on the fact that so many people you love and have always loved are dying—and you’ll decide that life is too short to spend it living in a Georgia cul-de-sac with a man who isn’t right for you (and who you aren’t right for). You will divorce him—even though your own parents divorced, and you swore it would never happen to you—and move across country, packing all three cats into your Beetle, and heading to Los Angeles, where it all began for you, to start life over. You will begin dating again, only you get to do it at forty. Which means you will suddenly worry about things like flattering lighting and how to smile without showing your wrinkles. You will get arthritis in the knee, and you’ll stop wearing high heels every day, even though, at twelve, you swore to your mother that you would do just that, once you were old enough to choose and buy your own shoes.
You will suddenly be desperate to find Seth again, to see if there’s anything there worth rekindling. More than that, it will become very important that he be just as you left him, fifteen years earlier. Somehow, you need him to be in the same place, to be the same unpinnable, unchangeable guy. But when you call his number, the message will say: “You’ve reached the Reilly compound.” The Seth you knew lived in one-room apartments, places he could pay for with a hocked guitar or his collection of vintage LPs. You won’t like the sound of “compound” because it implies other people.
Inevitably, you will discover that Seth is now a Serious Grown-up who lives in a house filled with baby toys because he is not only a husband, but a father. He is paying his bills, going to the grocery, and refinancing his mortgage like the rest of us. His long hair fell out years ago. He stopped smoking in 2001.
It will hit you then, with full force, that everything changes and that everything has changed, while inside you will still feel like that big-haired girl from Indiana, wide-eyed and excited, arriving in Los Angeles back in 1992, the world spread out before her.
Now here’s the good news: you will love life, just as you always have. But now you will love it with appreciation and gratitude. You will no longer take it for granted. You will know yourself better. You will be more beautiful in the way that author Marie Stopes meant when she said, “You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your soul's own doing.”
You will enjoy being on your own in a way you never have. In your twenties, you are too concerned with having a boyfriend. But at forty, you will like having time to yourself. And when you do want company, there are options. Younger men will be drawn to you. You’ll date one for a year, and he will help you feel alive again. You’ll think it should become more than that—you’ll try to make it more than that—and you’ll be heartbroken when you know it can’t be.
But then you will work and work and see your career reap the benefits of all this wisdom and life experience you’ve been gathering. You will have a strong need and desire to pass on what you’ve learned, to try to help those starting out. You will think of new dreams for yourself and feel that old excitement as you work toward them.
You’ll rediscover old friendships and make new ones. You suddenly won’t care about people knowing your real age because you know the value and preciousness of each year. You will be happy just to be here. You’ll take joy once again in the things you used to take joy in. You will discover new things to be joyful about. You will appreciate every day, every moment, even the difficult ones, because you have earned them.
Finally, you will meet a grown-up man, a real man, and have the first truly adult relationship of your life, possibly because of who he is, but also because of who you are and how far you’ve come. You will have a lot to write about. Best of all? You will know what you’re made of. And you will be proud of the person you are because you’ve worked so hard to become her.
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society