UR MOM CALLED, I TOLD HER UR FCKIN UP BIG TIME
on anti-aging, a mexican cafe & a wannabe rockstar i used to date
The waitress at the Mexican cafe peered at me through tight eyelids. “Mija, be careful,” she said. And she asked how old I was. The cafe was dark and on a dusty strip of Route 66. Sunshine sliced through the Venetian blinds and left bright slivers on the tan linoleum floor.
“Thirty,” I said, even though it’s not quite true.
I’m twenty-nine but I keep rounding up. I’ve been rounding up for years.
There’s a story that’s become famous amongst my friends. They bring it up whenever I get weird about my age (which I want to say is “increasingly often” but, truthfully, has been a long-running tick.) It happened when I was twenty-seven years old and I was stood at my kitchen sink, washing the silverware. Working a soapy sponge into the grooves of a dirty fork, I had the distinct thought: Jesus, it’s good to be thirty-two. And I walked around my apartment for a half-hour, relieved to have emerged from the shitshow of my third decade on the planet with little more permanent damage than a scar on my lip. When it hit me that I was only twenty-seven, that I still had another three long years before I could leave my twenties behind, my soul sank. I had tied liberation to a date and convinced myself that I wouldn’t be free from the actions of my twenties until I was free from their number.
I thought years could distance me from the worst of myself. That if I put enough time between me and who I was back then, naturally and without much effort, I would become a different person. Although you can try to tie shame to time, it has a funny way of sticking through the years.
The other day, YouTube recommended a video called “HOW TO LIVE YOUR 20s | THE DEFINING DECADE.” And I instantly bristled. I hated the idea that these 10 years could define me. I think most people do. I think it’s impossible to get through this decade without heavy regrets.
For me, these regrets began to settle when I was washing the silverware at 27 years old. At that point in my life, I had been to more friends’ funerals than weddings. And during one of the funeral after-parties (they weren’t receptions, they were after-parties), I realized that the people around me weren’t living. At best, they were coping. (Which, logic follows, meant that I, too, was simply coping through the years.) I began dreaming about a normal life, one in which the stories I told weren’t about that acquaintance who crashed his car into a barrier on the FDR while driving drunk. I wanted different friends, ones who didn’t go missing for three days at a time on strange and sad benders. I wanted out of my scene. I wanted to be 32.
Last month, just a few months shy of turning 30, I was on a bus from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when I decided that I wanted to explore the middle of nowhere. So I got off in Barstow, California and dragged my suitcase up Route 66 to the Mexican cafe with the best reviews. A souped-up Audi roared down the highway, knocking up clouds of dust. The buildings were all squat and brown or burgundy or puce. It’s not true to say that there’s nothing in Barstow. What’s more true is that the locals don’t want there to be anything. They treat the desert mountains like a backdrop some stagehand was too lazy to put away.
“Oh, mija,” the waitress at the cafe sighed when I asked her about town. “There’s nothing here. Some mountains a few miles away, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
I couldn’t understand her flippancy. To me, the dusty town was glorious. Vultures cawed in slow circles above broken chainlink fences. The only landmarks were a luxury hotel that never got off the ground and the country’s first Del Taco. But then again, my favorite place is always “somewhere I’ve never been.” And I tend to find mundanity beautiful, particularly if it isn’t my own.
Around the time that I was washing dishes and convinced myself that I was 32 years old, I was dating this guy who was rail-thin and a wannabe rockstar. (Luckily, he was one of those musicians who had shows where you didn’t mind bringing friends because they would invariably give validation like “Woah, they’re actually pretty good.”) And one night, after a show at a beer-soaked bar in Greenpoint, I went to the wannabe rockstar’s mattress on the floor of his apartment. He had just painted the walls bright purple. Books were scattered everywhere — mostly rock biographies and Buddhist scripture — and between copies of Keith Richards’ autobiography and the Baghavad Gita, he told me that his dad had recently committed suicide. A few years earlier, his grandfather had, as well. He was angry at them. His jaw got tight and he said, “All I want is to have gray hair. I just want to go gray. I just don’t want to kill myself.” I thought it was one of the most poetic things I had ever heard a person say. I loved the idea of craving ongoing mundanity as retaliation against senseless destruction. (To rage, rage against the rage, rage.)
The relationship didn’t last very long. He wanted to talk about Milarepa and I wanted to whine about my world. And although I don’t think about him too often anymore, that moment on the mattress barreled back into my mind a few months ago when I looked in the mirror and spotted my first gray hair.
When I saw the hair, at the front of my scalp mingled amongst my bangs, I had the immediate panic of “Oh shit, I’m losing some valuable youth-adjacent currency.” Then I tried to forget about Clairol ads. I tried to forget about the times I gazed at older, salt-and-pepper women in public and had thoughts like she’d be pretty if she just covered her grays. Instead, I thought about that skinny wannabe rockstar telling me his only goal was to have a whole head of these.
Philosophy For Party Girls is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
When “gone too soon” becomes all too real, time changes weight. I’ve passed through enough time that I’m now older than some of the people I loved ever got to be. I’m still not entirely sure what to do with these years but I know that I don’t want to burn them. Age is an accomplishment that some people never reach.
And yet, if you talk to most American women, age becomes the one thing you can never ask her about. It is shame in numerical form. (We’ve been taught to want time capsule bodies, something immune to life itself.) It’s easy to believe that we want women to look young because we love youth because it’s the opposite of death. But for so many of us in this ragey era, death isn’t linked to age and youth is only a reminder of the people who never escaped it.
But perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps all these attempts at reclaiming the appearance of youth are attempts at rewriting time. You might not be able to erase the shameful experiences of your early 20s, but you can erase the lines they left on your forehead. Perhaps Botox and hair dye and cheek lifts are half-baked attempts at distancing ourselves from who we were back then. We try to bring back the skin or the hair we had with hopes that this time it will be different. But this is a fucked task. Anyone living this logic is trying to cover the shame of their past with shame of their present.1
“But mija, you look so young,” the waitress said when I told her my age.
“Thank you,” I smiled, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when people say you look younger than you are.
“Yes, it’s a good thing,” she scrunched her face, “but also…”
Her voice trailed off. And I figured the thought that rattled beneath her silence. Despite the cultural desire for it, (the appearance of) youth is a target. Or, at the very least, people believe that age makes you less enticing to corrupt. But a full scalp doesn’t necessarily bespeak innocence. And experience and age are never directly linked. When your youth flirted with finality, shame isn’t a thing you accumulate with sagging skin. It’s what sets you running towards redemption.
So why do we continue to perform the Sisyphean labor of staving off the effects of time through surgery, exercise, dyes and potions? Why did I just spend $40 on a vial of serum for hair density? Despite knowing that gray hair is an accomplishment some people never reach, I feel like I should be proud of the fact that my experience doesn’t show. (I look like something without a shameful past!)
I search friends’ foreheads with relief that mine is smoother. I say “thank you!” each time I’m IDed at a bar. But I don’t want to. I’ve already tied shame to my past. I can’t put it on my future, too. And so I bring myself back to the wannabe rockstar. I tell myself that one day, if we’re lucky, we’ll both have whole heads of grays.
I’m convinced that the appearance of purity is only valued and targeted by forces afraid of their own shame — by which I mean afraid of their own pasts. I’m starting to believe that it’s only through reckoning with our pasts that we learn to accept our futures: the disintegration and the sagging of them. Once we make peace with who we were back then (once we begin to unbraid shame from time), perhaps we’ll find a way to let go of our youth. We’ll let the grays grow in — and more than that, we’ll find them beautiful. We’ll flaunt them like medals.
After I paid the bill and got up to leave, the waitress told me to be careful. (I looked so young!) I told her that I would be. It was only when I was back on Route 66, dragging my suitcase behind me through the dust, that I realized what I should have told her. I should have said that I’m not as young as I look. I’m not as old as I feel.
Of course, this collective (often gendered) desire to look young does not exist in a vacuum. There are clear and tangible benefits to the performance of youth, forever: social attention and acceptance.