I’m flipping through the radio stations in my car when I hear it. I scan back and forth between 97.9, which booms a steady stream of club music, and 98.9, which plays adult contemporary music with a pinch of folk.
I hear a lifting cluster of notes, and my body recognizes the song before my mind does. After a moment of the music residing in me, I realize it’s “Hunger Strike,” by Temple of the Dog. My mouth lifts at the familiar string-like tones of Chris Cornell’s voice. And then, the bold low sounds of Eddie Vedder. The sound ambushes me. Eddie Vedder’s voice crawls inside of me like a virus of nostalgia, attacking my heart, my belly, my throat.
For a moment, I’m 19. My 19-year-old self wears frayed shorts with thick, black tights underneath and wool sweaters. She listens to Pearl Jam and Elton John and John Lennon on her headphones, though she doesn’t tell anyone about the Elton John. She scrawls poetry in notebooks and runs her fingertips along the spines of old books at the library, waiting for one to feel hot to her touch. She dreams of riding trains across Europe, where she would meet her one true love. He’d have long, wavy hair and play guitar.
Love is what she most wants. It is how she lulls herself to sleep every night. She gets crushes, the intense 19-year-old type of crushes that puff in her brain like a sponge, dulling everything else. But she never tells them; she doesn’t even know how to flirt.
Her favorite place is in between—the slowness of a long ferry ride, cradled by the Alaskan mountains. Or halfway up one of those rugged mountains, her feet stepping over gravel and moss.
She doesn’t know it, but she is free.
The song ends, but the ache lingers. At a stop sign, I peek in my rearview mirror. I glance at the two wide car seats in the back seat. When my husband suggested we trade in my old Subaru Forester for a Highlander, I resisted. I had driven the boxy Forester across the country to Maine when I moved back. He wanted me to get this bulky soccer mom car, because our second child was on the way and the Forester would be too cramped. I pouted, but finally agreed, letting go of my beloved aging Forester. Looking back, it wasn’t so much about the loss of the car as it was the part of me I was leaving behind. The me that could get in her car and drive and drive, flipping CDs in and out, singing.
At the next red light, I search the rearview mirror, looking for the 19-year-old me buried somewhere beneath the almost 40-year-old me. I press at the two vertical lines between my eyebrows, waiting for her young, smooth skin to bounce back. It doesn’t.
I drive slowly, passing endless snow banks to go to the grocery store and the post office and another grocery store. With the song still pressing on my sternum, I envy that 19-year-old.
It wasn’t that she was happy, or even content. She was full of doubt and uncertainty about the present and the future. In the years to come she would change coasts like hairstyles
But time was like water then. When you turned on the faucet, it was just there, life-giving and liquid. And completely taken for granted. That girl had so little responsibility. She was barely an adult.
At almost 40, there’s no barely adult about me. The clerks at the grocery store keep calling me ma’am. Each time, I flinch inside. There is nothing young, fresh or juicy about being a ‘ma’am.’ Being a ma’am means creases between my eyes that will deepen. It means there’s never a moment when there’s not some chore that I should or could be doing. It means there’s always something to wipe—usually one of my kids’ bottoms—or cook or scrub. Dirty laundry arrives as if on a never-ending conveyor belt.
My Adult Fatigue Syndrome isn’t helped by the fact that this winter in Maine, apparently, we’re in an ice age. It’s snowed so much that for weeks, our snowman was suffocated under strata upon strata of hard, shining snow. Even our five-year-old says, “I can’t wait for it to be summer. Is it almost summer, Mom?”
“Soon,” I say. The word sinks like a lie. “Soon.”
The song only lasts minutes but it tears open my day, my week, my heart.
I continue with the chop wood, carry water of life with two young kids. But I resent it.
Despite my perfectly lovely life, the ridiculous good fortune of having a healthy, amazing family, I’m exhausted by the endless rinse and repeat, the mundane tasks of being an adult.
She hangs around for a few weeks, that 19-year-old. When I turn my head, sometimes I catch a blur out of the corner of my eye. Is it her? I think about her. About how I have what she wants—love—and she has what I want: time. Youth. Freedom. But I’ve already been there, I’ve already been her.
She would scoff at all of my imperfect love. At the chaos that comes with young children. At the grocery lists and mortgage stubs, her free time blotted away like lipstick.
Several months ago, a bunch of my mom friends organized a weekend getaway. The winter months slog by and suddenly it’s March, the snow still piled high. It’s time to go.
I’ve been away from my son for only a handful of nights—most of which were immediately after my daughter was born. I’ve never been away from my two-year-old daughter overnight. I’m anxious about being away, about sharing space with seventeen other women, some of whom I’ve never met. About my kids, and how they’ll handle my absence.
“You’re never coming back!” my son had blurted in the kitchen a few days before, as I tried to acclimate him to the idea that I’d be gone for two days.
“Of course I’m coming back,” I said. “I’ll be back on Sunday.” He huffed and ran into another room.
I get into my car, pull out of the garage, and crank up the music. My shoulders drop.
Driving past small towns and iced lakes on the way to New Hampshire, I listen to music I haven’t listened to in years. I start with another favorite Seattle artist, Shawn Smith. His rich, soulful voice simmers around the piano music. Next Fleetwood Mac, which I listened to constantly the year I turned 23. I listen and I sing and I cry a little, sifting through the memories of my young adulthood.
It stuns me, the way that music can slip into you sideways, the same way that scent can, and push you back, time travel you.
The whole two-hour drive goes like this. I think about my 19-year-old self and my 23-year-old self and how I’m getting ready to meet my 40-year-old-self.
I browse my mind for regrets and come up empty. It’s hard to be an adult and it’s hard to be a 19-year and as I sometimes say to my son, “It’s hard to be five, huh?”
Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” comes on, and Stevie Nicks nails what is floating just beneath my nostalgia:
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
In the distance are the mountains of New Hampshire. They are not the mountains of Alaska, of home. They are smaller and rounder, less jagged. They don’t encircle the town like a necklace, a sometimes too tight choker. At home, my family. Ahead, a weekend with friends. Long, leisurely meals, free of interruptions. I will stay up past nine.
I am between two places.
It strikes me that the difference between my 19-year-old self and my almost 40-year-old self is I’m choosing my life. I chose my beautiful husband, who has short hair but does play the guitar. I chose to start a family and I chose to start writing again and despite all the mundane tasks and the ma’ams, the budding wrinkles and the big mom car, this is my hard, amazing, chaotic, chosen life.
The 19-year-old version of me slips back inside, like those Russian stacking dolls. I see her dyed black hair, her red lipstick, the curvy hips that she hated. Her idealism, her fear, her passiveness as she waits for life to happen—it’s all packed away inside of me.
She is me. She is not me.
I am between two places.
I am thrilled.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: elephant archives