By: Lauren Ash
“I think I peaked in high school,” I groan to my mother during my obligatory weekly phone call home. I say it with my face tipped upwards and arm draped across my eyes like the distressed heroine of a 1950s movie as I walk in circles behind my dorm.
“You’ve been in college for three months.” She’s unimpressed. Obviously, her child is not in enough of a panic to send cookies, and the issuance of a bleak statement such as this will suffice. I wait for her maternal instinct to set in.
“I’m having a midlife crisis,” I tell her. Surely three months post-high school is enough time to realize my stint on the high school varsity academic team tops the coffee-stained college sweatshirt I’ve been wearing for the past two days.
“Lauren, you’re nineteen.”
I am flabbergasted. Clearly, she does not understand the drama I am facing. Stricken, I yank at my lanyard hanging dorkily from my neck, sporting my keys and student ID. NERDY FRESHMAN may as well be tattooed on my face.
“But if I die at the age of thirty-eight—”
“—then technically this would be a midlife crisis! Why does midlife have to mean middle age?” She tells me I’m “being dramatic” and “overreacting.” Thus went the weekly phone call home.
“What if the best day of your life has already happened, and maybe you didn’t realize at the time it was the best day of your life, and it’s gone— over— and now you don’t have a best day of your life to look forward to anymore?” I’m spinning around in my spinny desk chair after my call home, avoiding homework and distracting my roommate, Rachel, from pretending to read her book.
“Well, that’s a depressing thought.” Rachel flips the page purposefully and pretends to read on.
It is, isn’t it? People refer to “The best day of my life” all the time, but what they really mean is “the best day of my life so far,” because no one really wants to admit the best day of their life already happened and now they don’t have a best day to look forward to that could possibly top it. Or maybe the best day of their life was something they can’t even remember— like a childhood birthday— and now they’re living with a hopeless hope of a soon-to-be best day. What if I’ve got nothing to look forward to in life anymore? Maybe if the best day of my life has already happened, I’ve already been the best version of myself, accomplished my greatest accomplishment, and been the happiest I will ever be and can never hope to be again.
I suppose I just always assumed that if you weren’t popular in high school or had a less than stellar childhood it meant you would have your chance later. As though a depressing high school career or disappointing first eighteen years of existence meant that adulthood would totally rock in order to make up for it. But then my feet hit the floor to stop my spinning chair and I actually consider that idea as the room tilts around me. Nobody gave me a contract before freshman year and told me to check the box that says either “I want to peak in high school” or “I’d like to peak in adulthood.” There’s a very good chance of the whole thing being a terrible experience, culminating in the most boring, unfortunate life to ever be lived by anyone ever!
“You must be fun at parties,” Rachel remarks from the bed.
There’s a tan rectangle of carpet on the floor of my dorm room. We have dubbed it the mental-breakdown rug. It’s where the floor’s nursing majors come to cry about their biology tests and where I stop spinning in my spinny desk chair long enough to roll up into a blanket burrito to dive into the depth of thoughts and despair about the future.
Usually, the vent above the door would be blowing frigid air directly onto my face in this position, but I had a tall person named Julia tape an obnoxiously bright red shirt over the lower half of the vent to block the breeze. Now the shirt just flutters wildly at me, and I watch it out of the corner of my eye while scrolling through my phone. Right now I’m consulting the Urban Dictionary website.
“I think what I’m experiencing is traditionally known in popular culture as ‘FOMO,’ or, ‘fear of missing out.’” I inform Rachel.
“Mhm.” She’s fully reclined on her bed now with her phone propped up against her laptop screen.
“Just thought you would like to know, since I’m having a psychological crisis.”
She fishes another Raisenet out of her plastic baggie. “Mhm.”
The shirt waves at me, and I decide a sufficient amount of moping has been achieved for the day. I attempt to gracefully escape my cocoon. No such luck. Attempt again. Uh oh.
“As in metaphorically? Or are you literally stuck in your blanket right now?”
But I guess I am stuck metaphorically too. Nineteen is a strange age to be. It floats somewhere in the ambiguity between child and adult. Cocooned in the safety of a college dorm room and parents who pay my rent, I teeter on the edge of the “real world,” peering at its sad strangeness from my side of life. I tuck my face into my blanket burrito as Rachel dutifully tosses back her covers and descends from her bed to rescue me. Thinking about that edge makes me tired. I’d rather not go into that sad strangeness.
Professor Porter is a quirky little man who sometimes wears fedoras to class and whose voice rises and falls like one of those theatrical preachers on TV— the ones who get really loud and then suddenly get really quiet to make you lean in and pay attention. On the first day of class, when most teachers would just go over the syllabus and send us on our merry way, he told us, “I want this class to bring you to the very edge of the abyss.” He shuffled forward a step in his Oxford shoes to pantomime our journey to the edge.
“Where you are in life right now is the time for you to think...” he began; then he leaned towards us and dropped his voice to a barely audible whisper, widening his eyes and gazing around the room, making eye contact with each one of us. I sat hypnotized as he locked eyes with me. In his urgent, breathy whisper, he finished his thought: “Who are you gonna be?”
Our journey to the edge has thus far mostly comprised of reading a book by a stuffy French philosopher who is very, very boring. My mind begged to close the book the moment I opened it and do something, anything, else. I neglected to join Professor Porter’s slow march to the edge. Until, that is, I managed to keep my mind still long enough to read this one sentence:
Human beings are the children of the earth... and forever unworthy of the heaven they
invent for themselves.
The breath in my lungs released in a slow whoosh. I didn’t understand the sentence, but it shone prettily up at me from the page and begged to be unraveled and discovered. I spent far too long turning it this way and that in the back of my mind before deciding to me it meant this. High school was where I invented my heaven of a life. At eighteen, I spun high hopes, dreams, and aspirations around in my imagination— heaped one on top of the other until a castle of glass stood tall and proud. At nineteen reality taps fissures into the smooth surface of it, making cracks widen and deepen, splitting the glass walls and the floor beneath me.
Tap. I’m haunted by the idea that the best day of my life has already happened and now there is no best day for me to look forward to. Tap. I can’t stand to think that I peaked in high school, because that means the person I’m becoming is only ever going to be painfully ordinary. Tap. I fear a diagnosis of normalcy like I would fear a diagnosis of cancer. To spend my life simply existing instead of living. Never amounting to anything but typical. Who indeed, Professor Porter, am I going to be? Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
And the shards of my castle fall one by one over the edge and into the abyss.
Next to me in the theater, Rachel yawns hugely and checks her phone for the time, again. The play has gone over by ten minutes already. We squirm in our gold velvet seats and pray the curtains will finally close— even if the actors are still speaking, we’re not picky about a conclusion— and release us. We’re watching Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. It’s got a lot of characters with long Russian names in it, and I don’t know who’s who anymore because I stopped attempting to squint at the playbill in the dim theater light during the first act. I’m paying more attention to it than Rachel is, but when it’s gone ten minutes over the supposed end time I can’t help but be reminded of a certain stuffy French philosopher.
The actors fool about the stage, dancing and crying and laughing, dreaming of going to Moscow but never getting there, and I am completely outside of it. I shift my legs and shake feeling back into my numb foot, accidentally tapping it obnoxiously against the seat in front of me. My eyes drift shut for a moment but my dozing is suddenly interrupted by a wail from the character Irina: “I've been working for years, my brains are drying up, I'm getting thin and old and ugly and there's nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths…”
I don’t notice my numb foot anymore. I don’t care that Rachel is rolling her eyes at me pointedly with an attitude of if this doesn’t end soon my brain is going to seep out of my ears. In this moment of pure clarity, it’s as though the surface of the play is stripped away completely and I see Chekov clearly. He’s taken a hand of ice and shoved it into my chest to grasp my heart, to point my attention directly to those words and say, “Understand where you are going, because this is who you are.”
All of a sudden I am very much awake.
Tap, tap, tap, go the keys of the laptop keyboard. Tap, tap, tap, goes the backspace button. With one hand, I tug at my hair in frustration and with the other, drum my fingers on the mousepad. With a groan, I shove the laptop off my lap.
“Rachel,” I huff impatiently, “I don’t know how to end it.”
Rachel’s in her bed across from mine, pretending she’s trying to fall asleep. The glow of her phone illuminates her face in an eerie blue. It’s late. We should both be sleeping, but Rachel claims she can’t fall asleep until after midnight and my thoughts are echoing back to me from the abyss while reality taps at my mind incessantly like an uninvited guest at the door. I have a headache.
“Have you considered that it may not have an ending?” she asks.
Well, no. I rub my temples and sigh. “But shouldn’t I at least try to resolve this? I mean, posing an existential question and then just letting it dangle there like one of those cartoon anvils on a rope doesn’t seem like the right way to finish it.”
“Why not? Thoughts like that hang over people all the time, don’t they?”
I reluctantly pull the laptop back towards me. She’s right. There is no pretty ending to the part of my life that hasn’t happened yet. No nice bow to tie up a conclusion about whether or not I really did peak in high school, or already lived the best day of my life. I have no way of knowing whether or not I’ve already been the best version of myself, or if there’s something better in store. Perhaps the best me is already in the past, rapidly fading away in the background as I move along on my downhill trajectory towards mundanity.
“Maybe I won’t be an interesting person who does interesting stuff after all.”
The covers shift as Rachel shrugs, eyes still on her screen. “Or maybe you will be.”
Maybe I will be.