By Tatyana Sussex
The perfect age, you decide, when a colleague confides, “Yeah, it’s a bit late to marry at thirty-three, but you know, I’ve had time to myself, to build my career—it’s worked out well.” And just like that: You claim thirty-three as the perfect age for you to marry, too.
Instead, thirty-three is the age you permanently leave New York—the second time, after the second relationship ends, and you’re still mourning the first. You make a pledge to a new adventure: to grow roots, right here, in your hometown of Seattle.
Thirty-three, the birthday on which you wake up to a carpet of snow, stay home from work and talk to the lingering ex-boyfriend about his new daughter, his wife, then go out for a dinner of ribbon pasta and braised rabbit at a romantic restaurant with your best girlfriend, Mary Jane. Your parents call in a bottle of champagne.
The last birthday you will drink champagne: November 19, 1996.
This is the year you run into the bewildering streets to worship the Comet Hale-Bopp that sparkles overhead like a winking god. The year you and Jeanette go roller blading on the Burke Gillman trail one dusky evening and are stopped in your tracks by an unexpected eclipse yolking right there, just for you.
Thirty-three is the first year you make enough money to be self-supporting—freeing your parents from having to step in and supplement your income. An airline ticket here, an opera ticket there, winter coat here, first-and-last-month’s rent there . . .
Thirty-three is when you’re fired from your job, on the same day you decide to resign, without anything lined up; the same week you go to a fancy lakeside engagement party, and dodge every “What’s new?” question by excusing yourself to get another drink. You have a lot of drinks that night.
This is the last year you go on a nice dinner date with a guy you really, really like, and knock your eleventh drink over and soak the front of your date’s shirt, telling him “Oh, just take it off,” then laughing like a crazy person and snapping at the waiter for a fresh drink—“Be quick about it!”—thus losing your call back from a man with whom you might have had children.
The year you drive home drunk from a summer bash, on Friday the thirteenth of June, and after stopping off at the QFC for some powdered sugar donuts, wind up in the backseat of a police car, handcuffed, astonished, sobbing.
This is also a year when some planets align—this actually happens!—and on the very night they line up, you drive to your first night at rehab, laughing at the fact that not long ago you said, “I’ll quit drinking when the planets align,” and here they are, aligning. And there you go, quitting drinking.
Also the year when you call your friend Sean to ask him what you do now; Sean with whom you drank countless martinis and beers at record release parties, stormed backstage at concerts and heckled the lead singers and guitarists because you could, it was part of your job as a music editor. Sean who gave it all up a year before, who tells you that you don’t have to say a word at these meetings; Sean, who tells you what a display of humanity is on parade in these miraculous rooms, that “it’s like a Chorus Line,” day in, day out, that you’ll never get bored!
Thirty-three, the year you wake up to a strange feeling: of breaking your own heart. Who knew you could break your own heart! All that ferocious parading around a big city, lifting filled-to-the-rim glasses, howling at the early morning hours, creating erasure pockets in the creases of so many midnight hours, turning your back on the man who loved you. Thirty-three, when you stop being the abandoning dead-beat parent of your latchkey girl-self. There are so many repairs to be made, so much growing up to do—where the fuck do you start?
When you start running again at 33, you’re still young enough to wear just a sports bra and feel the cool-warm evening air against your arms and belly and neck. As you pass the stately homes on Federal Street, as you run past the tall rose bushes and bright red front doors, past the white cat who runs a few blocks with you, past the couple walking hand-in-hand with their long-legged dog that makes you want to cry because everything does these days, you tell yourself: Next time that Big Love comes along, I will NOT be a drunk. This makes it easier to go one more day without touching any of the beers sitting in your fridge, the beers that you eventually pour out, one after another—while plugging your nose because the smell of all that delicious well-crafted yeasty life going down the drain, well… it hurts a little.
This is the year you sit in a room with people who tell their gnarliest rock-bottom stories, the most suspenseful survival tales, and then stand in a circle and hold your hand; people who hug you after coffee, who, when you admit the worst-secret horror of waking up next to a strange, un-namable man in your bed, throw their heads back and laugh, “me too, me too!” One even says, “Me too and I’m a lesbian!” You have no idea what miracles are crouching in the human spirit, what it takes to recoup a life, how possible it is, all this metamorphosing going on inside an Indian restaurant, a beer stained bar, the dark church basements at 7 a.m.
You won’t know about this for a long time, but the British detective drama, Midsomer Murders airs during your thirty-third year—a show that is so long-running, that when you and your future husband discover it, you will have twenty-years’ worth of episodes, which you will watch like addicts, until the characters become family, and after you watch all of them, you will start from the beginning, again.
The year you stand on the balcony in the middle of the night, sighing. Sighing from the depth of your soul, having learned something magnificent: Life gives you do-overs.
Of course, 33 is also the age of Jesus, when he was crucified and rose from the dead. Your first crush was on Jesus, the Jesus in the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring Ted Neeley. You were a hard-longing 10-year-old kid who wasn’t included in games of Spin the Bottle because you went to a girls’ school . . . But goddammit you wanted to kiss and kiss and kiss. So you imagined a 33-year-old sad-eyed Ted Neeley Jesus walking down your neighborhood street coming to claim you, to pluck you out of your circle of untouchability. That would show ‘em!
You are 33 and two months drink-free. You are as single and as free as a 10-year-old out riding her banana-seat bike with her imaginary boyfriend, Jesus in the tall summer sky, when. You ride that cushioned-seat bike through the silvery dusk air to your parents’ home. Your hair windblown, your cheeks brimming with lake water residue. Your mother says, “This is the happiest I’ve seen you since you were a kid.” You want to crawl into the space of that moment and cry and cry, a historical unleashing for your mom who stood by and watched you not be happier, and a bit for the girl in you who had to watch you hurt yourself over the years but comes back ready to play. Look at her big pooling eyes, just ready to go—as forgiving as Jesus.
Your first triathlon, at 33, because what the hell else do you do with all that time?
Also, a solo road trip to Sun Valley, where you hike and mountain bike for five days straight, and every time you look at the time it is thirty-three after the hour, or 11:19. Your age, your birthday. You walk and hike through a succession of rainbows, and think the world is winking just at you, rolling out an initiation just for you, putting down those body profiles on the horizon at night just for you. You worship it all: the smell of sage after it rains, the wildflowers waving from the edge of a river, a quartet playing Beethoven on a well-trimmed public lawn. You say thank you thank you. Still, it scares you all this synchronous beauty. You want to be like the young couple you talk to at the small church, looking for an AA meeting and think they are too; but no, they’re looking for the minister who’s going to marry them, not for a room full of repentant drunks! You walk quickly out of the church and run to the car. “Get me back to the world of the living!” you shout out in your sleep that night, waking up from your first drunk dream.
The year you start the healing dreams around your first love. It’s the series that starts with him and his wife standing at the entrance of a tree-lined meadow that is their wedding, and they’re telling you to leave this celebration filled with mutual friends; his wife standing in the background with her arms folder around their baby, the baby that should have been yours. Years later, after the memory of this ex-love doesn’t hurt any more, you have dreams where he is standing behind you like a supporting structure, all love, asking for nothing, you asking for nothing back.
Maui in June, with your two single girlfriends Kelly and Mary Jane. You cruise the beaches, trespass the hotel pools, pass by small chapels with brides and grooms getting photographed, nickname yourselves the “HITS” – Honeymooners in Training. Kelly marries first, then Mary Jane. Then you, 16 years after Maui.
At lunch with your childhood friend Lisa. She tells you a story about a woman she greatly admires who married at 40, and that you are also this kind of unique super-cool Modern Wonder Woman. Lisa succeeds at making you feel sort of special and fierce in your sovereign single-ness, except for two things: NO fucking way are you waiting until 40 to get married. And you don’t want to be THAT unique. You want to join the flow of humanity! You want to pair up and be invited to couples’ dinner parties and go on couples ski trips, get pregnant, have morning sickness and get so bloated that your ring finger swells over that princess cut diamond (not that you even know what a princess cut is).
The night you stay at your parents’, at 33 years of age, while friends all over town are yelling at their kids over dinner and reading them bedtime stories, giving them baths, kissing their squeaky cheeks goodnight, cooing into their husbands’ eyes when the house is quiet and sparkling with resting time. Your mother comes in to the bedroom where you read, propped up on pillows. She bends forward from the tie of her bathrobe, kisses your flat cheeks, breathes in. “We’re late bloomers,” she coos. “It’s alright, sweetheart.” Your mother who married at 27 and had you, her firstborn at 31; your father who was 34 at their wedding, 38 when you came along—both of them late bloomers for their days. You leaned in to their delayed timeline like a cushion of un-hurriedness, careening through your 20s and into your 30s, adding on some years because your generation waits longer and you were happy being free. What’s the big hurry? Until a breakup a year ago and you realized: Now, you have to get over it, then meet someone new, do the courtship, marry, let some time pass, have the first kid before your ovaries are withering time bombs of deformity. Tick tock. Tick tock. Suddenly time is not so expansive, even for a late bloomer.
Thirty-three is the age you start writing poetry after growing tired of the crazy stream-of- consciousness journaling—catching all the funky beats of transformation in the hands of red lined notebooks, page after page after page. One day you think: something new. You consider poetry, start rhyming your end lines. You paint the words of an early poem onto a canvas—red on white—and display it at a friend’s art show. It begins: “We say we’re friends/ when the romance ends/I stoically agree/ that it’s fine with me/but what a lie/ I can hear them cry/ when I go to bed/ they’re two pillows one head”. Thus ends your reign of attempting to stay friends with ex-loves. How can you, now that you have made your position so publicly?
Going to a party un-tipsy for the first time, feeling your Bambi knees knocking, knocking, and experiencing conversations with such clarity—eye contact! So sweet, so strange, to travel into the foreign country of someone’s eyes. What is this activity taking place in the irises of these half-strangers inquiring for “more, tell me more”? Or to see the invitation in the hazel flickering of a man who leans in just one shoulder width too far and you wonder, Oh, is this the intimacy your wise-woman therapist tells you about? Is this what awaits you in this new life? Is this what you’re getting your shit together for—this freaky I-see-you communing? There’s so much love and geography of human soul-foliage and yet—can you hang with this, feeling the world this close to you?
This is the year you slide from 33 to thirteen. Because apparently, when you quit an addiction, you return to the emotional age you were before you started. In your case, that’s thirteen. So on Friday the 13, at 33 years of age, you fly right back to being 13. Everything in three’s. Like your triathlon training. You swim, bike, run—pant like your school girl self who ran the 220 yard dash, who ran through the Creepy Woods just for the thrill of it, who rode her Schwinn 10-speed to Bellevue Square for free samples at Hickory Farms, who slipped into the lake at the public docks waiting for a break in the clouds all summer long. Oh, the freedom of returning to such an unshackled girlhood!
Thirty-three, and starting a new job in your new skin. You stand in the elevator with professionals who check their watches, look at their shoes, shift their shoulders, wriggle their hips in those tight skirts, straighten their shirt collars, and you try something new: stare them down, dare anyone to make eye contact, feeling like a pixie girl in the world of such serious adults. Even while you cling on to your wild girl self, you feel a curtain opening, catch a glimpse of a wise woman sitting in a chair, in the middle of an empty stage, waiting for you.
Thirty-three, the year you are happy to be single, the first of two, three, four more years you are happy to be single—even if at a descending level of happiness, even if at times scratching your head as people all around you couple and couple until you are almost alone. It’s as if an all-over-the-earth music was playing and playing and then zzzzzst! it stopped and SHIT you weren’t paying attention and you forgot to find a chair and sit down and there you are—no chair. Running around the periphery as everyone settles into their seat in life. NO FUCKING CHAIR! What the—? You ask your mentor-wise-woman-therapist “What the fuck—?” She laughs, says, “Don’t go looking for trouble,” she says, “There’s nothing really more wrong with you than anyone else.” “Except,” your Gollum Girl whispers into your ear, “you’re a half-woman, forever a child,” punishing you for being different—something you and your therapist-mentor will have fun exploring for years to come.
As thirty-three ends, you tell a co-worker how sad you’ll be to let go of this beautiful number—33—the spooning bottoms, the identical-ness, the voluptuousness and Phoenix-rising of 33, even if 33 skinned you to your bloody nerve endings. Your colleague, also a poet who introduces you to the poetry of Frank O’Hara, taps her pencil against the conference table and tells you about a prophet who believed that in heaven everyone is 33. You laugh together for a good while then decide, Fuck the website copy, let’s write a poem!
The last week of 33 you turn on PBS during pledge week, and there’s Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell who talks directly to you, and tells you something astonishing about love: Love demands that the RELATIONSHIP, the third entity, be tended and nurtured for a couple to thrive. WHAT? The next day your friend Sonya gives you a cassette and says, “You’ll like this,” and you drive around town listening to the story of Atalanta—a sports-loving hunter-tomboy from Arcadia, who comes late to love, after turning her courting game into a footrace and marrying the cleverest—not quickest—man who, with strategy help from Aphrodite, drops three apples during their race to slow Aphrodite down so he can win her, have her. (Look at the effort her put in to win her—that’s what you want!) And yes, Atalanta gets married. And yes, she has a child, but then the damn couple forgets to worship Aphrodite—this third-party relationship being—and Aphrodite gets mad. Turns them into lions who travel through the night sky for eternity, unable to mate. Oops!
Thirty-three: The year you decide to never be that reckless, careless girl again. The year you will step out and say, “Love? I’m coming for you, and I’m going to get it right.” The year you have no idea how long you will wait. The year you write letters to Aphrodite, one after another; prayer after prayer after prayer.
Tatyana Sussex is working on a collection of lyric essays about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.
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