As far as birthdays go, 21 seemed like the last hurrah. I used to think that every birthday after 21 was an excuse to go out and drink, and then after 30, an occasion to look in the mirror and trace how age has marked your face. Now, I think that was a bit melodramatic.
Last summer, I spent my 21st birthday like an upstanding, responsible young fella: packing for a month in Dublin before heading to a clean cut, expansive bar and grille – the kind you find in the suburban sprawl with cobbled boardwalk and a fountain that really just serves as a playground for aggressive geese. My gathered family members nodded approvingly when I ordered a Blue Moon and patted me on the back when I got what the bearded call an “IPA,” (code for India Pale Ale…you know, beer stuff). It all went swimmingly down the drain. Around 9:30 p.m., the (real) adults left, and my cousins, brother and I were left talking about college and summer while throwing back Irish Car Bombs.
The next morning, I shipped out to Dublin for a month-long study abroad program. I was stoked to spend my time reading James Joyce and visiting the old haunts of Ireland: 21-year-old stuff. But before I ever made it to Ireland, my second day as a 21-year-old didn’t go down as smoothly as that dear Blue Moon.
My flight was inhumanely early. In one of those tired, hungover, un-caffeinated hazes, I stuffed my carry-on backpack with all the essentials: laptop, trail mix, three books and a sweatshirt. I was set for a flight from St. Louis to Atlanta and then off to Dublin–about nine hours of travel (long, but not bad). St. Louis to Atlanta didn’t go well.
You see, an unnamed airline (cough, Delta) spent three hours fixing a panel in the bottom of the plane, a cosmetic issue, they said. I missed my connection and got stranded in Atlanta, but at least I was 21. I had a beer, or two, and then they shipped me off to Paris, where they said I could catch a connection to Dublin. Nine hours quickly became 15.
I’m not going to sit here and say that it was one grand adventure. It sucked. I knew, though, at some point in the next week I’d make it to Dublin to finally have a pint of Guinness like a real Irishman. It was inevitable and Delta owed me that much. After the Paris pit stop, I finally got to Dublin tired, sober and 21. Instead of a few rounds of Jameson, life was handing me an exhausting dose of reality.
My birthday was over. Sure, people get excited when you turn 21. They offer words of wisdom and congratulations and if you’re lucky, drinks, but when the clock strikes midnight, the balloons begin to pop. Maybe turning 21 was the last extension of the legal and parental leash. The general public (and maybe your mom) trusts you enough to drink in public and gamble away the money you made at that dope internship.
You might be used to standing in line at a bar or club or speakeasy with a fake ID waiting with a weird combo of anticipation, exhilaration and maybe suspense (or is that the Svedka?). But the moment you turn 21, you wait with a sense of inevitability: You’re gonna get in. It’s the law. It’s as undeniable as the ticking clock and the next birthday 364 days from now. But you have a good time anyway; no one’s going to buy you this many drinks for a long time.
You eventually strut (or stumble) your way home. You look in the mirror. You realize you’re less than a decade away from turning 30, you’re five years away from being booted from your parents’ health insurance, your knees and back crack when you get out of bed and it spins on and on. For about a year, that’s what I thought I had to look forward to every time a birthday rolled around–just a way to mark the march of time. That’s why they let us drink now.
Now, I’m almost 22, and everything is mostly alright. I don’t feel any older, and I’m a year closer to a score of wedding invitations. Twenty-two just sounds like it has more chill than 21; it’s less fraught with expectations and applications.
I also have a feeling that some surprise is waiting for me along the road. Folks are being pretty cagey about the plans. I think I’ve mentioned it’s my birthday is coming up over 16 times during the past week and then casually mentioned that I’ve never had a surprise birthday. Tact is my middle name. My friend’s dad sort of blew the lid, expressing regret over missing the “surprise drinks,” though he could be joking. Joke or no joke, I’m excited and I didn’t think I would be.
T-Swift was mostly right. Getting older isn’t all doom and gloom, there’s always something to look forward to. I figured out that every birthday after 21 is just another excuse to hang out with friends.