If there’s a defining sentiment to your 24th year it’s probably shame — although not necessarily in a bad way, if that makes sense, just that you got drunk and did this, did that. You misunderstood a million things. Most of what you remember from this year, as you approach the end of it, makes you cringe.
Realizing this, you buy a book about shame and learn that porn stars, after retiring from film, often pursue work in hospice care, or nursing, given their comfort with the body.
They’re hard to embarrass, and they laugh a lot.
Your first novel is finally done after three years (congrats!) and it gets rejected by 36 agents. Excerpts that you try to pass off as short stories get rejected by a dozen magazines but then one short story does get published. Which is nice.
You go out on what you think is a date (in a bar that will soon be shut down for having cockroaches in the ice machine), but it turns out not to be a date, and after sharing a basket of chili fries with this very pleasant woman, after she’s had one shot of Fireball and you’ve had four, she reveals that she’s always wanted a vibrator but (to your surprise) has always been too shy to actually go into a sex shop and buy one — at which point, in a gesture of gregariousness by which you hope to cover up your mistake about this being a date, you pay the tab and slap the bartop and tell her that you’re gonna be her wingman right now in buying a vibrator.
At the sex shop, a few minutes later, your accomplice stands behind you and hugs her elbows while looking around like she’s in a cathedral, some holyplace with secrets, and a salesperson adorned with pigtails, two noserings, and blue lipstick tells you that if you’re looking for something with simultaneous g-spot and clitoral stimulation it’s gonna cost no less than $60. Eventually your friend joins in on the conversation and before long the two of them are talking amongst themselves.
You wander off.
An elderly man is drinking a Fanta in the DVD room, entranced by the poolside orgy that plays out on a cornermounted TV. He looks at you, eye contact happens, and he nods in a grievous way.
You go find your friend.
She buys a $75 vibrator and you feel a little guilty about the extent of her buyer’s remorse. Several hours later you drive for 90 minutes to a birthday party in another city (where you get lost in a shady area and eventually have to pull over and charge your cell phone in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant in whose parking lot you find bullet casings) and when she texts you at around eleven to say that she just had her fourth consecutive spin with the vibrator, and that she loves it, you raise your glass to her, a hundred miles away.
A lot of people cry in front of you when you’re 24. It happens at a bar in South Miami, a patio restaurant downtown, the doorway of a utility closet in Kendall. It happens at your dining room table. At one point you are the lone audience to a woman crying at a podium in a small room.
It starts to seem like everybody has something going on in their life that they’ll start crying about if you ask them an open-ended question and listen attentively.
A server who leans on the bar and talks with you sometimes, when the restaurant’s quiet, says one night, while you’re fretting about the future, “It’s a blessin to be stressin. Means you’re on the right side of the grass.
The Ages at Which Some of the Writers You Admire
Published Their First Book
Jonathan Franzen: 29
Stephen King: 27
David Foster Wallace: 25
Jeffrey Eugenides: 33
Philip Roth: 26
Norman Mailer: 25
Martin Amis: 24
Cormac McCarthy: 32
Kurt Vonnegut: 30
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon: 26
You’re having a beer with a friend one morning in October on the first floor of a five story building. The friend is telling you about relationship trouble, you’re talking about the frustrations of trying to get published, and eventually someone jumps off the roof and hits the pavement outside.
It happens around the corner, so you don’t see anything until you set out to walk her to her car. The body’s been removed and there’s a light rain falling. The janitors are sweeping big rain-swirled gouts of blood into a storm drain.
Your friend drives off but you hang around South Miami for the rest of the day. You spend $50 on beer and later that evening, after receiving a terrible email, you go to see Goosebumps by yourself in a theater packed with families.
One kid shrieks at the yeti onscreen.
Creed comes out in theaters and you think, at the time, that this is gonna be the last on-screen appearance of a character with whom you’ve always felt a strangely heartwarming kinship. You have a couple of shots beforehand and you cry from pretty much the first frame to the last.
It feels pretty laborious to go on and on about the submission process, the rejections, and so you dodge the subject pretty well among friends and family but it’s really the only thing that crosses your mind. You’ve got no girlfriend, you’re on autopilot at work, your routines are set in stone. If your thoughts aren’t hushed in total meditative suspension then they’re coiled like a frigid hermit at this little flame of hope in the center of your brain where no light comes in and the only motivation is the same as what fuels the hypothetical prisoner who chisels at a wall whose thickness he can only guess at, may indeed be endless, and that thing that fuels him and fuels you is the near-religious conviction, the faith, that there must be a way out.
So yes there are themes of ambition and failure and shame and regret, of hope, that characterize your 24th year but really this is the (first) year of SUBMISSION (in more ways than one) and it’s hard to conceive of a life taking shape around this pursuit of yours, this struggle to be published, and but if, in your 25th or 26th or 38th year, you’ve allowed this goal to be eclipsed by the taste or pursuit of something else, something more sensible or fiscally responsible, know that I’m standing here in the past with my arms folded, looking ahead at you, and I am so fucking pissed because if I endured all of this only for you to bail because you’re too tired or embarrassed or whatever…
Like I can’t even imagine how much that would suck but I know you’re an asshole and that you love money and you can be guilted into anything, so I worry.
You’ve always seen osso buco on menus at fancy restaurants but this is the year you finally have it. Twice.
Two of your closest friends marry each other outside on a day where rain is forecasted but never falls, the sky actually clearing up to allow a good bit of sun for the ceremony, and — as will happen — you drink too much, end up sleeping in your car, but this is one of the better nights you’ll experience. Everybody so friendly, the booze as constant as the hugging and dancing and laughing. Before the meal and throughout it you sit talking with an aspiring veterinarian at her education’s endpoint who, for all of her knowhow and passion and promise, is pretty worried about the future too. This is the person you click glasses with during the toast.
Somebody lights a fire at your dining room table one Sunday in January. The firestarter takes you for a series of lunches in the ensuing months with hopes of explaining.
Someday, in the future, somebody will say, “Alex, what’s the angriest you’ve ever been?”
So you’re gonna have to learn how to talk about this.
Another regular at this particular bar is a little drunker than usual and even though you’re not writing at the moment, just sitting and watching TV, she usually sees you with a notebook or a novel and so when she comes up to you now, for the first time, she leans an elbow on the bartop, gives you this head-to-toe look of appraisal, and in a caustic tone that’s also probably supposed to be flirtatious she says, “You realize how much of a stereotype you are, right?”
And later that night when you’re home, getting into bed, your dog comes up and coils himself at your hip, this fourteen-year-old toy poodle with a beard that was once black but has now gone sage’s gray, and he slings his head over your stomach to look at you for some reason and he says, “I know you’re not so keen on taking advice about how to conduct yourself in public, especially when it comes to bars and books and whatever, but if you’ve found a routine that works for you, that helps you get shit done, then fuck it. Do you.”
Your dog is right.
An Englishman at the bar of a BBQ joint alerts the bar tender, with honest angst, to the ease with which he gets drunk. He then orders a Sam Adams with his sandwich. The bar tender takes a pint glass out of the cooler and goes over toward the tap.
“Woah!” He lurches forward. “Can I have it in a smaller glass?”
Bar tender eyes the glass, then the Brit. She says, “This is the only size we have.”
“Well you see I get drunk very easily…”
She stares at him.
He relents. “OK, then.”
“Nothing is small in the United States, is it?”
The therapist you’ve been seeing for eleven years says, “I’ve got some bad news.”
Cringing: “I’m moving away.”
A few months before this he told you, wincing, “Don’t judge me, OK?, but my politics lean toward socialism.” He’s a fan of Hamlet, of Freud and film noir, and he seemed a little bummed that you wouldn’t read those geography books he recommended.
You’ll have occasion, once your dining room table’s on fire, to think of him a lot.
Toward the end of your 24th year there’s a day where, as in the past, one frustration piles upon another and you say fuck it, and you bail on your responsibilities. You take a notebook to a bar in S. Miami and three hours somehow evaporate, which is nice, but your problems are waiting for you, unresolved, the moment you step outside.
Later that day you’re watching this video online about a guy who’s allergic to bees. One day, while fucking around in a neighbor’s yard, he splits an entire hive open by accident. The bees come out in a swarm, they’re fucking pissed, and they chase him. Panicking, the guy runs for a bit and ends up jumping into his swimming pool to escape them. But it’s no escape. The bees just wait for him, hovering in this noisy static cloud over the water’s surface, probably just getting angrier.
The metaphor is hard to avoid.
A stranger sends you an email and invites you, for some reason, to a private event on South Beach where Bret Easton Ellis will be doing an informal Q&A. One of your heroes from when you were growing up. You’re psyched. Get there and find that there’s an open bar: eight or ten bottles of Bombay and a spectrum of mixers. You get a drink and talk with Ellis on the balcony for a while about horror movies, about Eli Roth and Tarantino, and then he gets swept into the crowd.
It’s a weird experience to have at the end of this particular year and when you’re finally seeing, in person, just how lauded this writer is, how respected and appreciated, you find yourself standing hermetically in the most shadowy corner of this lavish penthouse, sipping your long sequence of complimentary gin & tonics, and you study the whole scene (this parade of dapper sophisticates all smiling and hugging each other and drinking responsibly) and you feel this thing inside yourself like violence, like those science videos where a windstorm is created in a mason jar, and it takes a few hours for you to cool off but eventually, when you do, you realize that this thing that had consumed you in your drunken idling was the rapacious, remorseless, decidedly unfriendly core of your ambition suddenly coming up to the forefront of consciousness. Like when the svelte and dapper Bond villain steps aside to unleash his monstrous right-hand man. You want to take all of this. The fame, the respect, the money. The gin.
You spent an hour and a half trying to park your car for this event, had to walk two miles along Collins Avenue in dress shoes under a soft rain in order to get here, received an $18 parking ticket for your troubles and a lot of indignant stares from the other attendees on account of being
- The youngest person in attendance.
And so you’ve confronted the strangely huge portion of your ambition that runs on spite and aggression.
You feel like Clubber Lang.
And now it’s done. On to the 25th. There’s stuff to complain about, reasons abounding for discontent and grudges and whatever, but you’re here. I know, in retrospect, that the cumulative disappointment of those rejection slips did nothing to dim the joy of seeing your friends get married, or of talking to and toasting that veterinarian, or of Creed or of waltzing those two lesbians through a patio bar at last call. Certainly stole no flavor from those two osso bucos. You watched Dressed to Kill and fell in love with it. Talked horror movies with a childhood hero. Got to taste Blue Label.
All these little in-the-moment pleasures that echo in your chest and warm you for days. Think of these. Accumulate and remember them.
That was so beautiful and it felt so genuine as well. A lovely reminder that there are warm moments. I wish you all the best in whatsoever your future holds.