Any real excitement in my life has ground to a halt (case in point: I just spent five minutes attempting to eat Lean Cuisine sauce with my fingers while avoiding the confused and pitiful gazes of coworkers). So when my brother, Joe, announced that he would be making a visit to Chicago this past weekend, I attempted to prepare by putting Jeopardy on mute and drinking half a sugar-free Red Bull. Joe returned from his semester abroad in Chile on Wednesday, and it just so happened that his girlfriend, Meg, would be in Chicago for the weekend. I found out a few days before said visit that it all centered around a 21st birthday celebration… one that I was told I could attend (insert same level of sauce-licking pity here). I coolly expressed indifference, spouting vague “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” excuses as I fought my fears/exhaustion and worked on convincing myself that 26 is only five years older than 21, and five years is nothing… unless you’re a five-year-old or a carton of milk.
As we meandered back from a bar near my house so Joe and Meg could drop off their belongings and touch base with friends, I spotted my roommate Kayla, already somewhat tipsy from dinner and therefore vulnerable and maybe, just maybe, open to an evening of bad decision making. I was in luck, and having found a similarly ancient companion, surrendered to the invitation. Twenty minutes later, we were out of the cab and staring into the steaming mess of drunk that was McGee’s.
It’s at this point that I slipped into observer mode, conducting myself not as a Gap-wearing fish out of water, but as a sociologist of sorts. And I stared unashamedly. At conversations that went from formalities to full-on make outs in just seconds, at girls who’d given up on trying to make their eyes focus hours ago, at Harry Potter lookalikes downing shots of shitty tequila and trying with all their might to exude machismo. When the DJ played “Back That Ass Up,” a staple of my high school years, I wondered what it meant to this crowd. Is it like the “Ice Ice Baby” of my set? Fun and danceable but always listened to with an underlying sense of irony? I never thought I’d feel so strangely possessive of anything performed by Juvenile.
I was brought back to reality when the Doogie Howser of DePaul called Kayla “ma’am,” at which point it was mutually decided that we would call it a night, while Joe and company forged ahead to a four-o’clock bar. A quick Godspeed in their direction, and we were on our way home, tired, drunk and no longer sure of our place in the circle of life.
What I do know is this: I may not be old, but the space between 21 and 26 is a chasm. In it you’ll find lessons learned, a lot of hangovers, a few harsh realities, not as many successes as you’d expect, but not as many mistakes or failures either. Something in it renders you slightly more self-conscious of your own existence, but slightly less concerned with the opinions and reactions of others. Not the girl in the leggings puking in time to a Michael Jackson medley, not the choch in the bowtie whose deck shoes are stuck to the floor, and certainly not Doogie Howser.