Do you have any memories that are so faint you’re unsure whether or not they actually happened? I have a few like this, with the details smudged around the edges, like impressions that could easily be lost forever if I let them.
I remember reaching above my head, blindly pulling down glass bottles of nail polish from the too-tall cabinet behind the bathroom door, running to my mother with them balancing in my tiny arms. Summers and extended holidays were the only times I could have my fingernails painted, as my strict Catholic school forbid any kind of self-expression through colored nails. But on those rare occasions I didn’t have to think about a dress code, I’d beg my mother to let me paint my nails some shade of red. A bold, beautiful, classic red, with a fantastic name like “Big Apple Red” or “Red My Fortune Cookie.”
But as a little girl, I never did wear a red polish with a fantastic name. Red was for big girls, as my mother told me (and her mother probably told her, as these kinds of tales often go), and I’d settle for a bright pink, a soft purple, something delicate, dainty, and little girl-esque. But I was never too disappointed. After all, red polish was for big girls, and I wasn’t a big girl yet.
I grew up with an idea of adulthood that was very tangible (albeit often shallow and materialistic), and merely observing and imitating was enough to make me feel like I was getting closer. I would steal spritzes of perfume and heels from my big sister. I’d watch my mom put on makeup in the car and listen to the click of her fingernails on the steering wheel. I’d sit around the table at my parents’ dinner parties, taking notes for how to replicate it all when the time came. But growing up isn’t formulaic, and I was disappointed to learn that at 19 I still couldn’t walk in high heels, and that my friends didn’t share the same desire to play adult and have dinner parties and drink wine. I didn’t either, really. I wanted to feel whole.
Sometimes I see glimpses of something that looks like adulthood. I’ll be doing something completely ordinary like hauling groceries up my apartment staircase, buying a cup of coffee and a newspaper on a Sunday morning, waiting to catch a flight home, or pulling the sheets off my bed, and it’ll hit me. I don’t know what it is exactly. Maybe a sense of security I don’t feel most days, a kind of consistency I both long for and dread being trapped by. It’s a projection that feels out of focus, out of reach, like remembering the smell of nail polish remover on my little fingertips.
But unlike those memories, these visions of a future are attainable, they’re something to reach for, not return to. The apartment in the city, the job, the companionship. I see flashes of it all, and I know how to get closer. But I’m still terrified I never will, that this shakiness—this anxiety—is a permanent state.
I know 22 is supposed feel this way. I know it’s better to be overwhelmed, restless, and constantly reaching than it is to feel nothing. I know it’s better than falling into the ease of apathy.
I don’t know that I’ll ever really get there, though. And I’m often reminded that adulthood and consistency are merely constructs to make us feel better, myths at best. But as I continue reaching forward, aching for progress and growth, I keep my fingernails painted red, “Geranium” red to be exact, and I feel a little bit closer.