The month before your 30th birthday has been an unrelenting onslaught of bad news. You try to keep your chin up because you love your birthday — you’re an Aquarius, but also a narcissist above all, so this should be your time. Instead, you feel like you’re pressing your forehead against very cold glass, waiting for it to shatter and cut you up into a million little pieces.
You’re into your second year of quarantine thanks to a pandemic that you once dismissed as “just a bad flu.” Every day you take your stupid little depression walk with your stupid little mask, and you think about your stupid little brain and how, for a fleeting moment, it convinced you that this would be nothing. You haven’t seen your family or most of your friends since early 2020; you, a genius, opted to move to New York from Toronto a year before the pandemic hit, and now you feel trapped in a place that looks like home but feels completely foreign. When you google grocery stores (you don’t recognize any of the chains) to try to find bucatini, you just find a bodega that sells nothing but 6-year-old lime chips. Your niece calls you and tells you she’s been watching news clips of you online because she misses seeing your face and hearing your voice. You have never been punched in the nose with a closed fist (surprising, since you’ve often deserved it), but this is probably what it feels like.
Every weekend, you sit in a transparent bubble built out of plastic and zippers, encircling a little patio table and chair and heater. Your ankles are on fire, your head is freezing cold. You’re too chilly — in every meaning of the word — to ever really enjoy the pleasure of getting drunk. You bring a Corpse Reviver No. 2 to your lips, shivering, and think, Yes, this is fine.
Three weeks before your birthday, your Veena Masi dies in India, a country that once told you that you belonged there and then denied you a visa for entry, right before the pandemic hit. People tell you that the canceled trip was good news — “Imagine being stuck in India for all this!” It’s cold comfort — you’re sure you were denied because of an article you wrote a year earlier, critical of the Indian government and its handling of Kashmir, but you can’t even get any confirmation of this. Your aunt was a small, spry woman who spoke very little English but always held your hands in hers and told you that you look like your mother. She was a year younger than your mom, who calls you from Canada wailing into the phone. Her family is shrinking. She didn’t see this one coming. You want to run to her and make her chai and help manage your father, but you can’t, because there’s a pandemic, and accidentally killing your mother seems worse than just letting her suffer in front of you on FaceTime. “My childhood is gone,” she says. You’re quiet, and you listen, distinctly aware that your mother’s unbearable grief is but a reminder that your childhood, too, is slipping away.
Your niece’s dog, Steven “Steve” Roger Koul, a miniature dachshund your brother got when you were in the 11th grade, is starting to slow down. He isn’t eating, he seems disoriented, and his face is mostly gray. Most of his teeth have been pulled, so now he peers around the room with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. It’s cute, but still a harbinger of doom. He’s an old man, but you’re hoping he can get through the year. You think about how you once took care of him for three weeks, and he kept leaping up on the kitchen counter to eat your lunches, day after day. You cry, because now he can’t really eat any sandwiches at all.
Despite opening your laptop every day for 10 to 13 hours, you have made less than no progress on your book. You sold it a year before the pandemic compressed your life, a collection of essays about…what was it again? Fighting? Fights? Being an asshole? All three, maybe. But you have lost any sense of who you are, and such a thing makes writing about yourself impossible. When you read the thoughts of your own narrator, you think to yourself, God, I hate this woman. You wonder if you should give the money back to your publisher, or perhaps try to say something so inflammatory that they just cancel it themselves. (Written in your notebook during a brainstorm: “Do a murder? Be racist against an invented ethnic group? Try to get on Red Scare?”)
You get a haircut because you want to feel better. It comes out looking like Steve chewed on your hair and left you with jagged ends. You call your friend Barb, who looks at you with her saddest eyes because she knows it’s beyond repair — that’s how you really know things are falling apart. You cry for three days while your husband, typically bold and confident, stands awkwardly at your bedroom door, looking at you, stricken. “But I like bangs,” he says, mostly to himself.
Steve has to be put down two weeks after Veena Masi’s death. Your niece is handling it better than any of the adults; she calls wearing a tiger onesie and plies you with platitudes. “He was old, Boo,” she says. “It was his time.” (She is still little enough to call you Boo — will that eventually change too?) She asks if you can still play video games together, a small reassurance that she’s malleable enough to not be forever embittered by this random, cruel moment in her life. Does everything really need to be taken away from this little girl, all at the same time? She’s in remote learning again, like children everywhere, and she hates it. She can’t even hug her grandparents, something she understands, but they somehow do not, despite being 60 years older than her. “Just one hug,” your dad tells her when she visits, outside, masked, many feet apart. “I’ll put a blanket on you and then hug you.”
Your niece becomes incensed by your father’s disregard for the rules. “Don’t you get it?” she screams at him, her pink little face becoming red. “I could kill you!”
Your mom’s older sister gets COVID, so she calls to talk about that, instead of the knee replacement she desperately needs. She texts you the crying-laughing emoji instead of the crying emoji, which for once, you can’t bring yourself to find very funny.
What is a little funny is that turning 30 marks the end of other people thinking you’re exceptional. When you’re young and competent, people treat you like you’re some kind of wunderkind. It’s impressive that you can do your job, that you’re climbing out of debt, that you’re forming healthy relationships. But by the time you’re 30, you’re just doing what’s expected of you. It’s mundane, your semi-tidy apartment, your shelfful of books that visitors expect you to have actually read. That seems unfair. You realize that the next few years will be spent accepting that you’re no longer young enough to be considered interesting or compelling, and not old enough to have institutional power or an advanced sense of self-confidence. No one praises you for owning an iron anymore. Who will care about your average book at your average age?
Your bangs continue to grow out, by which you mean horizontally. You look like a My Chemical Romance fan club president. You would like to die, but instead, you have to be grateful to not have the coronavirus, to have most of your family intact, to be healthy, to be alive. It’s a stupid fucking list — what kind of life is it to just have to be thankful for not losing it all the time? You grind your teeth so hard that the back of your front tooth chips. Instead of getting it fixed, you spend days rubbing your tongue against it until it bleeds.
You post a photo of your bad haircut on Instagram in an attempt to make fun of yourself, the only way you know how to cope with a mild irritant. You end up hurting your own feelings when a stranger messages you, “I love mullets on brown women!” You delete the photo and write “FUCK” in a journal for seven pages.
So wrapped up in your own grief about the pandemic — and the idea of turning 30, which you have decided will remain just an idea, because you are not interested in actually turning 30 — you’re only startled back into being a person when your husband’s uncle and cousin die in quick succession. He spends hours on the phone with a family he can’t touch, all the cousins who look like shades of him. While he coughs through a tear, you angrily gaze at the small Hindu shrine you’ve built on your bookshelf. You’re not religious, but this year has made you desperate so you’ve taken to periodically lighting a candle at the feet of deities while offering various deals: If you don’t kill anyone, you can force me to keep this bad haircut indefinitely. If you make sure no one in my family gets hurt before we can see them again, you can put me in a little bit of debt. Not like Erika Jayne debt, though. Little debt. Cute debt. Debt I can joke about later.
When your husband sleeps, you march up to the five of them. “I thought we had a deal? I thought lighting some nag champa and considering not eating meat on Tuesdays was the price??” They say nothing. You wonder if maybe you should join a cult instead.
Your husband’s niece comes down with COVID, a result of still having to go to work through this collective year of agony. He frets about her quietly, how far she is from home too, how no one is there to take care of her. She’s in college, she should be out having fun. Like everything, this doesn’t feel fair either.
The next week, you get your first American tax bill: an absolute assault of $10,000. You can pay it, but barely, in a way that brings your bank balance so low it makes you nauseous to look at your banking app. That same week, your husband’s niece and your aunt both recover within weeks of their first symptoms. You feel Lakshmi’s eyes on your back, her face cast in porcelain. You ask; I deliver.
Since the pandemic has halted largely everything about your life — except, allegedly, the passing of time — the biggest bash you can throw for your birthday is to drive upstate with your husband to a little house you’ve rented for a long weekend. It’s a brick cabin in a gated community, enshrined in ice after a few storms, which makes leaving the house a treacherous journey. The owner is a criminologist and former antiques dealer, giving the home a distinct “someone was murdered here” feel. The living room smells like mothballs and overflows with more rusty telescopes than you ever knew existed. One bookshelf is dedicated entirely to fragments of seashells. The kitchen is chaos; there’s a whole shelf just for gold-rimmed goblets, two AGA stoves that never turn off and rest at a fixed but indeterminate temperature, which makes cooking a bit of a magic trick. On the wall is an 1880s-era phone that doesn’t work, probably because the house doesn’t need you calling for help while the walls bleed and the home’s aura turns you inside out. It is a good place to contemplate your mortality.
You tug on the cord leading to the attic and find two twin beds and a pile of furs. There are cabinets and closets with thick, impenetrable locks on them. This should be…fine.
But who cares? This trip is for naught, because you’re not really turning 30. To turn 30 would suggest that the year you’ve spent in quarantine counted at all. It would suggest that time has been moving on as normal, which it clearly has not, evidenced by the fact that your body has not left your neighborhood in months. You entered the pandemic at the very beginning of your 29th year, so it’s impossible that you could be leaving it at 30 — or maybe even 31.
You were raised in a family that required you to call every evening and use your vacation days to come home and visit. You’ve been calling, sure, but the conversations blend together, and there’s never any news, never any new stories to tell. You’re just happy your parents are alive and faking cheerfulness for your sake. No news, no progress, no time gone. So this isn’t really your 30th. You still have time to make it on a “30 Under 30” list, because this year doesn’t count.
The day before your birthday, you rush to your husband excitedly with a plan. “Let’s do drugs tomorrow,” you say, hopping lightly on your toes while he toils away in the kitchen with the impossible stove that’s always on. He’s making cassoulet, the way your favorite restaurant in Toronto makes it. For days already, he’s been slow-cooking duck, simmering ragù, toasting bread crumbs, and braising sausage. “Do you really want to trip on your birthday?” he asks. Who knows. You mostly wanted to finish a book. But this is what young people do, and you are still young, because you are not yet 30.
“We can,” your husband says, stirring the beans that have already been cooking for 16 hours. “But I made this big meal, and I want you to be able to enjoy it.” He looks at you worried and wounded that you’re tamping down your generally robust appetite. “You’re right,” you tell him with a quick kiss on the cheek, and let him go back to his beans. You spend some time in the attic excitedly looking for a body. You can only fight who you are for so long.
The morning of your birthday, you wake up and your husband presents you with videos from everyone you know and love, wishing you happy birthday from their little corners of the world, all huddled away from one another in case of death. He gets you an upsettingly overpriced hair dryer. You’re 30. It feels fine. When you post a photo of yourself on Instagram announcing your acceptance of this age, you’re feted with compliments about how “you look so much younger!” or “I thought you were older, you’re so accomplished!” Both are satisfying in different ways, and you bask like a pig in shit.
Some of your best friends have scheduled a Zoom call for the afternoon. They’re your friends, but the closeness you feel with them even after exactly a year apart makes it feel like there should be a better word for them, one that contextualizes how they kept you alive during the nadir of your persistent depression.
You chat with them for hours while draining a bottle of wine. Soon, you get sleepy and try to wind it down — everyone has virtual meeting fatigue, and you don’t want to make it worse for the faces you see in these little floating cubes, people who are similarly stuck in an emotional tundra, waiting for some kind of release. But suddenly, your friends all go on mute and start dropping off from the call, one by one. Then only Seb is left, and he peers at you while chewing on his nails. “I’ll send you a new link,” he says, disappearing himself.
When you click on the new link, you’re transported to the University of Minnesota’s official Zoom account. A mistake? A prank, maybe? None of your friends are foolish enough to make such an error, and none of them are cruel enough to throw you into a first-year econ class on your birthday. But now you can make out the university’s Raptor Center. More importantly, you can see an owl called Ricky, who has rickets, who has been hired for your birthday to eat a mouse whole. Ricky gives you a little hoot and murders a mouse with three bites. It is horrific. You have never been so happy in your life. Imagine being so lucky that your friends — these people you met a decade ago, or even longer — know exactly what you want, which is to watch an owl choke down a mouse in your honor.
The cassoulet is perfect. You have three servings. You and your husband sleep wrapped up together, like two trees that learned to grow around each other. Maybe it’s love, maybe you’re worried something is going to crawl out of the attic and kill you. Who cares. It’s a good feeling.
Months later, when the ice melts, your friend Jenna holds your hand across a table at dinner in Bushwick and weeps about 30 being just around the corner for her. There were so many things she wanted to do before this birthday, so much taken from her in the last year and a half as well. She dabs at her impeccable eyeliner, stopping the bleed from running down her cheeks. “It’ll be OK,” you tell her, squeezing her hand in yours. “It’s just a birthday. How bad could it be?”
Your niece gets a new dog, a little puppy she has named Beans. For years, you’ve been calling your niece Bean, and so now they are Bean and Beans, two little rats you love very much. Steve lives on in Beans’ shrieky bark and Bean’s unbridled happiness.
You send a few pages of your book to your editor, finally, a year after she first emailed you waiting for a manuscript. “You’re right, they’re disjointed and stream of consciousness,” she tells you. “But there’s something there.” Are you relieved? Maybe — quitting altogether would’ve been nice, too.
“I think the problem is you’re still writing like you did before the pandemic. And it’s not working because you’re not that person anymore. And I don’t know if you like the person you’ve become. How are you supposed to write about someone you don’t like?” You pull on the stack of new grey hairs you have sprouting from your temple.
“For what it’s worth,” she finishes, “I like who you became. I think she’s great.” It’s been years since you’ve liked yourself, even longer since you’ve been able to verbalize it, but you did once, and maybe you can again. That afternoon, you sit with who you are now, and you get back to work. ●
Spot Illustrations by Molly Fairhurst for BuzzFeed News