But when you get there, you can’t find a job. So you dye your hair purple, smoke too much pot, and sign up for a music and video business program at a local school. This way, your parents will pay for your home, your hair dye and your pot.
Music and words keep you company. The Seattle streets are still soaked in Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Layne Staley and Elliott Smith still walk the earth. This music wrings you out, leaves you with small golden sparks bursting from the center of your chest. It makes you want to cry and fuck and float.
But you feel paralyzed. You are filled with words of your own, but you don’t know how to let them out besides spilling them into your journal. You don’t know how to share them with other people. At school you stay quiet. You keep your eyes low.
At night, instead of the silence of the woods behind your mountainside home, you hear the shouts of the drunk and the homeless. You hear sirens. You wonder what is happening out there in the dark, if you should be out in it somewhere, making friends and lovers.
You start skipping school. You go to movies instead, to lose yourself in the big, vivid screen of stories. Or you lie on your futon alone, smoking weed and watching TV. You call your mom too often. The world begins to take on a dull, grey tone.
You are a slow song, one that takes its time to unwind.
Some nights, while Mazzy Star broods in the background, you light candles, and the flames make the exposed brick walls glow. You climb up to your low-ceiling loft and make up stories to soothe you, to help you sleep, like you’ve done since you were 10—half your life ago. In your night scapes, the guitarist from Pearl Jam—the one with the funny dance and the soulful eyes—falls madly in love with you. With your mystery and your words and your beauty. Or the boy who sat next to you day after day in the recording studio class, whom you never spoke to but whose leg was so close to yours you could feel the heat of him, the electricity of his cells reaching towards yours, rendering you unable to focus on the already baffling maze of knobs and wires you were supposed to be memorizing. Whoever the boy is in your story tonight, he loves you. He sees you: your words and your wit. He sees that you are a slow song, one that takes its time to unwind.
You are loved, and finally, you drift off to sleep.
After a long road trip, music blasting, cigarette smoke ribboning out into the highway air, you end up in Maine at 28. From here, everything speeds up: A friend introduces you to a boy. He is clean-cut and wears a yellow button-down shirt, which makes you suspicious. But one night you sit across from each other on stools, sipping water, and you notice the light in his eyes. And once you start talking, you can’t stop.
Some days it feels like you blinked and here you are, 12 years later. It’s so imperfect, but you have learned by now that most relationships are. Be brave enough to stack up enough years with someone and you will discover cracks, seismic fault lines that you learn to bend around, to shift and resettle. To stay.
You often suspect that these are the best days of your life: Your children still orbit you like the sun. Your body is only just beginning to foreshadow the aches and betrayals of old age. You still have room to recreate, to start again, to switch paths. You think if you weren’t so tired and busy, you would be enjoying this much more. But you try to feel it all, to give yourself the gift of sinking into your own body. You catch the small silver strands of peace that flit through like minnows. You feel the press of your babies’ small hands in yours. You smile. You sigh. You sleep.
Shouldn’t I be somewhere else? Certainly somewhere with less laundry and crumbs.
Once in awhile, on a long day with your kids, you think, shouldn’t I be somewhere else? Strolling a market in Spain. Lazing in a small candlelit cabin with a lover. Certainly somewhere with less laundry and crumbs.
You are not now—nor will you ever be—a rock star. But music still feels like breath to you; it soaks your cells and brings you awake. It could be the lovely lyrical, piano-laden Elton John songs you listened to on your dad’s Walkman, or the cacophony of “The Fox,” which your son listened to approximately 3,496 times last year. Your son devours music; you can almost see the beat enter his body, moving him around, shifting his joints into surprisingly rhythmic moves. Watching him, you think that maybe dreams don’t so much die as shape-shift, moving from one soul to another. You feel happy watching him absorb this part of you, some small and secret strands of DNA.
You write whenever you can. You wait until the days your children are both in school, or your youngest is napping, and you let the words bleed out. You sit at your dining room table, surrounded by sunlight and toys and green and yellow walls, and you write. It brings you a deep, orange joy.
You realize now how lovely you were when you were 20. That girl, you think. She had so much freedom. She had so much time, and such smooth-skinned beauty, and she couldn’t see any of it. And this girl, you think, this girl who I am now, she has the love that girl wanted. It is less perfect, and it comes from a bouquet of different people instead of the one all-consuming love she dreamt of, made stories about.
It comes from your children and your husband, your parents and your friends, those who have left the earth and those who remain. You have what she wanted, and yet sometimes, though you know she was lonely, you envy her. When you hear certain songs from her days, with their rising guitar riffs, their rain-soaked lyrics, you feel those same sparks in your sternum. Some days it makes you want to go back and start over, 3,000 miles and 20 years away.
Oh to be her again, you think, but armed with what you know now.
You wonder if you have one more half a life to live. If you will see 80. You envision your life like a book, and right now is the deep crease in the middle. You wonder if this is what 80 will be like:
If you’ll still love the things you’ve always loved: words, warm water, music that breaks your heart or moves your body, the spines of autumn leaves, people with huge hearts and irreverent mouths.
If all the practice of letting go—of youth, your children, your parents and friends, your strong body—if all that letting go makes you unclench your hands enough, there will be room for something else—something warm and placid and amber—to fall into its place.
If you will shake your head at your younger selves, the ones who were so full of fear. If you’ll think, “Oh, to be 20 again, to walk with liquid joints and satin-smooth skin.” You would go back and live like the songs she loved, you would cry and fuck and float. Or the ripe rush of 40, with all the noise of a busy young home, full of toys and mess and the press of those small palms.
If at night, instead of the stories you still sometimes lean on, you will drift off thinking of your own tales: the way your life unwound like one of those long ago aching songs. If you’ll envision the rises and falls of melody, the mingling of instruments coming together and apart, and the words. Always, the words.
But for now, just for now, you are still nearly young. You lie in your big bed, the aqua comforter pulled up to your chest. It’s quiet now, except for the occasional rumble of your husband’s snoring. Before morning, your bed will be full of babies. But now there is space, and you pause in it a moment, in the cool quiet like the air between notes, before falling off to sleep.