After writing about her briefly yesterday, last night I was thinking about Karen Russell, the author of “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” More specifically, I was thinking about her age, and the inevitable comparisons arose. My thoughts weren’t bitter, or jealous, I was just reflecting on the fact that Karen Russell is 25, she has an MFA, she’s published a book and, I believe, teaches at Columbia, where she earned her MFA. She’s already well published and no doubt her book deal included writing a novel or two, because publishers tend not to publish short stories without the promise of something potentially more lucrative.
I couldn’t help but think about my version of 25, which is about as far from Karen Russell’s as you can get. And then I started thinking that “when I was 25” would make a good writing prompt of sorts. This was the result:
When I was 25 I lived in a small college town in the Midwest. I had short hair. I had bangs. They were thick and unflattering and it is this, more than the grins and the bad outfits, that embarrasses me about the few pictures that exist of me from this time.
I worked for the university, as most people in the town who were not students did. I got paid $8 an hour, with no benefits, even though I worked full time in an office and felt as though my job was very, very important. I had emergency-only health insurance. When I needed to fly home to the East Coast for Christmas I had to ask my mom to help out with the cost of the ticket.
When I was 25 I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how, or what that meant. I did not do any actual writing per se, other than occasional musings in a variety of notebooks that tended to be filled more with lists of things to do or buy. Still, I thought I wanted to be a writer.
When my 25th birthday arrived, my dad called and said, “How does it feel to have been alive for a quarter century?” and then he laughed, and so did I, because I was still young enough to be teased about my age and not take offense.
I do not remember what I did to celebrate turning a quarter of a century old.
When I was 25 I wanted to be a photographer, but not really, not for a living, and I spent my weekends wandering around town or driving around the state, with my camera. I paid to use space in a community darkroom, even though I couldn’t afford to buy my own plane tickets home. Eventually, somehow, in some way that I don’t remember at all, I acquired a used enlarger, and I set about creating a makeshift darkroom in the low-rent, rundown, first-floor apartment I shared with my boyfriend.
I built my darkroom in a walk-in closet, using the shelves for the trays of noxious chemicals that (magically, I thought) turned blank paper into image. The ventilation was very poor, especially when blackout plastic was over the doorway. There was no door on the closet, and so I wrapped myself into darkness with special tape and layers of cloth that hung behind the plastic. I turned on an oscillating fan when I was inside, which, looking back, probably did not help with getting rid of the chemicals in the air so much as it moved them around. As soon as it was safe for my developing photos I would remove the blackout plastic, thankfully letting in a rush of cool air.
I took pictures of rusted metal jutting out of newly farmed earth. I took pictures of the statue that adorned the lawn of the brick town hall on the main square. I spent time in cemeteries, photographing tree boughs and etchings on stone markers. I took pictures of a round barn, a rare architectural form in a place where right angles prevailed.
When I was 25 a stray black cat came to our apartment and begged. I fed him and he came back. At night he had run-ins with the lady cats of our neighborhood in the front hallway of the building, and their yowling, along with the clanging of the radiators, kept us awake at night.
I adopted him anyway, and had him neutered. I took his picture — black cat in black and white — and developed the negatives in my dark room.
When I was 25 I had never, not once, plucked or waxed my eyebrows, and I looked upon such beauty routines as unnecessary and symbolic of people who were not comfortable with who they were. My 25-year-old eyebrows were thick and bushy and when I see them in photos, I’m reminded that I was not comfortable with myself at all.
When I was 25, I wasn’t happy, but I was carefree. I had few responsibilities, and I drank a lot with my friends at the Irish bar off the square. The waitresses knew us.
I was alive for a quarter of a century before I realized that it all mattered: the choices, the consequences, and the fact that I had not been making choices at all, holed up in that insular town.
I applied to graduate school at the university. I left my boyfriend and the cat.
When I was 25, I started to understand that with some effort, I could be whatever I wanted.
When I was 25, I started to want.