Twenty-one years ago, my darling sister popped into the world.I hear about some kids harboring this murderous resentment toward younger siblings, something about becoming a lesser apple in their parents' collective eye and not getting as much attention, but I don't remember any of that with her. I never tried to choke her with a Barbie doll, strangle her with her blankie or knock her off a see-saw in Door County just for sport. Okay, maybe I did that last one. And if you'd seen it? Man, you'd be laughing, too. Our garden-variety sibling rivalry has had a soothing ebb and flow through the years; we've gotten along best and missed each other most when we've been apart, not around every day to push each other's buttons. In the past couple of years, whether it's proximity or age or just being sick of bickering, we confide in each other much more than we used to, understand each other better. Or try harder to.
Yesterday, she treated classmates to Funfetti cupcakes and drank her free latte — they know her name at the campus Starbucks, just like the baristas at the one by my work know mine — and her Facebook status thanked her hundreds of thousands of friends for their well wishes as she celebrated "the last noteworthy birthday" she'd ever have. Not so, one friend corrected: At 25, you can rent a car with no strings attached. Another added that you could apply to be a trucker at 26. (Why did no one TELL ME?! I've been wasting my life at this desk job!) I also beg to differ on the whole "last noteworthy birthday" point, but for a different reason: Mine couldn't even be called noteworthy, and other years following it have definitely been far worthier of note. My sister's birthday celebration and her inevitable, epic hangover this morning got me to thinking about my own coming of age, which I'll generously describe as anticlimactic.
I've been an old soul since I was about 5, and the joy of turning 21 and being able to drink myself into oblivion legally was kind of lost on me. My 21st birthday fell on Easter Sunday in 2004, and a small group of wonderfully dedicated friends and I took to the ghost-town streets of Lawrence for drinks at a vaguely shady local watering hole called the Sandbar. I'd never been there before, and…I can't say I wanted to go there that night, either. How we wound up there? No idea. But there I was, sipping a cloyingly sweet cocktail called the Shark Attack, served with a grenadine-filled shark that turned it a bloody maroon and added a memorable plasticky tang to the whole thing. Still mostly sober by the end of the night, I remember all too well rolling my eyes as I danced on the bar in a mermaid costume (that had been worn by any number of drunken frat boys) in the midst of a "hurricane." Involving spray water bottles, cheap strobes, a frantic fake weather report on the sound system and…oscillating fans. My birthday celebration didn't even register on the Richter of inebriation. I was probably asleep, alone, by 11 p.m. and in class, on time, the next day — like the model student I always was. That rite of passage seemed to pass me by, another day for me to wonder if I'd missed an exit somewhere.
I write all this with more than a twinge of bitterness. It's not that I haven't ever experienced the singing-inappropriate-songs-at-karaoke, passing-out-in-the-shower, I-made-out-with-WHO? drunkenness that most look back on fondly from their 21st birthday. But most of the time, it feels as if I've somehow lived the traditional events of life out of order. At 22, in the thick of my journalistic education, I was struck with the urge — as most in my classes were — to drink myself blind on a pretty regular basis. (See also: Thursday nights at Louise's Downtown.) At 25, I went on a tear and made all those stupid sexual decisions that a hormonal high school kid usually makes. And at 26, the teenage apathy and seeming instinct to act out has hit with full force. And it's all been a little disorienting. And slap-on-the-forehead-inducing: "Why didn't I do this when I was 'supposed to,' and learn from it?" And lonely: Who can you talk to at 24 about a recent first that happened to most people years before? For a girl with very few close friends at any stage of my life, it's a tough question. Oh, adulthood. Thrust arbitrarily into the bracket at 21; some people arrive way earlier than they should by circumstance, and some are still waiting to get there. (And some want to stave it off as long as possible.) On certain days, it feels like things are straightening out for me, like I'm figuring it all out. How to be a person. Other days, I might as well be back on that bar, dancing on the bar in that costume wondering how the hell I ended up there. Maybe we're all dirty mermaids, and some people are just better at hiding their tails.
Don't believe anyone who says it gets easier, little sister — not that she would. My sister has a seriously savvy head on her shoulders. There are even some days when she feels like the older, wiser one of us. Go figure on that one. But today, even though I've done some things out of order, I've still got five and a half years on her. And now that she's a legitimate adult with a legitimate hangover and all that legitimate adult…baggage to contend with, we can relate to each other on a new level. Maybe over wine flights. See you in Chicago.