Straw

By Michelle Railey

Time is crazy. Memories crazy. Life crazy. Love a miracle.

I was sitting with a friend who also grew up in the nineties. It was a discussion of letter jackets and angora-wrapped class rings, of skating rinks and pop rock, of rap, of insecurity, of memories from then being more potent than things that happened five years ago.

We never grow up. Not really. We move on, sure. We develop and improve or whatever. But we never grow up.

Take your 1989 self and glom it on to you now: there’s something there that never went away.

I’d bet on it.

I used to think it was just me: the fact that in my jewelry box were Swatch watches and Coke watches, the fact that in the back of my head I could remember perfectly the saddle shoe Nike cheerleading shoes, the Crayola markers, the Memorex “Pop” collection of cassette tapes, the VHS of Rhythm Nation, the sheet music for Debbie Gibson’s Out of the Blue. The Phantom of the Opera. The smell of Ralph Lauren Polo on a teddy bear from a boyfriend who gave you a friendship bracelet. 

I thought to myself, for so long, it’s dumb of you to remember these things. It was so long ago.

But everyone has a so long ago. There’s always a time we can’t touch. 

We never grow up. Not really.

We always belong to our parents, our siblings, our bedrooms, our secrets at twelve, at thirteen, at fourteen. 

We’re always looking to graduate. But we never do. We never grow up.

How can we leave all that behind?

~

I’m forty-five. Presidents have been my age. I can’t really understand it but there you are. They have been. The leaders of the world have been my age.

When the Great Fire of Chicago happened, Mrs. O’Leary was 44. The newspapers described her as “old,” “a hag.” 

She wasn’t. Was she?

I don’t know what the forties are. Middle-aged? Probably. Grown up?

No. We don’t really grow up.

Forty in the past? Probably, maybe different than forty now. We’ve been told for the past two decades that age is the new black, that thirty is the new twenty, that forty is the new thirty, that you don’t have to grow up: keep your skin tight, your fashion fresh, your interests alive. 

Forty is nothing more or less than four decades of life. We grow, we grow, we grow. I still think we, now, we never grow up.

The grown-ups now run the world: they’re anywhere from thirty-six to ninety years of age.

Do they seem restrained or intelligent, knowing, wise, noble?

No. They haven’t grown up either. 

The greatest illusion of all time is the grown up who has actually grown up.

We. Don’t. Grow. Up.

I think this could be a good thing, perhaps: I would rather hire for my leader a person I knew from high school who liked to learn, who was curious and forgiving, who was crafty and secure and interesting.

I would rather, more than anything, to have a leader, a governor, who understood uncertainty, who felt it, who honestly wondered what it was to be at the cool kids’ table and knew, for sure, what it was to not be there.

Someone, in short, who could feel sympathy and unfairness and the need to incorporate the outsider.

I knew outsiders in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. In college.

I’ve been one myself.

Outsiders are dangerous sometimes. I guess. Adam Lanza, for example. But for the most part, outsiders are just like every one of us: playing at being grown-up, paying the water bill, reading the news, tucking the kids in at nighttime, making dinner, and occasionally rubbing their head in wonder at the sudden appearance of a song they knew, the way thread art in fifth grade mathematics looks, the notebook of a social studies classmate, the songs you sang about peace in fifth grade, friendship bracelets, summer nights with pop-its and streetlights and the beginnings of both romance and conflict.

We never grow up.

We’re all outsiders. We’re all insiders. We’re all the cheerleaders, the cool kids, the uncool kids, the football players, the rich ones, the weird ones. 

We never grow up.

We get to be forty and we can see more of it, that’s all. We can empathize with every subset of kid we ever and never were. That’s the difference.

At the end of the day, though, we can be forty, we can be fourteen. We never grow up.

At thirteen, did I ask what the meaning of life was? I asked difficult questions then. I was one of those girls: you know the type. Reading too much, not eating enough, practicing reactions in the mirror, a perfectionist, too sensitive to be practical; good at school, bad at boys; weird occasional focus on the macabre.

Because, at that age, for that girl, the idea of the macabre, of death, had no bearing to the real thing, to eternity, to the real things that happen when a life leaves the planet.

We never grow up. Except for the part where we know there’s a thing such as finite or dead. That eternity hasn’t been proven. That resurrection isn’t a thing that has happened before, unless you believe that, and some people don’t.

You never grow up. We never grow up. 

We learn things. We get scared of things. 

We breathe. And breathe some more.

Time passes. 

I still think we never grow up, not really. We just get better at the press and the shell.

~

I look at the mirror. I feel older than I look. I look plenty old. I have regrets. Tons of them. I have worries. Tons of them.

There are bags under my eyes. Lines on my forehead.

I know my age, my cohort, the years I have lived, all the concerns that face me.

Still…

I remember all the things from twenty years ago like they were yesterday. Thirty years ago? Also yesterday. The earliest things I remember still are happening.

All these things are forever happening because I don’t grow up. We never grow up. We’re constantly growing up. 

And I don’t know what it is to get there- to be grown up, so called.

I think it’s always been this way. I think Suleyman; I think Charlemagne; I think Churchill; I think Reagan…

Well, I think everyone in the past, in the present, they haven’t grown up, either.

I don’t care who you are or what country or religion you’re ruling, I think you’re still a damn kid, standing there, biting your lip, hoping against hope someone will see the real you and dreaming that maybe you could be the cool kid or slow dance with the one girl, the only girl.

We never grow up. We can have kids, we can take down an economy, we can do good, or do ill. We never grow up.

We’re always standing in worn-down shoes, with the toes turned in. We’re always looking at straw, wondering if we should bundle it or walk through it, stick a stalk in our mouth or walk away.

Watch it blow away. Wonder what it’s for.

It’s straw. We don’t know what to do with it. And we don’t know what to do with ourselves or life or love or anything.

It’s straw. We’re straw. Nothing grows up, nothing goes away: it blows, it’s bundled. It scratches, it goes on. It doesn’t grow. 

Wonder what it’s for?

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