I’d been divorced for six months, my ex-husband was planning to marry a former friend of mine, and I’d put my cat to sleep at Christmas. The night before I turned thirty, I affixed a temporary tattoo of a zebra above my left breast, threw a party, and danced until past midnight. The next day, for my birthday, I went snowboarding for the first time and fell so hard on my tailbone that my nose started to bleed. Then my father was diagnosed with lymphoma. And my great-aunt Charlotte was buried.
Charlotte was seventy when I was born, and she was widowed for the second time before I became a teenager. A pioneer among the women in my family, she led an adventurous life of travel and art, but she never quite recovered from the death of her first husband. Her second marriage was companionable rather than passionate.
When I was thirteen, Charlotte’s youngest brother, my grandfather, committed suicide by jumping off the cliff at Land’s End in San Francisco. Heartbroken, Charlotte packed up and moved to a retirement home in Indiana, more than a thousand miles away. Seventeen years later, I drove there to visit her on her deathbed.
Charlotte’s hair was white and wild, and her eyes were bright. Despite her experience with tragedy, she’d managed to live a century. During a pause in our conversation, she turned to me and asked, “Do you believe in the Lord?”
I wasn’t sure. This had been the most difficult year of my life.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“Good,” she said, and patted my hand.
I drove home in tears. It would take me nearly a year to pick myself up and start anew.
For all that died in my thirtieth year, Charlotte’s faith grew inside me. She knew life was about having faith and loving everybody: the janitor, the night nurse, the depressed niece who drove all the way to Indiana in a white VW to say goodbye. And it’s faith I’ve been riding on ever since.
Mill Valley, California
Early on the morning of my thirtieth birthday, I strolled through a department store and deftly swept lipsticks and mascaras into my handbag. I stopped to touch a blue cologne bottle. It would look lovely next to the red perfume vial from the week before. Its weight felt good in my hand, and in my pocket.
I’d been “collecting” for months. I had a lovely array of crystal atomizers and more than thirty lipsticks, none of which I used. I liked to rearrange my collection on the dresser, recalling the excitement of acquiring each item.
At thirty I had frown lines on my forehead, tiny wrinkles in the corners of my eyes, and a bulge at my waistline. Depressed and bored with my mundane life and office-manager job, I needed challenge and excitement — just for a while, until I got past this birthday. I swore that today would mark the end of my bad habit.
At noon, my mother came to pick me up for lunch at a ritzy restaurant. She walked through my house as though she had never seen it before and paused to sniff my colognes and sort through the shades of lipstick. “Where did you find these wonderful cosmetics?” she asked.
“Here and there,” I said. I wondered if she was suspicious. Maybe I should have put them away before she arrived. I ran my fingers up and down the etched surface of my cut-crystal atomizer. Then I generously sprayed its sandalwood perfume on my neck; I knew where I could get more.
What I didn’t know was that three of my treasures were in my mother’s purse.
Rancho Mirage, California
I had wanted to greet thirty at the door of my very own house, wearing a sleeveless linen dress and holding a glass of pinot noir. “Please, come in,” I’d say, and smile warmly. “I’ve been expecting you.”
Thirty and I would glide across my pristine hardwood floors, sit down on the couch, and laugh together over the worst parts of my life. As we rehashed each devastating incident, all the pain would miraculously be gone, replaced by a calm acceptance and quiet thankfulness.
“I’m glad all that’s behind me,” I would say, pouring myself another glass of wine.
I turn thirty in a few months. The reality is: I rent an apartment. I look awful in dresses, and until I lose thirty pounds, sleeves are an absolute necessity. My hardwood floors are scarred and spotted with suspicious dark patches. Sometimes I take Polaroids of the patches, to make sure they aren’t getting bigger.
I have no master plan. I worry. I get depressed. I am anxious much of the time. I wish I could earn a living and still manage to exercise, eat vegetables, be creative, practice yoga, meditate, volunteer, socialize, relax. At the very least, I’d like to be able to get up when my alarm goes off. Why do I drink so much, when it gives me such bad headaches? When am I finally going to switch careers? Why, after I’ve spent so many years in therapy, can one call from my mother send me into a weeklong depression?
When I think back on the worst parts of my life, I don’t laugh. The humiliation burns bright, and I still feel the pain.
Los Angeles, California
The Friday before I turned thirty was the last day of my corporate job. I stretched my going-away/birthday party into a solid ninety minutes, and at twenty till five I just walked out. It was late June, and the air was rosy and sticky and full of the sound of crickets. I didn’t have to go to New York on Monday for the sales convention. I was free.
On Monday, my birthday, I got out of bed at 9:30, put on my bikini, and took some bong hits on the porch. Then I soaked in the sun and read a D.H. Lawrence novel I’d never finished. Around eleven I masturbated, and after lunch I took a nap.
I’d been at that job eighteen months — my longest employment ever. My boss had told me that, with some “grooming,” I could go as far as I wanted in the corporation.
I also ate one meal a day and sometimes threw that up. I couldn’t sleep. I dreaded the monthly sales trips. I was starting to drink too much. Even the weekends didn’t feel like they were mine.
That Monday was a glorious summer day: hot and bright blue. I walked in the woods near my apartment and heard no cars, no telephones, no faxes — just birds and the wind and the neighbor’s retriever baying at squirrels. My skin was office pale, but the bikini fit just right. Somewhere, someone who wasn’t me was busily replacing toner cartridges. I was unemployed with no prospects. It was the best birthday I’d ever had.
Two years ago my younger brother turned thirty. I didn’t live close enough to celebrate with him, but I sent him a copy of one of my favorite books, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and I told him I loved him. Five months later, he committed suicide.
While going through the files on his computer, I found a letter in which he lamented turning thirty and having “absolutely nothing to fucking show for it.” He believed that thirty was the age by which one should be settled and accomplished. Instead his employment and finances were unstable, and he couldn’t propose to his girlfriend because of it.
I wish I could read to him from The Little Prince, to remind him that life is “a matter of consequence,” whereas turning thirty is not.
After college I began to wonder when I would feel like an adult. I set milestones, assuring myself that after I reached each one, I would finally be “grown-up”: I found an apartment and a job. I got married. I began a teaching career. I had a daughter, then a son. But through it all I felt as if I were playacting.
At twenty-nine, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant with a third child. When I was about four months along, Tom, my former mentor and the director of the writing program at my old high school, called. He was retiring, and he wanted me to apply for his job.
This was the position I had dreamed about. So what if it meant moving my family from Los Angeles to New Orleans? I was sure my husband, who had just begun a dream job of his own, would find something to do.
I agonized about the interview: what if they found someone better, someone who had published more, someone who wasn’t pregnant? They didn’t. I was offered the job.
Then reality set in. The school system in New Orleans was a mess. My daughter would be starting kindergarten, and we had missed the magnet-school-lottery deadlines. My husband had graciously sent out his résumé and made myriad phone calls, but had found no reasonable job prospects. Our new baby was due the week before school started. Tom tried to find somebody who could take the first semester and let me begin in January, but no one was available.
The night before my thirtieth birthday, I realized that the only person who would possibly benefit from my taking the job was me. The next morning I turned the position down.
After that I never again felt like an imposter in the adult world.
Los Angeles, California
When I was in my early twenties, my friend Alice told me that life is a stool with three legs: home, work, and relationship. As long as the three legs are solid, the stool won’t fall over.
As I turned thirty, my stool had three strong legs. I had a house, a wonderful relationship, and work that suited me. But there was a fourth leg that Alice had overlooked: health.
On my thirtieth birthday my partner, Gwen, was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer. She had gone in for chemotherapy a couple of days earlier and wasn’t feeling well, so we had a low-key birthday celebration. I appreciated her effort.
When we were younger, Gwen and I sometimes had trouble imagining our future, but the fact that there would be a future was never in doubt. Now it’s easier to guess what our future might look like, but we are less certain that we’ll get to live it.
During Gwen’s treatment, I worked part time at an office. My co-worker Jeanne was probably in her sixties. Anytime Jeanne had to kneel to get something out of a low cabinet, she would groan theatrically and say, “Never get old,” or, “Getting old sucks.” This bothered me more than it should have. I wanted nothing more than to grow old with Gwen.
When I was twenty-two, I worked in a gay bathhouse in Denver. While making my rounds one night with a bottle of disinfectant and a rag, I came across a slender, golden-haired man sulking in the X-rated-video lounge.
“Nobody wants me,” he said.
I assured him it was just an off night. Someone was sure to come chasing after him soon.
But he continued to sulk and complain that he was finished, his beauty kaput. Nothing I said could convince him otherwise.
“You just wait until you’re thirty!” he said.
I spent my thirtieth birthday in the place I love best: the Ganges River at Varanasi, India. The dawn light struck the stone steps of the funeral ghats and lit up the pilgrims as they bathed. It did me good to look to the shore and see black smoke, to breathe in the unnervingly sweet smell of bodies burning.
How grateful I am to be here, alive in this world of difficult beauty. In my twenties, that man at the bathhouse and many others like him told me that beauty is all that matters. If so, we have no need to fear. There is no shortage of beauty in this world.
I woke on my thirtieth birthday to find my pillow wet with tears. What is this? I thought. PMS? I turned to my husband, Harry, but he was sleeping soundly. The twins were still in their beds. I had the house to myself.
Still crying, I padded downstairs to the kitchen. I made coffee and thought about supper the night before. The twins had been cranky and had refused to eat the carryout chicken I’d brought home after work. I’d felt drained and guilty for feeding them too many fast-food suppers. Harry had cajoled the boys into eating carefully cut-up bits of chicken — with no crispy brown parts. Between bites, they complained about school, and Harry asked me, “Do you want to go out to dinner tomorrow for your birthday?”
I didn’t answer, thinking how predictable our life had become. Harry always took me out to dinner on my birthday and gave me a piece of inexpensive jewelry, the kind you purchase already boxed and gift-wrapped.
Noticing how quiet I was, Harry said, “Now, now, remember: you’re only a day older. Nothing’s really changed.”
I locked my toes around the chair rungs below the table. I wanted to explode.
Before I could speak, one son tipped his glass, and milk splashed everywhere. Both boys began to cry. Harry comforted them, and I scrambled to clean up, the moment having passed.
Now, on my birthday morning, I took my coffee out into the yard, my heart heavy. Our neighbor saw me over the fence and stopped to talk. She was a no-nonsense woman who had successfully battled cancer, and we had lived next door to each other for almost eight years. I considered her a friend. She asked what was wrong.
“I have an irritation of the soul,” I told her.
To my surprise, she laughed. “Yeah, your husband mentioned that you’re turning thirty. That’s a big one. But it’s all in how you look at it: the end of youth, or the start of mature life. You only go around once, you know. It’s up to you what you do with it.”
Her reaction caught me off guard and made me think. That day, I admitted to myself that I hated my life. I was not cut out for children and marriage and always felt worst on Fridays with the weekend looming before me.
When I told Harry how I felt, he wasn’t surprised. We attended marriage counseling but eventually divorced. The boys stayed with their father, and he is raising them to be fine men. We are not close. The boys cannot understand why I left, but I hope, as adults, they will realize that their childhood was happier without my frustration, anger, and depression.
My life now is filled with hard work, little money, some adventure, and occasional piercing loneliness, but I have never again shed tears the way I did on my thirtieth birthday.
By my late twenties, I’d made a mess of my life. Then my wife and I got evicted, and my father took us in and set us up in his garage apartment, rent-free. Shortly after that I had a nervous breakdown accompanied by suicidal urges. I spent four days in a mental institution. My wife and father were supportive, but I couldn’t find my footing.
After I’d recovered, I was determined to succeed at something. My wife and I were both trying to get into nursing school, and the need to prove myself became stronger each day. I secretly believed that my wife and stepdaughters despised me for being such a failure.
My wife and I were turned down by the nursing school because I’d forgotten to include our photos with the applications. My wife was practically in tears, but I could think of only one thing. “Don’t tell my father,” I said. I was tired of being such a disappointment to him.
On my thirtieth birthday, my wife threw me a surprise party. She wanted to see me smile again, she said. And for the first time in a long while, I did smile. My father kidded me and kept calling me “old man.” A whole day went by in which I didn’t yell at my wife and stepkids. A whole day in which I felt happy.
The next day my father found out about my mistake on the applications and confronted me. All I could think of was how my wife had betrayed me, and how I wanted to get back at her.
“I don’t even think you care!” my father shouted.
“I don’t care!” I shouted back. “I don’t care at all!”
Hours later, I sexually molested my twelve-year-old stepdaughter. I’d decided that this was what I wanted, and I didn’t care what it cost me. I didn’t care about anybody or anything.
This year I got out of prison. While I was in, I received therapy and became a Buddhist. I am a better person than I was before — not perfect, but better. I have learned to help myself. I do care now.
My victim is still out there somewhere. She is a young woman now, and I don’t know whether she is having problems because of what I did to her. I do not know if she is using drugs or is in an abusive relationship.
Over the years a lot of people have given me help I didn’t deserve, and I have helped a few people myself. But I cannot help the person I want to help most, the one I hurt so terribly.
St. Petersburg, Florida
The month I turned thirty, two things happened: I learned to smoke marijuana, and I experienced my first complete orgasm.
I had been divorced two years earlier, after working at a job I didn’t like to put my husband through graduate school. Once he’d established his professional practice, he filed for divorce.
Now I had my own apartment (decorated the way I wanted it), a satisfying part-time job, and my first cat. (I’d always wanted one, but my parents, and then my husband, had said no.) I was also seeing Will, who came over one night at my invitation with three joints wrapped in red-white-and-blue papers. Smoking that first joint gave me a sense of comfort and well-being that I had never felt before. Later that night, Will and I made love for the first time.
One day Will showed up with a ping-pong table lashed to the top of his old station wagon. We set it up in my dining room, and on weekends we’d get stoned and play ping-pong. Afterward we’d make love and then eat hot-fudge sundaes in bed while watching Johnny Carson between our feet.
Will and I were together for two and a half years. Then he was killed in a small-plane crash, along with his father and his older brother, the pilot.
Another thirty years have passed. I’ve been celibate for five years and recently stopped using pot. In my thirtieth year I was fortunate enough to discover how fulfilling good love can be. I’d like to find that kind of love again.
My thirtieth birthday fell on the shortest, darkest day of the year. I had a wife, a twelve-year-old son, and a steady professional job, but we could not seem to save any money. I wanted to own a home with a workshop and a garden, maybe even a tractor, but we were barely making it. I considered joining the army: I’d have a steady income, my family would have housing, and I could get the education that I’d never had the opportunity to pursue, having started a family young.
I figured that, with my language skills and hunger for learning, I could avoid perpetual foxhole duty and get an assignment as a translator — after I’d graduated from the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, California, of course. This was what I would sign up for.
The recruiter came to our house several times. Once, I noticed him eyeing the altar in our living room, complete with a statue of Buddha and pictures of famous holy men and women. At each meeting he urged me to sign up, and each time I resisted because he could not guarantee what assignment I would get. One night I told him that positive growth was my main goal, to which he replied, “You won’t staggernate [sic] in the army.”
At that moment I decided: I would not join the service.
Several weeks later my mother-in-law gave us the money for a down payment on a home.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I was in law school at Berkeley and had just suffered through a disastrous divorce. I felt out of place at school — but then, I’d felt out of place everywhere, so I was used to it.
I had few friends at Berkeley, but for my thirtieth birthday I was determined to throw a party everyone would talk about. Instead of hiring a band, I would form one. (I’d always wanted to be in a rock band.) I asked around and found out that a classmate’s brother was an excellent guitarist. He and I went to a songwriters’ open mic and met Leslie, a stunning young woman with a marvelous voice.
I rented the veterans’ hall, bought a few kegs of beer and some six-foot sandwiches, and placed an ad in the Boalt Hall newsletter inviting the whole school. The turnout was about 125 people, most of whom didn’t know me. I played in the band, sang songs, and got blissfully drunk.
I am now a public defender, and I still play music in coffeehouses. Leslie is one of my best friends, but the guitar player turned out to be schizophrenic. The last I heard, he thought I was a government agent.
A few years ago I was coming out of a courthouse when a stranger called me by name.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I was at your thirtieth-birthday party. It is my best memory of law school.”
Mark C. Bruce
On my thirtieth birthday, my mom and dad showed up at my door with a homemade chocolate cake and a huge gift-wrapped box. My boyfriend had recently moved out, after declining my numerous offers of marriage, and my folks knew that I was taking it hard. I had set thirty as my deadline for getting married.
Instead of candles, my parents had covered the cake with thirty little flags made of toothpicks and paper. On each they had written a memory of something I’d done or said over the years: the time I’d left my favorite sneakers in a national park on a family trip out west; the one line I’d proudly delivered in my high-school play; the day I’d moved to New York City after college graduation. I realized that no one knew more about me than my mom and dad.
I couldn’t wait to open the giant gift box. It was exactly the right size to be a seventeen-inch color TV. I can’t remember whether I needed a TV or if it just represented the place in life where I wanted to be, but that’s what I was hoping for. When I peeled the wrapping paper from the box, however, I found a microwave oven.
I hadn’t any interest in owning a microwave. In fact, a microwave was incongruous with my life, and I thought my parents should have known that. I cried, right there in front of my bewildered mother and father. When I finally spoke, I lied and told them I really needed a winter coat.
My parents took the microwave back and left me a check. I bought the nicest coat I could find and wore it for the next five winters. That was the last year they tried to surprise me on my birthday. By the time I turned thirty-five, I owned a small microwave. By the time I turned forty, there was nothing I wanted more than to find my folks at my front door with a cake covered in memories.
While I’m tending the register at the grocery store, an elderly customer says to me, “Don’t get old. It’s terrible! Your fingers don’t work, your eyes don’t work, and there’s nothing you can do but stand by and watch it happen.”
I smile and tell him I’m turning thirty at the end of the month.
“Thirty!” he exclaims with mock horror. He turns to the woman behind him and says, “Did you hear that? She’s gonna be thirty!”
She smiles and shakes her head.
“I’m seventy-six years old,” he says, “and my mom is ninety-nine. Thirty — that’s nothing to worry about.”
I don’t tell him that I’m not worried. The gray hairs that have sprouted, the lines that are there even when I don’t smile, my creaky knees and stiff back — none of it worries me. I have a feeling that being thirty is a lot like being twenty-nine, which is a lot like being eighty-nine. It’s a good day to be alive.
Carey Smith Moorman
A few months shy of thirty, I completed a half-year hike of the Appalachian Trail. On the cold October day I kissed the wooden sign at the trail’s terminus in Maine, I felt invincible. My hiking buddies and I hoisted a bottle of champagne and toasted the new and exciting adventures that surely awaited us.
Seventeen days later, I was temping as a maid in Iowa City, making $4.50 an hour, because my grad-student husband and I needed the money. “I have a master’s degree,” I hissed as I pushed aside curling irons to scrub sinks at the Chi Omega sorority house. I felt fat, tired, and brain-dead. Back at maid headquarters, I mercilessly judged my greasy-haired, chain-smoking co-workers. This job is so beneath me, I thought.
On the trail, I had hiked fifteen to twenty miles a day with fifty pounds on my back. I had forded rivers and crossed paths with black bears. I had taken great pride in being one of the trail’s elite: a “through-hiker.” Now I reeked of self-pity and self-righteousness. No one knew what I had recently accomplished. I had no sense of identity. Even maid duties made me crumble. I quit after three days.
By the time I turned thirty, I had moved to Tennessee and started work as a newspaper photojournalist. (My husband would be joining me soon.) I found a cookie-cutter apartment and basked in the glow of freshly painted walls. My only furniture was a futon bed, but that was OK. I had slept in shelters and on the ground and cooked over a portable stove.
Before long, though, my new job left me feeling empty, and I was disgusted by all the asphalt and traffic and housing developments sprouting up around me. I quit, divorced my husband, and moved in with an old high-school crush who wanted to marry me but didn’t exactly like me. To support myself, I sold greeting cards at my parents’ gift shop, in a rough part of Boston. Within a year, my grandmother died, I injured my neck in a car accident, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. The recession was in full swing, and my parents needed to sell the store. I worried I would end up homeless.
Amid all this, I remembered what I’d said to myself when I stepped off the trail: “If I can do this, I can do anything.” I still believed it. Trouble was, there were no white blazes painted on trees and rocks to point the way.
Married for only a month, my husband and I had come from families with different rituals surrounding celebrations. For my thirtieth birthday I expected gifts and good wishes all day long to cheer me up. I expected an expensive romantic dinner. I expected friends and family to make a fuss over me. What I really wanted, what I dared hope for, was a surprise party.
What I got was a rushed breakfast in bed before work. I smiled and suffered through runny scrambled eggs, dry toast, and milky tea presented in a beautiful new handmade teapot. My sweet husband tried hard, but I spent the day feeling old and sorry for myself.
I turned thirty-four this month. I spent the morning of my birthday caring for our one-year-old son, who had a cold. My husband came home at lunch and let me go shopping for myself. I stopped at a French bakery on my way home and bought a small, rich cheesecake.
For dinner, my husband grilled steaks, and I sliced fresh tomatoes and cooked corn on the cob. Our son sat in his highchair, gnawing on an ear of corn. It was romantic in a way that I’d never imagined. I hadn’t been fussed over all day, only a few friends had remembered my birthday, and I’d had to buy my own cake, but those things no longer mattered to me. I must be growing up.
A few months before my thirtieth birthday, my husband and I opened our own business, a South American import boutique. The strain was too much for me, and I was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. Though I was soon on the mend, we decided my husband would take the next buying trip without me.
My husband and I had agreed we did not want to bring a child into this world. There was the war in Vietnam and the threat of dwindling resources, not to mention our tremendous fears about our ability to raise a child. And yet, while my husband was away, I changed my mind. I began to admire babies, even from across the street. Just the sight of their feet would melt my heart.
On my birthday, my husband called from Peru, and we talked longer than usual about how we missed each other. I wanted to tell him of my desire for a baby, but it wasn’t the sort of discussion to have long-distance.
Instead my husband began to tell me about some friends of ours who were also in Peru. The couple were not getting along, and to protect their five-year-old son from the yelling and fighting, my husband took the boy shopping. He told me of their adventures and had obviously enjoyed their time together. The conversation died down. We really should have hung up, but for some reason we lingered. Then my husband said that, after spending all that time with our friends’ little boy, he’d decided he did want to have children after all.
That was in March. In December I gave birth to my first child, a healthy, beautiful baby girl.
Kyle M. Elias
I had been married for ten years to a good man, but as my twenty-ninth year came to a close, I began to reassess my life. I did not have the job I wanted, nor was I attending school to better my career. My marriage was going through a thin year. I did not have children, as did virtually all of my contemporaries. (I was a curiosity at parties, having not passed the test of womanhood: the episiotomy.) I could think of no success to grab on to, nothing to keep me from falling deeper into self-pity. I was going to be thirty. What had I accomplished?
Six days before my thirtieth birthday — and three days before my anniversary — I sat my husband down and told him that I was leaving. Nothing was right. My life had to change. Now. Today. Immediately. I had to scrap everything and start over, and I had to do it alone. I wanted to live in the Southwest and study art and teach elementary-school children how to find God with their crayons.
My husband listened and said nothing at first. His eyes turned watery and sad. Then he went to the hall closet. From his overcoat pocket, he took a white jeweler’s box. “What would you have me do with this?” he said.
I opened it. Inside was a diamond-and-gold band. I put it on my finger and admired it. Then I took it off. “I don’t know if I can wear this,” I told him. “I’m too confused by it.” It felt like some sort of bribe.
In the days to come I would sneak the ring out of the box to look at it, then put it back in the drawer so as not to be swayed by its prettiness. It was more than just a pretty bauble, though. It represented ten years of commitment.
One morning during my meditation, I realized why I was so fixated on turning thirty: because it represented the end of girlhood, and to me womanhood meant rigidity. It meant that you had to give up your dreams and become serious and staid. It meant that you would no longer be attractive. It meant that I would be a contemporary of my mother.
But packing up and moving to the Southwest would solve nothing. I would still be thirty in the desert. And being married was not my problem, nor was being childless, nor being a woman and not a teenager with the whole world ahead of her. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten that infinite possibilities exist within myself.
That was many years ago. I made it through thirty. We all do.