Jessai Flores

Americans love a good coming-of-age story. Most of the literature and media we encounter and venerate is in some way a bildungsroman — a story where a child grows up, learns things about growing up and then later reflects on growing up as a newly grown person. Audiences love to absorb the drama of the awkward years and scholars babble with each other over the moral lessons young people learn as they age. The most famous kids in literature are caught in a perpetual cycle of coming-of-age and uncoming-of-age as readers start, end and then flip back to the beginning of a book. Generations of people have followed Holden Caulfield, the Baudelaire orphans, the runaway kid in that Willa Cather story with the train and Junie B. Jones as they all grew up and learned some lesson about the world — and those are just a few examples. Perhaps Americans are fascinated with young people aging because there is something artistic and tragic to be gleaned from the edge of adulthood. On Sunday, I will turn twenty-two and, like countless others before me, will topple over this edge and disappear into the murky, labyrinthine waters of maturity.

The day I turn twenty-two, my coming-of-age story will end with a screening of “Halloween,” my favorite movie, and a dinner-for-two bucket from my favorite Korean fried chicken joint. It will be the end of a story that was special for me but unremarkable for others. My coming-of-age story was not extraordinary. No one wants to read about how a kid from Texas somehow found his way to the Ivy League. That is not interesting. Maybe it is for an admissions pamphlet but not for Harold Bloom. My coming-of-age story, my bildungsroman if you will, takes place in an era that the younger members of my generation idolize online. It was the era of playing Minecraft and WiiSports. It was the era of Barack Obama, of active shooter drills, of post-9/11 paranoia and “Hannah Montana.” It was the era of playing in my grandmother’s trailer park, of asking my mother to turn up the car radio when “Shake it Off” played, of scraping my knees on asphalt and of eating IHOP smiley face pancakes. It was an era now long gone, preserved today as Pinterest board aesthetics and in cheesy Netflix dramas with all the glamor of Y2K but none of the sleaze. My coming-of-age story is that of the rest of my generation. I was born in the new millennium, grew up in the shadow of 9/11 and came of age at a time when the Internet became all-consuming and all-knowing.

I like to think of my twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two, birthdays, as characters in their own books. They, like book characters, are extensions of their author: me. My story at three was one of tantrums in supermarkets. At fourteen it was one of itchy school uniforms. At seventeen it was like “High School Musical” but with precalculus and no singing. Each birthday is its own plotline, its own short story in the anthology of my life. Some are sad and boring, like the story of my life at twenty — locked up in lockdown and watching the pandemic hours stretch on forever. Some stories are full of change and drama, like when I was nineteen and foolish enough to believe that being an adult was easy. It was not. Every year, on my birthday, all these stories converge, uniting as I begin a new one. As I step out of twenty-one, I will reach back and pull all the different versions of myself into twenty-two — and the anthology will get a new edition.

At twenty-two, the numbers are not as special as they once were. There are no more milestones left to achieve. At ten you hit double-digits, at fifteen you learn how to drive, at eighteen you vote and at twenty-one you reach the edge of adulthood where you are old enough to drink but young enough to get carded. The special birthdays that come after twenty-one are few and far between. Special ages like thirty, fifty, seventy-five and one hundred are less like milestones and more like the little labels on Italian wine or giant wheels of cheese locked in French basements. They are celebrations that one has made it through the ravages of time and has gained the refined qualities of age. I too hope to age like fine wine — not cheese — and I look forward to celebrating my seventy-fifth as a crotchety bitter old man with hopefully a PhD, a great head of hair and like six cats or whatever. 

To age in America is an ugly thing. Every year, the expiration date for beauty shortens. When I was younger the commercials all insisted that fifty could be the new twenty-five. Now twenty-five is the new fifty. You hit thirty and you, according to Twitter, become a walking corpse, a zombified reminder of the horrors of forgoing a good moisturizer. Not me. I moisturize. A little spackle for the skin goes a long way in the long run, but the inevitable moment will come where the age-defying stuff does not work and I will no longer look young enough to be mistaken for a child in the airport security line.

I am not Holden Caulfield — thank God — nor am I Junie B. Jones — thank God, again — instead, I am every version of myself that came before. I am thirteen and four and seven and twenty. With every change, every new story, every metamorphosis, I take a little piece of who I was before as I become something new. When I become twenty-two, I will do so with the clothes I wore at twenty-one. I will smile with the chipped tooth I got at nine. I will dance to the songs I heard at fourteen. I will be wearing some variation of the coconut-head bowl-shaped haircut I got at ten and never changed since. I will be every number up to twenty-two, and I will be grateful for it, even if it means my coming-of-age story will end. My coming-of-age story is as suburban as a Converse sneaker and as generic as a lamppost, but it is mine. It is my story to one day tell to people who may later forget it, or a story I will one day in old, old age also forget. I never was the protagonist of the great American coming-of-age novel. My birthdays are not something that students will debate about in English seminars, nor will they be dissected by academics. But they will be remembered. At least by me. Every one of my birthdays, no matter how many I am gifted, will be the birthday of my life — and they will come to me as memories of a childhood well spent.