At age twenty-two, I purchased some suitcases, strapped most of my belongings to my back and moved to another country. Some days I made breakfast: eggs and toast, pancakes, artless arrangements of seasonal fruits. On good weeks, I washed my clothes and hung them on a dry-rack in the centre of my apartment, a wobbly aluminum X with straining arms, and sometimes even managed to fold and shelve each item, even the socks. I combed my hair and brushed my teeth. Once or twice I shaved.
I held down a job. With two degrees under my belt I was reasonably well educated, or at least enough that another country was willing to furnish me with a plane ticket and a studio apartment. I managed my finances and made travel arrangements and trips to the doctor. I picked up prescriptions and threw birthday parties for others, and would sip hot tea in the evenings over beloved hardcover books. I had spare keys made. I filed government forms related to my foreign pension. Other people occasionally asked me for assistance with grown-up things.
To say I cherished the accoutrements of adulthood is maybe an understatement: I revelled in them. I allowed myself occasional dalliances with childish exuberance, with slivers of immaturity. Adventure Time became a significant part of my life. While managing my bank statements and taxes, I sometimes wore prescriptionless glasses, as they made me feel more bookish and capable of money-handling. Dinners, when I made them, often resembled breakfasts, which are the easiest kinds of meals to make.
But my maturity was strong, and precious. It felt sacrosanct. I was living on my own, living being the operative and most crucial term. The greatest task of all, of sustaining my own life signs through regular sustenance, through bathing and clothing, through earning the capital to fund those particular endeavours, was well within my grasp. I was swimming in an opalescent sea of self-worth. I was like a real-life grownup.
The feeling was well-maintained, even on the road. Sure, I paid other people to do my laundry. Certainly, I paid other people to collect and prepare my food. Indeed, I paid people for housing and making the bed and driving me around and arranging my travel details. If could pay someone to pre-chew my food for me or massage my abdomen to ease my bowel movements, I would have done that too. Even in spite of that swath of shirked responsibility, in the face of all of that droopy self-neglect, I still felt adult. The money, after all, was mine. If I wanted to farm out the maintenance of my bodily functions to paid professionals I could do it, so long as I had earned the required money to do so. Being a big boy meant having all of these things taken care of, whether by myself or by someone duly capable of doing it for me that I was willing to pay.
And then I returned home: to my parents’ roof, to my home city, to the place where I had been raised and coddled. I came with a basket full of skills: I could launder clothing. I could cook simple meals. I could clip my own toenails. I didn’t do all three of those at the same time, but I could if I wanted, such was my capability and manliness.
But most of these skills were not required. I had relatives and friends willing to put forth most of the self-maintenance required of me. I had people willing to cover my dinners and my movies and my concerts. Old acquaintances burst forth from the woodwork to throw themselves and their money at me, to pity my slump into adolescent joblessness, and to offer their condolences by taking care of me.
And in letting others take care of me, suddenly I became comfortable. I was adrift in a sea of ease, of lackadaisicality. Without the pressure to wash your clothes or cook your own vegetables and eat them, it is very easy to not bother. The muscles of adulthood can atrophy in mere days or weeks.
Being adrift in a jobless limbo is not particularly good for my sanity, nor my sense of my own personhood. Having a goal has always been a critical facet of my personality, and lacking one made me feel inadequate and childish. I rode the bus and wonder if others can tell, if other grown people can smell the immaturity on me. Would I get ticketed for the child fare? If I tried to buy a beer, would I be carded and then squinted at suspiciously? I grew a goatee while travelling and kept it largely to assure myself of my ongoing full-grown man-ness.
And as I move out into the world again, I fear that I will have lost all of my previous gains. That whatever skills I managed to cobble together towards managing life and adulthood have already escaped me, have exuded through my pores or coughed out of my mouth like so much blue smoke. My hardened, callused hands have gone soft again. My brittle, aging bones have gone young. Where once where was a workman’s furrow between my brows is now the smooth, vacant epidermis of a guileless layabout.
Will I have to relearn all that I once knew about taking care of myself? Will I have to fumble through a new washing machine, stuffing clothes inside and then praying to Ginebera, the Goddess of the Wash, to take care of my offering? Will I slam about with pots and pans, repeating that This is Your Brain On Drugs PSA, smashing eggs under the broad, flat end of a saucepot, hoping that through some sort of transitive property I could somehow then consume that egg?
Once your maturity boomerangs, can it boomerang back?