There’s a bit in Sentimental in the City, Dolly Alderton and Caroline O’Donoghue’s hilarious podcast series about Sex and the City, where they laugh about how annoying it is when people say: “When you get to 35, your fertility falls off a cliff.” Listening to them on a walk to the shops, I realized how many times I, too, had heard that phrase before. Not that it was ever addressed to me, but to another woman entirely, one who complains about parking and has multiple bank accounts, who gets sore feet and spends lots of money on linen pajamas. The message being that this woman needs to hurry up and find someone before time runs out, before she wakes up and realizes she’s wasted her life. I don’t need to think about anything falling off a cliff, I thought. I still get targeted ads for pills that stop hangovers, I don’t send thank-you cards after Christmas or drink cow’s milk, which is to say that I’m young—or I felt that way, until I turned 27 a few weeks ago.
Since my birthday, I keep noticing these changes to my body. Slumped on the bed after a shower, I watched my reflection in the laptop screen and everything seemed slightly lower down. I told myself there must be a bend in the monitor obscuring my image. Tried not to panic when I noticed the gray hairs speckling through my parting. Ignored the fact that after a big night, it takes until Wednesday before the fogginess has cleared from my head. But these facts are getting harder to avoid. I’d be in the old category on X Factor now: “The Overs.” I read online that if I want to look good at 60, I should start with the preventative botox at 25, and that was two years ago already. I genuinely worry about the strain drinking wine and smoking is putting on my liver and lungs, whether the shocking pink of my insides looks paler after all these terrible things I’m doing to them. I look over at a beautiful view and try to be mindful, take it all in, these glittering skyscrapers and the satisfying knot of terrace houses plotted out in rows, and as I do, thick, hot panic rises in my throat because I worry that I’m not absorbing it, that it’s all passing me by. I hear 25-year-olds bemoaning their next birthday, and I hate them because they don’t know how much time they’ve got, in the same way so many reading this now who are older than me probably hate me for thinking the same.
Before I noticed myself aging, I didn’t want a boyfriend. I wanted to be in Italy waiting for a bartender’s shift to finish so that we could sit on the beach together drinking warm wine until it seemed like a fun idea to run naked into the sea. I wanted to get with friends I’m not supposed to fancy, because what if it ruins our relationship? But the scarcity mindset is kicking in, with men all around me getting snapped up all the time so that now there’s so few left, I wonder if I’ve fucked it and will have to wait until I’m 44 and the divorces start. I’m only two years away from when my mum and dad met at work. At the corner shop, the park bench, I keep my eyes open because they say you could meet him anywhere. I know that being in a relationship won’t slow the aging process, but it would mean I was at least in sync with it. I’d gently crawl towards the place where adulthood begins, where there are leases and struggles with booster seats. I’ve heard it’s much easier to accept death when there’s something you made out of you that will live on afterwards.
And then I watched The Worst Person in the World, and it made me feel even worse. Especially the scene where the character who is—spoiler alert!—dying says, “I don’t want to be a memory for you, I don’t want to be a voice in your head, I don’t want to live on through my art, I want to live in my flat—I want to live in my flat with you.” After I closed the tab on my computer I could feel time slipping out from under me, every moment pulling me towards that point I don’t want to go to. I want to press pause, grab the now in my hands. How are we already halfway through 2022? I want to hide from the truth of this, like when you shut the curtains at parties to avoid the morning.
“Poppet!” coos Mum when I ring her after the film. “I was so worried about getting old, but when I got to 40 it was different—I think because it sounds so different to 30, you are old by then, and you realize it’s not bad at all.”
I nodded, forgetting she wouldn’t be able to see me on the other end of the line. “Life is long,” she said. “It is long.”
And I wondered how I would live if I believed that to be true. I wouldn’t be rushing for a partner because, really, I’m happy as my life is now. Reading in bed all through Saturday mornings until it’s time to go and get sunburned in a beer garden, no one getting annoyed at me because I forgot to ask how their day was, nobody to look after except myself, which I do with long baths where I watch Emma Chamberlain ordering a kale salad to the room of her Paris hotel. I guess I only feel like there’s something wrong with this because I’m getting to an age where I’m meant to be somewhere different. But what if I luxuriated in the passage of time? What if I let the days run in between the gaps in my fingers? My body might age, but my mind wouldn’t. I’d stay passionate and questioning and I’d be like one of those 70-year-olds at protests who stay on the right side of history, moving with the tug of the future. In that way, maybe I wouldn’t fall off the cliff, or maybe I would prove there was never any cliff at all.
“Life is long,” I say to myself again, and let the sureness of it wash over my skin. “Life is long.”