I wasn’t exactly invited to V’s birthday party. I was actually on my way “home” to my tiny dorm room when I ran into Becca; my brilliant Friday night plan was to climb into bed and binge watch Parks and Recreation. I was 18, painfully anxious, and definitely not dressed for a party, but Becca insisted. So armed with my friend, a bag of Tostitos, and absolutely nothing better to do, I headed off to the first college party of my life.
Becca was the first actual friend I had made at college. I’d followed her tumblr since taking American Sign Language in high school; she was hard of hearing and posted about queer ASL slang. We had never talked, but one day in early September, while picking at the peeling paint of my dorm room wall, I was startled to see a picture taken at my university on her blog. I hesitantly messaged her— I’d had no luck befriending my roommates, my classmates, or really anyone. She suggested I meet her in the back booth of the dining hall the next afternoon. She was a senior studying psychology, four years older than me, but we were on the same wavelength about everything important: disability, queerness, insomnia, fanfiction. She began dragging me along to movie nights and LGBTQ club meetings, and quickly became my de-facto campus guide and honorary older sister.
A note about the party hosts: A and S were, from my standpoint as a baby queer freshman, on par with favorite bloggers and reality TV personalities of choice: just accessible enough, but inhabiting a realm of self-assuredness and brilliance I couldn’t really imagine joining. They lived in a little off-campus brownstone lovingly nicknamed the Homo Hut, collected bad dollar store Halloween decorations, and threw a party for just about every possible occasion.
The first time I met them, I figured their group was too elusive, made up mostly of juniors and seniors touting curious art projects, pastel hair, and impressive social justice plans. But I kept showing up, and kept asking questions, and after a few weeks their crew had essentially adopted me.
They referred to themselves as my “Queer Fairy Godparents,” but their best gift to me wasn’t magic, but just a window into their lives. There is no better way to learn that growing up can be just as powerful as it is devastating than by witnessing a chaotic group of college seniors firsthand.
The first time I stepped through the doorway of the Homo Hut, I was awestruck. The house was nothing special, just an overpriced townhome built circa 2000, near the highway, just on the edge of an even shittier neighborhood. Some of the indoor walls were whitewashed cinder blocks, just like my dorm. The deck smelled like 15 years of cigarette smoke and faced a spectacular view of a magnificently spray-painted dumpster. But the walls were covered in handmade zines, club announcements, and framed photos of friends. My favorite part of the living room was the set of proudly thrifted end tables, glass tops supported by iron dragons.
Best of all: this was their home. It felt like the grown-up equivalent of a hastily but fondly constructed blanket fort, and it would become my safe haven: the place where I could, and would, spend the night when I was depressed, get both good and terrible advice, hide from my suitemates, and learn how to be an almost-adult.
When I kicked off my sandals and stepped into the living room, I came face to face with a circle of mostly drunk friends. They were playing some awful game of dares. V, the birthday girl, was in the process of eating an orange crayon and insisting that it tasted like macaroni and cheese.
“Who’s this?” she mumbled through a mouthful of wax.
I thanked her for letting me crash her birthday party, placed my offering of tortilla chips on the table, and sat down cross legged in the circle. I was introduced to C, an award winning poet with elaborate tattoos; L, with brightly dyed hair and a voice loud enough to match; M, local meme queen with perfect eyebrows; and K, a graduate student who liked to yell about communism.
A few hours later, on her way out, V patted me clumsily on the shoulder and told the remaining folks in the room, or maybe me, or perhaps no one in particular, “I like her. We’re keeping her.”
I was an hour late to the Halloween party, dubbed the Homo Haunt. I was dressed as Cecil from Welcome to Night Vale, in a headache-inducing purple tie and suspenders. When I stepped into the kitchen, K called me handsome. Even drunk off their asses, everyone remembered to ask for my new pronouns, or paused to correct themselves. It was Becca who said it, when I hesitantly corrected her as she slurred the story of how we met: “These people can respect your pronouns even when they are drunker than hell. If people can’t respect you, you don’t deserve them in your life.”
Those parties wouldn’t last forever. C graduated and moved to Boston. S dropped out and started working at a Domino’s across town. Even Becca packed her whole life into a tiny sedan and set out for Colorado.
Not all of the moments in that house were good, and not all of the friends I made there would last. Years later, in a Transgender Studies class, I would discuss with my favorite professor the ways that queer communities are uniquely fragile, built by often broken people with deeply difficult lives, riddled by trauma and tragedy. I would realize when I was a mess of a 21 year old myself both how much and how little they had been any older or wiser than me.
But the house was there when I needed it. It was there when I was afraid and alone, when I was the baby gay that all of us were at one point, that some of us become again and again like some sort of hellish phoenix, that some of us cherish and others would rather forget. For just a year, those friends would be the blueprint that taught me how to make adulthood an opportunity. When I met them, I found a space to write stupid poems, make cookies for dinner, make mistakes. In the cracks between all those things, though, I became someone who could make adulthood a place where I belonged, instead of just a burden, another hourglass of waiting.
“Don’t worry about making close friends until at least sophomore year anyway,” C told me, in a dead serious tone. Her lips were painted a severe shade of wine red.
“When all your people are queer and mentally ill, everyone you know will drop out, and move away.” She twirled a fry between her fingers as I looked around the table and wondered who would be there the next year and who would not. I decided silently that I would be.
The Homo Hut was the first place a cute girl called me pretty, the first place I got drunk, and by the middle of the year, it became the first place I told someone confidently that I didn’t drink. I wasn’t just molding myself into its embrace anymore; I was choosing the ways it could hold me, the type of launching pad it could be for the rest of my life. It was the place I went when I decided to avoid someone who couldn’t take no for an answer. In the winter, I sat on the kitchen floor at four in the morning, watching K make soft pretzels in the oven, and talked about myself like I was writing a journal instead of designing an advertisement, owning every word that spilled from my mouth.
One night in February, I woke up late, 6 PM, from staying up with a bad case of anxiety. I had cramps. I couldn’t figure out what to wear. After being buffeted around by the wind the entire way, I made it through the door, deposited a tupperware of strawberry lemon cookies on the coffee table, and collapsed on the floor.
It was by no means perfect. S was drunk enough to worry us. There was a thunderstorm, and I was mostly quiet. I didn’t drink anymore, and even if I had, there was no palatable alcohol except terrible white wine mixed with pink lemonade. We watched cartoons on mute, and together we practiced the art of making things mostly okay even when they’re not. I claimed a corner of the living room wrapped in a blanket that I think was maybe once a sleeping bag. It was Valentine’s Day, and it was probably the best one I’d ever had. Sometimes getting older is just getting more and more lost in the dark, learning how to have fun camping in open air.
As I sat shotgun in L’s car, the tail end of pop song crackled through the radio. The notes of the next song seemed vaguely familiar. It was an old Fall Out Boy song, and I could suddenly taste middle school in the back of my throat. We were driving through the city in the rain, and they sang along as I watched the dark buildings speed by under brown-yellow light from the street lamps.
I was thinking about what would make me finally feel like an adult. Living on my own? Living with other people and building a life together? Having a girlfriend? Cooking, traveling? I thought it might be something I hadn’t mastered yet, like driving in the snow, or singing to the radio in front of other people.
It didn’t feel like it should be so anticlimactic as buying Christmas presents with money I didn’t have, and making small talk with the pharmacy tech at Wegmans. It was drinking, or it was being okay with not drinking. It was having back pain on airplanes, or waking up earlier than my mother, or recognizing my own incompetence, or doing everything anyway. It was crying on the way home from therapy, and it was talking to coworkers about the weather. Maybe it was just as simple as it sounds: being a person, but older. Maybe I already was.
The last party they hosted before packing up the decorations and returning the coffee table to the alley where they found it, before handing off the waffle iron to M and the keys to the landlord and the club leadership to me, was shortly after graduation. I went even though I knew I hadn’t packed my dorm room. I wasn’t ready to leave. I went because I knew none of us were.
V, A, and K were graduating, so they made a mock jeopardy board about themselves: a game to celebrate the familiarity of their lives, the knowing of them. I answered more questions than I thought I could, and didn’t walk home until the early morning, escorting a stumbling acquaintance through the park to deposit them safely at home.
The problem with birthdays, and graduations, is that endings and beginnings are so often the same thing. What we’re really celebrating is the motion, the opposite of stagnating, the skill of turning your head and blinking your eyes to see things in a new light, even if your feet and heart feel heavy and the landscape hasn’t changed. Growing up means that everything you fear will probably come true: you won’t know what you’re doing, some of the worst things will happen, you will be completely at a loss. All that remains of the person I was at that birthday party I sort of crashed, years ago, is some pictures, some old text messages, and the memory of identities slipping together and apart, names and homes overlapping and disintegrating.
And of course, me.
edited by rachel.
This was a really beautiful piece of writing.
Funny enough, it is my birthday today & my name is Sarah too. I’m 32 today, far removed from college (although I’m thinking about going back to get my Master’s), but I love the line about “beginnings and endings being the same thing”. It feels right for being 32 today.
Happy birthday, fellow Sarah! I’m so glad this resonated with you :)
Hey, happy birthday to the both of us!
Oof, this hit me right in the feels. Viscerally relatable, to say the least. Really well done! Thx for sharing
“Sometimes getting older is just getting more and more lost in the dark, learning how to have fun camping in open air.”
“What we’re really celebrating is the motion, the opposite of stagnating, the skill of turning your head and blinking your eyes to see things in a new light, even if your feet and heart feel heavy and the landscape hasn’t changed.”
This was so, so timely, and it’s sticking somewhere in my ribs and will be there for a long while.
“the ways that queer communities are uniquely fragile, built by often broken people with deeply difficult lives, riddled by trauma and tragedy”
I wasn’t ready for this level of truth on my lunch break. Thanks for sharing this piece with us!
I came down here to comment on this line as well. Thank you for the beautiful piece!
Oh, this was very good. Thank you, Sarah!
Love this. So much.
This is so perfect and beautiful. Coincidentally, today’s my birthday. I’m 15 today. This piece made me cry in the best way, because it made things sink in that I’ve been trying to get a grasp on for a while. Thanks so much.
Happy Birthday! Things take a long time to sink in, but they eventually do. Of course, by that time, there are newer dilemmas and questions waiting for their turn.
“When all your people are queer and mentally ill, everyone you know will drop out, and move away.” this is all too real; of my tight-knit, life-changing freshman year friend group, I was the only one to graduate. all the others dropped out and moved home, forcing us to figure out how much of our friendship had been due to proximity
“…talked about myself like I was writing a journal instead of designing an advertisement” oof yes wow what a fantastic way to describe the feeling of being with your people. This is great! Thanks for sharing.
this hit me so hard. this captures a lot of what I went through my first and second year at school. and at the time and for a long time afterwards, after I was the one who called it quits and headed home, I didnt even know what had happened, exactly. reading these words about your community and experience was so relatable so thank you so much for putting it out there in this beautiful piece.
being that age, 18,19, is a wildly precious and fragile time and I hear time and time again how different folks went through this process in some way around the same time. I wish wish something like this had existed back then. I am grateful it does now.
I’m glad my words hit home for you! Those experiences are somehow so universal and intensely personal at the same time, and I’m really grateful we’re able to share them, too.
This was beautiful! It reminded me of Montreal and my own coming-of-age narrative.
I love this, thank you Sarah. I hope you write more for Autostraddle.
Thank you! I hope so too :)
This was wonderful.
Wow, this really had the feel of college for me, even though my experience was very different. Thanks!
If this isn’t the best description of growing up, I don’t know what is:
“I wasn’t just molding myself into its embrace anymore; I was choosing the ways it could hold me” <3
This is beautiful. Thank you.