I turned twenty in March. It seems so long ago: I don’t recall doing much to celebrate it. I remember only that I started my birthday absolutely furious at being tasked to clear out an ancient, overgrown storeroom thick with mouldy, rotting cardboard boxes and old beer mugs on my own, that as I dug ream after ream of files into trash bags I was angry enough to kick out at the walls. I remember smashing the mugs to pieces with my broom, possessed by a manic glee, just so that I could sweep the shards up; I remember saying, ‘they take up less space this way,’ to Peter, the handyman, who looked very alarmed to see me shattering beer mugs so happily. I also remember meeting Dr Beng for the first time on my birthday (the day I turned twenty was also the day my army life was to take a turn for the surreal), that I went home after all that to my mother, my brother, and a chocolate cake. There is a photo on Facebook – I am quite fond of it, because the lighting is suitably moody and I look good in it. I had just had my hair cut, I remember. Upon perusal of my notebook, I am reminded that I also spent my first Sunday as a twenty-year-old at Of Montreal’s gig, taking in their crazy symphony. I suppose that is a celebration all by itself, but not a very specific one: otherwise, the weekends preceding and following my twentieth birthday must have been like every other weekend, indiscrete and unmemorable.
This year I didn’t get any birthday presents, except a book I coerced Hongyu into giving me, a boxful of things from Clara and, in the mail later, a Fred Perry polo tee from her. When I was a kid I looked forward to my birthday; it was one of the few days I could get something nice and new and update my wardrobe. Now every other week I feel compelled to purchase something wonderful – as if it were part of growing older, like my friends’ newly acquired obsession with girls and cars. Somehow it’s legitimate that we’re (at twenty) interested in the interests of other twenty-year olds. After all, vanity, or a sense of the aesthetic, is tied up with self-consciousness, and self-consciousness is perhaps the surest sign of age.
Meanwhile five months have passed, and they feel like forever. In these five months, of course, I’ve reapplied for my university courses and been rejected for each one. My job scope over at my unit has changed almost completely, and instead of taking care of cadets I sit in on meetings about the future of our soldiers’ healthcare. I’ve gone from watching my debate juniors to coaching them, fulfilling my old dreams and my obligation to ‘remember the source’. All this seems curiously temporary, somehow impermanent. Sometimes I wake up and ask myself, I’m twenty, what am I doing? is this it? If these are meant to be the best years of our lives: I would wish them to be more memorable, if not more meaningful.
Often I am filled with this strange fear, the fear that months will fly by and I won’t be able to remember the changes. To be honest: I can’t remember now what I did in March, or April, or May, or even June. It scares me through and through. It scares me that events seem now to take place in a timeless vacuum, that there seems to be no continuity between them, that I can’t pin anything down in relation to the context in which it happened. And it scares me that maybe next year or the year after that I won’t be able to remember what I did when, in these years, these bright years of youth. It scares me that the brightest years of my youth are already starting to blur about the edges and turn muddy, that I won’t be able to look back at what I did in high-definition. Instead all we’re left with are the vague recollections of nostalgia and old persons.
The year sloughs by and more of us are turning twenty. We are escaping our teenage years, leaving our past lives behind like a snake sheds its skin. I want to remember and I want to be aware of each day and its passing. If we are to crawl along in the dust, I need to know that the trails we leave behind will be preserved: that we are marking trails out on a windless moon.