Part of a series about youth.
When you turn twenty-seven you start noticing the number, everywhere. Suddenly everyone else is twenty-seven, too: Every athlete and actor, all of the dead people who ever did anything. Your age is everywhere because you, at twenty-seven, are perfect. Just there. Just where you are right now: educated, but no longer preachy; fuckable, without being whiny; mature, and not yet fat. Never change.
At least, that’s what you feel like America keeps telling you.
An old Esquire article, randomly stumbled across, only confirms that you weren’t imagining things. This ode to “The 27-Year-Old Woman” is a love-letter to your agesake, half lust and half lecture, written waaaaaay back in 1999: “They are all twenty-seven… They always were twenty-seven, and they always will be, at the moment they are both young enough and old enough to teach you the meaning of heartbreak…” It goes on to list all the twenty-seven-year-olds who ever charmed.
Because yes, everything America mythicizes and celebrates and destroys is twenty-seven and has always been twenty-seven: Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca; Heather Graham, in Boogie Nights; Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes; Jemima Kirke, in “Girls”; and every other actress expected to be a sexual prize for the first 89 minutes and believably settled down in the final frame.
The twenty-seven-year-old can accomplish anything: Yuri Gagarin orbited at age 27; Flannery O’Connor published Wise Blood and Hemingway The Sun Also Rises—their debuts. Think of Ryan Lochte v. Michael Phelps just last month when both were 27, or LeBron James, 27. This is the year at which baseball players ripen, like cantaloupes, their desirability on fantasy rosters spiking (think Matt Kemp, Prince Fielder). And it’s not because they’re so good (Delmon Young, 27) but because next season, they
settle in; because twenty-seven’s home runs and “Play-it-Again-Sams” wax into twenty-eight’s solid OBPs and loveless marriages.
At least that’s what Julia Roberts’ character thinks in My Best Friend’s Wedding, which is predicated on two friends promising that if they are not engaged to others by twenty-eight, they’ll marry. I watched it while eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (founded by two twenty-seven-year-olds) and wept: twenty-seven is the last year of romance, ego, mania. It’s the last year of Bold Moves. It’s the age of the real man of the hour, Christian Grey, who at twenty-seven jumps out of the playpen and into the arms of boring Anastasia. How mature.
And so of course that’s why at twenty-seven our musicians sign up for the “27 Club”: Winehouse, Cobain, Robert Johnson… Because if you listen to the culture, twenty-seven is where you are most beautiful and where you destroy yourself; it is for Physical Peaks and Physical Destruction, it is for Olympic Lap Lanes and Public Funerals.
But maybe there’s nothing there. Maybe you’re only noticing this because at twenty-seven you’ve hit your egomaniacal peak—you’ve “found yourself” (Katie Holmes, Scientology conversion at 27) and you see yourself everywhere. Maybe like the fictional Christian Grey you are turning over a new leaf, or like Ryan Lochte you are finally doing the thing you trained for, or, like Carey Mulligan (27), you are finally starring in the adaptation of a novel written by a twenty-seven-year-old (Fitzgerald, 1923).
But then again Esquire saw it too and tried to figure out why the twenty-seven-year-old is so gosh darn enchanting:
“They are old enough to be haunted, at twenty-seven, and thus old enough to be haunting… They’ve got you cornered, at twenty-seven. They are inescapable and inevitable and their enigma is everywhere you look for it, and Mona Lisa—who was twenty-seven when she was the Mona Lisa—smiles for all of them, when she makes you think she is smiling just for you.
Someone tell the Hearst fact-checkers that they might have been a few years off with this whole sexy enigma thing. At twenty-seven a woman is not at her sexual peak. (That comes later, in her thirties.) And she’s certainly not at her happiest and most self-assured—science informs us that’s at 33. But to each her own, really. These are just averages, just surveys, just polls and data.
After all, twenty-seven is just a number. It’s the atomic number of cobalt, the number of countries in the E.U., the age at which The Elephant Man died. It’s the number of bones in the human hand. It’s the age of Dave Franco.
Twenty-seven is not a romantic blur, from up close. It’s a hard year. It’s the year my painter friend was rejected from art school, the year my beloved cousin called “tough… the end of the floaty years,” the year my calm, clear-headed graphic-designer pal changed boyfriends, cities, occupations. She, of all people chalked it up to astrology, to Saturn’s Return.
The astrologists have it that at twenty-seven, Saturn has nearly completed its 29.5 year cycle around the planets, to re-enter the zodiac sign you were born under. He opens a door to what the stargazers call the “Phase of Maturity.”
Saturn is figured as Father Time, a Grim Reaper. He takes your youth, and he crushes it. He is the god who killed all of his children. He is called “The Killing Planet.” And he tells you, quoting Rilke, “You Must Change Your Life.”
My painter friend said, “Fuck graduate school.” She rented a beautiful studio. She plans to do the work, on her own.
When I turned twenty-seven I was at my five-year college reunion, in a sweaty sea of twenty-seven-year-olds, whose lives were somewhere between having graduated from Yale (fancy!) and trying to plug their iPhones into power outlets that the DJ wasn’t using (disorganized!). We were a mess. It had rained and everyone’s hair looked terrible. We stuffed our bags with free Snapple.
A friend and I wandered the other reunion tents, trying to ascertain what our lives would be like in five years, ten years, fifteen—and whether we would then be served better cheese plates. The tenth-year reunion was dressed well, hair done, shoes polished. They looked rich and serene, in three-piece suits with kickass baby carriages. At the fiftieth, I bumped into a woman in a Burberry trench, her nails slick and scarlet—”Excuse me,” she said, eyes alight beneath a coif of white hair. Her nametag read, “Kitty.” Moved by her glamour, I said, to no one: “I no longer fear the future.” I would age and buy a great coat, coin a nickname, become myself.
At twenty-seven, everything before you is clean and solid and everything behind you is a bottle of Strawberry Kiwi Snapple, stuffed with cigarette butts.
At twenty-seven, I am between youth and maturity, between wanting to save myself and wanting to destroy myself. I weep during lotion commercials and laugh when I skin a knee. I bike without a helmet and I have Cadillac health insurance. I smoke pot and teach college classes. This year, I slept with the ex I pined for; last month I slept with a clerk I met at a camping supply store. Saturday I went to a cocktail party with MBA students, then left for a bar called Grumpy’s. At one a.m., I ate tater tots. At two p.m., I went to yoga. I am no longer afraid of rejection. I am terrified of black bears.
My mother has long said that twenty-seven was the happiest year of her life. So on Sunday I called her, pretending I was a concerned and mature twenty-eight-year-old who wanted to check in. Really, I was calling her like a twenty-six-year-old—to ask her to help me with my project. Did she remember what it was about being twenty-seven that was so great?
Well, she was out of graduate school by then. She knew who she was. There was a euphoria of knowing what the world held. And there was a potential to do anything. She knew who she was and what she wanted.
My father had his own theory. “Twenty-seven is the height of your personal identity. For some people, that’s right before they marry or settle down…” He explained that when you begin to make mature choice—to stick to a job, to stick with a partner—you end up making compromises. Your identity shifts. At twenty-seven, you’re free.
“Well. What did you actually do that year, that made it so great? That made you so happy?”
“Well,” he says. “That’s the year I met your mother.”
The twenty-seven-year-old is supposed to settle down, like my father did.
But recently, I met someone who was leaving for a new job in Rome in four weeks. I was heady enough, romantic enough, Club 27 enough to not let that faze me: let me destroy my life, my heart. Let me suffer. And still… I was old enough to admire the part of him that was sure-headed—that cooked me dinners and frozen pizzas, that talked of jobs and condos, dogs and kids. When he asked if I could stevedore myself to Rome, we both knew I wouldn’t.
Right now I’m Ingrid Bergman’s Casablanca age—old enough not to give up everything, young enough to want to.
Previously in series: What Did You Want To Accomplish When You Grew Up?
Adriane Quinlan is a writer who lives in Minneapolis, where everything is cheaper, prettier, and friendlier than wherever you live.