In December, I attended my friend Abby’s 50th birthday party. A party for someone’s 50th is not one you can miss. It’s a milestone, but not like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (which she’d done in her 40s), or having a baby (which I’d done in mine). It’s more a time of reckoning. Even for those not actively engaged in a midlife crisis, hitting 50 means that whatever path we’ve taken has left others definitively untraveled. Any number of potential life streams have coursed right past us, plunged over a waterfall and out of our lives.
Fifty is like 40 once was. You’re glad you made it but would prefer to have a portrait in your closet doing the aging while you carry on, getting free cookies from baristas hoping for your number.
For Abby’s party, 10 of us gathered for drinks in the Lobby Lounge of the Fairmont Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, down the street from my apartment. Then we retired to the hotel suite she’d booked for the weekend, ordered shishito peppers and flatbread, and drank some more. Two Brazilian friends joined us, and as anyone with Brazilian friends can tell you, this means dancing around the living room for hours, while drinking more Champagne.
I miss dancing around in hotel rooms (or bars or high school gyms). I used to dance without a care all the time. Now, I’m always thinking about what has to happen next: My son needs a bath; the dog needs to go out; the car needs be moved.
Abby lives in Manhattan, but has been working on a book all winter in Los Angeles — crashing on various people’s couches and spare beds, staying in hotels, taking off for Vegas or Utah or Glendale at a whim.
I floated around like that in my 20s and 30s; I lived in five states and Paris before moving to California. This footloose lifestyle can sound enviable, especially when viewed from behind the windshield of an SUV stuck in traffic on the way to another school event. But for me at this age, traveling is not as appealing as staying put. I want to live my life where it is, connecting to the people I already know. Still, for Abby’s 50th, for some reason — let’s call it Champagne — I was totally in that youthful freewheeling feeling, dancing around with a kind of abandon I do miss.
“We worry about losing touch with our younger selves. Why don’t I dance around in hotel rooms all night?
Around midnight, we left her bungalow room for the hotel’s Bungalow bar, an amazingly appealing physical space generally made unbearable by the throngs of 20-somethings and teens with fake IDs rushing their shot of being older. We had an entire central section of couches reserved. There we sat, solidly, all of us over 50, drinking and watching the youngsters trying to pick up one another.
A man and woman stood near our group, both tall and blond and smiling. The guy seemed to be about my age. The girl looked young enough to be his daughter. I stared at them, trying to figure out their relationship. I became oddly fixated on this pair, partly because he was the only stranger in the room close to my age, and he’d smiled at me in a way that suggested he wasn’t on a date.
“Is that a dad and his daughter, or a guy with a much younger date?” I asked the friend sitting next to me.
My friend glanced up from his Scotch. “They’re definitely on a date.”
“Are you sure?” I traveled a lot with my divorced dad when I was a teen, and had been in public settings where strangers definitely questioned our relationship. This couple had that same vibe, at least to me. “Don’t their pointy chins and wide, bright eyes kind of match?”
“She’s not as young as you think she is, and he’s not as old,” my friend said, matter-of-factly.
I put on my glasses to see better. “Well, maybe you’re right,” I said, squinting in an attempt to make wrinkles appear around the woman’s mouth.
By this time that couple had become aware that we were talking about them. They sat down on one of our reserved couches and watched us watching them. I leaned over to Abby. “Is that a dad and his daughter or are they on a date?”
Abby pulled up herself and addressed the man, then sank back into her couch and turned to me. “It’s a dad and his daughter. They’re from South Africa.”
“See!” I said to my friend. “I’m going to talk to them.”
I sidled up next to the dad. “So. Are you visiting from South Africa?” I asked.
They live in L.A., it turned out. He is divorced. His daughter’s skin was so flawless, up close, she looked airbrushed. He’d moved to L.A. 30 years ago, he told me, after graduating from college in Texas.
“I went to college in Texas, too,” I said, smiling in what I hoped was still an enchanting way, like back when I was in college. I’d become good friends with two guys who were actually from South Africa during my first semester, I remembered. “When I returned to Michigan for Thanksgiving, my mother said, ‘You have to be the only person who goes to Texas for college and winds up with South African accent!’”
The man laughed. “There are a lot of South Africans in Texas,” he said, in that fabulous South African accent.
We discussed L.A. traffic. Parenting. The conversation lagged. “These guys I knew from South Africa were tennis players,” I said, slowly pulling those years back into my memory.
“I play tennis,” he said. “A lot of South Africans do.”
“Yeah. They’d come to Houston to play on the college team,” I said.
“I played tennis in college,” the handsome stranger said. “What university did you go to?”
“I went to the University of Houston.”
“I was on the University of Houston tennis team.” He looked at me more closely. “What were the names of the guys you knew?”
An image of one slowly came into focus. Dark hair, swarthy. “Well, one guy was Earl,” I said.
“Earl? Earl?! That’s my best friend in the whole world! That’s unbelievable.” He turned to his daughter and said, “She knows Earl!”
“You know Earl?” I said. “That’s crazy!” It wasn’t as if we were in a bar in Houston and had run into each other. This was L.A., native to neither. I’ve moved around so much that running into anyone I know from my past feels like reconnecting in outer space.
He found his phone to show me photos of Earl, who now lives in Israel, and is married with three kids. He texted Earl my name to see if he remembered me. “What was the name of the other guy?”
“Well. He had a big mane of blond hair.” I remembered that. “Oh! The other guy was Mark!”
“Mark! I’m the Mark! I’m the Mark! I’ve always had long hair! I just cut it two years ago!” He turned to his daughter.
“He had long hair,” she confirmed, sort of listening, sort of looking around for other underage kids out with their parents.
Mark showed me a picture of himself with long hair. It was dark in the bar, and hard to see. But an image of him at 19 or 20 was suddenly very clear in my mind. These two men had been a huge part of my freshman year. I’d moved to Houston alone, and met people from halfway across the world. I’d thought of myself as adventurous and outgoing, intrepid and open-minded. “I have photos of you in my album at home,” I realized. “Wearing your powder blue tennis shorts, lying on my bed. With the big hair. Do you remember how we all went to Rosh Hashanah dinner with some South African family you knew? We were sitting at a round table in the kitchen, and Earl sat down and said, ‘I was thinking, I want to go sit with those cool, older college kids. And then I realized, I am the cool, older college kids.’ ”
Running into Mark made me wonder how many other people from my first 50 years might be hanging around. Maybe someone I already know is outside at the coffee shop right now.
Mark laughed. But he didn’t remember Rosh Hashanah, or much else from that time. I’m pretty sure I made out with him, which he also couldn’t recall.
I made him take my phone number to contact me when he heard back from Earl, but he wasn’t really interested in rekindling this friendship. It clearly hadn’t had the same impact on him as on me.
Still, his lack of memory (and current lack of interest) didn’t affect my own experience with him back then, or how amazed I was to run into him now. I moved to L.A. a handful of years ago. As I discovered, it’s hard to move across the country when you’re in your late 40s, divorced and working for yourself, and build a community. Yet here was this person I once knew, drinking with his daughter right down the street from my apartment. That coincidence felt incredible.
And incredibly hopeful. Sure, I’m the age of the parent now, whereas once I was the daughter, but running into Mark made me wonder how many other people from my first 50 years might be hanging around. Maybe someone I already know is outside at the coffee shop right now. Maybe an old boyfriend is biking along the ocean in Manhattan Beach. Every other person in L.A. is from Cleveland; certainly some of these transplants were characters in the earlier volumes of the story of my life.
We worry about losing touch with our younger selves. Why don’t I dance around in hotel rooms all night? Why can’t I do a back-walkover anymore, and what does this say about my decreasing flexibility more broadly? Encountering Mark made me second-guess this concern; maybe we hang onto ourselves more than we realize. What other aspects of the first half of our lives really do stay with us? What abilities and freedoms persist?
The run-in at the Bungalow bar felt comforting on a deeper level, too. Part of the midlife reckoning is the realization that we’re on the downslope of life, no matter how many times we go to the gym to dig in our heels. These crazy chance meetings suggest the possibility of some mystery or magic. For those of us without a resounding belief in an afterlife or a grand deity, it’s comforting to think that we could be wrong after all. There might be some grand plan, despite our skepticism, some cosmic seating chart of people who are at our life’s table. Just because we haven’t seen the guest list doesn’t mean no order exists.
I got to sleep at around 3 a.m. The next morning, I called my mother. She remembered the South Africans clearly, and was just as astonished by this late-night encounter as I was.
“I wish I went out dancing and drinking until 3 more often,” I complained. “It was so fun!”
“I think when you get older, you still do that kind of thing, but it wouldn’t even be fun every week,” my mom said.
I thought it would be fun every week. I sat on the couch in my pajamas thinking about this. Two hours later, I was still in my pajamas. I couldn’t get up. Abby and the Brazilians were in bed until 2. The friend I’d been sitting with at the bar had gone home and thrown up.
This is a big reason why we don’t drink all night at this age. We can party like it’s 1999. We just can’t get up the next day into 2018.
Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”